When Subscription Isn’t

Recovering the Reformed Confession-FeaturedOne of the chapters in RRC is about how we relate to our confession(s). Well, the whole book is about how we relate to our confession(s) but this chapter is devoted specifically to how we subscribe them. This is a big issue. By etymology, “to subscribe” means to write one’s name beneath a document. We still do this with certain legal documents. We do it with credit card receipts daily. It used to be (and sometimes still is) that books were published after a printer was guaranteed enough sales through subscriptions. People would sign a promise to buy a copy of a book when it appeared in print. As the publishing business continues to morph we could well see that practice return more often. In my lifetime people have spoken of “subscribing to” newspapers and magazines. Now we “subscribe to” blogs and podcasts. As the usage of the word has changed we’ve come to think of subscribing as merely a way of indicating that “I want to receive this publication.” Indeed, in many instances (as in the case of the HB and the Heidelcast) subscribing is merely a click of the mouse and free content is sent electronically to one’s computer/mobile device. We’ve lost the idea that subscription entails some sort of commitment. People subscribe and unsubscribe easily and constantly. When I first began podcasting, with Office Hours, I was greatly puzzled by this behavior. Subscriptions would rise and fall daily like the stock market. At first I was alarmed but over time I realized that it doesn’t mean anything in particular. The number of actual readers/listeners stays steady or grows but people change devices or the way the want to receive the podcast.

There is a still a sphere, however, where we still use the word subscribe in the older sense: to write one’s name underneath as a pledge. In this case it is not a pledge of money but of fidelity or faithfulness. It is a way of saying, “this is my faith” or “this is what I believe.” An ecclesiastical (churchly) confession or catechism is a public, official document that summarizes the faith of the visible church. It summarized the church’s conclusions on a range of issues and questions. It is the considered, official, and authoritative interpretation of God’s Word by the visible church. It has some systematic qualities but it is quite unlike a systematic theology in important ways. A systematic or dogmatic theology is published by an individual. It is essentially a collection of private opinions. Now, to be sure, it may quote Scripture, which is God’s Holy, inerrant, infallible Word, and it may quote ecclesiastical confessions but as a document it doesn’t have any official or ecclesiastical standing. We may dissent from or, if we’re in a particularly foul mood, even burn a systematic theology (not that I’m thinking of any one systematic volume, really) a systematic theology (only to keep warm during this ongoing polar vortex) without any repercussions. However valuable it may be it has no constitutional authority in the visible church.

A confession is different. Indeed, it is a constitutional document. It is a document that is a part of the public, official, teaching and governing structure of the church. It is not a collection of private opinions. It is not a mere historical document, a snapshot of what the church once believed long ago. No, in a faithful church, in a church where folk are being honest with themselves and each other, a confession is the living expression of the actual, vital, current theology, piety, and practice of the church.

There are denominations where there are whole collections of confessions, which have been practically, intentionally shelved and ignored. These denominations are known as “mainline” churches. These denominations and churches believed the historic faith at one time but now, under the influence of modernity and because of their desire to be accepted by the broader culture, have marginalized those aspects of Christianity that would bring them into conflict with the culture (e.g., the virgin birth of Christ, the truthfulness of Scripture, miracles, church discipline).

There is another group of churches that are more mixed. These are the borderline churches. When I published RRC (2008) it seemed as if one borderline denomination (the CRC) was heading toward the mainline and another (the EPC) was heading away from the mainline. Today, it the CRC still appears to be steaming rapidly toward the mainline. There has been a significant influx of formerly mainline churches into the EPC which may halt its progress toward the sideline since those congregations likely bring with them mainline assumptions and convictions rejected by the sideline.

The third group is the sideline. These are churches and denominations that have either left, been ejected from, or rejected the movement of the mainline churches (and some borderline churches) toward the mainline, toward modernism, toward liberalism, in favor of the historic Reformed theology, piety, and practice.

Nevertheless, there are currents within the sideline that are pushing congregations, elders, and ministers and candidates for ministry away from the historic understanding and practice of the faith. One of those is an ongoing revision of the way candidates for ministry and ministers are asked to subscribe the confessions and catechisms. Where once, when the confessions and catechisms were first written, they were received and subscribed because (quia) they are biblical, in modern times they have tended to be received and subscribed insofar as (quatenus) they are biblical. The great problem with the latter approach is that it assumes a degree of discontinuity between the church’s confession of the faith and the actual teaching of Scripture. Sometimes very little discontinuity is assumed or held. In this case people speak of “strict” subscription. In other cases more distance is assumed. This is referred to as “loose” subscription. Finally, another approach has been adopted which is known as “good faith” subscription. None of these, however, are the way the confessions were originally received.

As a consequence of the shift from “because” to insofar as” candidates for pastoral ministry now routinely tell their examining committees and assemblies that they do not believe, e.g., parts of what we confess about the second and fourth commandments, even though what we confess is very clear, even though it has the authority of the church’s public, considered interpretation of God’s Word, even though it has official sanction, even though that confession is a standard by which members and officers are disciplined and held to account.

Imagine if we conducted bar exams this way, if lawyers were permitted to say to the bar, “I rejected the first amendment. That was then, this is now. The world in which we live is far too complicated and dangerous to allow a free press or free association or freedom of religious thought, assembly, and practice.” It’s my understanding that, when a lawyer is admitted to the bar, he becomes an officer of the court. He is no longer, in that capacity, a private citizen. He is bound to uphold the law. If he violates the law or helps others to do so he may not only lose his license to practice law (i.e., be disbarred) but he may face criminal prosecution. Recently I read where a man was refused admission to the bar because he had been a serial plagiarist. Of course that never happens in evangelical or Reformed circles but it was enough to prevent him from becoming a lawyer, even though he had completed law school. The bar decided that if he could not tell the truth in print then he could not be trusted to be an officer of the court.

Yet, candidates for the ministerial office, do tell their examiners, their bar, if you will, that they do not believe important parts of the constitutional documents of the church. Of course, this is quite confusing. How can a minister simply tell his regional gathering of ministers and elders (representing the churches) that he wants to received as a minister of the Reformed faith but that he thinks the Reformed Christology and moral theology of the incarnation and images is simply wrong? If he rejects the Reformed Christology, if he thinks that the two can be separated (Nestorianism) and thus that Christ’s humanity may be represented in images, how can he be a minister in good standing in churches where Nestorianism is repudiated as heresy and where the churches confess that it is contrary to God’s Word to attempt to represent the humanity of Christ in images? If he thinks that God did not rest on the seventh day or that there is no creational pattern of resting and working or that the church’s confession that we should set aside the first day of the week for rest and worship is wrong, why would he want to be a minister in a church that confesses a creational and redemptive pattern of work and rest? Why would a church make a man a minister who rejects her moral theology?

Nevertheless, I’m told that this is happening even within “sideline” churches. Perhaps life on the sideline of social influence is too lonely? Perhaps our confession is not being properly taught (or taught at all) where some of our ministers are receiving their preparation? Perhaps “good faith” is not good enough? Who defines “good” and who defines “faith” and wasn’t it to answer those very questions that we wrote and adopted confessions in the first place?

In ecclesiastical usage we subscribe confessions. We receive them ex animo (from our very being). Ministers pledge to uphold them, to teach them, and to defend them. What are they upholding, teaching, and defending? If every ministerial candidate or each minister is entitled to create his own confession within a confession, then there will be no single theology, piety, and practice but there must be as many as there are candidates and ministers. In that event we have a case of the vanishing subscription.

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  1. Dr. Clark:

    A serious question: Do you believe that the Reformed Confessions are reformable in any details? [By reformable I mean correctable and not merely that they could be added to] If so, doesn’t this necessarily entail allowing ministers to publicly state to the authority administering the oath of office where they have disagreements with details of the confessions and then have that body determine whether or not these exceptions (no matter what the individual denomination calls them) are acceptable or unacceptable for a man being ordained to pastoral ministry?

    If the answer to that question is “no” then the confessions are irreformable by definition since any time a minister thought the church should change its confession he would have to resign from office.

    Thank you for your consideration.

    Your brother,


  2. Dr. Clark,

    Have you heard this set of lectures (Strange, Fesko, Muether, and Knight), discussing the concept of animus imponentus and its implications today for the OPC? I know you address this concept in RRC.


    The link includes audio files with outlines & some transcripts of the lectures.

    This conference appears to be an effort to clarify what the OPC understands by subscription. I’ve read past statements by Muether and others pointing out that the OPC has NOT been characterized historically by debates over the meaning of subscription (i.e., quia v. quatenus) – contra the PCA. However, now it seems there is some effort to clarify that the OPC is squarely in the tradition of Hodge concerning subscription, with animus imponentus presented as a kind of middle way b/w quia & quatenus.

    As I understand it, this introduces two additional considerations re: subscription. 1) the original intent of the Westminster divines, and 2) the “mind of the imposing body” (per that nifty Latin phrase) as to what is being subscribed and its interpretation. This implies a candidate must not only understand and affirm the doctrines of the Standards so as to “sincerely receive and adopt” them, but also how the Church interprets them, and therefore what the minister is actually receiving and adopting per his ordination vow.

    Is this a legitimate “third way,” in your view? It appears to me to be a more “conservative” understanding of confessional subscription than “good faith” in the PCA. But it’s not quite quatenus, nor is it quite quia. I’d appreciate your thoughts.

    • Tony,

      I think quia/quatenus and animus imponentis are distinct matters. To the best of my knowledge, all American Presbyterians have, since the 18th century, subscribed quatenus. The OPC tends to assume some version of strict subscription.

      Animus imponentis has to do with way the confession is received. When we subscribe, we do with an understanding of how the confession is received. E.g., the WCF has not been received by the OPC to require adherence to 6-24 creation. It’s founder, J. Gresham Machen was, some lights today, a “liberal” who held the day-age view. He would have great difficulty getting into some presbyteries of his own denomination today, because some presbyters have apparently forgotten, don’t know, or conveniently ignore the views of their own rather tolerant (on the issue of the nature of the creation days) history. Within the scope of the animus imponentis (the way the confession is received and then imposed on the body by the GA) folk subscribe on the strict side of quatenus. I don’t have the sense that even in the OPC people typically or usually subscribe because it’s biblical.

      As I explained in RRC, there’s nothing new about AI. I gave the example of the Church of Scotland, who exercised AI in the reception of the WCF immediately after its completion and that in distinction from the original intent of the drafting body. All bodies exercise AI. It’s unavoidable but it doesn’t make the decision between quia/quatenus go away.

  3. Dr. Clark,

    Good questions here from others on how a body interprets the intent and meaning of the confessions as well as a legitimate third way.

    There is a lot to unpack in some of your statements , I have a few clarifying questions. What do you mean by a candidate believes that….. “God did not rest on the 7th day or that there is no creational pattern of resting and working.” ?? Also what is your understanding of images? Would a candidate who attends a lunch at a diner on the Lord’s day or who watches a ball game on TV or who plays ball on a Lord’s Day afternoon or who has a cross on a wall in his office or wife’s necklace be in this category of unfit for Reformed office for you? Is “subscription” or a “good commitment” to the Confessions in your view one where a person, member, elder or pastor agrees with every jot and tittle of the Reformed Confessions? I would think your answer to be “no”, but I am at times left with the impression (perhaps my impression is very wrong) that you hold the confessions in almost too high of esteem. Which I probably have empathy towards as I have been accused of the same thing. But I am a liberal compared to you. :-). Is there not room for reasonable nuance on certain aspects, intent, how it is received, interpretations and views of the confession? I am not talking PCUSA craziness here or going Anglican either. It just seems if there is not room for reasonable difference on confessional views then many a church (let alone members, elders and pastors)within NAPARC by rights should be booted out. Maybe that is what needs be. I am just clarifying.

    Then comes the question which Reformed confession? What about “testimonies” which some churches have that are in effect additions to the confessions? I am all for the recovering of the Reformed Confessions (Westminster and the 3 forms of unity) as it is a great need. They are not being properly taught even in the majority of the Sideline/ NAPARC churches. I believe that is fact, not opinion. However, since the Reformed have always believed the confessions to be subordinate to Scripture I am not inclined to what is tantamount to the Canonizing of the Reformed Confessions. The logical implication of to strict a view on subscription or to high a view on the confessions necessarily implies that the confessions are almost if not all together infallible. I am sure you would not subscribe to that, but there almost seems a taking away with the left hand (Confession is the bar) that which was given (Scripture is Supreme) with the right. Help me out here.


  4. Without getting into the detail of this excellent post a book I am reading on confessional subscription came to mind as I read it. ‘Lectures on Integrity: A Review of Confessional Subscription as an Aid for Orthodoxy and Orthopraxy’ by David Hall gives a detailed history right back to the Reformation of subscription to confessions. The importance of no doubt strict subscription and how much they have slipped into obscurity is a major feature so far in my reading of Hall’s book.

    While wording is important, it strikes me that today denominations and ministers play with fire as they make crafty pledges to subscription while playing fast and loose with their content. There is too much sly use of words and not enough humble submission to the strict use of confessions. It’s no wonder that more ‘Reformed’ churches and denominations seem increasingly like generic evangelical ones with a sprinkle of Calvinism sugar dusting for gravitas and kudos.

  5. Someone once said that the important thing about the WCF is that it is a subordinate standard to scripture. Meaning that while it has to be viewed as subordinate, it still has to be viewed as a standard.
    That said, if a candidate for office doesn’t in their heart view the standards as faithful to scripture, regardless of the form of subscription imposed they will be a disruptor of the purity and peace of the church.

    • I could not really agree more with your basic points here that the Confessions are a solid standard, in fact outside of scripture itself the best standard. However, I think it is in the deeper dive of defining phrases, nuance and other defining of terms that I am getting the impression that there is a rub. Again I ask…. If a candidate (or member) holds not as strict a view on certain Sabbath do’s and don’ts found in the confessions does that make them unfaithful to The Confessions? Just one example….Can a candidate have a different/ less strident view on Sabbath issues and still hold a very high view of the Confessions and more importantly Scripture? A view that still sees the confessions as faithful to the Scriptures? I think the answer is yes. While I agree with virtually all of the confessions I do believe that WLC #117 and #119 attempt a bridge too far in their phrase “recreation”. Further more it seems clear 117 & 119 were dealing with the “Kings book of Sport ” (among other like things), more tradition of their times than that of solid biblical exegesis.
      The highest point of integrity is that of Scripture and even where the confessions may go a bridge to far we of all people should be willing to acknowledge it.

  6. Oh come on, are you saying you would DARE to burn a copy of Finney’s Systematic Theology?

  7. WRT adopting intent, this still needs to be constitutional done correct? (like the Scots’ qualifications in adopting the original WCF in 1647). There may be all sorts of reasons views otherwise plain (or maybe not so plain to folks at the time) are not addressed which become issues in later generations. I would think adopting intent cannot be satisfactorily presumed based upon individual views. Otherwise any individual view could be waived as confessionally acceptable in hindsight simply because it wasn’t challenged.

    • The American revisions were done ecclesiastically. I support the 18th-century revisions. As I argued, in RRC, however, I think the best thing to do is to write a new one to which we can subscribe quia.

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