Different Kinds of Confessional Subscription

There seems to me to be a fair bit of confusion about the different ways in which one can subscribe to the standards of the church. There are three main ways available today: strict, good faith, and loose (or system).

For more information on these various positions, see the excellent collection of essays in the book edited by Hall.

Strict subscription means that no exceptions to the standards are allowed. Any exception renders the holder of said exception ineligible for ordination. On the positive side of strict subscription is the idea that everyone needs to be able to trust the other pastors that they believe and hold the same confession. On the negative side, the temptation is for the candidate to be less than perfectly honest.

Good faith subscription allows certain exceptions if they are not ruled by the Presbytery to be out of accord with the fundamentals of the system of doctrine. Good faith subscription means that a candidate declares every difference he has, and the Presbytery rules on each difference as to its nature. And then it is assumed that the candidate agrees with everything else. That is what is assumed in good faith. In the PCA, there are three possibilities for ruling on a difference: 1. it is a verbal or semantic difference only, and does not indicate a theological deviation from the standards; 2. an exception (genuine theological difference) that does not strike at the vitals of religion; 3. a difference that does strike at the vitals of religion (if it is ruled in this third category, the candidate may not be ordained).

Loose, or system subscription, wherein the candidate forms a picture of his own system and eyeballs it to be within the standards of the church, but any number of differences may be held, and not declared. This creates a confession within the confession. People who say “the confession is a big canopy or umbrella underneath which any number of different views may be legitimately held” hold to loose subscription. This is not the PCA’s position, even though there seem to be a fair number of people who think that they hold to good faith subscription, when in fact they hold to a loose subscription.

I hold to a good faith subscription view. I have some sympathies with the strict view, since I realize it is very difficult to determine what is essential to the system of doctrine and what isn’t. I also realize that there is some ambiguity with regard to what constitutes something to be out of accord with the fundamentals. However, if every candidate is forced to declare their differences, and the Presbytery rules on it, then the process is open and fair. I know exactly where another candidate stands. Therefore, I believe that the good faith subscription view promotes honesty and clarity in a denomination like the PCA where strict subscription, at this point, would not really be realistic. Of course, some will accuse this position of liberalizing. I understand those concerns. But a strict subscription view can also tend to liberalism, if dishonesty is encouraged. Strict subscription can also morph into loose subscription. There is no fail-safe way to guarantee the conservatism of a denomination. Only God’s grace can do that. And I prefer, therefore, the open and honest way of good faith subscription. I am, however, most concerned to distance the good faith view from the loose view, which many folks seem to have muddled in their heads.