Is the Confession of the Substance of Our Faith?

Recovering the Reformed Confession-FeaturedDavid writes to ask about a brief essay I wrote several years back on the distinction between the substance and accidents of the faith and how I reconcile what I wrote there with what I’ve been arguing about the nature of confessional subscription. He also says some nice things (which I’ve omitted because they tend to make the HB look even more self-serving and Narcissistic than it already is!

…I’ve been following the current subscription debate you’ve been having with Lee Irons. I’m wondering if you might help to clear up some confusion I’m having between your advocacy of strict subscription, on the one hand, and your essay entitled “Substance and Accidents” otoh (which appears to me to be more consistent with “system subscription”)…

Hi David,

That’s a good question. I wrote that essay a long time ago. I think I’m doing the same thing in both places, however. In that case I was arguing that 6/24 creation is not of the substance of the faith. What we confess in our confessions is of the essence of the faith. In both places I’m trying to get Reformed people to set priorities. Here we’ve spent the last 30 years arguing over the length of the creation days and the application of the Mosaic civil law and penalties in the civil kingdom while the gospel has been slipping between our fingers. Some of the same cats who think that theonomy is, to borrow a phrase, “just alright with me,” are also latitudinarian about justification sola fide. I think that reveals a profound confusion about what’s important in and about the Reformed faith.

I can’t see how denying or affirming 6/24 creation fundamentally affects the Reformed faith. The only answer I ever get is: if you don’t believe 6/24 creation then you don’t believe the bible. I reply: well that’s what my pre-trib pre-mil friends say about the 1000 years of Rev 20! That’s what Luther said about “hoc est corpus meum” (this is my body). That’s not a very helpful way of proceeding in such cases.

As to theonomy, well, the Westminster Confession of Faith is pretty clear about our view of the civil law. WCF 19.4 says, “To them also, as a body politic, he gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the State of that people; not obliging any other now, further than the general equity thereof may require.” What is there about “expired” and “general equity” that folks don’t understand? Those phrases certainly don’t mean “the abiding validity of the [civil] law of God [as interpreted and applied to contemporary civil cases by rabbis Gary, Rousas, and Greg] in exhaustive detail.” We confess that the civil law was just as fulfilled as the ceremonial (cultic) law. We understood that Roman cultic (worship) system was premised on a failure to recognize that fact. That’s why they progressively re-instituted the Mosaic cultus during the medieval period. We understood that the civil cultus is just as fulfilled and expired and the attempt to re-institute it is just as wrong as Rome’s attempt to re-institute the sacrificial system.

In the discussion with Lee (and now Matt and others) over the question of confessional subscription I see that I’m being pegged as a “strict” subscriptionist. This is not accurate. When I teach on this, I am critical of the “system,” “full/strict,” and “good faith” approaches to subscription. I don’t fit the paradigm they are using.

When the churches confess something, it is of the essence of the faith by the fact that the churches have confessed it. The churches should not confess anything that is not of the essence of the faith. This is why the churches have no business make civil pronouncements. The churches have no business commenting on who should serve in the military. Why does NAPARC have time to worry about female soldiers but they haven’t had time to take up the Federal Vision, which is a direct threat the doctrine of justification, the hinge of the faith (Calvin) and the article by which the church stands or falls (Alsted—not Luther!).

In this respect I don’t think my friendly critics have really accounted for the fact that the confessions are not private documents. They are churchly, ecclesiastical documents. They are not documents to which we can be “sympathetically critical.” They are the public summaries of the Word of God. They are the churches’ confession of the Word of God. They are, in that respect, quite like a sermon.

Yes, as I’ve conceded, there is a problem with the fact that that no books of the bible are commonly called paralipomenon and that many of us no longer think that Paul wrote Hebrews, but, in my view the problem is temporarily relieved by the fact that the churches, who confess the confession, no longer receive it (the Belgic) such that subscription to those two (quite minor!) items are required. The long term answer to this problem is to do what the Reformed churches did in the first synods when the Belgic was received: take time at Synod to read the Belgic and to hear proposed revisions. As I’ve been saying, the other thing we need to do is to confess the faith again in our time as they did in theirs.

Another thing for which my friendly critics have not accounted is that the modern Presbyterian practice (since the 18th century) of subscribing a confession “insofar as” (quatenus) it is biblical was not the original mode of subscription. The old Reformed practice was to subscribe it “because” (quia) it is biblical and it is to this approach I hope to return. The whole spectrum of modern Presbyterian subscription from “full” to “good faith” in on the quatenus continuum and I think we ought to jump the tracks to the parallel continuum, the quia continuum.

Some have implied that Clark thinks there are things in the confessions that we ought not be required to believe so he’s a hypocrite for criticizing others for doing what he does. No, I really don’t think that our churches don’t confess anything that we should not believe. That’s the point of quia subscription. If it is found that the churches are confessing something that is unbiblical, then we should stop confessing it. For example, if someone objects to our confession of the Lord’s Day as the Christian sabbath, let him bring an overture to the churches to convince them to adopt a more biblical view. Until that time, our confession is our confession of God’s Word.

This doesn’t mean that every confessional sentence is worded in the best possible way. It also means that if we can no longer confess the faith using our current documents, then we need documents which we can subscribe, which captures the essence of our understanding of Scripture again.

[This post first appeared in 2008]

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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9 comments

  1. Scott,

    You write: “Yes, as I’ve conceded, there is a problem with the fact that that no books of the bible are commonly called paralipomenon and that many of us no longer think that Paul wrote Hebrews, but, in my view the problem is temporarily relieved by the fact that the churches, who confess the confession, no longer receive it (the Belgic) such that subscription to those two (quite minor!) items are required.”

    I’m having a hard time following you here. It sounds like you’re saying that as long as the church does not consider an “exception” to really be an exception, then the problem is solved.

    So if the PCA gets sick of all the exceptions to 6/24 and just says officially, “That exception is no longer an exception!”, then one can declare no exceptions and at the same time not believe that clause?

    And how is that not another form of system subscription?

  2. On the topic of 6/24 creation days, De Bres and the Continental Reformed church showed more wisdom than our Presbyterian brothers. As I argue on my new blog (I’m forging ahead into the world of web 2.0 at http://www.mgkline4me.wordpress.com), system subscription becomes manifestly necessary when a Church’s confession says more than is required by Scripture. Or to put it differently, when a Church leaves the path of catholicity to dabble in sectarianism, it confesses more than it should.

    To tie this back in with your interaction with Lee, I’m concerned that “essential confession” (is that an appropriate label for the traditional, Continental position?) becomes sectarian when the Church’s confession would effectively excommunicate some fathers who have gone before us, but who died in good standing with the Church (or when it would at least cast aspersions on them).

    We absolutely need new confessions. They need to ignite lively debate amongst the churches.

  3. Scott,

    Why can’t I comment on the last post?

    Anyway, it seems related to this one. Nothing new to add, just that I have always been just as struck at what is actually revealed in theonomy, etc. is just what you say: a low view of creation.

    Good stuff,

    Zrim

  4. What is there about “expired” and “general equity” that folks don’t understand?

    When you have a chance, I would appreciate more on this, Dr. Clark. What does the confession mean by the obligatory “general equity” of the old testament judicial laws? Does it mean that we ought to apply the old testament judicial laws to our current civil situation in any way at all?

  5. Ron,

    See See Craig A. Troxel and Peter J. Wallace, “Men in Combat over the Civil Law: “General Equity” In WCF 19.4,” Westminster Theological Journal 64 (2002): 307–18.

    See Second Helvetic Confession Art 30.

    Consider the distinction between theocracy and theonomy. They are not the same things. Virtually all the magisterial Reformers were theocrats. They all believed in the civil enforcement of the first table of the decalogue but most all of them also articulated a theory/doctrine of two-kingdoms that was in tension with their theorcatic views. That tension was resolved in the 18th century, thankfully, in favor of their two-kingdoms theory and theocracy was largely abandoned.

    Calvin said that magistrates can learn from OT civil/case laws the way they learn from pagan civil/case laws. So yes, just as a magistrate considers Roman civil law so he/she ought to consider Mosaic civil/case law, but that’s about it.

  6. I can’t see how denying or affirming 6/24 creation fundamentally affects the Reformed faith. The only answer I ever get is: if you don’t believe 6/24 creation then you don’t believe the bible. I reply: well that’s what my pre-trib pre-mil friends say about the 1000 years of Rev 20! That’s what Luther said about “hoc est corpus meum” (this is my body). That’s not a very helpful way of proceeding in such cases.

    I like those analogous counterexamples!

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