Is It “Fundamentalist” To Forbid The Teaching Of Exceptions To The Standards?

David Cassidy says it is:

It’s time for a “swords into plowshares” day to dawn in the PCA. I  don’t know that those who hold to strict subscription – or its defacto form of forbidding the teaching of allowable exceptions – can stay in community with good faith subscription brothers and build together. Perhaps not. But I hope so.  After all, both love the Lord Jesus Christ, the Scriptures, and his Church. Both are committed to the Great Commission. Both need one another. But neither can be animated by the condescending spirit of neo-fundamentalism. Fundamentalism has no place in our fellowship and will surely displace many. Indeed, that has already begun.

This is a strange way to think about one’s confessional commitment.

A church adopts a centuries-old confession of faith, in which the church has expressed its considered views on certain topics. Graciously, however, that denomination grants to candidates for her ministry the right to express reservations or to take exceptions to certain words, phrases, or views in the confession so long as they do not touch what the denomination regards as the “vitals of religion.” Curiously, the denomination does not define that term but still, at his ordination even the minister who has been granted some exceptions to the confession of his denomination takes an oath to uphold and defend a certain theology, piety, and practice.

The denomination has taken official positions on the views expressed in its confession and catechisms. Are those views “fundamentalist,” i.e., narrow and bigoted?  The minister did not think so when he subscribed the Standards and swore to uphold them. Now he has registered his dissent on certain points but how is it that, should the denomination require him to remain silent on those things on which he dissents from the Standards, the denomination is now fundamentalist?

As far as I know, ordination to ministry in the Presbyterian and Reformed churches is a voluntary act. In all the ordinations I have witnessed since 1987, including my own in 1988, I have yet to see someone subscribe the doctrinal standards of the church while someone else holds a knife or a gun to his head.

Given that every candidate for ministry knows what the doctrinal standards are of his denomination when he applies for ordination and when he is granted exceptions to certain points, it is difficult to see how asking that minister, who, for whatever reason, cannot bring himself to subscribe to the Standards without exception, not to teach contrary to the standards is anything but eminently reasonable.

Make no mistake about it: teaching exceptions to the Standards is teaching contrary to the Standards. If one wants to teach contrary to the Standards, why join a denomination where they actually still believe the Standards? Why not serve in a denomination where the Standards are not really normative?

Consider the ruling elders, deacons, and laity in a congregation where the minister demands the right to teach contrary to the Standards. Those believers joined the church with the expectation that the ministers would uphold the Standards and not contradict them. Where are they supposed to go to hear the faith that they hold, the faith that their denomination says it holds, taught and defended? Why would the laity support financially a ministry, conducted in the name of their denomination, that contradicts what they confess?

If the minister objects, “But the points on which I disagree with the Standards are really quite minor.” If they are so minor, why did the church bother confessing a view? After all, the churches do not confess on every possible question so, it would seem that where the churches do confess that confession has some weight. If the disagreement really is minor, why is the dissenter demanding the right to teach contrary to the Standards? If these are minor points, why not remain silent about them for the sake of the peace and purity of the church? The demand to be allowed to contradict the Standards in the conduct of one’s ministry suggests that the dissenting minister regards them as significant. If they are significant then the question arises again, why is the minister in a denomination where the Standards are still sincerely held and taught?

If these issues are such that the dissenting minister feels compelled to teach contrary to the Standards then why does he not seek to revise the Standards? Why not pursue this matter in the courts and assemblies of the church? Perhaps the dissenter is right and the Standards are, in fact, out of accord with God’s Word? Is this not what Presbyterian and Reformed ministers do: seek the reformation of the church according to God’s Word? If the matter is not so severe as to require reformation through confessional revision, then, again, one wonders, why is the dissenter insisting on the liberty to teach contrary to the Standards?

How is it that the church is guilty of fundamentalism for requiring a minister, whom she has graciously admitted to her ministry despite his misgivings about her Standards, either to uphold the Standards or to be silent about his dissent? If one was hired to write for the New York Times but consistently promoted in columns and otherwise the views advocated in the pages of the New York Post, one can imagine how confused both the Times and the readers of the Times might be (and how delighted the publisher The Post must be).

One can only imagine how confusing it must be for the members of a congregation to hear a minister publicly contradict the Standards of the church of which one is a member. Imagine bringing a visitor to church:

Visitor: That was an interesting sermon. Is that what your church believes?

Member: Well, technically no. We actually disagree. We take the opposite view.

Visitor: That is odd. Why does your minister contradict what your denomination believes?

Member: Well, it is complicated. We were trying to be nice and accommodating but if we do not allow him to contradict us on this and other points he will call us fundamentalist and we cannot have that.

Visitor: Oh. Your church seems a little dysfunctional. Maybe you should get some family counseling.

Member: Maybe we should.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


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  1. The Reformed have been strict subscriptionists since at least Article 53 of the Church Order of Dort, but now all of the sudden, it’s fundamentalism?

    • Aaron,

      The American Presbyterians have, for the most part, not subscribed their standards quia (because) they’re biblical, as we tend to do but quatenus (insofar as) they are biblical. Thus, there are more conservative quatenus subscribers and less conservative. The PCA has opted for “good faith” subscription, which is on the looser end of quatenus. It doesn’t bode well.

  2. As I recall, sad and avoidable disunity repeatedly illustrated, not only on the American scene since the 1729 Adopting Act at Philadelphia, but the same issue at Ulster, and in the established Church of Scotland before that. I appreciate your logical and concise handling today of this dismally enduring divide. Come Lord Jesus.

  3. Yes, I’m afraid many men seek ordination in the PCA because it’s a big tent, allowing for loose confessional commitment and practice.

    “Why not serve in a denomination where the Standards are not really normative?”

    “…why is the minister in a denomination where the Standards are still sincerely held and taught?”

    Answer: Since this varies so vastly from church to church and even presbytery to presbytery, a prospective member or ministerial candidate can seek to join the PCA and think they’ve already found a denomination “where the Standards are not really normative” or “sincerely held and taught.”

    A minister can subscribe in “good faith,” take exceptions approved by the presbytery, and actually have no real interest in allowing the Standards to have a norming role in his life or ministry, unfortunately.

    It’s not uncommon for PCA churches near me to have such a loose commitment to the Standards in practice that one wouldn’t even be able to tell the church is confessionally Reformed. Hence, “RINO” has become an ecclesiastical reality and not just a political dig.

    As a member of a PCA church, I find the current state of the denomination disheartening, especially as the church to which I belong is amid a pastoral search. The fear that it will pursue a pragmatic, charismatic leader-type rather than a man who excuses Christ-like character and who is committed to Reformed piety and practice and the ordinary means of grace as taught in our Standards, is real.

    Perhaps “good faith subscription” has created much more problems than the perceived ones it sought to solve!

    • There are three ways to address this issue:

      1. Understand the history of the reception of Hebrews. It was received early on in the East as Pauline but some in the West were hesitant because of the authorship question. When it came to be seen in the West as Pauline concerns eased but it was not always received as Pauline but it was received as canonical. E.g., Calvin, who wrote:

      I, indeed, can adduce no reason to shew that Paul was its author; for they who say that he designedly suppressed his name because it was hateful to the Jews, bring nothing to the purpose; for why, then, did he mention the name of Timothy? as by this he betrayed himself. But the manner of teaching, and the style, sufficiently shew that Paul was not the author; and the writer himself confesses in the second chapter that he was one of the disciples of the Apostles, which is wholly different from the way in which Paul spoke of himself. Besides, what is said of the practice of catechising in the sixth chapter, does not well suit the time or age of Paul. There are other things which we shall notice in their proper places. John Calvin, Commentary on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews, trans. John Owen (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), xxvii.

      Owen thought that Paul wrote Hebrews but today few scholars think that Paul wrote Hebrews but among believing scholars there is little doubt that it is canonical. I can’t imagine the NT without Hebrews but I don’t see it as Pauline. I don’t see how anyone who reads Greek can think that Paul wrote it. Secretarial style can’t explain the discrepancies between Hebrews and Paul’s Greek, which is fairly consistent.

      Even in the period when the Belgic was written there was no absolute consensus as to Pauline authorship of Hebrews. Calvin hesitated to approve of the Belgic. There were probably a few reasons. 1) It was materially similar to the ’59 French Confession, from it borrowed heavily; 2) it confessed three marks of the true church; 3) and the assertion of Pauline authorship of Hebrews may have irritated Calvin. Any way, Pauline authorship of Hebrews was never a mark of orthodoxy.

      2. In the 24 years I’ve been in the URCs I’ve never seen a candidate disqualified for ministry for denying Pauline authorship of Hebrews. It just isn’t an issue. That was a de facto revision of the Belgic.

      3. Revise the Belgic, which is what the URCs have done in their translation published in 2018. The URCNA version does not attribute Hebrews to Paul.

      So, no, it is not necessary to affirm Pauline authorship to affirm fully the Belgic.

      Would that the exceptions that one sees in the PCA were limited to relatively innocuous questions as opposed to the things to which candidates for ministry typically take exception, e.g., on the 2nd and 4th commandments. The epistle to the Hebrews is canonical because the Holy Spirit inspired it and imposed it as canon upon the church. That it came to be seen as Pauline (though Origen had his doubts) is more an accident than a necessity.

      • He tended to speak of two marks but he was deeply committed to church discipline— so much so that he was exiled from Geneva in 1538 because the city council would not let the church exercise discipline according to the word of God.

        Even in Belgic article 29 there is a difference between the way the marks are described. It speaks of the “pure preaching of the gospel “and the “pure administration “of the sacraments but it speaks merely of the use of church discipline for correcting sins.

        The Belgic does not qualify “correcting” with an adjective because it is never done with absolute purity. In other words, there is an inherent difference between the first two marks and the third.

        So, no.

        As I indicated, these are just guesses as to why Calvin responded as he did initially to the Belgic. It is something of a mystery. He did finally approve of it.

  4. The frustrating part is finding a denomination determined to affirm without exception the standards. Absent dispensationalists, Theonomists, ppaedocommunionists, feminists, revoicers, who are committed to the regulative principle, willing to denounce Arminianism, revivalism, and affirm familial covenant baptism, adverse emotionalism and Pentecostalism. Show me the way and I will by the grace of God lead my church in to the refuge of true faith.

    • The concept of epistemological self-consciousness has stuck with me ever since I read Cornelius Van Til in the early 1970s. We see this playing out in the PCA right before us. All groups are becoming more aware of where they stand, and are being more consistent day by day in acting out their convictions. And, for better or worse, all in the public eye as well.The battle lines are drawn more sharply than ever before. God only knows where this will end, but it must be a good thing to see the picture so clearly. The “progressives”/broad evangelicals/mediating/“missional” and transformational types live in a different mental and emotional world than confessional men. How can two walk together unless they agree? Sadly, both the peace and the purity of the PCA may have been damaged beyond repair.

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