Tuesday, November 30, 2010

A Church Without a Confession: Some Practical Reflections on “Good Faith” Subscription in the Presbyterian Church in America

By Ryan M. McGraw

I am not a pragmatist. I believe that practices should be rooted in principles derived from Scripture rather than from what “works” or what is helpful. Nevertheless, errant principles often manifest their true colors by creating untenable practical situations.  In 2002, the Presbyterian Church in America adopted what has been called “good faith” subscription.  This change in the church constitution has respect to what church officers in the PCA intend in their ordination vows when they promise to subscribe to or “receive and adopt” the system of doctrine contained in the Westminster Confession of Faith, Larger Catechism, and Shorter Catechism.  The practice of “good faith” subscription has been understood as legitimizing doctrinal and practical “exceptions” to the Presbyterian Standards by allowing individual presbyteries to determine what are or are not acceptable divergences from these Standards among her church officers.[1]  My contention in this article is that this practice has effectively abrogated the role of the Westminster Standards from being the public profession of faith of the PCA.  As a result, the PCA has become a church without a Confession of Faith.[2]

My aim is not to complain, to decry the evils of the denomination, to say “I told you so,” or to rehash old arguments for what is now largely regarded as a “lost cause.”  Rather, my design is to demonstrate that “good faith” subscription militates against the historic nature of Confessions of Faith and that adhering to this practice has effectively removed the Westminster Standards as a bond of trust and unity between church officers as well as between the PCA and churches adhering to the same doctrinal standards.  My hope is to enable readers to be aware of the practical effects of the present situation in the PCA in order to restore a sense of need for the historic uses and purposes of Creeds and Confessions.  My design is also to use the PCA as a case study that will be both illustrative and instructive to those in other denominations.  I am not pleading for the Westminster Standards per se (though I personally love and adhere to them as they stand), as much as for the necessity of church officers adopting a public Creed or Confession of Faith without reservations or exceptions.  I shall begin by rehearsing briefly the nature and purpose of Creeds and Confessions, and then I shall set forth some reasons why the current practice of the PCA is both unhealthy and untenable.

The Nature of Creeds and Confessions

Historically, the purpose of Creeds and Confessions has been to provide a summary of doctrines that a group of Christians professes to believe.  In Romans 10:9-10, we learn that as individual believers, we must both confess with our mouths and believe in our hearts that Jesus is Lord and that God raised him from the dead in order to be saved.  When any group of believers comes together, the question naturally arises, “Do we all intend and confess the same thing when we say that ‘Jesus is Lord.’”  In this question, believers must not only confess their faith to the world, but to one another in order to build a bond of trust and unity grounded in a common understanding of Scripture.[3]  There are two ways to approach this question.  First, the Church can decide what she means upon every individual occasion what the content of her public confession of faith is.  Second, the Church as a whole can carefully deliberate beforehand the manner in which she understands the doctrines of Scripture and commit her confession to writing.  In both cases the Church makes a public and corporate profession of faith that simultaneously serves as a public proclamation to the world as well as a common bond of trust or unity among those who are gathered together into one body.  Using a written confession (such as the Apostle’s Creed) affords a distinct advantage, since a written confession provides greater stability and requires more intentional deliberation than reinventing a common confession of faith “on the spot” whenever an appropriate occasion arises.[4]  Incidentally, John Owen and Thomas Goodwin added that Christ himself was the first “confessor” of the Church, who “witnessed the good confession before Pontius Pilate” (1 Tim. 6:13).[5]

A Confession of Faith, therefore, is a written summary of doctrines that are held in common by a definite body of believers for the purpose of together confessing with their mouths what they believe in their hearts.  The earliest Confessions of Faith arose in order to tie believers more closely together as well as to distinguish what they professed in common from various errors.  The most basic example is the confession of the Church that “Jesus is Lord” (1 Cor. 12:3).  1 Corinthians 15:1-11 is a more detailed example of a summary of the Church’s confession of faith.  Paul provided a summary of the gospel that he had preached and that the Church had believed in order to clarify the truth and to distance the Church from the error of those who denied the resurrection of Christ from the dead.  1 Timothy 2:16 is another example of a biblical Confession of Faith.[6]  In post-apostolic history, the Church continued the apostolic practice of producing summaries of doctrines that the Church professed in common.  The so-called Apostle’s Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Definition of Chalcedon, and the Athanasian Creed exemplify this.  The councils of the Middle Ages, the Creeds and Catechisms of the Reformation, and even the counter-Reformation Council of Trent continued to build upon this practice.

The nature of Creeds and Confessions is to be subscribed to without equivocation or reservation.[7]  If Paul asked anyone in Corinth whether or not 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 represented his or her Confession of Faith, it would be unacceptable to say, “I generally adhere to these things.”  A Confession of Faith must of necessity begin with the words, “I believe . . .”  In the former instance, the document loses its character as a Confession of Faith and becomes a doctrinal summary of what someone else believes instead of that which a group of believers holds in common.  Creeds and Confessions of Faith establish a bond of unity and trust among the members and officers of a church body.  The level of agreement required differs with respect to Church members at large and Church officers.  In the PCA, the five Church membership vows listed in the Book of Church Order serve as a brief public Confession of Faith upon which the congregation trusts that newly admitted members hold in common with it the basic tenets of the gospel as well as the same commitments to that particular church body (BCO 57-5).  Since Church officers are charged with leading and instructing the Church in the whole counsel of God, a much more detailed Confession of Faith is required, including doctrines and practices which distinguish the collective conscience of one denomination from others, even in matters that do not strike at the heart of the gospel.[8]

Our forefathers have appropriately judged the status of churches by the contents of their Confessions of Faith.  The documents of the Roman Catholic counter-Reformation Council of Trent have given Protestant Churches an objective reason for asserting that the Roman Catholic Church is not a true Church of Jesus Christ.  If an individual professedly denies justification by faith alone in Christ alone, then we must justly conclude that by profession he is not a believer in Christ.  If a Church does the same thing in her corporate Confession of Faith, then that Church is no true Church, even if some within her pale do not hold to her Confession.[9]  It is unacceptable as well for a church to assert that it adheres to the teaching of the Bible, while refusing to provide a summary of what it thinks the Bible teaches.  James Bannerman has aptly noted:
The language of Scripture is the best language to express God’s mind.  But it does not follow from this that it is the best language to express my mind, even although I may mean to express to another man, so that there shall be no misunderstanding between us, the very same truths which God has expressed.  With the change in the meaning of language which takes place from age to age, with the different interpretations actually put upon the terms of Scripture by multitudes, with the various and even opposite senses which reason, or prejudice, or error has made to be associated with its phraseology; the very words of the Bible may not be the best words to declare my mind and belief to another man, so that betwixt him and me there shall be no equivocation, or reservation, or guile. . . . The Church may take the Bible into its hand, and hold it up to the view of the world as the one profession of its faith; but in doing so it is merely exhibiting the mind of God, not declaring its own (I, 297-298).[10]
 
Creeds and Confessions of Faith are necessary to maintain the peace and the purity of the Church.  Just as they are designed to express what is held in common among a group of believers, so if the members of the group in question do not subscribe to the Confession of Faith en toto, then the Confession has lost both its nature and its proper function.

The Impracticality of “Good Faith” Subscription

In the beginning of this article, I made the assertion that the PCA has become a Church without a Confession of Faith.  I do not intend this to be a derogatory statement as much as a description, for better or for worse, of the current status of the PCA.  In the mother denomination of the PCA (the PCUS), the Confession of Faith was initially amended to reflect the changing sides of doctrinal sentiment.  Eventually, when the tide had shifted too far, the Westminster Standards were simply ignored.[11]  Ever since the American Presbyterian Church adopted the Westminster Standards in 1789, her officers have sincerely received and adopted the system of doctrine contained in the Westminster Confession of Faith and Larger and Shorter Catechisms.  As John Murray explained, “It was not simply the system of doctrine that was adopted but the Confession and Catechisms themselves”.[12]  At least six practical observations demonstrate why I have suggested that the PCA has become a Church without a Confession of Faith.

First, the Westminster Standards have become a mere starting point for discussion, rather than a common profession of unity among ministers.  When someone subscribes to a Confession of Faith, they are not pronouncing an exhaustive statement of all that they believe.  What they are saying is that although they may believe more than what is contained in the Standards, yet they do not believe less than what is contained in the Standards.  The Westminster divines, for instance, allowed leeway for differing views regarding the nature of the millennium, the logical order of God’s decrees i.e., supra- and infra-lapsarianism), and the origin of the individual soul (i.e., traducianism or creationism).  However, “good faith” subscription proceeds on the assumptions that ministers and ministerial candidates hold to less than what is contained in the Standards.  The first half of the ordination vow regarding subscription has remained the same in continuity with the historic American Presbyterian formula: “I receive and adopt the system of doctrine contained in” the Westminster Standards.  A new clause has been added in which a minister promises that if at any time he discovers that he is out of accord with the “fundamentals” of that system of doctrine, then he shall make his views known to his presbytery.  Since the denomination has not provided a list of these “fundamentals,” presumably each individual minister must decide for himself what they are.  Moreover, candidates for licensure and ordination are given the same flexibility on the front end.  The difference is that the presbytery requires (in theory) full disclose of all differences with the Standards prior to examination.

Discussion begins with the Westminster Standards, but the presbytery ultimately decides which portions of these documents the candidate may omit.  The practical effect of this procedure is that each presbytery individually determines the content of the Creed insofar as it applies to that particular presbytery.  If a candidate, for instance, takes “exception” to portions of chapter 21 (“Religious Worship and the Sabbath Day”) as well as to Larger Catechism 109 respecting images of Christ, his differences may not deny the “fundamentals” of the system of doctrine contained in the Standards, but neither does he actually subscribe to the Creed itself.  When this candidate vows that he sincerely receives and adopts the system of doctrine contained in the Westminster Standards, what he intends is that he receives an undefined system of doctrine that is contained within those Standards, yet which is not equivalent to the Standards.  As the excerpt above from John Murray illustrates, this was not the original intent of these words.  This modified intention is effectively equivalent to, “I generally adhere to what these documents teach,” rather than, “I believe that these documents represent a summary of the doctrines that I believe upon the authority of Scripture.”  It is puzzling that men can hold this position and affirm that they subscribe to the doctrinal Standards of the Presbyterian Church, when we recognize that we cannot apply this procedure to any other Creed.  If we refuse to confess the Apostle’s Creed or the Nicene Creed corporately without reservation, we have implicitly severed ourselves from any semblance of unity based upon the content of those documents.[13]

Second, presbyteries redefine the standards for doctrinal unity among ministers as often as new candidates for the ministry are examined.  This has already been stated to some extent in the preceding paragraph, but it deserves to be evaluated separately.  There is not set body of doctrine by which ministerial candidates must be judged, but all things are potentially in flux.  The Westminster Confession of Faith no longer needs to be changed in order to circumvent its role as a Creed.  Presbyteries may be consistent with respect to the “exceptions” that they allow or disallow . . . for a time.  Ultimately, however, doctrinal leeway among ministers provides a mechanism for diversity without any definite parameters.  In a sense, each presbytery and, by extension, the denomination as a whole, has become like a construction worker who tries to build a house with a flexible tape measure.  Occasionally he may come out with the same measurement more than once, but the results always potentially differ every time.  This does not imply that adhering to an established set of doctrinal Standards is a sure means of preserving the purity and the peace of the Church.  Only conviction wedded with a heart-felt piety among ministers will accomplish this.  Yet without established doctrinal Standards, how can a denomination know which convictions professedly stand behind the piety of her ministers?

Many advocates of “good faith” subscription will object to the idea that the doctrinal Standard in the PCA is in flux.  After all, the substance of the Westminster Confession and Catechisms remains unchanged.  However, the following dialogue illustrates the difficulties of the present situation.   

Suppose a visitor asks a PCA minister what doctrines his denomination adheres to (a question that I receive frequently).  The minister replies, “The Westminster Confession of Faith as well as the Larger and Shorter Catechisms, with some exceptions.”   

Visitor: “Which exceptions do you have in mind?”   

Minister: “I am not exactly sure. You see, every presbytery decides which exceptions they will allow.”  

Visitor: “What do you believe?”   

Minister: “I believe the system of doctrine contained in the Westminster Standards.”   

Visitor: “With or without exception?”  

Minister: “Without exception.”   

Visitor: “A friend of mine is visiting a PCA congregation in another city.  Does the minister of that congregation take exceptions to your doctrinal Standards?”  

Minister: “I am not sure.”   

Visitor: “What possible exceptions should I be aware of?”   

Minister: “Again, I an not exactly sure.”   

Visitor: “I thought that you said that your denomination adheres to the Westminster Standards, yet you do not know which parts of those Standards your fellow-ministers believe or disbelieve.  How can you say that these are your doctrinal Standards?  It sounds to me as though each presbytery decides what they allow their ministers to believe.”  

Sometimes it takes the simple questioning of a person who is uninitiated into the practices of the PCA to expose the tenuous nature of her current practices regarding subscription to her Standards.

Third, “good faith” subscription dissolves any denomination-wide standard for ministerial unity and trust, as well as undermines a stable profession of faith and practice to the world.   It is not simply that this practice threatens the unity of the PCA.  “Good faith” subscription resulted, in many respects, from pre-existent disunity with the PCA.[14]  The change in subscription vows reflected an attempt to promote unity among men of similar views who disagreed upon less essential points of doctrine.  The result, however, has left ministers wondering what fellow ministers in sister presbyteries believe.  “Good faith” subscription has effectively removed any definable standard for unity and cooperation in ministry among ministers in the PCA.  For instance, a minister I know takes exception to the stance of the PCA Standards against Paedocommunion.  He has ministered in several presbyteries within the denomination.  On three separate occasions, a local church solicited him to consider serving as their pastor.  The first two times, he replied that the presbytery in question would not accept him with his views on children at the Lord’s Table.  At the time, his perception was correct.  However, the constituency of the presbytery changed gradually and he was eventually accepted as a minister within its bounds.  Ironically, “good faith” subscription legitimized the right of presbyteries to admit this man to the ministry, if they so chose.  Yet the same “good faith” subscription created uncertainty with regard to his ability to transfer from one presbytery to another within the same denomination.  Does he hold to the Standards of the PCA or not?  Even more to the point, does the PCA have any standard by which it can judge ministerial qualifications?

The case would be different if the PCA subscribed to a curtailed version of the Westminster Standards, or to some other Confession of Faith that her ministers could agree upon.  Instead we have an undefined Creed, which in practice amounts to no Creed.  The issues that the PCA faces are not as simple as whether or not one believes in recreation on the Sabbath, images of Christ, the regulative principle of worship, or even Federal Vision theology.[15]  The merits or demerits of individual portions of the Confession are not the question.  One presbytery may accept all of these views, another may reject them all, and still others may accept some while rejecting others.  If our forefathers declared the Roman Catholic Church to be no true church of Jesus Christ on the basis of its Creed and Confession of Faith, by what Standard should other churches judge the PCA?  No appeal can be made to the Westminster Standards.  One presbytery may uphold justification by faith, while another denies it, but what does the denomination believe and profess to the world?  Many believe that this situation has already occurred with respect to the different manner in which PCA presbyteries have dealt with proponents of Federal Vision.  In 2007, a study committee of the General Assembly found that Federal Vision theology was out of accord with the fundamentals of the system of doctrine contained in the Westminster Standards.  The committee stated, “That the General Assembly recommend the declarations in this report as a faithful exposition of the Westminster Standards, and further reminds those ruling and teaching elders whose views are out of accord with our Standards of their obligation to make known to their courts any differences in their views.”[16]  Some presbyteries have pressed the results of this committee, while others have weighed them and found them wanting.  The ruling of each presbytery has superseded and replaced the doctrinal Standards of the Church.

Fourth, doctrinal exceptions to a public Creed or Confession of Faith potentially hinder the consciences and undermine the integrity of ministers.  The case of Paedocommunion helps illustrate this point well.  While reading the last section above, some were doubtless thinking that the PCA does enforce a definite position with regard to Paedocommunion.  Men with this “exception” are permitted to minister in a PCA congregation as long as they do not practice what they believe.[17]  This situation is harmful both to individual ministers as well as to the denomination as a whole.  In his case, he never has assurance that he will be accepted as a minister in a sister presbytery.  In the case of the denomination, the flexibility allowed with respect to Paedocommunion serves as a declaration that this Church has no position on this issue.  It is true that these men are often not allowed to practice their exceptions to the Standards of the Church, yet the essence of holiness before God is obeying the principles of the Father’s Law from the heart, out of sincere love to Christ and trust in his grace, with dependence upon the work of the Holy Spirit.  We must be doers of the Word and not hearers only (Jas. 1:22).  “Good faith” subscription admits men into the ministry, in this case at least, on the condition that they may be hearers of God’s Word (as they understand it, mistakenly I believe) as long as they are not doers.  How is it tenable for a Christian minister to undermine the heart and soul of his piety in order to train others in righteousness and integrity in his role as a minister of the gospel?  Ironically, subscription to Creeds and Confessions of Faith has been accused of unlawfully restricting the consciences of believers.[18]  However, PCA congregations take vows upon the election of their ministers that they shall “receive the Word of truth from his mouth with meekness and love” (BCO 21-6, Q. 2).  The Westminster documents are elsewhere described as “standard expositions of the teachings of Scripture in relation to both faith and practice” (29-1).  When ministers sincerely receive and adopt the system of doctrine contained in the Westminster Standards, this provision is designed to protect rather than hinder liberty of conscience within the church.  Fully adopting the Standards makes the minister an open book and the congregation both knows what to expect from him and promises him freedom to preach within well-defined limits. 

Fifth, “Good faith” subscription provides an unconventional means of amending the Confession of Faith and Book of Church Order.  Building once again upon the instance of Paedocommunion, if presbyteries admit candidates to the ministry with this “exception” to their Standards, then the presbytery is admitting at the outset that her present practices are expendable.  Men who hold views that differ from the Westminster Standards and the Book of Church Order can potentially gain a majority within the denomination and lawfully vote to change the Standards without ever saying a word.  If the ministers of the PCA change their views, there is a procedure in place to amend the Confession of Faith and Catechisms.  It is not necessary to gain a three-fourths vote by those who hold to the view in question.  What is required is that three-fourths of the General Assembly, three-fourths of the presbyteries in the denomination, and then a subsequent General Assembly agree by vote to change the practice of the PCA.  So, for instance, the PCA does not have to adopt a position in favor of Paedocommunion in order to agree to allow the practice in the denomination.

The present diversity within the PCA has already created substantial difficulty at this point.  It is one thing to assert that presbyteries have the right to decide what portions of the Westminster Standards shall be enforced.  It is another matter entirely when the denomination as a whole comes together to act collectively in a General Assembly.  In this scenario, we soon discover that if a denomination is partly defined by its Confession of Faith, then there are as many mini-denominations within the PCA as there are presbyteries.  The Stated Clerk of one presbytery once lamented to me that when the PCA General Assembly appointed the committee to study Federal Vision, there was not a fair representation of proponents of or sympathizers towards Federal Vision.  The argument is that since our presbyteries have already admitted these men into the denomination, these men should be fairly represented on committees when their views are brought into question.  This situation creates a double dilemma.  If Federal Vision proponents are excluded from the committee, then there is a presumption that the Westminster Standards do not teach baptismal regeneration, affirm the perseverance of the saints, adhere to the invisible/visible Church distinction, require a conceptual distinction between faith and works as means of salvation, and that these Standards are the bar by which Federal Vision is to be measured.  If Federal Vision sympathizers are included in the committee, then it is presupposed that their views do not strike at the fundamentals of the system of doctrine and that they are competent to be judges in their own case.  The presence of these men in the PCA is already a judgment that Federal Vision theology is either in accord with the Westminster Standards or that the sections of the Confession that address these matters, though not amended, have already been laid aside.

Sixth, this practice dismantles an agreed upon denomination-wide standard for Church discipline.  The PCA Book of Church Order explicitly states that the Holy Scriptures alone are the rule governing Church discipline and Church censures and that this standard should be interpreted in light of the Westminster Confession of Faith and Larger and Shorter Catechisms (BCO 29-1).  What should happen, however, if one minister brings a charge against another minister on the basis of these Standards, and the accused minister replies, “My presbytery allowed me to take exception to that doctrine or practice?”  The bond of unity has been removed, the foundation of trust has been demolished, and the results of Church discipline have become potentially arbitrary and unpredictable.

In a Presbyterian or Reformed denomination, agreement over a set form of doctrinal Standards is, perhaps, more necessary than in other ecclesiastical affiliations.  Elders share joint rule and responsibilities in the higher courts of the Church.  In order to work together consistently and effectively, it is all the more necessary to agree beforehand upon a settled statement of what the Bible teaches.  Even in the broadest ecumenical ventures (for instance, Evangelicals and Catholics Together), subscribing to a document that sets forth common beliefs forms the basis of unity and cooperation.  The strength of cooperative ministry stands or falls in proportion to how many participants genuinely adhere to the stated terms of unity.  How can a denomination achieve cooperation in ministry and discipline at the level of the Church courts when there is no settled and agreed-upon Standard?

Conclusion

In light of the above arguments, what should we learn from the present situation of the Presbyterian Church in America?  First, in order for a Creed or Confession of faith to serve its intended purposes, the officers of the Church must adhere to that Creed without reservation.  May the Lord grant that all denominations would see the importance of upholding their Creeds, and may he grant as well that the PCA would see the dangers created by undercutting the status of her doctrinal Standards!  Second, in order for a Church to maintain unity in the truth, that Church must subscribe to a summary of the truth in addition to Scripture itself.  If a Church claims to believe in the exclusive authority of Scripture while never summarizing how it understands certain doctrines from the Scriptures, then that Church can never be satisfied that all of its officers are speaking the same things (1 Cor. 1:10).  Third, no Confession of Faith is infallible and unalterable.  Instead of allowing undefined “exceptions” to the doctrinal Standards of the Church, the Church ought to change the Confession to reflect agreed upon terms of unity.  Or, as Ward has urged, “exceptions to the Confession, if they are to be allowed at all, ought only to be a list specifically approved by the supreme court of the denomination concerned, so as to prevent mistrust, factions, and arbitrary actions by presbyteries, and to ensure safeguards arising from wrong inferences.”[19]  Fourth, the best means of preserving the doctrinal Standards of a Church is to hold to believe from the heart that form of doctrine that it has received (Rom. 6:17).  In particular, let us re-establish the doctrines of our Confession upon the foundation of Holy Scripture for each generation, and let us teach the next generation to love our Confession because they have learned to confess its truths at the feet of Jesus Christ!  Unless our Confession is rooted in our hearts because it is based upon the Word of God, then it will not remain the common Confession of our mouths.

A Church without a Confession of Faith is like a Christian without a confession of faith.  We must confess with the mouth what we believe in our hearts (Rom. 10:9-10).  If an individual believer continually changes his or her profession of the Christian faith, then we are justly concerned with respect to his or her stability as a Christian.  “Good faith” subscription weakens the bond of trust between ministers of the gospel as well as between presbyteries within the same denomination.  Whether or not we can all agree upon the contents of the Westminster Standards is one question.  Whether or not we have a Confession of Faith uniting our ministers in their profession of faith and practice at all is another matter entirely.  In practice, the Presbyterian Church in America has removed the viability of retaining the Westminster Standards as a summary of what her ordained officers adhere to.  The strength of the Church is always correlative to the piety and the sincerity of her ministers.  Without these things, the most biblically sound Confession of Faith shall never be able to maintain the unity of the Church and, most importantly, the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in her worship and work.  Yet many ministers in this world are both pious and sincere who are not Presbyterian.  “Good faith” subscription leaves us with the question, “What does the PCA believe?”  The PCA has become, if not in name yet in effect, a Church without a Confession.



[1] The amended section of BCO 21-4 declares: “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; 24-5, 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 FaithCatechisms 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 a fundamental of our system of doctrine because the difference is neither hostile to the system nor strikes at the vitals of religion.”
 [2] The Church of Scotland made similar changes to her subscription vows in 1926 and 1929 to state: “I believe in the fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith contained in the Confession of Faith of this Church.”  Much like the PCA, a body of undefined “fundamentals” within the Confession began to be treated as the standard for the ordination of ministers rather than subscription to the Confession itself.  The purpose of this change was to justify the inroads of liberalism and higher criticism in the Scottish Church.  Rowland Ward commented, “Despite an appearance of orthodoxy and continuity with the past in the Articles, they and preceding changes showed a marked departure from a confessional church as historically understood.”  Rowland S. Ward, “Subscription to the Confession,” in, The Westminster Confession of Faith into the 21st Century (Geanies House, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 2009), 108.
[3] “The church is bound to be a confessing church, bound to subscribe a statement of what she believes Scripture teaches.”  Ward, “Subscription,” 80.
[4] See James Bannerman, The Church of Christ, I, 299.  See also William Dunlop, The Uses of Creeds and Confessions of Faith, ed. James Buchanan (Edinburgh: Johnstone, Hunter, and Company, 1857), 121-122.  I have found Bannerman and Dunlop to be the clearest treatments of Creeds and Confessions of Faith that I have come across.  Bannerman based his own treatment of the doctrine upon Dunlop’s larger text.
[5] A. G. Matthews, The Savoy Declaration of Faith and Church Order, 1658 (London: Independent Press, Ltd., 1959), 51.
[6] For a full examination of biblical uses of Creeds and Confessions, see John H. Skilton, ed., Scripture and Confession (Philipsburg: P&R Publishing, 1973).
[7] Contra Peter A. Lillback, who has argued that that we should never adopt a humanly composed confession of faith without the qualification, “in so far as.”  Peter A. Lillback, “Confessional Subscription Among the Sixteenth Century Reformers,” in David W. Hall, ed., The Practice of Confessional Subscription (Oak Ridge, TN: The Covenant Foundation, 2001), 45-46.  Ward demonstrates excellently that reserved subscription to a creed is both at odds with the example of Scripture as well as the historical precedent of the Presbyterian Church.  Ward, “Subscription,” 77-138.  He who subscribes to a confession of faith is not subscribing to the exact words in which that confession expresses each doctrine, but to the doctrines of the confession itself in toto.
[8] William Dunlop even suggests that there ought to be a gradation of details in the common confession of ministers, elders, and deacons.  With respect to deacons, his reasoning is that since the deacons are not responsible for the teaching ministry of the Church yet they still represent the Church, they should not be held to as strict of a standard as teaching and ruling elders, but that more should be required from them than the membership at large.  Dunlop, Uses of Creeds, 75.  Of course, in order to retain the nature of Creeds and Confessions, a denomination as a whole must agree upon a common confession at every level.  For this reason, an overture that was sent to the PCA General Assembly in 2008 requesting that individual congregations be given leeway to reword or redefine the vows respecting church membership would have potentially destroyed the bond of unity between individual congregations in the PCA.
[9] John Calvin had no hesitation in declaring that Rome had lost its status as a true branch of the Church of Jesus Christ, yet he also asserted that he had no doubt that some men and women would continue to come to faith in Christ within that organization through what few remnants of Scripture remained there.  Institutes, book IV.  However, this would be in spite of Rome’s teaching rather than through it.
[10] “Confessions of Faith are not immediately designed to give an account of what the Holy Ghost says concerning such an article, but of what such a person or church believes; and so the words of a Creed or Confession are not expressions of the will of the Holy Ghost, but of our faith, and of the mind of the subscriber.”  Dunlop, Uses of Creeds, 141.
[11] For a well-documented account of these changes and a passionate plea to return to the Westminster Standards, see Smith, Morton H., How is the Gold Become Dim: The Decline of the Presbyterian Church U.S., as Reflected in its Assembly Actions. 2nd edition. (Jackson, MS: Steering Committee for the Continuing Presbyterian Church, 1973).
[12] John Murray, “Creed Subscription in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.,” in Morton H. Smith, The Case for Full Subscription to the Westminster Standards in the Presbyterian Church in America (Greenville, SC: GPTS Press, 1992), 83.
[13] The Eastern Orthodox Church has recognized this with respect to the Nicene Creed.  The difference of the single phrase, “and from the son” (filioque) in the Western version of the Creed constitutes a difference in doctrine on a point that the Greek Orthodox cannot adhere to in “good faith.”
[14] When “good faith” subscription was adopted, the following claims were listed among the reasons for changing BCO 21-4: “And, whereas there is a longstanding traditionMinutes of the Twenty-First General Assembly, cf. pp. 89 and 149 with pp. 146 and 166-168); And, whereas the General Assembly of the PCA did not declare itself to be a Strict-subscriptionist Church in the joining and receiving process with the Reformed Presbyterian Church Evangelical Synod in 1982;” “And, whereas the inclusion of a Good-faith subscription statement in our Book of Church Order is needed to state explicitly what has been the understanding and practice of the majority of the PCA from its beginning.” (emphasis added).  My purpose is not to assess the truth or the falsehood of these claims.  Rightly or wrongly, the rationale given for the changes made to BCO 21-4 simply affirm that there was a pre-existent disunity in the PCA. within American Presbyterianism, including the PCA, that officers may in good faith take exception to certain particulars of the Westminster Standards, if such particular exceptions are not inimical (i.e. hostile or injurious) to the more comprehensive system of doctrine;” “And, whereas the assertion that the PCA was consciously founded as a Strict-subscriptionist Church in 1973 cannot be sustained (
[15] For a defense of the Confessional view of recreation on the Sabbath see Ryan M. McGraw, The Day of Worship: Re-evaluating the Christian Life in Light of the Sabbath  For images of Christ, see Daniel R. Hyde, In Living Color (Wyoming, MI: The Reformed Fellowship, 2009).  For an understanding and defense of the classic expression of the “regulative principle of worship,” see D. G. Hart and John R. Muether, With Reverence and Awe: Returning to the Basics of Reformed Worship (Philipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2002).  For a useful introduction to the complex issues involved in Federal Vision theology, see Guy Prentiss Waters, The Federal Vision and Covenant Theology: A Comparative Analysis (Philipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2006). (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, forthcoming).
[16] Minutes of the 34th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America, 2236.
[17] Often Presbyteries add restrictions against teaching this exception.  However, as Rowland Ward has noted, if exceptions are allowed, then ministers must be allowed to teach their exceptions in order to maintain integrity: “Matters that are allowed as exceptions may be expressed publicly – since the WCF (22.7) rightly forbids vows not to teach something one regards as the teaching of the word of God.”  Ward, “Subscription,” 129.
[18] See J. Bannerman, Church of Christ, I, 313-315; Dunlop, Uses of Creeds, 81-106.
[19] Ward, “Subscription,” 129.  Ward practical conclusions regarding the proper use of Confessions are well worth consulting (125-132).  It should also be remembered that a “strict” subscription position requires subscription to all of the doctrines and articles of the Confession of Faith, without asserting that these doctrines have been expressed in their best possible form.  “Scruples” to language are allowable.