This is My Father’s World

WP_20180506_12_37_04_Pro (2)Why are there so few hymns that express a properly biblical, creational theology? That’s the positively-framed counterpoint to another question: why is it that so many of our hymns express an unbiblical, pseudo-gnostic theology? J. Richard Middleton, early on in his excellent book A New Heaven and a New Earth, has a section entitled ‘Singing Lies in Church,’ which highlights this latter problem. Middleton picks out such perennial favourites as ‘Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,’ ‘Away in a Manger,’ ‘My Jesus I Love Thee,’ and ‘Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone).’ All these hymns, Middleton is absolutely right to point out, contain material that blatantly contradicts the Bible’s holistic vision of salvation. You could add ‘Abide with Me’: which contains the bewildering prayer ‘point me to the skies’; and ‘Great is the Gospel,’ an otherwise great hymn that speaks of longing ‘for greater joys than to the earth belong.’ Creational Christianity understands that the greatest joys that are possible for humanity are intended, in God’s redemptive purpose, to be earthly joys.

There aren’t that many thoroughly creational hymns, but recently I came across one that was previously unknown to me: ‘This is My Father’s World’ by Maltbie Babcock. Babcock was a Presbyterian minister in New York state at the beginning of the 20th century. The hymn is truly wonderful, and its outlook is a thoroughgoing expression not only of the beauty and goodness of God’s world, but of a biblical and holistic hope for its redemption. It expresses the truth of John 3:16-17 – that God loves the world, and has sent his Son Jesus Christ not to condemn it, but that it might be saved.

This is my Father’s world,
And to my listening ears
All nature sings, and round me rings
The music of the spheres.
This is my Father’s world:
I rest me in the thought
Of rocks and trees, of skies and seas;
His hand the wonders wrought.

This is my Father’s world,
The birds their carols raise,
The morning light, the lily white,
Declare their maker’s praise.
This is my Father’s world:
He shines in all that’s fair;
In the rustling grass I hear Him pass;
He speaks to me everywhere.

This is my Father’s world.
O let me ne’er forget
That though the wrong
Seems oft so strong,
God is the ruler yet.
This is my Father’s world:
The battle is not done:
Jesus who died shall be satisfied,
And earth and Heav’n be one.

This is my Father’s world,
Why should my heart be sad?
The lord is King—let the heavens ring.
God reigns—let the earth be glad.

Watch it sung (with a great arrangement) at Willow Creek Church in Chicago here.

The Cult of Success: Cycling & The Church


Over the last couple of years I’ve been following with interest the difficulties of British Cycling and Team Sky. Well, with more than interest. With, too, a sense of uncomfortable familiarity from a different facet of life – the church. But first, the important business of cycling…

I think anyone who remotely loves cycling will be aware of its difficult relationship with, well, let’s call it ‘cheating’. Of course, it’s a little more complex than that, but whether it’s amphetamines, EPO or needle-injected vitamins, cycling’s governing body the UCI has seen fit to outlaw behaviour that’s judged undesirable, dangerous, or immoral in the context of sport. When you look back over the historical heroics, the epics, the blood, sweat and gears of the sport of cycling, especially the Grand Tours, it’s very difficult to disentangle the grime, the sordid truth of doping, from these wonderful stories. The stories become almost mythic, and we want to believe the almost super-human achievements. And the truth is too uncomfortable to acknowledge because it spoils and sullies the story, and destroys all we’ve hoped in.

The rise of ‘clean’ teams has to be welcomed by every cycling fan. I recently read David Millar’s autobiographical Ride of My Life, including his account of the catharsis of telling the truth about his own doping, in a world that didn’t really want to hear it (especially in the aftermath of the Festina affair). Millar’s part in establishing Garmin-Slipstream as a clean, ethical racing team is a wonderful part of his own story of redemption. Of course, since then, cycling fans have been left disbelieving and demoralised by the exposé of Lance Armstrong’s ‘clean’ team.

I watched the excellent film The Program a few months ago. Armstrong told such a complex, forceful story that no-one dared question it. Armstrong was a charismatic hero, who’d survived cancer, and he wove this part of his experience into a facade that was virtually impossible to puncture. The whole of cycling, including the UCI, desperately wanted to believe a story of redemption, a story of ‘clean’ heroism. Yet this desperation for redemption, this desperation for a good and heroic story of success, enabled Armstrong to continue his bullying, and his unbelievably cynical and systematic program of doping, across the whole of the core of the US Postal team. The story is absolutely fascinating.

And now, of course, we have British Cycling and Team Sky. British Cycling has been the focus of UK Sport’s relentless search for Olympic medal success. But it’s gradually becoming clear that everyone was so keen to believe the story of success that the story itself became a facade, and behind it lay a culture of bullying, fear, and sexism. The close links with Team Sky, another self-proclaimed ‘clean team’, couples all of this with doubts about the integrity of the whole set-up, with stories of needle-injection, systematic use of steroids, unexplained jiffy bags and lost laptops muddying (conveniently) the waters. Chris Froome’s failed salbutamol test is only the latest in a line of half-revelations.

For a long time, this was all hidden behind the aura projected by Team Sky’s big-budget propaganda (it’s Murdoch money, I’m sure you know). It’s the aura of success, so powerfully hopeful and heroic. Like the UK Olympic story, Brits desperately wanted to believe it – from the top down – and so no-one scrutinised the set-up. In fact, the Guardian has reported that, when the cracks started appearing, UK Sport told the governance body to ‘go easy’ on British Cycling, because “that’s where the medals come from.”  And something ugly, dis-spiriting, and hypocritical was allowed to grow behind the facade. Just as with Armstrong, those with doubts either dismissed them or kept them to themselves over a long period of time. After all, there was success. But that’s the problem – the Cult of Success, at any price. Let’s be honest, it’s what’s ruining sport, across the board.

Then you have pro-cyclist Emma Pooley’s comments about fish rotting from the head. All it takes is a certain type of person: an Armstrong, a Brailsford, a Sutton; a driven, probably narcissistic leader who has bought in completely to the Cult of Success. They construct a facade through their charisma, usually with the help of one or two other hard-grafters who back their project, suspend their integrity, and bask in some kind of reflected glory. Add in an ability to consistently, unflinchingly and relentlessly project the narrative of success, and all doubters will doubt themselves, hold their tongues, sit on their hands. Good people will do nothing, because of the very real fear of recriminations – it’s extremely hard to challenge a story that everyone is so desperate to believe.

Bullying, deception, and cynical manipulation prosper behind such a facade of success.   Whether it’s cycling as a sport, desperate for a story of redemption, or UK Sport throwing big money at a story that needs resurrecting – the story of a powerful, successful Britain – the desperate need for hope, for something good, keeps the truth buried in a grave dug for it by hypocrisy and cynicism. And, people get damaged –  pretty badly damaged, if you read Jess Varnish’s story, and the story of Josh Edmondson – by the injustice of it all.

I don’t really have to explain to people in churches that there’s an uncomfortable allegory in all of the above. Christians know that the church isn’t really prospering – in the West it’s a story of decline, of faded glory. And so the church is desperately searching for its own narratives of redemption, of hope, of validity. The siren call of the Cult of Success falls on longing ears. That’s why apparent stories of success in various congregations are writ large, emblazened across social media, eulogised – all with little scrutiny.

Just as in the world of cycling, these stories often hide ugly realities of fish rotting from the head. Doubters sit on their hands, truth-tellers are cold-shouldered, and victims of bullying stay silent. The Big Story continues to grow; the Cult of Success tightens its grip. When someone does speak out to somebody with the authority to act, they’re so often told: “go easy, that’s where the medals come from.”

The fact that churches seek validity through success is desperately sad. It’s usually to do with church leaders personally buying into the Cult of Success, and seeking their own validity through success. And that’s a fundamental denial of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which is the only narrative of redemption we need, or should be telling. Professional sport in the age of mass-media and big money is fertile ground for the Cult of Success. The church ought to be a different type of soil. But until church leaders reject the Cult of Success nothing will change. Until churches embrace Gospel humility, rather than self-proclaiming their ‘successes’; until churches embrace Gospel honesty rather than engaging in cover-ups to try to protect their ‘reputation’, the show will sadly go on.


‘[I]f pastors are not ‘up to the job’ of distilling and understanding the writings of scholars in various disciplines, how will our laypeople do it? This is one of the things that parishioners want from their pastors. We are to be a bridge between the world of scholarship and the world of the street and the pew. I’m aware of what a burden this is. I don’t know that there has ever been a culture in which the job of the pastor has been more challenging. Nevertheless, I believe this is our calling.’

Tim Keller, ‘Creation, Evolution and Christian Laypeople’

Inauthentic Church

“The last ten or fifteen years, hospitality has been the buzzword for evangelism or church planting, as a way of getting people in the door. A tool, you could say. A trick, you could say. Where it’s like, ‘Don’t you want to be one of us? Aren’t we cool?’ … Hospitality isn’t a trick, it’s not a tool. It has to be genuine. It has to be authentic.”  Pointed, but insightful comment from Jayme Reaves, author of Safeguarding the Stranger speaking on Nomad Podcast N166.

The Decline of Christianity in Scotland (and Wales)

emptychurchAn article by Andy Hunter (Scotland Director of FIEC) in July’s Evangelicals Now seeks to explain the ‘spectacular spiritual decline’ in Scotland. The piece (an expanded piece can be found on Hunter’s blog) sets out several reasons why the decline in Christianity north of the Boarder seems to have been greater than that seen in England. Some of the reasons Hunter gives seem to make a lot of sense, such as the higher levels of immigration to England from Christian countries (particularly seen in London), or the infamous factionalism within Scottish Presbyterianism, which has undoubtedly turned many people from the Church.

Other reasons seem more tenuous, particularly Hunter’s quite striking claim that a greater proportion of Independent churches in England has slowed decline south of the Border.

One thing to be clear on from the start is that the measure that Andy Hunter is dealing with is self-declared religious affiliation (from the 2015 British Election Survey (BES)). That means that we’re not measuring faith, or church attendance, but something which is a cipher for the place of Christianity in the national consciousness or psyche. Or perhaps a measure of how many people identify, however broadly or culturally, with the label of ‘Christian’.

The BES data show that across Britain as a whole, 48% of the population self-identifies as belonging to a particular Christian tradition. Taking the major traditions, by far the largest constituency is Anglicanism (31.1% of the population), followed by Roman Catholicism (9.1%), Presbyterianism (3.7%) and Methodism (2.5%). All other Christian traditions together account for 1.4%. All other religions apart from  Christianity account for 7.4%. Of course, the proportion self-identifying as having no religious affiliation is large, at 45%. All of the above, perhaps surprisingly, means that in terms of religious affiliation, the largest constituency of the British population identify itself as Christian.

When you look at the declared religious affiliations since 1963, the greatest decline across 52 years is seen in ‘Other Christian’ traditions (from 23.1% to 7.6%), rather than in Anglicanism (64.5% to 31.1%) or Roman Catholicism (an increase from 8.6% to 9.1%). The ‘Other Christian’ category is too aggregate to be useful, but includes Independents amongst other groupings. Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism stand at the other end of the spectrum to Independents in terms of their structures, being large, highly-structured denominations. This is significant for judging Hunter’s argument about Independents.

The incredibly striking and sobering statistic is the rise in those declaring no religious affiliation between 1963 and 2015 (3.2% to 44.7%). In terms of a social shift, that is truly astonishing. And I would venture that when you put that alongside statistics from other European nations you would feel, if you are a UK church leader, even more sober.

When it comes to Scotland, there is clearly a higher level of non-affiliation to any religion (50.6% compared to 43.7% in England), and this is what Andy Hunter picks up on. It’s actually worse in Wales, where 51.8% declare religious non-affiliation.

The idea that Independent churches would help to maintain Christianity in the national psyche doesn’t quite ring true to me. Independency is strong in Wales, and this is the country with the highest non-affiliation. The fact that Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism have suffered less of a decline in self-identification than other traditions proves difficult for the assertion made by Andy Hunter that ‘larger institutions (including church denominations) have a tendency to become less effective over time.’ I would argue, conversely that these denominations have a much greater cultural and political impact than do Independents.

The data suggest that it is the largest institutions that have been more effective at maintaining a societal connection. I would argue that one of the factors (amongst many) that has precipitated such a decline in Christian affiliation (remembering that it’s a cipher for the place of Christianity in the national psyche) in Wales particularly is the fragmentation of the large denominations. In Wales, many evangelical congregations left the denominations during the latter half of last century. As a consequence of this, many of these have lost their former place in the consciousness of their communities, and have struggled to build bridges with communities that no longer understand who they are, or even know that they exist. These congregations have certainly had no effective place or voice in national discourse or the nation’s cultural life. Three or four decades on, many have stagnated and declined. That, I would argue, has been a significant factor in the decline in religious affiliation in Wales.

Andy Hunter is undoubtedly right to say that the fragmentation in Presbyterianism in Scotland has damaged the church’s witness. I can’t and won’t argue with that. Plenty before me have pointed out the shame of it. However, it’s easier to point out division in large bodies. Fragmentation also happens in Independent congregations, with schisms and splits, but this goes largely unnoticed in society. I really don’t think that, in general, Independent churches contribute significantly to the place of Christianity in the national psyche – national churches can do that far more effectively. Andy Hunter works for the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches – and that body undoubtedly gives a stronger voice to Independents. I’m a Presbyterian. So we’re going to see things differently. However, the data we have in the BES seem to support my point.

If we’re looking for reasons for decline, there something else I’d throw into the mix (and it undoubtedly is a mix). It’s something that has contributed to the disconnection between churches and their communities, and also between churches and cultural and political discourse. It’s an important theological aspect that goes right to the heart of Evangelicalism. British Evangelicalism was influenced from the beginning by European Pietism. This theology, which ensconced itself within Puritanism, Methodism and the thinking of the Evangelical Awakening, was dualistic and proposed a clear separation between this world and a spiritual salvation in heaven. Its outlook tended to disparage culture, denigrate humanity and the physical, including the body, the arts and large parts of human experience. It led to widespread cultural and political disengagement in the church. Pietistic Christianity, as George Caird observed, does not connect to human beings who recognise much goodness in God’s creation. More importantly, it’s not biblical.

The influence of Pietism is, I believe, a significant factor in the astonishing decline of Christianity in Scotland, and for that matter in Wales, my home country. I’m no sociologist. I’m not a church historian. But it strikes me that both Scotland and Wales, in terms of their Christian traditions, have been disproportionately affected by Pietism. It is a deficient theology, a kind of pseudo-Gnosticism. Its negative outlook on physical life and  human experience has contributed to the caricatures of Highland Calvinism and of Presbyterian preachers that still do the rounds today in Scotland and in Wales. I was reminded of this kind of thing just last week. On BBC Radio Scotland there was a piece on Dumfries Academy’s 1877 hosting of then pupil JM Barry’s play ‘Bandelero the Bandit’. The reaction (in a letter to the governors) of a local minister , Rev D.L. Scott, was reported:

‘We have turned the classroom into a theatre for the exhibition of a grossly immoral play…I say that such exhibitions are a disgrace…Are they [those attending] the pious? Are they the prayerful or the godly? No, we find that theatre-goers are the irreligious, the frivolous, the giddy and, aye, even sometimes the great many were nothing better than the off-scourings and scum of society’.

Such views might be from over 100 years ago, but this kind of Pietism has been alive and kicking in the church over the last century, and is still represented in the church today. Maybe not in such stark terms, but it’s there. You see it in churches isolated from their communities and national discourse. You see it in almost-Gnostic presentations of a Gospel of escape from the world. The decline of Christianity in the national psyches of both Scotland and Wales can be, at least in part, attributed to it.

I want to, like Hunter, end with reasons to be hopeful (Andy Hunter is to be commended for that). The Reformed tradition of Calvin and especially of Dutch theologians like Bavinck, Kuyper and Rookmaaker, points us to a robust creation theology, a robust theology of life, a grand vision of living the whole of life to the glory of God, and of redeeming culture for Jesus Christ. It’s a tradition that reflects a Gospel not of escape from the world, but of redemption for the world. That’s the Gospel of the scriptures. Our Reformed tradition also has a robust theology of the church and its place in national life. Within the Free Church of Scotland, this strand of the Reformed tradition is increasingly influential and I believe that, if we embrace it, it will produce a dynamic, contemporary, missional and engaged Reformed Church. And that’s why I believe that a renewal of Presbyterianism offers the best hope for renewing the place of the Scottish Church in the national psyche. For the glory of God in Jesus Christ.

Two Callings

twoways2Some time ago I read a thought-provoking article from the Expository Times entitled, ‘A Taxonomy of the Pastor-Theologian: Why PhD Students Should Consider the Pastorate as the Context for Their Theological Scholarship’. The author, Gerald Hiestand, argues for the revival of the ecclesial theologian, a minister who is engaged in the academic theological task and publishing work from within the context of ministry. This is distinguished from the well-known models of the local theologian (a theologically-minded minister of a local congregation) and the popular theologian (a minister publishing work at a popular level). It’s written from an American evangelical context, but is nevertheless more generally applicable.

Anyway, whilst sorting out some stuff , and as I approach the time for submitting my thesis, I happened across it and the following caught my eye:

Many PhD students feel pulled between the life of the mind and the life of the church. They love study, writing, reflection, and theological scholarship. They have the desire and gifting to serve as theologians to the wider evangelical community. But at the same time they have a heart and calling for pastoral ministry in the local church. Sadly, our current context compels such individuals to choose between these two callings. Yet this need not be—history has proven otherwise. Both the church and evangelical theology itself is in need of individuals who are willing to unite the life of the mind (and pen) with the pastoral vocation. Both pastors and professors must once again hold out the local church as a viable social location for theologians—not only for the sake of a particular local church, but for the sake of theology itself.
‘A Taxonomy of the Pastor-Theologian,’ Expository Times 124/6 (March 2013), 271.

Westminster: Subscription in America

warfieldIn a previous post I pointed to John Murray’s views on subscription to the Westminster Confession. Murray, who taught at Princeton and then at Westminster Theological Seminary, argues against an overly-strict subscription to the confession. The idea of ‘system subscription’ to the Confession has been the historical view of the Presbyterian Churches in America. In a very interesting quote, B B Warfield, writing just three years before the Church of Scotland’s Declaratory Act, compares the situations on either side of the Atlantic vis a vis the Confession:
We observe, then, . . . [t]hat so long as we remain a Calvinistic Church, the American Church, with its free and yet safe formula of acceptance of the Confession, is without the impulse which drives on some other churches to seek to better their relation to the Standards. We have always accepted the Confession only for ‘‘the system of doctrine’’ contained in it, and hence since 1729 have possessed what the great Scotch churches are now seeking after.     Presbyterian Review 10, no. 40 (1889): 656-57.
In another previous post, I also related the warning of Dr William Barker, given whilst he was a member of faculty at Westminster Theological Seminary, against strict subscription as a de facto elevation of the Standards to the same level of authority as scripture. Peter Enns (an elder in the PCA and a former professor at WTS) can write about his oath of subscription to the Confession whilst at Westminster in the following terms:
I believe that this oath—whether at WTS or the PCA—does not mean that someone living today is bound to every word and expression found in the Westminster Standards, but to the “system” of faith that the Standards articulate. In other words, my oath is a system subscription oath, not a strict subscription oath. I have never confessed in any other way, and this is the manner of confessional commitment that was modeled and taught to me by my professors during my MDiv years at WTS (1985-89), not only by Harvie Conn in Eternal Word, Changing Worlds, but the rest of my professors (Ray Dillard, Bruce Waltke, Tremper Longman III, Al Groves, Moises Silva, Manuel Ortiz, Sam Logan, Tim Keller, Will Barker, Clair Davis, Sinclair Ferguson), three of whom are still on the faculty today (Dan McCartney, Dick Gaffin, Vern Poythress). System subscription is, in my view, the dominant WTS perspective on the matter and needs no significant clarification or defense. It is stricter views that are not only out of line with the particular iteration of Reformed thought at WTS, but run the risk of calling into question the authority of Scripture.
A couple of things can be noted. First, that the ‘system subscription’ paradigm was the accepted understanding in the vibrant Reformed environment of WTS. Second, Enns is also on the money to identify the risk to scriptural authority of ‘strict subscription’.

John Murray on Subscription to the Confession

MurrayJohn Murray writes very helpfully on ‘The Theology of the Westminster Confession of Faith’ (Collected Writings 4.241-63). Murray doesn’t just provide a description of the content, but an assessment of it. And it’s also an appraisal of the place of the Confession in the Presbyterian church. So, it’s important reading on a number of fronts.  Murray reserves high praise for the Confession: no other creedal confession ‘attains to the same level of excellence’ and ‘no other is its peer’. However, he also identifies the dangers of assessing the Confession too positively.
To appraise it as perfect and not susceptible to improvement or correction would be to accord it an estimate and veneration that belong only to the Word of God. This would be idolatry, and would amount to the denial of that progressive understanding which the presence of the Holy Spirit in the church guarantees (p260, emphasis added).
Murray judges the 350 year old Confession as requiring little in the way of revision. However, he judges amendments as possible, and indeed necessary. But, he makes the point that the ‘system of truth’ of the Confession remains the same.
When the Confession is examined carefully in the light of Scripture and in relation to the demands of confessional witness in the church today, the amazing fact is that there is so little need for emendation, revision, or supplementation. And of greater importance is the fact that justifiable or necessary amendments do not affect the system of truth set forth in the Confession. In other words, the doctrine of the Confession is the doctrine which the church needs to confess and hold aloft today as much as in the l7th century (p261).
Here we find some background to the idea of ‘system subscription’. After describing several areas where the Confession is in his view inaccurate in designation or statement, or unsatisfactory in other ways, Murray again refers to the ‘system of truth’.
It is with something of an apology that attention is drawn to these blemishes. But they serve to point up and confirm the observation made earlier that any amendment necessary does not affect the system of truth set forth in the Confession, and they remind us of the imperfection that must attach itself to human composition so that we may never place human documents or pronouncements on a par with the one supreme standard of faith (p263).
Verily Murray speaketh sense.

John Murray on the Westminster Confession

John MurrayIn my previous post, I wrote about tensions in confessional Reformed Christianity. John Murray (‘The Theology of the Westminster Confession of Faith’ in Collected Writings 4.242-3) highlights three aspects of the nature of the Westminster Confession and its use within the Reformed church (emphasis added):
  • ‘[I]t should be borne in mind that the creeds of the church have been framed in a particular historical situation to meet the need of the church in that context, and have been oriented to a considerable extent in both their negative and positive declarations to the refutation of the errors confronting the church at that time. The creeds are, therefore, historically complexioned in language and content and do not  reflect the particular and  distinguishing  needs  of subsequent generations.’
  • ‘[T]here is the progressive understanding of the faith delivered to the saints. There is in the church the ceaseless activity of the Holy Spirit so that the church organically and corporately increases in knowledge unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ. The progressive correction and enrichment that the promise and presence of the Holy Spirit insure should find embodiment in a confession that is the precipitate of the church’s faith. No Confession in the history of the  church exemplifies  this   more  patently  than  the  Westminster Confession. It is the epitome of the most mature thought to which the church of Christ had been led up to the year 1646. But are we to suppose that this progression ceased with that date? To ask the question is to answer it. An affirmative is to impugn the continued grace to which the Westminster Confession is itself an example at the time of its writing. There is more light to break forth from the living and abiding Word of God.’
  • ‘Finally, it must be borne in mind that all human composition is fallible and is, therefore, subject to correction and improvement.’

The tensions and issues surrounding subscription to the Confession cannot be adequately understood and resolved unless all three of the above are recognised, especially the second one.

Tensions in Presbyterian Confessionalism

For one reason and another, I’ve been thinking recently about the inherent tension in Presbyterian confessionalism. The tension arises between two poles. First, the Westminster Confession holds the scriptures alone to be the authoritative rule of faith and life and the only infallible rule for their own interpretation. Second, confessional subscription for Presbyterian ministers requires a commitment to the doctrine of the confession. For some, this is understood as a strict, unvarying approbation of every detail. The confession takes on the role of an authoritative rule. You see the tension.

This tension mirrors a tension which resides close to the heart of Reformed theology. This second tension can be understood as being between the poles of ‘being Reformed’ and the (necessary) corollary of ‘being reforming.’ Those who try to adhere to the first pole without recognising the second are not true to the Reformers’ principle of Ecclesia semper reformanda est (the church is always to be reformed). There always seems to be a vocal party within the Reformed family who want to over-emphasise the former at the expense of the latter. Perhaps some words from Bavinck would be helpful (they usually are):

All the misery of the Presbyterian Churches is owing to their striving to consider the Reformation as completed, and to allow no further development of what has been begun by the labor (sic) of the Reformers. . . . Calvinism wishes no cessation of progress and promotes multi-formity. It feels the impulse to penetrate ever more deeply into the mysteries of salvation…
Herman Bavinck, “The Future of Calvinism,” The Presbyterian and Reformed Review 5 (1894): 23 cited by Harvie Conn, Eternal Word and Changing Worlds, 221.

To return to the original tension, resolving the difficulties inherent in confessional subscription is no straightforward matter. This is clear from a debate on confessional subscription held at Westminster Theological Seminary (California) at the end of the last century. The debate was between Dr William Barker, professor of church history at Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia) and Dr Morton Smith, professor of biblical and systematic theology at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. The former spoke in defence of system (or loose) subscription and the latter in favour of full (or strict) subscription. One report of the debate relates the following:

Smith submits that there is biblical warrant for insisting on full subscription and the church must prohibit any teaching contrary to the standards in order to preserve orthodoxy. The Westminster Standards teach “nothing more or less than the very doctrines of the Word.” If exceptions are allowed to be taught, then ruin is inevitable…

Barker objected to the claim that the Westminster Standards teach “nothing more or less than the very doctrines of the Word.” According to him, this is de facto elevation of the Standards to the authority of Scripture.

Smith defended himself against the charge of elevating the Westminster Standards to the authority of Scripture by appealing to language within the Confession itself which teaches that the Scripture is our single rule for faith and life. If the Confession says this so clearly, then certainly one cannot charge the Confession with being elevated to a position which itself denies.

Here is the tension in black and white. For me, the position argued by Barker displays a greater level of intellectual honesty. No genuine defence of the charge of elevating the Standards was given by Smith: no-one charges the Confession with anything, but people certainly can be charged with elevating the Confession to a position which it denies itself. If there is to be honesty about the tension between confessionalism and reformation, then there must be an acceptance that subscription to the Confession, however it is labelled must involve a certain freedom of interpretation. Otherwise there is indeed a de facto elevation of it to a position of authority on a par with scripture. And yet, the debating of that freedom is always where the rub is.

The Westminster Confession is an incredible statement of the Reformed Faith. I have affirmed it as the statement of my own faith. However, we mustn’t forget that, in the words of the Confession itself:

All synods or councils, since the Apostles’ times, whether general or particular, may err; and many have erred. Therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith, or practice; but to be used as a help in both (WCF 31.4).