Most churches and denominations require a higher level of commitment to their doctrinal standards from their leaders and teachers than they expect from their members. Historically, there have also been different degrees or levels of subscription expected of church officers, teachers, or candidates for the ministry. On the one hand, some churches advocate modes of subscription that allow for a looser or more flexible commitment to the church’s official creedal statements. On the other hand, others advocate a mode of subscription that requires complete or nearly complete agreement with the doctrinal standards in view.
Those who support looser forms of subscription often express a concern to protect the subscriber’s liberty of conscience and the primacy of Scripture’s authority. Those who support tighter forms of subscription are concerned to protect the church from too much doctrinal latitude that could open the door to serious theological error or heresy. Moving along the spectrum from tighter to looser modes, we might classify the following absolute, historical, strict, system, and substance.1 The more common modes among Reformed churches that are confessional are strict and system subscription. This essay will offer a critique of strict subscription and will make a case for a conservative version of system subscription. We are calling this mode “substantial subscription”—not to be confused with the looser forms of substance subscription.
Defining Strict Subscription
From a desire to preserve the church’s orthodoxy and doctrinal distinctives, some Reformed leaders today advocate a “strict” form of subscription. Those who advocate this form of subscription usually define it both in terms of the nature and also the extent of one’s commitment to the Confession. As to the nature of the subscriber’s commitment, he is to affirm the Confession’s teaching because it is biblical in contrast to affirming its teaching insofar as it is biblical. This mode of subscription is usually identified by the Latin term quia (meaning “because”) as opposed to quatenus(meaning “insofar as”). With regard to the extent of the subscriber’s agreement, he is to affirm the Confession in its entirety. Accordingly, this form of subscription is also called “full subscription.”
The Very Doctrines of Scripture
In professing the Confession and Catechisms of this Church [Presbyterian Church in America] as his confession, [the ordinand, minister, or teacher] is subscribing to all of the doctrines in the Confession and Catechisms; they are all part of the system of doctrine.6
More specifically, for Smith and Knight, “The Confession and Catechisms assert nothing more or less than the very doctrines of the Word of God” (emphasis added).7 This perspective seems consistent with Clark’s quia view of confessional subscription, which requires the ordinand and the church to view the teaching of the Confession as equivalent to that of Scripture. Writes Clark,
It is not that the authority of the confessions is ‘very nearly tantamount to that of Scripture,’ but it is tantamount to that of Scripture, assuming that a given confession is biblical and intended to be subscribed because (quia) it is biblical.8
Every Doctrine, Not Necessarily Every Word
Strict subscription acknowledges that not all doctrines in the Confession are of equal importance just as all teachings in Scripture are not of equal importance.9 Moreover, while strict subscription requires agreement with every doctrine, it does not require full agreement with every word or phrase in the confession. At least this is true of the version advocated by Smith and Knight. Smith clarifies,
Full subscription does not require the adoption of every word of the Confession and Catechisms, but positively believes that we are adopting every doctrine or teaching of the Confession and Catechisms.10
This raises certain questions. What constitutes a “doctrine” or “teaching”? In his debate with William Barker, Morton Smith agreed to the following definition or description: “Every declaratory statement states something true or false. And every declaratory statement in the Standards is either one doctrine or several doctrines.”11 But how can one disagree with a word or a phrase without in some sense modifying the doctrine or teaching since the meaning of a “declaratory statement” is determined by the words and phrases that constitute the statement?
When pressed for examples, Smith offered two examples where one might take issue with phrases that employ archaic language. For instance, the Westminster Confession, like the 1689, uses the term “vulgar language” to mean the vernacular (1.8).12 Smith also alluded to the Larger Catechism’s prohibition of “keeping of stews” (WLC Q139).13 In these cases, we may suppose that Dr. Smith would recommend we substitute them with synonymous expressions that would be intelligible to a modern audience. Two other examples offered by Smith seem to allow for actual differences at a semantic level. Smith acknowledged that there was difference of opinion as to whether the term “testament” is the best term to portray the biblical concept (cf. WCF 7.4).
Apparently, one could disagree with that term as an appropriate gloss for the Hebrew and Greek terms yet still affirm the doctrine that term was conveying. Smith also alluded to the practice of Dutch churches requiring full subscription to the Three Forms of Unity but allowing the subscriber to question whether Paul really wrote the Epistle to the Hebrews, as the Belgic Confession teaches when it refers to the “fourteen Epistles of the Apostle Paul,” which includes “one to the Hebrews.” Preferring the ordinal “thirteen” instead of “fourteen” would not constitute, in Smith’s view, a disagreement with a doctrine but simply with the wording of a doctrine.14
What About Scruples or Exceptions?
For R. Scott Clark, the answer appears quite simple: “If a confession is not biblical, it should be revised so that it is biblical, or it should be discarded in favor of a confession that is biblical.”15 Apparently, Clark does not believe a subscriber should be allowed to have scruples or take exceptions to his church’s confession. In his words,
Why should a church adopt a confession that some or even most of the church believe to be at least partially unbiblical? Why should a church not draft and adopt a confession she believes to be wholly biblical? … Wherever there are exceptions, then it is no longer clear which document is being subscribed. Every time an exception is taken, the document being subscribed functionally changes at least for that subscriber and arguably … for the body permitting the exception.16
“One could hold,” writes Smith, “that no exceptions to doctrines taught in the Confession and Catechisms should be allowed.” He continues, “This is the position that the full subscriptionist prefers.”17 On the other hand, Smith suggests, “One could hold that exceptions may be allowed so long as those who take the exceptions are not permitted to teach views contrary to the Standards.”18 In his debate with William Barker, Smith made clear that in allowing an exception the presbytery was in effect labelling the exception as “error” but deeming that the error did not strike at the heart of the gospel.19
(Next: Some Problems with Strict Subscription)
1 For a full discussion of the nature and modes of confessional subscription, see my essay “Confessional Subscription: Its Terms and Types,” in The Confessing Baptist: Essays on the Use of Creeds in Baptist Faith and Life (Conway, AR: Free Grace Press, forthcoming).
2 See Recovering the Reformed Confession: Our Theology, Piety, and Practice (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2008), 177-91.
3 See Morton H. Smith, “The Case for Full Subscription,” in The Practice of Subscription, ed. David W. Hall (Oak Ridge, TN: The Covenant Foundation, 1997), 185-205.
4 See George W. Knight III, “Subscription to the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms,” in The Practice of Subscription, 119-148.
5 Holding Fast to the Faith: A Brief History of Subscription to Creeds and Confessions with Particular Reference to Presbyterian Churches (Self-Published, 2003), 15.
6 “The Case for Full Subscription,” 185.
7 This language, which Smith cites approvingly, is taken from a study paper submitted to the 10th General Assembly of the PCA. The paper is available online: https://www.pcahistory.org/documents/subscription/1982paper.html (accessed October 13, 2020). In a public debate on subscription between William Barker and Morton Smith, Barker cites this phrase as representative of Smith’s position. See “The Confessional Subscription Debate: Smith/Barker” (MP3 of Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, July 25, 2005), accessed October 13, 2020, https://www.sermonaudio.com/search.asp?sourceonly=true&currSection=sermo…. The Orthodox Presbyterian Church website provides a summary of the debate here: https://opc.org/OS/html/V9/2d.html (accessed October 13, 2020), also employs this clause to describe Smith’s position. Knight also refers to the study paper and affirms the “doctrines of the Confession are to be regarded as ‘the very doctrines of the Word.’” “Subscription to the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms,” 129.
8 Emphasis his; Recovering the Reformed Confession, 178. For a helpful review and critique of Clark’s book, see Nicolas Alford’s “R. Scott Clark’s Recovering the Reformed Confession: A Review,” in The Confessing Baptist (Forthcoming).
9 “The Case for Full Subscription,” 185.
10 Ibid., 186.
11 This definition was actually proposed by someone in the audience seeking clarification of Smith’s position. It occurs towards the end of the debate about 29 minutes into part two: “Confessional Subscription Debate, Part 2” (MP3 of Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, July 25, 2005), accessed October 13, 2020, https://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?sid=12505102455.
12 Today, “vulgar language” normally denotes crude, coarse, or obscene language.
13 The reference to “stews” in the Larger Catechism is slang. At one time “stews” referred to public bathhouses. Since these bathhouses were often associated with prostitution or illicit sex, the Catechism is apparently using the term by way of association.
14 I gleaned these examples from the audio debate between Barker and Smith.
15 Recovering the Reformed Confession, 178.
16 Ibid., 180.
17 Holding Fast to the Faith, 60.
19 This was stated at about 49 minutes into the debate.
Dr. Robert Gonzales (BA, MA, PhD, Bob Jones Univ.) has served as a pastor of four Reformed Baptist congregations and has been the Academic Dean and a professor of Reformed Baptist Seminary (Sacramento, CA) since 2005. He is the author of Where Sin Abounds: the Spread of Sin and the Curse in Genesis with Special Focus on the Patriarchal Narratives (Wipf & Stock, 2010) and has contributed to the Reformed Baptist Theological Review, The Founders Journal, and Westminster Theological Journal. He blogs at It is Written.