While our Constitution does not require the candidate’s affirmation of every statement and/or proposition of doctrine in our Confession of Faith and Catechisms, it is the right and responsibility of the Presbytery to determine if the candidate is out of accord with any of the fundamentals of these doctrinal standards and, as a consequence, may not be able in good faith sincerely to receive and adopt the Confession of Faith and Catechisms of this Church as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures (cf. BCO 21-5, Q.2; 24-6, Q.2).
Therefore, in examining a candidate for ordination, the Presbytery shall inquire not only into the candidate’s knowledge and views in the areas specified above, but also shall require the candidate to state the specific instances in which he may differ with the Confession of Faith and Catechisms in any of their statements and/or propositions. The court may grant an exception to any difference of doctrine only if in the court’s judgment the candidate’s declared difference is not out of accord with any fundamental of our system of doctrine because the difference is neither hostile to the system nor strikes at the vitals of religion. (PCA, Book of Church Order, 21-4).
J. Gresham Machen was doomed from the start in the Northern church. A virus was inserted into the PCUSA’S denominational source code going back to the mid-late 19th century at least. Add to the doctrinal defects the denomination’s stranglehold on the property of local congregations and you have an inevitable outcome…unless the bad guys leave and take the hit. And how often does this happen?
He continues by quoting D. G. Hart and John Muether on Old School-New School Reunion and the Reunion of 1903. Brad asks,
That reunion was of the previously divided stick-in-the-mud Old Schoolers and go-go, revivalist New Schoolers. The question must be asked: Are the divides in the PCA of today just a repeat (or rhyming soundalike) of the Old School-New School contradictions?
He notes that Machen and Warfield disagreed on the proposed 1903 revisions to the (Westminster) Confession of Faith and concludes,
We can only speculate as to how he might view the de facto revisions of the PCA’s confession and catechisms due to the allowances of “good faith subscription.” One thing is for sure—despite the challenges of the day, PCA confessionalists stand on much firmer ground and have far better prospects than did Machen in the first three and half decades of the 20th century. Let us learn…and live.
It is speculation but it does not seem much of a stretch to think that Machen would have taken a rather dim view of the PCA’s decision to adopt a “Good Faith” approach to confessional subscription in 2002.
First, the very language of the BCO, on this point, as revised in 2002, contains ambiguous language. For example, the PCA says that candidates for ministry are not required to affirm “every statement or proposition” of the Standards, but rather it is the job of each presbytery to determine whether a candidate is “out of accord with any of the fundamentals of these doctrinal standards….” Who determines what is fundamental? Why are there non-fundamental truths in the Standards confessed by the church? Do all the presbyteries agree as to what are and are not fundamental to the Confession and Catechisms of the PCA? If not, how will the PCA avoid having as many confessions as there are presbyteries in the PCA? Predictably, it has not. In some presbyteries, a certain view of creation or the Christian Sabbath is regarded as “fundamental” while in other presbyteries, a candidate holding the very same view is regarded with suspicion.
Second, the very language of “good faith” subscription is, as David Strain has observed, “not especially helpful…since it nowhere appears in our Book of Church Order (BCO).” Further, according to Strain, only some candidates are regarded as subscribing in “good faith:” those who take exceptions. Those who do not are regarded with suspicion. He explains,
It is a mark of real spiritual division and doctrinal declension when a brother, who declares no differences with our stated doctrinal position, is being treated as suspect, and elders are rising to try to catch him out by finding undeclared exceptions that even he did not know he had! So much, at this point, for the practice of Good Faith Subscription!
He adds that it is odd that those who do not take exception are viewed with suspicion since the PCA as a church takes no exceptions. “Our Standards are presented to the world as the complete and official statement of our doctrine. This is what we teach. To agree with them wholly and without exception is surely only to say what we ought, ordinarily, to expect every elder to say, “I stand with the PCA.”
Third, there are essentially two ways to subscribe a confession:
- Quia, i.e., because it is biblical.
- Quatenus, i.e., insofar as it is biblical.
The original Reformation approach to confessional subscription was quia (because it is biblical). Sola Scriptura, which the churches confess(ed) in their confessional documents meant, in part, that the church had no authority to impose upon her members anything that Scripture itself does not impose. Gradually, however, the quatenus approach took hold in some quarters. It became especially popular among American Presbyterians. Among those who take this approach, are “strict” and “loose” subscriptionists, i.e., those who hold to more of the Standards and those who hold less. “Good faith” is on the loose end of the “insofar as” spectrum. For my part, in Recovering the Reformed Confession I tried to make a case for quia subscription.
“Good faith” is necessarily and unavoidably a subjective approach to a constitutional document. Imagine a candidate for a judicial appointment coming before a Senate committee who said that he held to the “fundamentals” of the United States Constitution but that he took exception to some language and sections. Would you trust that judge to protect your constitutionally guaranteed liberties? Is it not in the nature of a constitutional document to serve as an agreement between parties by which and under which they agree to live together? If a body is not sure what parts of the constitutional document are binding at any given time, by what are they being governed? One wonders why they do not simply write a document with which they can all agree. I argued for this position in RRC.
Is the PCA doomed? Only the Lord knows the future but to the degree “good faith” subscription creates an unwritten list of fundamentals within the Confession, which varies from presbytery to presbytery, then it is hard to see how the PCA will continue being a confessionally Reformed denomination. So long as the list of non-negotiable doctrines and practices is more extensive (not even co-extensive) among a majority of presbyteries, the PCA may reasonably expected to continue along some sort of confessional path. Because, however, confessional orthodoxy is subject to a majority vote in each presbytery, should the balance tip toward a shorter list of required doctrines and practices, the PCA will slide first into latitudinarian evangelicalism and then, finally, into the theological and practical liberalism. History tells us that much.
That outcome is not inevitable, however. Brad argues that PCA confessionalists are on firmer ground than their counterparts in the early 20th century. This is true but only marginally so. He nods to the difficulties entailed by “good faith” subscription, but I think “good faith” subscription is a potentially fatal disease that requires more than a nod. Now is the time for the PCA to choose to do the hard thing here by facing squarely the mistake it made in 2002 and by changing course 180 degrees. In the two decades since that decision, the trajectory of the “good faith” regime seems reasonably clear. Winsomeness and inclusivity may be good for church growth but to those virtues the PCA needs to add resolve and stoutness if she is to survive the cultural (and consequently theological and practical) storms that will batter the P&R churches in the coming decades.
©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.
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