How Shall We Confess the Faith? Strict vs Substantial Subscription (Part 3)

Read Part 1 and Part 2.

A Better Way: Substantial Subscription

Smith and Clark argue that if a Confession is unbiblical at any point, the church ought to renounce whatever article is out of accord with Scripture and adopt one that is in accord with Scripture.28 Of course, there is an element of truth in this sentiment. Ideally, if we know something is wrong, we ought to fix it. On the other hand, in a sin-cursed world we should not expect a perfect confession.29 Nor is it easy to convince churches to amend their confessions. Sam Waldron’s perspective on the Second London Confession of Faith (2LCF) reflects a more realistic view. In his address to the 2010 General Assembly of the Association of Reformed Baptist Churches of America, Waldron remarks, “I believe in the 1689 Baptist Confession … . It’s not a perfect confession; it’s just so much better than all the rest.”30 If that is the way we view the 2LCF (i.e., not perfect but the best we know of), should not the kind of confessional subscription we expect and promote correspond to our view of the Confession?

Defining Substantial Subscription

It is important that we distinguish “substantial subscription” from what is known as “substance subscription.” The term “substance” in this context means something like “essentials” or “fundamentals.” The idea is that one affirms whatever he or the church deems to be the essentials or fundamentals of the Confession without adopting the entire Confession. Historically, this mode of subscription has tended to allow too much latitude. “Essential” is only intelligible when one ties it to some reference point. On the one hand, it may simply refer to the bare essentials of Christianity. On the other hand, it may refer more narrowly to the essentials of Reformed Christianity. In any case, it seems to allow a bit too much fluidity.

Substantial subscription,” on the other hand, is close though not identical to the Old School Presbyterian version of system subscription. System subscription requires that the subscriber affirm the system of doctrine contained in the Confession, which “system” is presumably “Reformed theology.” Moreover, it requires the ordaining entity to query the candidate concerning any scruples and requires the candidate in “good faith” to be open and honest about any and all scruples he may have with reference to the confessional standards. The ordaining authority must then determine whether any of the candidate’s reservations or exceptions are “out of accord with any fundamentals of the system of doctrine” and ensure that his exception is “neither hostile to the system nor strikes at the vitals of religion.”

Though similar to system subscription, I prefer the modifier “substantial.” The primary usage of “substantial” is “of ample or considerable amount, quantity, size, etc.” Thus, unlike “substance” or “system” forms of subscription, substantial conveys the message that the subscriber is in agreement with a significant proportion of the Confession. Moreover, like “good faith” subscription, substantial subscription requires the subscriber to be open and honest about any and all of his exceptions31 related to the teaching of the Confession. Furthermore, like “system subscription,” substantial subscription is tighter than substance subscription. But substantial subscription goes farther than system subscription in that it formally conveys a high level of agreement not merely with the system in the Confession but with the Confession as a whole.

Commending Substantial Subscription

I think “substantial subscription” commends itself in several ways. First, it guards the doctrine of sola Scriptura. When the full subscriptionist says, “the Confession asserts nothing more or less than the very doctrines of the Word of God,” he blurs the line between a fallible human document and the infallible Holy Scripture. That may not be his intention, but his mode of subscription lends itself to that effect. I have already cited Murray’s warning above. Nick Alford shares the same concern in his assessment of R. Scott Clark’s quia subscription:

Such an approach muddles the necessary distinction between the supreme authority of Scripture and the subordinate authority of the confession. Sola Scriptura not only means that the church goes to the Word as its standard and rule in all matters of Christian life but also that the church by necessity treat no other standard with the same level of deference and respect owed to the Word.32

On the other hand, if we approach the Confession as an excellent though not perfect summary of the doctrines of Scripture and if our form of subscription formally acknowledges that discorrespondence, we maintain the integrity of the Confession and we uphold the uniqueness of Scripture. In other words, the Confession is excellent, though not infallible.

Second, substantial subscription protects the integrity of the subscriber’s conscience. As Francis Turretin observed, “[Creeds] cannot bind the inner court of conscience, except inasmuch as they are found to agree with the word of God (which alone has power to bind the conscience).”33 Accordingly, if we concede that the Confession does not possess a perfect one-to-one correspondence with Scripture in terms of authority and accuracy, why should we adopt a mode of subscription that seems to require one to view the Confession as “tantamount” to the very doctrines of Scripture? Ironically, I think an unqualified full subscription is more likely to tempt pastors or professors to “fudge” with respect to the integrity of their conscience. John Frame agrees and remarks,

Arguably, the stricter the formula of subscription, the more people will be tempted to subscribe ignorantly or deceptively, keeping to themselves the parts of the confession that they don’t understand, or that they doubt.34

Third, substantial subscription maintains a healthy esteem for ecclesiastical tradition. Not all tradition is bad. Moreover, though Scripture is our supreme authority, that same Scripture delegates authority to the church. Consequently, we should show respect toward confessions that are expressions of ecclesiastical authority, particularly those that are officially endorsed and adopted by the ecclesiastical body we serve. The balance, though, is that we must maintain a high esteem for ecclesiastical tradition without unduly venerating it. As Frame observes,

When the claims of a tradition are suitably modest, and that tradition facilitates the communication of the biblical Word of God, that tradition should be respected, even while being viewed with a critical eye. What we should avoid is traditionalism, such as (1) the view that once a tradition is established, it can never be changed, (2) the notion that some tradition is just as authoritative as Scripture, and (3) the notion that we should not test traditions by the Scriptures.35

Substantial subscription affirms that the confession is an “excellent guide” that “facilitates the communication of the biblical Word of God.” But it stops short of requiring a commitment to the Confession that views the Confession’s teaching as “nothing more or less than the very doctrines of the Word of God.”

Finally, substantial subscription encourages a Berean spirit and facilitates semper reformanda. Studying Scripture should be our primary concern and preoccupation. And as we study God’s Word, we must be willing to bring ecclesiastical tradition into greater conformity with the Holy Scriptures. Murray encourages this Berean spirit when he notes,

However architectonic may be the systematic construction of any one generation or group of generations, there always remains the need for correction and reconstruction so that the structure may be brought into closer approximation to the Scripture and the reproduction be a more faithful transcript or reflection of the heavenly exemplar.36

Conclusion

By publicly declaring the 2LCF to be an excellent and overall accurate summary of biblical doctrine and by requiring substantial agreement with it, we discourage those with major differences and divisive agendas from throwing in their lot with us. By formally allowing a church officer to take exceptions when his conscience constrains him, a church or an association does not place unreasonable strictures that prevent him from evaluating his tradition in the light of Scripture. This mode of subscription upholds the doctrine of sola Scriptura, protects the subscriber’s integrity of conscience, maintains a healthy esteem for ecclesiastical tradition (thereby preserving orthodoxy and our theological distinctives), and facilitates the application of semper reformanda to our Confession.

(I published an earlier version of this article on reformedbaptistblog.com.)

Notes

28 In his debate with Will Barker, Smith remarks, “If we don’t believe them, then we should not prescribe them” (about 58 minutes into the audio, Part 1). Clark’s viewpoint has been cited above.

29 John Frame avers, “There is no perfect creed, and there never will be. A perfect creed would of necessity have the same authority as Scripture, and that can never be.” Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, 305.

30 I am citing from the opening words of Waldron’s sermon “A Church with a Passion for God’s Son and God’s Glory,” which may be downloaded here: https://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=5712157530 (accessed October 13, 2020).

31 One important note on “exceptions.” Exceptions do not necessarily imply belief that a statement is unbiblical. Exceptions can also mean that the statement is a matter of opinion that shouldn’t be elevated to level of the confession. Exception simply implies that the statement is not confessed. It is not necessarily a “no vote.” It may be viewed, rather, as an “abstention” on that particular statement.

32 Nicolas Alford, “Confessional Imbroglio” (Unpublished paper, 2010), 4-5.

33 Institutes of Elenctic Theology, trans. George Musgrave Giger, ed. James T. Dennison (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1997), 3:284.

34 The Doctrine of the Word of God (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2010), 287n.5.

35 The Doctrine of the Word of God, 282.

36 The Covenant of Grace (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1988), 5. In a similar vein, Murray warns, “However epochal have been the advances made at certain periods and however great the contributions of particular men we may not suppose that theological construction ever reaches definitive finality. There is the danger of a stagnant traditionalism and we must be alert to this danger, on the one hand, as to that of discarding our historical moorings, on the other.” “Systematic Theology,” in vol. 4 of Collected Writings of John Murray (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1982), 7-8.

Bob Gonzales bio


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 ReviewThe Founders Journal, and Westminster Theological Journal. He blogs at It is Written.

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