An Introduction to Confessional Subscription
Richard Webster referred to five widely differing views regarding subscription in the colonial Presbyterian church as: “the Protesters, the excluded, the silent, those who were dissatisfied with both parties, and the absent.” The modern church may find itself in a similar position. The subject of these essays has not always been agreed upon. Moreover, I am aware of no other volume or website which concentrates on this important subject with such candor and comprehensiveness. I am grateful to the editors of Place for Truth for confirming the continuing usefulness of this important data collection. Even though over the years there has been much debate over the manner of adhering to the Confession of Faith, intelligent discussions are not always presented. Although Charles Hodge sought to give much of the history of this issue in his 1851 The Constitutional History of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, he is sometimes accused of a partisan favoring of the Old School. Admittedly, liberals have also given their views of the correct manner of confessional subscription.
What is lacking in the literature, however, is a well-informed discussion from participants who exhibit a diversity of viewpoints, while also holding to the confession. In 1995, we published a volume to meet that need, The Practice of Confessional Subscription. Two decades later, these essays are still among the finest, and questions continue to need the reflection from such a competent stable of scholars. The original did not reach definitive conclusions to be sure, but raised the questions and sought to assemble informed voices on the subject. Our communions need to grapple with these issues still.
We hope various churches will be challenged by these essays. Assorted denominational concerns will shine through at times; yet the contributors have sought to avoid a narrowly sectarian approach. Together they present a strong case for adhering to a Reformed Confession—an odium to some. In isolation, there is some disagreement on the method; however, there is much more agreement than disagreement. Having asked the authors to debate vigorously, but with a charitable spirit, I am glad to announce that they have succeeded on both counts.
Recently on the pages of Place for Truth, I stated that although our present secular milieu rankles at the confines of a confession, many of us still think that having, holding, and requiring a confession is good for us. In short, a confession is healthy, even if it, at times, requires medicine that might not taste great at first. The alternative treatments often yield chaos, will-worship, self-promoting celebrity cults, confusion, methodolatry, or continual flux.
I maintained such with 3 caveats: (1) first, if the confession is thoroughly biblical and thus timeless and not provincial; (2) second, if the confession is used rightly as a subordinate standard, not as an ordinate standard; and (3) third, if the confession is used by pastoral and spiritual men to serve unity and clarity.
On the first caveat, no confession deserves any respect if it is not thoroughly biblical. A confession, if a faithful echo of what God already says, can guide us and protect us from the disabilities of an age or locale. Confessions that parrot and lightly amplify the soundings of Scripture endure, while also equipping God’s family with strength and perspective to avoid the ditches of every fad or heresy. Biblical confessions, thankfully, save us from re-inventing every wheel. Confessions that stand on the shoulders of prior saintly exegetes are the AP courses that settle certain matters and yield a head start—that is, for those who are humble enough to learn from others.
On the second caveat, a subordinate standard, it should be understood, is exactly what that term implies: both subordinate (always to Scripture) and still a standard. A secondary standard is still a standard, and many fields use secondary standards to assist their practitioners in quality control. A confession is designed for that. It is simultaneously shorthand and proven wisdom; it is orthodoxy and orthopraxy at the same time. Unless one’s lifespan is infinite, when we pray for God to “teach us to number our days that we might apply our hearts to wisdom,” confessions will often help us in the stewardship of time as well as protect us from crippling idiosyncratism. A subordinate standard can aid health.
On the third caveat, the telos of a confession is to serve unity and clarity. Many of us learn the hard way that the most damning laws and standards are those unwritten ones. The Pharisees, ancient and modern, are masters of using the unwritten standards to club the uninitiated into a coma. An explicit, biblical confession, on the other hand, does not subject the believing community to these secret laws; instead, it liberates us from self-standards and also makes the church open to all under the same standards. Thus a solid confession cleanses from disease and bolsters the immune system with a salutary unity.
Holding to a stated confession is quite biblical and prescriptive. Also this fits well with the witness of Scripture. The earliest Christians publicly agreed (the NT word for “confess” means to say the same words) to fixed doctrine. All believers hold to certain doctrinal sets; the only question is which sets are more or less in keeping with the Scriptures. Holding to doctrine is not bad, unless the doctrine itself is unbiblical.
Sound doctrine was a staple of the ancient and early church. Far from being a bad word, it may be seen when Paul urged a church leader to watch his life and doctrine closely (1 Tim. 4:16). He promised that hearers would be saved if that were done; one certainly would not, therefore, wish to do something adversarial to the salvation of hearers. Later Paul also stipulated that Elders should hold firmly to sound doctrine and be able to refute those who did not (Titus 1:9). Some public recognition of sound doctrine was already presupposed in the church prior to 65 AD. That maturity and ability is also set forth as a pre-requisite for Elders (1 Tim. 3:9). Officers of Christ’s church cannot fulfill this mandate if doctrine is not fixed, set, and recognized.
Jude 3 speaks of “the faith, which was handed down once and for all to all the saints.” God, in his mercy, has not founded an evolving church on an imperfect platform that needs serial upgrades. Doctrine is a strength, as long as it is biblical. Furthermore, both testaments evidence the use of creedal summaries. The well-known Shema (Dt. 6:4-5) was used as a repetitive, summary of belief. Israel was to rehearse the nature of God as one and worthy of all our focus. Jesus himself asked the disciples to make confessions, and in one instance (Mt. 16) Peter responded with uncommon perception. There Peter confessed that Christ was the Son of God, and Jesus blessed him for that correct confession.
Far from being forbidden, holding to fixed confessions is little more than following the NT pattern (Rom. 10:9; 1 Cor. 12:3; Phil. 2:5-11; 1 Tim. 3:16). Rather than contradicting, a confession is actually a Physician’s Assistant to sola scriptura.
These essays will not answer every question about the practice of confessional subscription, and it is admittedly limited in its primary focus to the domain of Continental and American Presbyterianism. It is only a beginning, but it should, however, spur a revival of seriousness about the manner in which the church holds to her confession. There is some diversity of opinion among the authors; such diversity has not been blunted. Nevertheless, it should be noted that all believe in adhering to the Westminster Confession of Faith. Finally, if the range of diversity were no greater than among these authors, a church would indeed be strong.
The following posts should be viewed as a debate. Let the debate begin with this proposition: Resolved: “The Church is healthiest which knows what it believes, has such beliefs codified in a confession, and formally has a sturdy mechanism for perpetuating such orthodoxy. The churches growing out of the Reformation relied—in part—on confessional subscription to accomplish the final part of that resolution, and before jettisoning such, that tradition should be thoroughly examined and repudiated before rejecting any portion of it. Thus, the burden of proof, in light of the history of this question, is on those who wish to dismiss confessional subscription.” A constructive, albeit vigorous, debate will ensue. In order to hear from the earlier speakers on this subject—to whom frequent reference is made—chapters from past exponents of confessional adherence have been spliced in at appropriate places.