Loose, Good-Faith, or Strict Subscription?

How does your ecclesiastical tradition hold to your standards? How should they? Is loose subscription just a surefire way to allow liberalism into the church? Is Strict Subscription “mean”? These are some questions I would like to look at in following posts.

Here is a couple of snippets from an article by J. Gresham Machen citing Charles Hodge:

The question put to every candidate for ordination in our Church, is in these words:  “Do you sincerely receive and adopt the Confession of Faith of this Church, as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures?”  It is plain that a very serious responsibility before God and man is assumed by those who return an affirmative answer to that question.  It is something more than ordinary falsehood, if our inward convictions do not correspond with a profession made in presence of the Church, and as the condition of our receiving authority to preach the Gospel.  In such a case we lie not only unto man, but unto God; because such professions are of the nature of a vow, that is, a promise or profession made to God…

The Principle of Creed-Subscription

It is no less plain that the candidate has no right to put his own sense upon the words propounded to him.  He has no right to select from all possible meanings which the words may bear, that particular sense which suits his purpose, or which, he thinks, will save his conscience.  It is well known that this course has been openly advocated, not only by the Jesuits, but by men of this generation, in this country and in Europe.  The “chemistry of thought,” it is said, can make all creeds alike.  Men have boasted that they could sign any creed.  To a man in a balloon the earth appears a plane, all inequalities on its surface being lost in the distance.  And here is a philosophic elevation from which all forms of human belief look alike.  They are sublimed into general formulas, which include them all and distinguish none.  Professor Newman, just before his open apostasy, published a tract in which he defended his right to be in the English Church while holding the doctrines of the Church of Rome.  He claimed for himself the Thirty-nine articles in a “non-natural sense”; that is, in the sense which he chose to put upon the words.  This shocks the common sense and the common honesty of men.  There is no need to argue the matter.  The turpitude of such a principle is much more clearly seen intuitively than discursively.  The two principles which, by the common consent of all honest men, determine the interpretation of oaths and professions of faith, are, first, the plain, historical meaning of the words; and secondly, the animus imponentis, that is, the intention of the party imposing the oath or requiring the profession.  The words, therefore, “system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures,” are to be taken in their plain, historical sense.  A man is not a liberty to understand the words “Holy Scriptures,” to mean all books written by holy men, because although that interpretation might consist with the signification of the words, it is inconsistent with the historical meaning of the phrase.  Nor can he understand them, as they would be understood by Romanists, as including the Apocrypha, because the words being used by a Protestant Church, must be taken in a Protestant sense.  Neither can the candidate say, that he means by “system of doctrine” Christianity as opposed to Mohammedanism, or Protestantism, as opposed to Romanism, or evangelical Christianity, as distinguished from the theology of the Reformed (i.e., Calvinistic) Churches, because the words being used by a Reformed Church, must be understood in the sense which that Church is know to attach to them.  If a man professes to receive the doctrine of the Trinity, the word must be taken in its Christian sense, the candidate cannot substitute for that sense the Sabellian idea of a modal Trinity, nor the philosophical trichotomy of Pantheism.  And so of all other expressions which have a fixed historical meaning.  Again, by the animus imponentis in the case contemplated, is to be understood not the mind or intention of the ordaining bishop in the Episcopal Church, or of the ordaining presbytery in the Presbyterian Church.  It is the mind or intention of the Church, of which the bishop or the presbytery is the organ or agent.  Should a Romanizing bishop in the Church of England give “a non-natural” sense to the Thirty-nine articles, that would not acquit the priest, who should sign them in that sense, of the crime of moral perjury; or should a presbytery give an entirely erroneous interpretation to the Westminster Confession, that would not justify a candidate for ordination in adopting it in that sense.  The Confession must be adopted in the sense of the Church, into the service of which the minister, in virtue of that adoption, is received.  These are simple principles of honesty, and we presume they are universally admitted, at least so far as our Church is concerned.

The question however is, What is the true sense of the phrase, “system of doctrine? or, What does the Church understand the candidate to profess, when he says that he “receives and adopts the Confession of Faith of this Church as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures”?

There are three ways in which these words have been, and still are, interpreted.  First, some understand them to mean that every proposition contained in the Confession of Faith is included in the profession made at ordination.  Secondly, others say that they mean just what the words import.  What is adopted is the “system of doctrine.”  The system of the Reformed Churches is a known and admitted scheme of doctrine, and that scheme, nothing more or less, we profess to adopt.  The third view of the subject is, that by the system of doctrine contained in the Confession is meant the essential doctrines of Christianity and nothing more…

The First View:  “Every Proposition of the Confession”

As to the first of these interpretations it is enough to say:  1.  That it is not the meaning of the words.  There are many propositions contained in the Westminster Confession which do not belong to the integrity of the Augustinian, or Reformed system.  A man may be a true Augustinian or Calvinist, and not believe that the Pope is the Antichrist predicted by St. Paul; or that the 18th chapter of Leviticus is still binding.  2.  Such a rule of interpretation can never be practically carried out, without dividing the Church into innumerable fragments.  It is impossible that a body of several thousand ministers and elders should think alike on all the topics embraced in such an extended and minute formula of belief.  3.  Such has never been the rule adopted in our Church.  Individuals have held it, but the Church as a body never has.  No prosecution for doctrinal error has ever been attempted or sanctioned, except for errors which were regarded as involving the rejection, not of explanations of doctrines, but of the doctrines themselves…

The Second View:  The Doctrines of the “System” Enumerated

The same strain of remark might be made in reference to the other great doctrines which constitute the Augustinian system.  Enough, however, has been said to illustrate the principle of interpretation for which Old-school men contend.  We do not expect that our ministers should adopt every proposition contained in our standards.  This they are not required to do.  But they are required to adopt the system; and that system consists of certain doctrines, no one of which can be omitted without destroying its identity…

The Third View:  “Substance of Doctrine”

There has, however, always been a party in the Church which adopted the third method of understanding the words “system of doctrine,” in the ordination service, viz., that they mean nothing more than the essential doctrines of religion or of Christianity….

It is said by some, that in adopting the “system of doctrine,” the candidate is understood to adopt it, not in the form or manner in which it is presented in the Confession, but only for “substance of doctrine.”…

This system has been tried, and found to produce the greatest disorder and contention.  Men acting on the principle of receiving the Confession for substance of doctrine, have entered the ministry in our Church, who denied the doctrine of imputation, whether of Adam’s sin or of Christ’s righteousness; the doctrine of the derivation of a sinful depravity of nature from our first parents; of inability; of efficacious grace; of a definite atonement; that is, of an atonement have any such special reference to the elect, as to render their salvation certain.  In short, while professing to receive “the system of doctrine” contained in the Westminster Confession and Catechisms they have rejected almost every doctrine which gives that system its distinctive character.


5 thoughts on “Loose, Good-Faith, or Strict Subscription?

  1. We’ve discussed the “looseness” of the ARP privately, but with regard to Machen’s statement at the beginning, this is one of the questions ARP pastors (REs have to answer a similar question) must answer in the affirmative for ordination:

    Do you accept the doctrines of the Associate Reformed
    Presbyterian Church, contained in the Westminster
    Confession of Faith and Catechisms, as founded on the
    Word of God and as the expression of your own faith,
    and do you resolve to adhere thereto?

    The “looseness” comes from the fact that ARP ministers are allowed to take exceptions to the WCF, but they must register these with the receiving presbytery.

  2. That sounds similar to the PCA’s practice, Tim. Of course what constitutes an exception is the fly in the ointment. Then we have to decide if it is semantic, more than semantic but not striking at the heart of religion, or strikes at the heart of religion. The last makes it heresy, so why we would grant such an exception bewilders me.

  3. The subscription issue is not an easy issue. Each view has its own problems. Those who hold the strict subscription view usually end up with a small Church, while eyeing even orthodox Christians with suspicion because they hold to differing views on some minor points. The loose subscription view has the problem of letting just about anyone in the Church. The good-faith view has the problem of half of the denomination ending up being loose and the other half being more stirct and each party eyeing each other with disdain.

    The real question in the subscription issue is this: how do we keep our denomination from going down the drain? The real answer (I think) to that question depends less on a person’s adherence to a certain document and more on the pastors and elders of the Church diligently guarding the Church from incoming error. Now some may say that strict subscription is a way for pastors and elders to defend against incoming error, but those who know better understand that the nature of error is such that it can creep in no matter what view of subscription one takes. Error is often so subtle that it can often take even the most strict of subscriptionists off guard.

    We need men who have a great amount of wisdom and diligence in the Church offices. Wisdom to spot error and to know the proper amount of latitude that should be allowed in the Church. And dilligence to be on the watch for error and to guard their flocks from it.

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