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).