System Subscription or Strict Subscription?

Lee Irons has a post about it here (part of an ongoing debate with Scott Clark). In that post, Lee makes this assertion:

Those who reject system-subscription in favor of strict subscription are not truly Reformed or Confessional, since they have a non-Reformed and a non-Confessional view of the Reformed tradition and the Reformed Confessions. 

The problem with this assertion is that even the most strict-subscriptionists belong to a denomination where it is possible to change the standards. It is difficult to do, of course, as it should be. However, there is a process whereby the Standards may be changed (witness the changes of the WCF as it came over to the US from Britain). If someone wants to change the Standards, let him propose it to his Presbytery, and if the Presbytery approves, let the Presbytery lay it before the General Assembly. This method is an inherent admission that the WCF is not infallible. It is inherent proof that strict-subscriptionists do not view the Standards as having equal authority with Scripture. At the very least, it proves that one can be a strict subscriptionist and still be Reformed, as if that had to be proven!



  1. March 10, 2008 at 5:26 pm

    This is so very true. If it weren’t there would be a system in the PCA (my denomination) where a person wanting to change Scripture could propose that to their Presbytery, and if the Presbytery approved, the Presbytery could lay it before the General Assembly….but of course no one would ever do that.

  2. March 10, 2008 at 5:37 pm

    I think most critics of strict subscription fail to differentiate between seeing the confessional standards as inerrant (which we believe) and seeing them as infallible (which we deny, since only the Bible is infallible). The former is actually a fairly weak statement, while the latter is much stronger (despite their modern usages in the Bible wars). Everything from the statement “the sky is blue” to the Apostle’s Creed can be considered inerrant statements.

    The real difficulty of strict subscription doesn’t have anything to do with the principle of subscription itself, but rather the confessional standards that this principle is applied to. Strict subscription is only as good as what we are subscribing to – only as strict and legalistic or else lax and lowest-common-denominator as the content of the confessional documents.

    WS has been excellent as a source of denominational unity and orthodoxy, but not as good as a basis of Reformed unity (since it is so exhaustive and detailed as to exclude the continental Reformed). But I get the sense that the PCA and OPC are happy enough for the Standards to do the former job, if not the latter.

  3. March 10, 2008 at 5:45 pm

    As a member of one of those denominations that can change the WCF I agree that it is a misstatement to say that those of us who hold to a strict-subscription act unReformed within the Reformed world.

  4. E.C.Hock said,

    March 10, 2008 at 7:27 pm

    I would like to read more of how some of the key terms are being used in this Reformed debate. But I am under the impression that in the quote given, the difference of being a “strict conscriptionist,” and one holding to “system conscription” in general, is not a matter of what mechanism exists to alter them, or keep them, if need be, but whether we can differentiate within our doctrinal standards matters of first importance, or what is universally agreed upon in the Reformed tradition (i.e., the vitals), and what matters are of secondary, supportive importance, in the teasing out of distinctives. Not everything is a distinctive by which to separate over, but rather to acknowledge as a respectable difference.

    Scripture itself does not approach Christian doctrine as a flat table where all matters to be believed are at the same level (see below). That there is a debate might highlight the difference between those catering more towards being biblical Calvinists, where diverse contours to the landscape are expected, and those catering more to being systems Calvinists, where logical consistency rules. No contrariness is intended here, but tensions will arise at different points according to one’s emphasis. That dynamic alone will influence how one approaches the standards of Westminster and how “cultural” was the context of their birth. Futher, if more light is expected to break forth from the Word of God for each generation (afterall, Jesus has not yet returned), then there would be a different spirit of how we define being faithful Reformed subscriptionists.

    Given that the Easter season is upon us, let’s remember that Scriptire itself underscore matters of “first importance” ir first priority, in 1 Cortinthians 15:1-3. Here, Paul tells the contentious Corthintians to center upon the Gospel, namely its guts, ie. the death, burial and resurrection of Christ. In short, keep first things first. That reality is bottom line stuff for all system subscriptionists, especially as they are interpreted and applied within the boundaries of the Reformational-Reformed Tradition (i.e., What kind of death was Christ’s death?”, and other defining questions). If these vitals are not kept front and center, the church, as D.A. Carson uttered not to long ago on a panel, the evangelical church will keep being lured into being “prophetic from the margins” while assuming the center to its peril. (Is that not why we are debating today in our conservative circles something so basic as justification by faith alone? Did that occur because we watched the margins rather then the center over the last thirty years? Did that occur because we approached other matters without working them out from the center and back again?) Somewhere, the center was assumed as we dabbled and argued on the margins of issues (i.e. Theonomy?), trying to be prophetic on methods, hermeneutics, policy and such. But now we are fighting for the heart itself! I am not sure if being too strict a subscriptionist gave impetus to this condition (i.e., Federal Vision debate), but one could make a case for it.

    Perhaps this is what is behind the Reformed ecumencial challenge of Lee Irons. Maybe we first need to be worried about keeping the main thing – the main thing! We all know what can happen when we depend upon the faith being upheld by system rigor, idealized and valued first for consistency, all the while the vitality of the Gospel undergirding it, is clouded and then eroded within the heart (Cf. the history of CRC confessionalism?). I do not say this necessarily happens, or eventually happens, with strict conscriptionism or other conscriptionists. But to argue for a distinct center to Reformed Confessionalism, one that elevates the core of the Gospel, before anything else, where a wider inter-Reformed confessonal unity and dialogue can challenge us more readily and openly, may be more in the focus of things here. The PCA allows this to happens to our credit, though often with angst and discomfort, as we wonder where it will lead at times.

  5. Mark said,

    March 10, 2008 at 7:38 pm

    1. I don’t see how your response is relevant to the criticism. The fact that there is process for changing the Confession could simply be a dead-letter than can never be used because only those who are agree with the present Confession are allowed membership in the organization. You need to show how the allowance for changes in the Confession is consistent with a strict-subscription position. Otherwise, you’re begging the question. Irons could argue that the process for reforming the Confession is evidence that the strict-subscription position was never really Reformed.

    2. The American experience is not an example since it was done with no system in place at all. They simply voted on it when they formed. No GA since has ever had that kind of authority (Probably a good thing).

  6. Jeff Cagle said,

    March 10, 2008 at 7:43 pm

    It seems to me that Irons and Clark both have substantive points, but neither has managed to overwhelm the objections of the other.

    Which leads me to these two questions:

    (1) David G., you’re a “3FU, no exceptions” guy, right? What about Pauline authorship of Hebrews in the Belgic Confession?

    (2) Whether we take a strict or system view of subscription, we still are left with the quote that started the whole exchange, Tremper Longman’s over at S.O.S.:

    I remember talking to one colleague, for instance, who told me that if I felt the Bible taught something that the Confession did not that I had to side with the Confession. That’s not the Reformed approach to the study of the Bible that I know and love.

    Clark’s response:

    As I’ve noted here many times … everyone thinks that their theology is biblical. In that case the question becomes whose reading of the bible is going to be normative in a Presbyterian seminary that has an established and constitutional confession?

    It’s a worthwhile question, but the problem is that the Confession itself states:

    The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself: and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.

    The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture. — WCoF 1.9-10.

    Here’s the question: In a confessional setting, what does it mean for the confession itself to hold up Scripture as (a) the interpretive authority (1.9), and (b) the supreme normative authority (1.10)?

    It seems to me that there is a real danger of conflating the Confession with the Scriptures in a way that the Confession does not allow. Let’s grant that a Presbyterian seminary has a baseline responsibility to remain Confessional (I think it does). But that pesky 1.10 seems to side with Tremper more than Scott, no?

    Jeff Cagle

  7. E.C.Hock said,

    March 10, 2008 at 8:32 pm

    #6, Jeff, you are pointing out the great tension or dilemma within Protestant affirmation through a Confession, especially a Confession drawn more tightly than other Reformed Confessions within Tradition. WCF. I.10 acts as a wedge inserted to guard the uncompromising priority of sola in sola scriptura. One only needs to look today over the interpretation of so vital and pivotal a doctrine as the “Kingdom of God,” which the WCF passes over with a tip of the hat to Augustine about the church.

    But the now-and-not-yet tension of the Kingdom, as God’s redemptive rule present anf future, and its introduction of eschatology as possibly a more fundamental tenet to the unfolding of covenantal structure than the less nuanced Puritan hermneutic of law and gospel, you have a rub with the Confession. What will a true Reformed approach be in such matters? Try a strained approach to compatibility within the WCF, or acknowledge that this more recent development can fit better within a wider, respected Reformed Tradition. Is this the kind of thing that Tremper has in mind?

  8. March 10, 2008 at 11:39 pm


    A very good and relevant point. In my experience, some Reformed people almost wish that 1.10 was not there since they hold such an exalted view of the WS. I’ve even been told that, not only can the Standards not be changed, they can’t even be questioned – which is, of course, nonsense on stilts! Fortunately, this is a minority view.

    The Belgic Confession has a similar statement as 1.10, does it not? I’m just glad that the authors of these secondary standards didn’t take them quite so seriously as some modern Reformed folk do. The Bible comes first, then the standards.

    Richard Zuelch

  9. Kyle said,

    March 11, 2008 at 3:13 am

    This may just be a pointless question/post, but please humor me as I am a fledgling and still trying to figure all this out.
    While I don’t know that I am a “strict” subscriptionist, I would be inclined to not be incredibly open to exceptions. I wonder, and perhaps those of you who are REs or TEs in Presbyteries (or their equivalent) can answer this, if when someone takes an exception, must they provide very definitive Biblical exegesis for that exception? From my understanding a lot of people (at least in the PCA) take exception to WCF 21.8 and the “recreation” clause. Do *most* Presbyteries require sound exegetical work on why a candidate would take an exception, or is something like this just so common that it is just passed over? Do the candidates have to prove sound convictions against the Standard’s view? Do they have to know why the Westminster Divines included that clause and levee strong Biblical support? I guess my fear, and perhaps this stems more from a trust issue, is that candidates may get away with taking exceptions because they are not convenient to them without having an actual solid Biblical reason. Is that a valid fear? Granted the reverse could be true and a candidate may very well acquiesce to a doctrine because it is in the Standards without having formed a true Biblical conviction about it, this would be equally as dangerous (in my mind).
    Another question, forgive my ignorance, would be whether or not system subscription unrightly compartmentalizes the teaching of the Standards. Are the Standards to be read like a systematic theology? Or are they to be read more in an organic whole? I guess this is exactly what the crux of the debate is (do we follow the Standards in so far as they are Biblical, or do we follow the Standards because they are Biblical). Is the fact that one *can* change the Standards proof that the Divines didn’t mean for strict subscription, or do we include that to show that the Standards are not beyond fallibility? I don’t know if this was a question or an observation.
    Like I said, please forgive me. I’m not presuming to come down on either side.

  10. D G Hart said,

    March 11, 2008 at 5:06 am

    The last two comments neglect what the Standards (and the rest of the Reformed confessions) teach about the church. WCF 31.2 says of synods and councils that they are an ordinance of God, and that their judgments are to be received with reverence and submission “not only for their agreement with the Word, but also for the power whereby they are made. . .” As I read that and other statements by the Reformed creeds, ministers and elders are ordained to minister God’s word. Their ministry is different than the average believers, and is authoritative in a way that the ordinary believer’s is not. Also, since Reformed Christians believe in councils, synods and assemblies of elders to rule the church, not in the hierarchy of a bishop, the judgment of a council or synod has more authority than an individual pastor or elder (or even seminary professor).

    This is what makes the confessional standards more than simply a reference work you pull off the shelf to read the way you might use a thesaurus. A church creed is the product of the power that God has given to the church. It is the ministry of the word presbyterian-style.

    I would argue that WCF 1.10 needs to be read in the context of the rest of the confession. 1.10 also needs to be understood as the collective act of a church council ministering God’s word. The issue is not simply the creed or the Bible and the relative authority of each. The creed assumes the authority of the church to minister the word of God.

  11. GLW Johnson said,

    March 11, 2008 at 6:58 am

    If I were a Baptist I would give DG Hart a hearty ‘AMEN, Brother!’, but since I am a rather staid Scot-Irish presbyterian, I will nod in agreement and recommend once more on this blog that all parties secure and peruse with due diligence the work one of the original faculty members( and first church history professor) at Old Princeton, Samuel Miller’s sadly neglected and little known but nonetheless great little book -‘Doctrinal Integrity: The utility and Importance of Creeds and Confessions and Adherence to Our Doctrinal Standards’. This was reprinted some years back by Presbyterian Heritage Publications out of Dallas, TX.

  12. Tim Harris said,

    March 11, 2008 at 7:52 am

    There is no tension between WCF 1.10 and subscriptionism. The confession states the content or matter of Scripture, so far as it goes. If Trempter comes along and says “not P1” for some proposition P1 in the confession, he should be given a chance to persuade the brothers from Scripture; but failing that, they have the right and duty to say, “Tremper, we know you hold that view honestly; but we can’t pay you teach any more.”

  13. Ron Henzel said,

    March 11, 2008 at 10:32 am

    Gary, et. al.,

    An 1824 printing of Miller’s essay may be downloaded from Google Books here.

  14. Joel St. Clair said,

    March 11, 2008 at 10:54 am

    Re: 10

    “This is what makes the confessional standards more than simply a reference work you pull off the shelf to read the way you might use a thesaurus. A church creed is the product of the power that God has given to the church. It is the ministry of the word presbyterian-style.”

    I understand the viewpoint of standing on the shoulders of those who have gone before us (and echo your sentiment from that standpoint). But I am having trouble seeing the distinction between a trusted reference (i.e. dictionary, thesaurus, BDAG lexicon, et al) when reading/interpreting/applying Scripture and the elevated position you give the creeds. Would you mind elaborating? How thin is the line between your statement above and the RC view of tradition?

  15. Reed DePace said,

    March 11, 2008 at 12:15 pm

    Ref. #4:

    Evan, I think your distinction here is helpful in understanding what is meant, and how the two approaches apply.

    > Strict Subscription: the Standards are to be adopted and adhered to as a whole.
    > System Subscription: the Standards are to be adopted and adhered to relatively, as per a given standard’s (statement) weight on the “vitals” scale.

    As you know from the prior discussions about this in our denom, there are two critical problems here:

    1. There are very few who accept this differentiation, at least in principle. E.g., most “strict” subscriptionists will affirm the notion of vitals which must be adhered to, as well as less-than-vitals which can be disagreed with. Thus, in essence we have a spectrum on which men fall, more or less strict.

    2. Even where the principle is accepted, there is no clear cut agreement on what the vitals are, or even how to go about defining them, at least in terms of devising a mechanism through which a given standard can be assessed.

    In the end, I am concerned that this whole way of looking at the issue misses the genius of the confessional approach. Daryl’s point in no. 10 above notes the ordinance nature, the means of grace nature if you will, of the church courts. Assuming this is the teaching of Scripture, how best for the courts to order themselves to be confident of the Spirit’s use of their confession, their standards?

    The confessional approach (I could be wrong here) does not seem to have a biblical imperative behind it. Rather, it seems that in the history of providence, such an approach has proven to be the wisest means of establishing a common ground for orthodox profession. The confessional approach has proven to be (at the very least) a sure means of maintaining the balanced integration of the vitals taught in WCF 1.10 and WCF. 31.2.

    Thus, rather than devolve into a debate about whether or not a system or a strict subscription approach is valid, I believe we need to first come to agreement over what it means to adhere to a confessional approach – how that works, etc.

    As I’ve studied and sought clarity on this issue, while I am not opposed to a confessional approach which is “system” oriented, I think that the “informal” application of such an approach is not simply wrong-headed, but doomed to failure because it neglects a fundamental aspect of the confessional approach; namely, that men must know to what standard, and to what degree they are giving their vow. To leave things with an unexpressed, nebulous “vitals” distinction is just asking for trouble.

    Better to offer a system subscription with the vitals (to whatever degree) spelled out. Of course, when doing so, it should be clear that this is merely results in a variation of the “strict” approach. E.g., the E-Free statement of faith expressly allows for fluidity on a number of doctrines. It allows for no fluidity in eschatology (if I remember correctly, pre-mil is it). I.o.w., it defines the vitals vs. less-than-vitals.

    What we really have in the Church is various degrees, various shades, of a confessional approach. If my point is on target here, Mr. Iron’s criticism is wrong not just because there is a built-in mechanism for changing the standards (a death-knell to his point itself IMO), but even more because he assumes a failing (on the part of “stricts”) that is not relevant to the confessional approach.

    I sense I need to clarify some of this. But I’ll post now in hopes that interaction will help me focus.

  16. E.C.Hock said,

    March 11, 2008 at 12:23 pm

    #10 – To D.G. Hart, I would respond that no one I think is affirming the notion of “no creed but the Bible,” or any foolishness of that sort in American separatism. That is not the way WCF 1:10 is to be understood nor applied, as was noted. Let’s gladly recognize that creeds and councils are needed for the good of the church’s unity. Let’s recognize the power of legitimate assemblies under the Word to authorize creedal authority through which the Word is proclaimed in the church (WCF 31.2).

    But let’s also not assume, or miss, the obvious and central matter: Chapter 1, Of Scripture, stands first in line as the confessional cornerstone to order and shape the whole of the Confession thereafter, including chapter 31 buried later in the creed. Let’s also appreciate WCF 31.3 which goes on to recognize the prior position of WCF 1:10. There is an affirmation and a denial here. The affirmation is that all synods and councils are fallible. The denial is that final appeal in matters of fiath and practice be made to them. Why? They “may err and many have erred,” which raises again the whole point and priority of WCF 1:10. One could as easily argue that WCF 31:1 is actually set within the context of 1:10, not vice versa, since Acts 15, as an example of the 31:2 principle, is but a principle in God’s Word. There needs to be council and creed for doing things, and believing things, decently and in order. But how does this work out in practice so as, in the course of things, not to squelch the liberating principle of the conscience and sola scriptura, not curtail legitimate expression, discussion and debate, which elevates the principle of WCF 1:1-10 as alive and well? This is where Tremper’s voice resonates. A strict subscriptionism will tend to limit a spirit of open discussion, whereas a subscriptionist position, measured within Reformed orthodoxy (Continentals included), will augment this element. It is the difference between unity and uniformity within the Reformed community of faith. Which is truer to the Reformed Creedal Tradition as originally intended by Reformers and Divines?

  17. March 11, 2008 at 12:57 pm

    E.C. Hock,

    Just because chapter 31 is toward the end of the WCF, I wouldn’t say it is “buried” back there (unless we can say the same of the little letter to Jude).

    That aside, I’d like more clarity on your statement that “a strict subscriptionism will tend to limit a spirit of open discussion, whereas a subscriptionist [sic] position, measured within Reformed orthodoxy (Continentals included), will augment this element.”

    The seminary I attended (WSC) is as old-school as any, and yet I don’t see how one could read the work of someone like Mike Horton and conclude that he is stuck in some dated rut with no freedom for “open discussion.”

    And you also cannot say that WSC’s stance against the FV is proof of the closed-mindedness of strict subscriptionism, since just about everyone has rejected the FV by now, irrespective of their view on subscription.

  18. greenbaggins said,

    March 11, 2008 at 2:47 pm

    Mark, that is not the issue. The issue is whether one can be a strict subscriptionist and still be Reformed. Lee Irons says no, and I say yes, and I gave my reason why. The fact that no one these days really wants to make use of the way to change the confession does not make it a dead letter. It can be changed and has been changed in the past. You seem already to have forgotten that fact, Mark. My point is that having a mechanism to change the confession constitutes proof positive that we strict subscriptionists do not elevate the confessions to the authority of Scripture. That is how I’m using the argument, and it is not only logical, but also cogent. If you want to refuse to see the logic in that, fine. But don’t expect strict subscriptionists to be convinced by that.

  19. markhorne said,

    March 11, 2008 at 4:19 pm


    Again, the mechanism (for changing the Confession) could be proof positive that the denomination is not a strict subscriptionist denomination and never was one. Since there are such arguments from history (see for example Calhoun’s material in his history of Princeton [Banner of Truth]), that is just as cogent a claim–at least!

    So, while you may be right about being Reformed(and I am not judging that claim), your argument is not clearly supportive of your position.

    In the PCA, by the way, this is a completely moot point since it has firmly decided this issue (by a real Constitutional amendment process rather than a single GA vote in favor of a study committee). While I don’t think the ordination vows of ministers have never been strict subscriptionist (as Lig Duncan pointed out in his essay on “Owning the Confession”), the BCO was recently amended to make it clear that the PCA was not strict subscriptionist (I never thought this amendment was necessary, but it certainly proves that we are now *not* a strict subscriptionist denomination).

  20. Howard Davis said,

    March 11, 2008 at 5:02 pm


    How did things go in your last Presbytery meeting? After praying for you guys, I am curious how things worked out.


  21. March 11, 2008 at 5:46 pm

    Still working, Howard, but I don’t know what the outcome will be. We meet again in six weeks, at which time the committee should have finished our report.

  22. Stephen said,

    March 11, 2008 at 6:07 pm

    I find it ironic that Lee Irons would be accusing strict subscriptionists of not being Reformed considering that he was excommunicated from his former congregation and has departed from the faith.

  23. Jon Peters said,

    March 11, 2008 at 6:29 pm


    Your comments are ridiculous and I think rather careless, to say the least. Lee has not departed from the faith. He attends, to the best of my knowlegde, a PCA in the LA area. Nor was Lee excommunicated. He was censured for his views and then he left the OPC rather then undergo censure.

  24. March 11, 2008 at 7:18 pm


    Since you’re a card-carrying member of al-Qaeda, I don’t think your opinions about Lee Irons should count.

    (Don’t you just hate it when people utter falsehoods about you?)

  25. Tom Wenger said,

    March 11, 2008 at 8:12 pm

    Yeah, Stephen.
    You’re going to have to either back this stuff up, or apologize. You could save yourself the effort of trying to achieve the impossible by simply settling for the apology.

  26. E.C.Hock said,

    March 12, 2008 at 12:33 am

    #17, Jason, allow me to take your sections as you list them. I best be concise.
    – You write: “Just because chapter 31 is toward the end of the WCF, I wouldn’t say it is “buried” back there (unless we can say the same of the little letter to Jude).”

    Okay, perhaps “buried” is too pejorative. I did not mean it so. I only point out that the WCF has a deliberate order and logic to its layout of theological material. Scripture is purposely made to be seen as a non-negotiable just in its very placement. It shapes any and all subsequent word given on other doctrines, ethic, practices, churches and councils. The fact that WCF does not begin with the doctrine of God, as others do, but with Scripture all the more points out the urgency and relevance of keeping sola scriptura elevated (lest we start defending our sense of council and ecclesiology as a Roman Catholic might defend their sacred Tradition, i.e., a Reformed Magisterium, though more expedient perhaps, is not a pleasant thought.

    -Your write: “…I’d like more clarity on your statement that “a strict subscriptionism will tend to limit a spirit of open discussion, whereas a subscriptionist [sic] position, measured within Reformed orthodoxy (Continentals included), will augment this element.”

    On this, I can only speak more through varied experience, pesonally, and on Lists, etc., and what others have conveyed (no need to name names). For instance, if one wanted to comment at length on a Barthian tenet of faith, after he wrote his Romans Commentary, since K. Barth or T. Torrance saw themselves ensconsed in the Reformed tradition, how long do you think a discussion on their views of sovereignty would last among strict subscriptionists as opposed to those of a more general but orthodox subscriptionist platform. They may both curse them in the end, but who would likely get the greater mileage and benefit from the discussion?

    -You write: “The seminary I attended (WSC) is as old-school as any, and yet I don’t see how one could read the work of someone like Mike Horton and conclude that he is stuck in some dated rut with no freedom for “open discussion.”

    The seminary, old-school or new school or emergent school, is one place where you do expect discourse and wide banter on a range of topics, all geared to help critical, reflective thinking. But in the life of an American church, even our nice Reformed churches, full of pragmatism, politics and potlucks (er…pot-providence?), well, that is a different story (I jest a bit). Michael Horton is not one I consider in the strict conscriptive mould, especially with all those Lutheranisms that come creeping out at times. :) I much rather see him, and other White Horse colleagues (URC), of a broader, centrist stroke, closer to a Tremper or Lee Irons, more or less.

    -You write: “you also cannot say that WSC’s stance against the FV is proof of the closed-mindedness of strict subscriptionism, since just about everyone has rejected the FV by now, irrespective of their view on subscription.

    Yes, it is wonderful! The FV rejection is across the board as it should be. Nothing like a controversy to unite us again. That way we remember to begin first where we agree, not where we disagree. More so, the debate and exposure there brought people back to the center, to first things, to the marrow of divinity that cannot be assumed – the Gospel!

  27. March 12, 2008 at 12:56 am

    I appreciate both Dr. Hart’s post (#10) and Mr. Hock’s post (#16). My concern is that, in my experience, there has been more interest, among some Reformed folk, in the Standards than in the Scriptures. When dealing with biblical and theological questions, the tendency is to run to the Standards first, getting around to the Bible later, if at all. There are Reformed discussion groups on the internet that have a rule that the secondary Standards, not the Scriptures, set the parameters for discussion in that group. This sets up the danger, in my opinion, of placing the secondary Standards in a position over the Scriptures – a position which must be vigorously resisted (since, in a Christian discussion group, any subject mentioned or implied in the Bible is worthy of discussion, whether it is included in a secondary standard or not).

    There is a danger that some Reformed folk are demonstrating the very suspicion that many non-Reformed Christians have about churches with creeds and confessions – that such churches exalt them at the expense of the Bible. I would hate to think that non-Reformed Christians (say, fundamentalist Baptists, et al) are having their stereotypes of Reformed believers confirmed.

  28. E.C.Hock said,

    March 12, 2008 at 1:06 am

    #15, Reed, you raise good questions in your pondering, especially about discerning the vitals. Hopefully, Scripture itself can help us here as we see what matters are especially accented repeatedly as of first importance. There is more the Reformed confessions, take in their 150 year spread (1500-1650), have in common than not. We need to return to that common root and branch found in the early Reformers so we more ably remember how to build each other up, not tear each other down. I am glad to see once again a return to the fruits of John Calvin, rather than leaving him behind for the more precision-driven Puritians,.They are marvelous in so many ways, but not necessarily a model for re-capturing the confessional heart of being Reformed. After all, they crafted the Confession amidst the turbulence and polarity of a Civil War. (I say this while remembering that the WCF is the only Confession that takes adoption seriously as a category). That Calvin wrote Commentaries, thus presenting us with a passion for language and exegesis is so necessary. Others did not so much, save the mighty John Owen. That alone is a reason to keep him as a model for Confessional unity and dialogue.

  29. Josh said,

    March 12, 2008 at 7:17 am

    There are Reformed discussion groups on the internet that have a rule that the secondary Standards, not the Scriptures, set the parameters for discussion in that group.

    For example?

  30. March 12, 2008 at 8:33 am

    Josh forgot to add this from Richard..

    My concern is that, in my experience, there has been more interest, among some Reformed folk, in the Standards than in the Scriptures. When dealing with biblical and theological questions, the tendency is to run to the Standards first, getting around to the Bible later, if at all.

    For Example?

    I am sure this is true in some cases. But I don’t know where it is true. The Confessional guys I know believe the Confessions reflect what the Scriptures say. The Scriptures are their primary source.

    In what way or what doctrine have you experienced this Richard?

  31. E.C.Hock said,

    March 12, 2008 at 11:04 am

    This is a little off the track, but having pondered the recent findings from the research done by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life (ex. Check Dr. Mohler’s blog, March 10) the role of theological confessionalism in America is in for a rocky ride. The continuing “Rise of Customization” to religious faith, and especially to Protestant Christianity, moves against the whole character and design of confessional thinking and affirmation. The challenge will be not whether to tighten it up, but to hang onto it at all (at least in the forms we now recognize). This may be “nothing new under the sun” in one sense, but it will have a multiplying effect down the road on discussions and arguments such as the one we are having now over subscriptionism.

    It will effect the PCA more and more, and other Reformed denominations, as church leaders and teachers engage the growing ranks of people wanting personal faith and experience, but demanding a Christianity filled with options, not necessarily anchored in a set of coherent truths, not as a set of principles for church membership, which is being stigmatized more and more. In short, the discussion we are having today will look and sound very different 5-10 years from now.

    In my limited estimation, there will be trade-offs. There will be pressure in the church to adhere more positively to broader, more ecumencial assessments in the Reformed Tradition (still orthodox). There will be a desire to adopt more simplified, core tenets of Reformed confessional life (i.e., three forms of unity), rather than hold to an array of sharpened distinctives as is our present desire. Strict subscriptionism and good faith subscriptionism will yield to more basic Reformed adffirmations. J. Calvin will rise again as a prophetic voice. There will be reaction to this trend, to be sure, but if societal trends develop as they are in Post-Modern America, that is what we are facing. Barring a great revival by the Spirit, this is what we must prepare for in our shrinking, and re-structuring, of Reformed church culture.

  32. Darryl Hart said,

    March 12, 2008 at 1:28 pm

    I wasn’t necessarily accusing anyone of no creed but the Bible (but if the shoe pinches. . . ). What I was detecting was another move, no church but the bible (professor) with the creed. In other words, the church’s ministry, officers, and ordination seem to be missing in most discussions of the relationship between the Bible and subscription. I think Richard Muller was right when he talked about an organic relationship between a creed and a church’s proclamation. It’s not the Westminster Standards I’m talking about but the confession and catechisms of my own communion (which happen to be the Westminster Standards). If we think about creeds as expressions of the corporate witness of a communion and the importance of officers teaching as part of that witness, the creed will take shape not as a reference point for 17th century Reformed orthodoxy but as the very confession of a contemporary body of believers.

    On a related note, such a view of creeds, confessions and catechisms seems to me to make sense of the older Reformed practice of catechetical preaching. The standards are as much ‘now’ as they were ‘then.’ If so, then don’t our people need to have the confession of their church explained regularly to them?

  33. Tim Harris said,

    March 12, 2008 at 3:14 pm

    Here’s an interesting conundrum. If a strict-confessional church does modify its standards by constitutional process, what is the status of those that dissent from the new standard; who still agree with the standard in the form they originally subscribed to?

  34. David Gilleran said,

    March 12, 2008 at 5:10 pm

    Tim, they would have to take an exception to the new standard. See Morton Smith’s How Thy Gold Has Become Dim.

  35. E.C.Hock said,

    March 12, 2008 at 5:33 pm

    #32, Darryl, You helpfully clarified your point. Good theology is all about making right distinctions. I generally have no qualms about what you wrote. Our creed (credo) functions as a unfying dynamic and identity marker to build the communion of the saints, especially a doctrinal communion. The Confession (and being confessional) is a necessary framework to under- stand and guard the summary of Christian truth. In that way, it’s the “very confession” of the body, and the Litmus test for training officers.

    Yet…with all that acknowledgment, it remains a subordinate standard not only to Scripture, but to in the process and progress of theological reflection among us with Scripture until Jesus comes. The “progress of dogma” has been developing ever since the close fo the canon, and no normative signal in history has been declared so that it should be expected to cease.

    Therefore, when you write, “…The standards are as much ‘now’ as they were ‘then,’” my answer to that is yes….and no. Yes, they offer foundational material to build the church on truth. No, if you mean theology over the last 400+ years has added nothing substantive to the development of doctrine, especially given the advancement of hermeneutics and historical-redemptive contributions. and the like. (One wonders why Jesus did not return after the 17th century if no more truth and light are to break forth from His Word). Not all the bases were covered 400 years ago. The Westminster Standards are, in principle, not uniquely static, as we might be tempted to make them.

    All earlier creeds that were eclipsed by advancements and eventually by the Westminster Standard itself were uniquely esteemed in their day, but still subordinate nevertheless. They were allowed to be improved upon through the church, a church ever wrestling with truth, not content to think we have ‘arrived’ theologically. We thus never quite remove ourselves from the conditional quality or nature of our creeds, especially as we (the church) continue to interact with the Word, and under the Word, which, by the Spirit, is ever our light and judge to transform us into His image.

    On last thought, I cannot resist: You say, “such a view of creeds, confessions and catechisms seems to me to make sense of the older Reformed practice of catechetical preaching.” That is good in any church, but more so, for discipleship, not as texts for preaching, that is, not if one is committed to expository preaching (cf. Dick Lucas, John Piper, D.A. Carson, Kent Huges, to name a few over a broader scope). I teach the WCF as supplemental material in sermons. As it is not the last word in theology, though an authoritative summary of vitals, I always head back to the text. When a beloved creed begins to function as the preached Word, as if it were a means of grace, then I think we have inserted it into a place reserved only for Holy Writ.

    The death of expository preaching arises in orthodox camps when creedal sermons start displacing dynamic preaching from the Word as the first line of proclamation and defense. We rob our people from the richness of the text itself when we preach from the creed as our primary body of material. When the pastor stops wrestling with the text, OT or/and NT, and resorts to formulaic preaching, Catechism or creed on a regular basis, the creed is over-used as a mimic to the Word of God itself. That may be putting to strong a point to it, but there it is. Our people gain creedal knowledge, yes, which is great until the next generation or two. Then dead orthodoxy takes hold; they forget to search and come to know and understand their Bibles like Bereans. A distance forms between their hearts and eager Bible study. They cease to open their Bibles during a sermon. In churches where that style has gone on for decades, I have seen the result. As a student and pastor in the Church of Scotland, for a time, you see how incipient liberalism takes hold – often through over-creedalized evangelical churches that used the creed as a short-cut to maturity, and did not stick to the rigors of sola scriptura as the real dynamic for deeper transformation.

    Forgive. I went on too long. Over-all, Darryl, you spoke well for holding to a faith that is a confessional faith standing on the shoulders of others. I am not saying this is true of you, nor how you think. But it opened a door in my mind.

  36. Tim Harris said,

    March 12, 2008 at 8:11 pm

    David (#34) — is it the case that all strict’ers allow exceptions? I thought the essence of strict subscription was the inability to take an exception.

  37. David Gilleran said,

    March 12, 2008 at 9:18 pm

    Tim, in the book I referenced I believe Dr. Smith speaks of his own experience. I would urge you to find a copy of Dr. Smith’s work on subscription published by Greenville Seminary. He speaks to the issue of taking an exception and teaching an exception.

  38. March 13, 2008 at 12:38 am

    Post #30: Your name seems familiar, somehow, Martin! (wink)… I’ve had the experience of people (not many, fortunately) in OPC churches I’ve been in over the years who hold the Standards in higher regard than they do the Bible – this is what I posted before about someone saying that the Standards being not only unchangeable, but not even being questionable. It just seems to me that some folks, when pondering theological questions, reflexively reach for the Standards first rather than going to Scripture. There is a post above in which the poster speaks of those who preach from the Standards depriving their hearers of hearing exposition from the Bible itself. This is the kind of thing I’m talking about.

    I have a great appreciation for the Westminster Standards; after all, they represent the high-water mark of Protestant scholasticism, a position reached barely 130 years after Luther nailed his theses up. But I think we Reformed people need to keep a good perspective here: the Standards are a wonderful summary of Reformed teaching. They aren’t any less than that – but they aren’t any more than that, either. They are merely man-made summaries of what we believe the Bible teaches.

    For Josh (Post #29): the Puritan Board is an example of a discussion site where the Standards set the parameters of discussion. Matthew McMahon, one of the originators of the site (I think that’s right) has posted to that effect somewhere there.

  39. Ron Henzel said,

    March 13, 2008 at 5:04 am


    In my search of the Web I was unable to find a reference to any work by Morton Smith titled “How Thy Gold Has Become Dim.” I did, however, locate one reference to a pamphlet by him titled “Holding Fast the Faith.” It’s in a September 2003 article titled “PCA Endorses Subscription, Marriage, and Naparc Motions” by McKendree R. Langley. The article was originally published on the World Reformed Fellowship web site, but it’s no longer there. You can now access it here on the Internet Archive, and for the time being Google is keeping a cached copy of it here.

    The first paragraph of the article’s section on subscription reads,

    The most important decision by the PCA’s top court was to pass a resolution for good faith subscription to the Westminster standards by ordained church officers. The Book of Church Order (BCO) is amended at 21- 4 so that minor exceptions to the standards will be accepted if approved by the presbytery in question and a record kept of them. The amendment at 34-1 now states that if a presbytery fails to act in doctrinal cases, at least 10% of all presbyteries can request the General Assembly to assume original jurisdiction to hear and render judgment in such cases.

    But it’s in the last paragraph of this section where we come across the reference to Smith’s pamphlet:

    The good faith position was articulated in the “Uniting Principles” document circulated before and during the GA under the leadership of Dr. Bryan Chapell, of Covenant Seminary and the Presbyterian Pastoral Leadership Network. The strict position was expressed by Dr. Morton Smith of Greenville Seminary in his pamphlet, “Holding Fast the Faith.”

  40. March 14, 2008 at 7:32 am

    RIchard in post 38…..

    Yes, it is Randy (wink). Yes it is in the PB board rules that one must hold to a reformed confession. I don’t think it is because the confession is deemed to be as authoritative as scripture but because it helps keep the forum discussions within the same boundaries that our denominations and churches hold to. It does keep the kook fringe out also (in my opinion). It helps in moderating problems also. I do believe the confessions are a reflection of our beliefs. If the PB was strictly a tee totaller on subscription they wouldn’t have allowed Particular Baptists to be included in my opinion. Our respective confessions do differ in areas of ecclesiology and covenant membership. So it isn’t that they hold the Confession to be the all and all. They do realize there are areas of disagreement and that the Scriptures are the supreme authority.

    I was still wondering what area you think is unbiblical in the confessions that would have you to be found outside of subscibing to it fully. You seem to think that some hold the confessions above what they should on the PB. At least that was the implication I understood. I could be wrong. Where is that done?

    Yours in Christ Brother,
    Randy (wink) :^)

  41. David Gilleran said,

    March 14, 2008 at 8:37 am

    Ron-Dr. Smith’s book was published in the early 70’s by those seeking to leave the PCUS. It was a very limited printing but if you wanted a copy to read, it should be either at RTS-Jackson or Greenville. The other was a summary of the debate between Dr. Will Barker and Dr. Smith which took place one evening after business at the Roanoke GA in the early 90’s. It was published by Greenville Seminary.

  42. March 14, 2008 at 8:48 am

    Re: How is the gold become dim
    There were two early editions; both the 1st and 2nd editions may date from 1973 (the 2nd does). There was a 1998 reprint by GPTS (the third edition).

  43. David Gilleran said,

    March 14, 2008 at 9:08 am

    Ron-Here is the titles of Dr. Smith’s books. He doe snot use the tern strict but full subscription.
    Author: Studies in Southern Presbyterian Theology; How Is the Gold Become Dim; Reformed Evangelism; Testimony; Harmony of the Westminster Confession and Catechisms; Commentary on the PCA Book of Church Order; The Case for Full Subscription to the Westminster Standards in the Presbyterian Church in America; Systematic Theology.

  44. David Gilleran said,

    March 14, 2008 at 5:49 pm

    Tim and Ron, Dr. Smith told his presbytery he was out of accord with the new confession not merely taking an exception. p.56 How Thy Gold Has Become Dim. It was published by the Steering Committee for a Continuing Presbyterian Church. That is why you would not find it listed.

  45. March 15, 2008 at 1:56 am

    David (#43): LOL. This must be the first time I’ve seen doe snot used in a theological discussion. Are does religious? The amazing things one reads here at Greenbaggins!

  46. David Gilleran said,

    March 15, 2008 at 7:30 am

    slow and hands and sticky key board and failure to proofread. Should read does not.

  47. December 10, 2008 at 8:57 am

    […] American Presbyterianism, on the other hand, is defined very differently.  Now, don’t get me wrong, there are many churches over there with an evangelical identity that’s similar to ours.  But Presbyterians are defined by the Westminster Standards, and a big issue for many of them is what subscription to those standards actually means.  When you subscribe to the Westminster Confession of Faith, are you subscribing to the essential system of doctrine contained in those documents, or, are you subscribing to the strict wording of those documents?  These positions can be summarised as system subscription and strict subscription. […]

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