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.

70 Comments

  1. Danny said,

    April 6, 2009 at 11:33 am

    I’m not sure it’s accurate to describe system subscription as “loose” subscription. Would you describe Hodge as a loose subscriptionist because he certainly held to what I would understand a system subscription view to be, and even labels himself as such.

  2. Danny said,

    April 6, 2009 at 11:40 am

    I made a mistake in my last post. I don’t think Hodge consciously describes himself as a system subscription man, but he is certainly used by may system subscription folk to defend their view. I think there may be a problem of terminology here. I see system subscription similar to your “good faith” subscription, though system subscription would allow for scruples with the confession, but nothing that strikes at the heart of the system of doctrine taught in the confession.

    This is essentially the position of the OPC. We do not allow for exceptions to the confession, however, one might scruple with words or phrases, as long as such does not strike at the heart of the system. Does that make sense?

  3. Scott said,

    April 6, 2009 at 1:19 pm

    Thanks for explaining these. These terms do seem to be misunderstood and used differently by different people, which has caused misunderstanding.

    The PCA standard per BCO 21(4) (d) says the difference cannot be “out of accord with any fundamental of our system of doctrine because the difference is neither”:

    1) hostile to the system

    nor

    2) strikes at the vitals of religion

    That sounds like a careful review with respect to both the doctrine itself and its place in relation to other (related) doctrines. This is especially a wise way to require view since the Westminster Standards are systematic biblical theology with doctrine generally inter-related.

    It’s also interesting the Book of Church Order requires that differences be stated with “any of their [Westminster Standards] statements and/or propositions.” That puts a very high substance to the Standards, every statement and idea in them.

    The vanguard of protection is the presbytery, a spiritual jury of peers. It seems that is the best place to put it. While nothing can prevent a presbytery from going off or not doing its duty, it is wise to put judgment in a multitude of churches.

    In the PCA, it is also helpful there is a light-handed review of “exceptions” at the denominational level. This is also important- both that it is light-handed yet effective.

    My understanding is there are even further checks allowing a couple other presbyteries to petition General Assembly to review “exceptions” and even individuals to go through a process that would allow appeal, all the way to General Assembly level.

    On top of that, the judicial mechanism can get involved if a presbytery does not do “due diligence.”

    I’m not sure what more could be done to ensure both the integrity of the Westminster Standards as confession for church officers while at the same time allowing conscience-based exceptions, granted only by a “spiritual jury of peers.”

    It seems that presbyterianism historically has always allowed something like this (scruples) and reflects the understanding while the standards are to be held in very high regard, they are not infallible.

    It would be helpful to know how communions that have “strict” subscription, as you have defined it, deal with “minor” differences (i.e.scruples)- and does that purport to regulate both belief as well as teaching the doctrine?

  4. Lee said,

    April 6, 2009 at 4:27 pm

    As a member of a denomination that has strict subscription in the RCUS, I will take a shot at explaining how we deal with “minor” differences. And the answer is I think minor differences are left alone. Clarkian Apologetics or Van Tillian? Either one fits the creeds, so one can be either one.

    I think the main difference lies in the creeds themselves. The WCF and catechisms are very, very specific. In the PCA you have issues like how to observe the Sabbath that are not covered in the 3 Forms. Thus, it is not a minor difference that we have when it comes to subscription.

    Which brings me to my criticism of this post or of Good Faith Subscription in general. Why not just get a Confession that only states the “vitals of religion”, and then have strict subscription? It seems to me a fatal flaw that the PCA has no definition of the “vitals of religion” since it has declared that the WCF is not the vitals. No matter how much oversight or appeals on scruples happen, the fundamental problem exists . . . what are the vitals of religion?

  5. Lee said,

    April 6, 2009 at 4:31 pm

    I should also add that as a strict subscription church it is very hard to grow. The PCA has an explosion of churches but one church could be very different than another in more ways than one. In the RCUS, what you see is what you get at just about every RCUS church. However, when a group of people want to plant a reformed church they have to agree with every thing in the 3 Forms and to join the PCA or OPC, it is not so. Our strict subscription contributes to us being a small denomination. And yes, we require our members to subscribe to the 3 Forms.

  6. Jeff Cagle said,

    April 6, 2009 at 5:55 pm

    It’s a fair question, but you’ll always have that issue.

    Take the “minor difference” you mentioned, Clark v. van Til. I think it’s not an exception. You think it’s not an exception. But van Til himself thought Clark’s view gutted the nature of saving faith and flatly contradicted Jas. 2. Meanwhile, Clark thought van Til’s view struck at the very possibility of intelligently reading the Word and introduced fundamental irrationality into Christian doctrine.

    The OPC had to work to figure out which, if either, of these views was correct.

    So whether we have “strict” or “good faith”, the Presbytery will still have to make judgment calls. That basically assigns to human beings the task of deciding whether X view is syntactically, semantically, or vitally at odds with Y statement in the Confession. Hence, “vitals of religion” cannot be exhaustively and precisely defined.

    Jeff Cagle

  7. Scott said,

    April 6, 2009 at 6:46 pm

    Thanks for your perspective.

    One question, if I might. (Understand I am not advocating this “exception” but use it only as an illustration).

    Let’s say an officer is willing to vow and be accountable for every statement and/or proposition in the Westminster Standards (all) except they believe in a “light recreation” exception- that is that they want to be able to take a pleasure walk with their son on the Lord’s Day and do not believe Scripture prohibits that (though the standards likely do).

    If the person had the calling, gifting of God for office, and comprehensive knowledge and receipt of every other statement and/or proposition, and if the presbytery confirmed all this…
    should there be no possibility of ordaining and installing this person (the congregation would then also have to confirm, knowing the “exception”, probably he would not be permitted to teach this also)?

  8. April 6, 2009 at 8:08 pm

    Links and Articles of Note…

    Some rather interesting and provocative articles from various blogs on the web have been written that need mentioning for those interested.
    Jason Stellman interacts with C.J. Mahaney’s book Worldliness and points out its explicit denial of the sa…

  9. April 6, 2009 at 11:27 pm

    I think another problem with the “strict subscription” position, if I’m understanding your definition aright, is that, by requiring the affirmation of the complete text of the secondary standard as it stands – every jot and tittle, so to speak – one is then treating the secondary standard, in effect, as if it were the Scriptures themselves. “Strict subscription” treats the secondary standard, it seems, almost as if it was de facto inerrant and infallible, thus putting the secondary standard, even unconsciously, at the same level as the Bible. And only the Bible must be treated this way.

  10. tim prussic said,

    April 7, 2009 at 12:15 am

    Since seminary, I’ve understood “strict” subscription exactly as you’ve described “good faith” subscription. Pastor, from whence are you drawing your definitions?

  11. Scott said,

    April 7, 2009 at 6:56 am

    I don’t think this is the case, even for “strict” subscription as are understanding that term here. People in “non confessional” churches or who are new to this sometimes misunderstand.

    The standards are received, in good conscience as *summaries* of doctrine contained in Scripture. They are footnoted with Scripture “proofs” to denote that Scripture proves them (not that they prove or equal Scripture).

    They are clearly articulated as being subject to and suboordinate to Scripture. The standards can be amended (with a very careful and deliberative process) while the Scriptures cannot be amended.

    Strict subscription, as we are understanding its application, does not allow granting of “exceptions” (scruples). But, in application, it would seem to overlook semantic (wording) type differences and maybe even some scruples, implicitly. I could be wrong in understanding it this way, but from input here this is what seems to be the case.

    Officer candidates would be evaluated when the officer is being qualified for ordination and anything “nonminor” might be overlooked in the overall context of his calling, gifts, life testimony, biblical and doctrinal knowledge and assent. However, openly stated differences would not be permitted in a “strict” system.

    The “good faith” system requires they be stated and evaluated and granted or not granted by a spiritual jury of peers measuring against both the individual doctrine itself and the doctrine in context of the system of doctrine as a whole. It seems this “good faith” system requires a very high view of the standards, requiring that every statement and/or proposition be considered and evaluated first by the officer, then by a spiritual jury of peers who decide whether to admit the candidate, and often whether he can teach this point in a confessional church.

  12. greenbaggins said,

    April 7, 2009 at 9:15 am

    Tim, see the book I referenced, which is certainly the definitive book on confessional subscription. Also go back and read not only the BCO amendments in the PCA to their BCO, but also the recent amendments requiring every difference to be noted and catalogued.

  13. Lauren Kuo said,

    April 7, 2009 at 10:26 am

    Isn’t there a danger of sliding down a slippery slope to error when we move from strict subscription to a good faith system? Would the FV errors have made their way into the PCA if every presbytery was required to hold to a strict subscription?

    Just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, the good faith system all depends on the particular views of the jury of peers. When our former presbytery examined an FV candidate on the floor, many questioned his views. There was one presbyter who expressed concern for the congregation that would be under this candidate’s questionable teaching. He wanted to slow down and take steps of great caution. We were so encouraged by this pastor’s expressed care and concern for the sheep in the pews. But a greater number of the presbyters shared the same views and exceptions as the candidate. They chose to give the candidate lots of latitude and a show of “charity”. They won the day and made it very clear whose interests they were looking out for. The good faith system, in my opinion, leaves the standards at the mercy of the political views of the interpreters and tends to favor the candidate, not the congregation.

    In our own U.S. government, we can see the destruction and devastation caused by the good faith and loose system of the Supreme Court towards the Constitution. We can see how it has trampled on our constitutional rights and why so many are crying out for a return to the strict interpretation of our founding fathers.

    By the way, that one presbyter who expressed concern for God’s people was none other than the commissioner who read the FV minority report which eventually overturned the majority report and was approved by the GA. It just came too late for our former presbytery.

  14. Stephen said,

    April 7, 2009 at 10:32 am

    Lee, you bring up a valid point regarding the so-called “Good Faith Subscription.” Noone has defined what the vitals of religion are in the PCA. That term is thrown about in the PCA courts, but noone says what it is. As a PCA minister I have seen issues debated as to whether one could hold an exception to the confession yet the exceptions become the rule. I deplore the view and terminolgy of “Good Faith” and find it to be a slippery slope. It was not accepted in the PCA without controversy (perhaps by those TR guys). No other Reformed group has such a thing as “Good Faith,” so why was it introduced? I wonder why we do not allow candidates to take a non-subscription view. We probably have them, but they hide behind the guise of being confessional.

  15. Stephen said,

    April 7, 2009 at 10:52 am

    Lee, I don’t see your smallness in the RCUS as a problem unless the denomination rejects the Great Commission or fails to do church planting. We seem to attribute smallness to the fact that we are too restrictive and lack vision and largeness as a sign of vision. I see serious problems in the PCA with how we plant churches (I am not the first one to say this) and am concerned with some of what I see coming out of church plants. This is not to say that every new church plant causes concern or that I am opposed to planting churches in the PCA. There are some great church plants that cause my heart great joy, but there are some that are very problematic, so this is not a good commentary on how the PCA does church plants.

  16. Stephen said,

    April 7, 2009 at 11:00 am

    Richard, I am not sure this is what we mean by “Strict Subscription.” We generally mean that a person takes no exception to the Standards, i.e. they affirm what the WCOF says regarding the Lord’s Day (which is one that generally is made an allowance). The allowance of taking exceptions like holding to Kline’s view of creation has always fallen under the category of holding to system subscription, which is not what Lane calls “loose.” The “good faith” view is what becomes loose.

  17. Stephen said,

    April 7, 2009 at 11:02 am

    Tim, the “good faith” view is fairly new, so I am not sure what you mean when you say strict and good are the same.

  18. Stephen said,

    April 7, 2009 at 11:07 am

    Great point, Lauren. The “good faith” is a slippery slope. We are becoming too tolerant of exceptions, but then we need to remember that the PCA is not a distinctly Reformed denomination as say the RCUS or the OPC. Our history as a denomination shows that we were founded as a reaction to liberalism and not as the formation of a distinctly reformed denomination.>

  19. Stephen said,

    April 7, 2009 at 11:15 am

    Sorry, I hit the “submit comment” box before I finished, so let me continue. I agree with you that this so-called “good faith” is what has opened the door to the FV in the PCA. If enough presbyters are sympathetic to a candidates views, he is passed. If we want to be a broad and tolerant denomination of exceptions we will end up like the PCUSA in 10 years. This has been predicted by others in the PCA. I appreciate Dr. Morton Smith’s book, How Is The Gold Become Dim, because he describes that slippery slope that can occur and the book was written in 1973.

  20. Reed Here said,

    April 7, 2009 at 11:56 am

    Lauren:

    Yeah, that is a good point. I’ve struggle back and forth myself with this, as I was being ordained in the PCA in the midst of the last debate on this subject.

    I reached the conclusion that the good faith position was the best for a few reasons:

    1. There is no “perfect” system. Any of these can be easily violated by someone so inclined. A perfect system requires a perfect person vowing, and a perfect presbytery receiving.
    2. The problem is that we are still imperfect, struggling with the on-going presence of our old sinful nature. Even at our best, we will fall short in both our vowing and our receiving.
    3. Worse than this is Jesus’ promise (Mt 13) that false brethren will always seek admittance to the Church until his return. Paul noted that this particularly included the offices of the Church (Acts 20.)

    Thus, we have the coupling of saints-sinners, and sinner-wolves. No system can be constructed to even approximate perfection in such an environment.

    Further, and most importantly to me, the officers of the Church are not given the keys to the kingdom (subscription processes being an application of this biblical principle) with the intention that they use them infallibly. Rather the expectation is that they will use them by faith.

    By faith is an altogether different way of life, including different standards, and perspectives; as different as the way of life under the Covenant of Works vs. Covenant of Grace.

    All subscription systems fail when exercised via the principles of the CoW; the expectation that we can “perfectly” judge is one such example.

    Only the good faith system allows for a full expression of the CoG application. It’s not perfect, but it is the one which most effectively rests in God’s promise to bind in heaven what we bind on earth.

    At least that’s my opinion.

  21. Vern Crisler said,

    April 7, 2009 at 12:19 pm

    Should there even be a subscription to a creed? Most people who are new to the Faith are afraid of creeds. That’s why credal churches or denominations are tiny.

    Perhaps it would be better to say your church strictly subscribes to the Bible, but regards the creeds as advisory. Then you could point out which creeds (WCF, etc.) are regarded as the best.

    Unless you’ve grown up in a credal church, I think many of you have forgotten how scary it was, as new Christians, to be told you had to submit to a creed.

    Vern

  22. Reed Here said,

    April 7, 2009 at 12:30 pm

    Interesting point Vern. I find myself kind of drawn to it.

    Of course, the subscription issue is practically relevant to officers only, and particular to teaching elders. These are the folks who tend to both need to and indeed do give more attention to the particulars of the denomination.

  23. David Gilleran said,

    April 7, 2009 at 2:12 pm

    Just a few things after reading this thread.
    1. I beileve those who hold to strict subscription prefer the term “full”. I remember Dr. Morton Smith using that term in his debate with Dr. Will Barker one year at the PCA GA.
    2. No system is perfect. You are counting on men to be honest, first before the Lord and then other men.
    3.Confessional Subscription is for officers of the church. In the PCA that means elders (both teaching and ruling) and deacons. The issue of having a creed is for everyone. There are basic truths summed up in both the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds that every believer no matter how young or old in the faith should be able to say yes this what I believe.

  24. Lauren Kuo said,

    April 7, 2009 at 3:33 pm

    I understand where you are coming from. I would not want strict or full subscription to turn into judgmentalism and legalism, and I understand that there is no perfect system. But interestingly enough, when it came time to voice vote for this particular FV candidate ,a candidate who raised all kinds of red doctrinal flags, there was only one voiced vote of opposition, and it came from a Greenville Seminary professor, who holds to strict subscription to the Standards. He proved that it is much better to err on the side of caution.

    Would it not, on the other hand, be considered an act of grace to stick to a strict subscription to protect God’s sheep? I want a minister who holds firm to the truth of God’s Word. And, I believe that a strict or full subscription is one way that helps ensure that. I would seriously question the motives of a candidate who insisted or pushed his presbytery into granting him exceptions.

    The WCF is the constitution of the PCA. It seems to me that if a candidate wants to take exception to it, there are plenty of other denominations, including independent churches, where he could go to serve. The church session we left voted in a meeting to leave the PCA and go to the CREC if the presbytery did not approve their FV candidate. It was very clear what their motives were – they had no intention of subscribing in “good faith” to the WCF.

    Yes, there will always be wolves among the sheep. But don’t you think a strict or full subscription to the Standards is a much better way to protect the church rather than a “good faith” subscription which really seems to put out the welcome mat for error? How can we expect good faith from a false teacher? Those who are honest and trustworthy would have no problem with a strict subscription – just as the law is only a problem for the criminal not the law abiding citizen.

  25. tim prussic said,

    April 7, 2009 at 3:35 pm

    Thanks, Pastor. Stephen, I’m not saying they’re the same. I’m saying the definition Pr. Lane offered for the “good faith” view is essentially what I’ve understood as the “strict” view.

    I understood that a man could differ with the Confession and still be ordained in a “strict” setting. I thought it simply depended on how the particular point of difference was understood by the examining body.

    So, let me make sure I understand. The common “strict” view offers absolutely NO room whatever for variation?

  26. Lauren Kuo said,

    April 7, 2009 at 3:39 pm

    Perhaps if the PCA was founded on something more solid than a “reaction” to liberalism, she may not be struggling so with error and apostasy.

  27. tim prussic said,

    April 7, 2009 at 3:44 pm

    Since the FV involves so much of the system of doctrine, their errors would stand a much *better* chance at making it into a “strict” subscription body than, say, all the errors in the doctrine of creation that currently exist in the ecclesiastical body you mention. What I say is especially true, as the Confession is exceedingly clear on that specific point of 6-day, ex-nihilo creation.

    If the PCA went “strict,” as defined above, how many elders would fall because of FV errors and how many because of departing from the Reformed faith with regard to the doctrine of creation?

  28. rfwhite said,

    April 7, 2009 at 3:59 pm

    Lauren, I anticipate that we all are able to understand why the language “full” or “strict” subscription might imply greater safety for the church. At the same time, it doesn’t follow that honesty and trustworthiness are found solely in the thoughts and words of full subscriptionists. No position on subscription necessarily has a corner on those virtues.

  29. Jeff Cagle said,

    April 7, 2009 at 4:37 pm

    Yes, I’ve been reluctant to voice this because it’s “novel”, but I’ll throw it out there:

    It seems to me that there are two ways to subscribe to the Confession. The first is to consider first the Scripture, then to consider the Confession’s teaching, and to affirm, “Yes, the Confession is the faithful representation of the Scriptural doctrine (on matters that it touches).” In my own jargon, this is synthetic subscription.

    The second is to take as a point of doctrine that the Confession’s teaching is the proper teaching of Scripture. Thus, when we declare that a teaching is non-Confessional, we are therefore by definition saying that the teaching is also non-Biblical. In my own jargon, this is analytic subscription.

    For my part, I believe that the first kind of subscription is actually required by WCoF 1.4, 1.6, 1.7, 1.9, and 1.10, each in its own way.

    Any thoughts?

    Jeff Cagle

  30. rfwhite said,

    April 7, 2009 at 5:05 pm

    tim, what you describe exposes the limits of any theory of confessional subscription and the indispensability of humble integrity before God and our fathers and brothers.

  31. tim prussic said,

    April 7, 2009 at 5:32 pm

    Spot on.

    My comment was zeroing in on how different exceptions are understood. Our own pet exceptions, so long as there are enough of us, tend to be viewed as minor, if they’re acknowledged at all. Their exceptions, well… that’s quite another thing! I suppose I’m as guilty of this as anyone.

  32. Lauren Kuo said,

    April 7, 2009 at 6:00 pm

    If what you say is true about the FV being able to pass a strict subscription, then why was a strict subscriptionist the lone presbyter to voice opposition to the FV candidate? If others had followed his strict subscription, we would not have an FV church today. The study committee report is out and approved. Why have these FV elders not stepped out “in good faith” to declare their views which are out of accord with the the WCF – the very same elders who had voted to go to the CREC if they did not get their way?

    Because of manipulating and abusing the “good faith” subscription, a lot of Biblically sound pastors and members of the PCA have left the denomination “in good faith” to seek out churches which demonstrate a true genuine commitment to the Word of God. For, they are convinced that many members of the PCA have abused the good faith subscription to protect and promote their own personal and political agendas and to stealthily bring in false doctrine – a false doctrine that is eroding the credibility of and bankrupting the denomination.

  33. rfwhite said,

    April 7, 2009 at 9:08 pm

    Lauren, you ask two good but different questions. First, you ask, “If what you say is true about the FV being able to pass a strict subscription, then why was a strict subscriptionist the lone presbyter to voice opposition to the FV candidate?” The answer lies simply in the fact that a man’s self-judgment may differ from the judgment of others. Any candidate, FV or not, may in good conscience judge himself to have no differences with the Confession of Faith and Catechisms in any of their statements and/or propositions. One’s self-judgment is not, however, decisive for those who make up a presbytery. Other men, hearing the candidate’s answers to questions in committee or on the floor, may judge that, contrary to the candidate’s self-judgment, he is out of accord with the Standards.

    You also ask, “Why have these FV elders not stepped out ‘in good faith’ to declare their views which are out of accord with the the WCF – the very same elders who had voted to go to the CREC if they did not get their way?” If I’m not mistaken, in the aftermath of the FV report, at least two well-known elders who were FV leaders did come forward to have their views re-examined–to controversial conclusions. Are there others who have not done so and need to do as those two did?

  34. April 7, 2009 at 9:28 pm

    Stephen: I understand what you’re saying. However, it seems to me that to take no exception at all to the standards is to say that the Westminster divines got everything exactly right – no mistakes, no misstatements – thus implying that the documents are, as I said, de facto inerrant and infallible. And I think that’s a potentially dangerous position to take. Over the years, I’ve had the opinion personally expressed to me that the Westminster standards “not only cannot be changed, but they cannot even be questioned.” This made me wonder: if some people say this out loud, how many other folks are thinking it? (I’m not accusing anyone in this thread, or on Greenbaggins, generally, of holding to that, by the wayt.)

    That’s my concern.

  35. Lee said,

    April 7, 2009 at 11:03 pm

    Richard,
    My question for you is this: do you think it is possible to write down the “vitals of religion” on paper and get it right? If so then what is the problem with strictly adhering to it? If not, then what is it that prevents this?

    And just for the record, I am not saying that either the 3 Forms of Unity nor the WCF is infallible. I believe that every denomination has procedures to change/amend the standards, so I think that whoever told you that the standards cannot even be questioned is not representative of any of the positions in Lane’s post.

  36. Richard said,

    April 8, 2009 at 5:09 am

    I would prefer a “good faith” subscription to denominational confessional documents and strict subscription to the creeds of the ‘catholic’ Church (Apostles, Nicene, Athanasian and Chalcedon)

  37. Scott said,

    April 8, 2009 at 5:23 am

    Dr White,

    I think your post here brings up the key point- if the presbyteries are not a good venue for evaluating candidates for teaching elder, no “system” would work. It all boils down to the wise, biblical judgment of those charged with protecting Christ’s Church (especially, that is the leaders). A wider based group like a presbytery is less likely to be ruled by one person and therefore, there is safety in a multitude of counselors.

    Right doctrine and a right life are always under attack- in every generation. They must be constantly, by God’s grace, using the means of grace God gives us, protected in every generation.

  38. Andrew said,

    April 8, 2009 at 8:34 am

    You are counting on men to be honest, first before the Lord and then other men.

    That’s exactly the problem. I’t not really about different kinds of subscription. It’s about being able to being “in” by saying one subscribes to the WCF while not agreeing with much of what the confession actually says. Don’t agree with WCF on creation then just redefine what “in the space of six days” means. Don’t agree with WCF on sanctification of the Lord’s Day, so you eject it from the “system of doctrine”. In either case he’s still “in” an no one can find fault because he subscribes to the WCF.

    This all makes me think of the line from Pirates of the Caribbean when speaking of the pirate code, “the code is more what you’d call guidelines

    It seems to me that for most, the WCF etc rather than operating as a constitutional class agreement, rather operates as guidelines which one can drop if he thinks its better for his situation.

    Shouldn’t real Presbyterians be a little more honourable than fictional Pirates?

  39. Lauren Kuo said,

    April 8, 2009 at 8:36 am

    Very simply, yes, there are many others. False teachers, according to the Bible, do not step out and declare their false views. They work stealthlily, in secret, unnoticed (Jude 4).

    Our former presbytery has been taken over by a majority of false teachers of the Federal Vision. They remain unchallenged despite a number of warnings from individuals. As a result, the FV with all its errors has made a very comfortable home in the PCA.

    I understand that the Confession is just a tool and its proper application and benefits all depend on the character of the person who uses it. A knife in the hands of a surgeon is used to save a life; a knife in the hands of a murderer is used to destroy life. In our particular presbytery the WCF has been successfully used as a cover for false teachers.

  40. Reed Here said,

    April 8, 2009 at 8:46 am

    Lauren:

    I think the recurring theme you are seeing in our responses is that the strict/full position actually does not offer any better protection than the good faith position. Rather, even in your own example (as Dr. White is noting) it is the judgment of the man that makes the difference.

    The professor’s stance on strict subscription was not the criticial difference between his “seeing” it and the other presbyters not seeing it. The difference was this man’s judgment growing out of his own study – he heard what others did not because he knew the standards “better”.

    That is not a function of strict subscription. It is a function of his own preparation.

    I realy do appreciate, and affirm, your concern (i.e, protection of the Church.) As a presbyter I take that responsibility very, very seriously.

    I’m not strict (although I have sympathies) because it is not a viable option. Such a conclusion does not mean I am free to ignore the concerns it seeks to address. Far from it, I still share that burden.

  41. Reed Here said,

    April 8, 2009 at 8:52 am

    Lauren:

    Understand your observations about that presbytery.

    Strict subscription would not have changed either:

    1. Those men who sincerely believe that the FV is strictly consistent with the standards, or
    2. Any among them who are deceiptful and lying in their vows (not syaing there any, rather the hypothetical possibility.)

    In my experience here (and elsewhere) on of the big complaints of FV men is that their positions are explicitly and strictly consistent with the standards. Neither strict nor good faith is sufficient to address this scruple. Further, there is just as much obligation in good faith ans there is in strict to examine such views and judge them.

    Now that the PCA has issued it’s study report on FV positions, it is imperative for presbyters to examine men holding such views (or similar) more closely. In good faith as in strict, such views should be ruled out of accord.

  42. rfwhite said,

    April 8, 2009 at 10:40 am

    Lauren, we’re with you in acknowledging the stealth tactics of false teachers.

    When you say, “In our particular presbytery the WCF has been successfully used as a cover for false teachers,” you make the point that was made earlier: subscription of any kind, as such, provides only relative protection this side of heaven.

  43. Matt Beatty said,

    April 8, 2009 at 11:59 am

    Lauren,

    There is a You Tube clip available now that shows John Piper (at a Mark Driscoll “event”) answering the question, “Is Doug Wilson a false teacher.” Piper answers quickly and categorically, “No.” That’s easy, he said. Doug is “one of the most careful, bright… etc.” and on go the compliments (along with, to be honest, some concerns of his “trajectory.”). Piper IS a Baptist, after all.

    Will John’s testimony not suffice for you Lauren? This is the man, you’ll recall, who just wrote several hundred pages in defense of the “classic” doctrine of justification as expressed by the Reformers contra N.T. Wright (who is “confused” according to Piper, but not a “false-teacher?”

    Or are you smarter than Pastor Piper? How long will you continue to breath out lies and slanders against the brethren (which even the PCA grants)?

  44. David Gadbois said,

    April 8, 2009 at 12:13 pm

    Matt, Lauren hasn’t even mentioned Doug Wilson in this thread. Nor has she “breathed out lies and slanders”. What, specifically, has she said that merits that sort of charge?

    Also, note that there is more to the story than merely DW’s articulated doctrine of justification (which is indeed orthodox). He may not be the one to ‘charge the hill’, but he is laying down cover fire for his buddies while they charge the hill. He is complicit in the errors of his more heterodox associates.

  45. tim prussic said,

    April 8, 2009 at 12:30 pm

    Maybe Lauren IS smarter than Pastor Piper, what then? Is Lauren’s assessment true simply because it’s issued forth from a more intelligent person? Mr. Beatty, brother, I think keeping a charitable tone would be best.

    Mr. Gadbois, maybe what you see as cover fire is something more like a one-man defense against the swells of political opposition of a handful by a majority. Maybe it’s somewhere in between.

  46. tim prussic said,

    April 8, 2009 at 12:37 pm

    Lauren, I think Reed answered your first question below (the one about the single “strict” subscriptionist. You, however, have not answered my question.

    My guess is that you’re adamantly opposed to the FV and think that “strict” subscription would be a good defense against what you see as dangerous heterodoxy. Maybe you’re right, but what of the other heterodox positions held by individual officers in the PCA?

    You seem, in your mind, only to have one target in your cross hairs, but the problem is that you’re actually aiming a 12-gauge full of buckshot at a crowd.

  47. Danny said,

    April 8, 2009 at 12:45 pm

    I would encourage everyone to go and listen to the lectures given by John Fesko, Alan Strange, George Knight, and John Muether at the conference held by the Presbytery of No. California and Nevada (OPC) on animus imponentis. It addresses a lot of the issues that are being talked about here. You can find the lectures at http://www.pncnopc.org/index.php?option=com_sermonspeaker&Itemid=32

  48. Lauren Kuo said,

    April 8, 2009 at 12:51 pm

    John Piper has a right to his opinion just as much as I have a right to mine. He can say whatever he wants. Just because you disagree with me, doesn’t mean that I am guilty of slander (by the way, it’s libel, not slander). I disagree with you; does that mean you have libeled me? You just falsely accused me of lying without any due process or evidence.

    The PCA put out a study report that listed nine errors of the FV that were out of accord with the WS. So far, only two according to Reed have followed the recommendations of the report and stepped up to declare their views. Does that mean that there are only two elders who hold these views in the PCA? If that is the case, then why did the PCA go through so much controversy and waste so much time writing a report when they could have easily dealt with these two individuals on a personal level?

    Doug Wilson is not in the PCA, so he is not subject to any subscription to the PCA constitution. The PCA report stated that those who hold to any or all of the nine errors are to be considered as brothers in Christ. In other words, false teachers are considered brothers in Christ according to this report. We could not in “good faith” or in “good conscience” agree or subscribe to that conclusion. The only way we could respect the position of the PCA and at the same time remain in good conscience before the Lord was to leave.

    Back to subscription, in the field of sports, what kind of referee would you prefer for your son’s basketball team? One who strictly subscribes to the rules of the game, or one who in good faith subscribes to the rules according to his own personal interpretation of them?

  49. David Gadbois said,

    April 8, 2009 at 1:48 pm

    Lauren,

    The PCA does not require ‘subscription’ to its study reports. The adoption of a study report does not imply that everyone must or does agree with every assertion in the report. The portion that is meant to be binding is the 9 Declarations. You are certainly free to count Federal Vision proponents as brothers or not.

  50. rfwhite said,

    April 8, 2009 at 2:14 pm

    Lauren, you ask, “what kind of referee would you prefer for your son’s basketball team? One who strictly subscribes to the rules of the game, or one who in good faith subscribes to the rules according to his own personal interpretation of them?” Subscription is not “according to his own personal interpretation of them.” Every man’s subscription, whether full, good faith, or loose, is subject to review by his presbytery to the extent that he makes it public. No man’s subscription, of whatever the sort, can be scrutinized to the extent that it is kept purely private.

  51. Lauren Kuo said,

    April 8, 2009 at 3:37 pm

    Why did the PCA adopt the WCF as her church constitution? Can we not assume that she applied the first kind of subscription that you refer to as a way of determining whether or not the WCF should even be adopted as the official constitution of the PCA?

    It seems to me that if we are always going back and revisiting the WCF to see if it matches up to Scripture on every issue, then we should never have adopted it as the constitution in the first place.

  52. tim prussic said,

    April 8, 2009 at 4:15 pm

    Lauren, do you mean that we shouldn’t spend too much time re-inventing the wheel? If so, I agree. I can’t imagine that you mean we shouldn’t double check the words of men against the word of God for verification of the former.

    Since the WCF *tells* us not to rest in the words of men (that is, the WCF itself), but to appeal to God in the Scripture (1:4 & 10), we would always want to make sure our fathers in the faith were thinking biblically by checking their work against the answer key. This is simply the church reformed and always reforming in action.

  53. Scott said,

    April 9, 2009 at 2:27 pm

    “It’s about being able to being “in” by saying one subscribes to the WCF while not agreeing with much of what the confession actually says.”

    I’m not sure what you are understanding at least the PCA system of subscription.

    If someone agrees with and vows to 99.95% of all the statements/propositions in the Standards, you seem to be assuming .005% difference means they don’t agree with the Standards.

    That’s not an accurate characterization, for example, of someone for example, who takes only one exception, light recreation exception to one clause of the whole doctrinal summary of the sabbath. It’s not an accurate characterization to say that is a wholesale rejection of the Standards, etc. You are assuming that it does.

    You’re also assuming a candidate for office who disagrees with a statement/proposition in the Westminster Standards will be automatically ordained. You are also assuming he will be able to teach that exception. This is simply not the case, many are rejected. While it is not completely resolved in our denomination, presbyteries frequently will not allow someone to teach an exception, either.

    Also, the vows are to God and witnessed by man. God has some stern things to say in His Word about people who take vows falsely or even carelessly. The vow of the candidate involves every statement/proposition of the standards and similarly, the vows taken by those who exam (presbytery) take similar vows.

    The system of vows is also another, very real, divine unction of protection.

  54. Lauren Kuo said,

    April 14, 2009 at 9:49 am

    We visited an Episcopal Easter service where my son played in a brass quartet. The service was almost identical in practice, form, and liturgy to our former PCA church that had turned FV. Is the episcopal form of worship and teaching in line with the standards under good faith subscription and, therefore, acceptable to the PCA? If it is, then what is the difference between the PCA and the Episcopal or Anglican church besides the form of government? (Actually, in our former FV church, the ruling elders convinced the congregation to give them lifetime appointments instead of term limits. So essentially they are no different from the Episcopal priests and bishops.)

    The Episcopal church invites all who are baptized to the Lord’s Table. They do not require a profession of faith. Their book of Common Prayer states that both baptism and communion are necessary for salvation. Would this be acceptable teaching and practice under good faith subscription to the WS? If not, then why does the PCA have churches that are episcopalian?

  55. Jeff Cagle said,

    April 14, 2009 at 11:23 am

    The episcopal form of worship is entirely out of line with PCA polity, the latter being ruled by the Regulative Principle and the former dominated by various Elizabethan flourishes like the “elevation of the host.”

    The 39 Articles are similar to the Confession, but have sufficient differences that we would not accept an Episcopal priest without separate ordination and examination.

    No Episcopal church or subdenomination (like the Reformed Episcopal Church) is a member of NAPARC.

    The Confession explicitly states that baptism is not necessary for salvation (WCoF 28.5) (much less communion). So “good faith” or even “system” subscription *ought* to flag the belief that “baptism is necessary for salvation” as an exception.

    Actually, in our former FV church, the ruling elders convinced the congregation to give them lifetime appointments instead of term limits. So essentially they are no different from the Episcopal priests and bishops.

    Also in the PCA, a ruling elder is an elder for life. “Term limits” refer to terms of service on the Session, not term of office (see BCO 24-7).

    Lauren, I think you wish to understand how could your church have gone so bad. And perhaps you hope that a different system could have gotten a better outcome.

    But these things happen in our fallen world. A more independent system, such as Bible churches have, allow autocratic bad actors to take control. A more controlled system, such as the PCUSA has, can go bad in the seminaries.

    The Presbyterian system is designed to check-and-balance, but it cannot prevent all problems.

    That said, the wheels of Presbyterian justice grind slow but exceedingly fine. The story of your (former) church is not yet over, and the PCA has just begun to address the Federal Vision and sort out what’s bad from what’s not.

    Jeff Cagle

  56. Lauren Kuo said,

    April 14, 2009 at 12:48 pm

    Thanks for your insight, Jeff.
    It seems to me that Federal Vision theology and practice in reality is Episcopalianism disguised as Presbyterianism. And somehow through exceptions and sneaking under the radar as “good faith subscription” it has made its way into the PCA without much of a challenge.

    Are you concerned at all about the direction that the PCA is taking or is all this FV stuff just a bump in the road that shall eventually pass? I see it the other way around; I think the PCA has a very confused identity right now. And part of the problem is this challenge with the church constitution. Just like the U.S. constitution, there are some “transnationalists” who want to look at other denominations and doctrines to interpret the Westminster Standards.

  57. Jeff Cagle said,

    April 14, 2009 at 1:29 pm

    Are you concerned at all about the direction that the PCA is taking or is all this FV stuff just a bump in the road that shall eventually pass? I see it the other way around; I think the PCA has a very confused identity right now.

    I don’t have a good sense of the big picture. The PCA *is* a big tent, and I think it’s hard to get it moving “in a direction” — i.e., a more FV-friendly or FV-hostile direction. There’s so much inertia, and too many different voices, that unanimity is hard. In some sense, that’s why the “Nine Declarations” were so striking, in that while they were broad, they were also broadly received.

    The trend at the GA level, clearly, is anti-FV. At the Presbytery level, there appears to be an attempt to sort out what is acceptable from what is not. The LA Pres case was one of those; the NW Pres case is another.

    In the NW Pres case, much more than the LAP case, there seems to have been a good faith and due-diligence attempt to determine where Dr. Leithart errs if at all. Since the commission was closely divided, I suspect that Leithart’s doctrine will eventually become the line in the sand — either “just this side” or “just that side”, I’m not sure which.

    But I’m confident that Jesus will not abandon His church.

    Jeff Cagle

  58. Reed Here said,

    April 14, 2009 at 1:32 pm

    Great summary Jeff.

  59. Lauren Kuo said,

    April 14, 2009 at 3:06 pm

    Thanks again, Jeff. I think you have touched on the point of frustration for some of us. Back in the “old days” we PCA folk understood our denomination to be one that held to a strong robust commitment to the Gospel and the tenets of the Reformed faith – especially to justification by faith alone. Today the PCA is viewed as a “big tent” that includes just about every wind of doctrine that comes down the pike – as long as one can find a way to cloak it as a granted exception or a good faith interpretation of the WCF. Sadly, many view the “big tent” as a positive thing – promoting peace and unity in the church. But those of us from the old school believe that you can’t have peace and unity without the truth. And we know from Scripture that the truth is the narrow way that leads to life, and the broad “big tent” way leads to destruction.

    My husband travels to China and will sometimes stop at a KFC restaurant while he is over there. The chicken he eats in China tastes exactly the same as the KFC chicken down the street here in Kentucky. Same 11 herbs and spices (no szechwan or soy sauce) and same standards for cooking and health safety (not found in other parts of China)

    Yet the PCA seems to pride herself on her “big tent” diversity in doctrine and practice with each individual presbytery. We have two completely different PCA churches in the same town – never mind different countries. It’s a pretty sad day when a person can put more confidence and trust in a chicken restaurant in maintaining higher and more consistent standards than in a church!

  60. Scott said,

    April 14, 2009 at 4:02 pm

    “Yet the PCA seems to pride herself on her “big tent” diversity in doctrine and practice with each individual presbytery. We have two completely different PCA churches in the same town…

    Back in the “old days” we PCA folk understood our denomination to be one that held to a strong robust commitment”

    It seems you have projected one negative experience you have had on a large group of Christian people and an entire denomination. Charitably, that’s not at all the experience of many of us nor do we believe is a complete or fair characterization.

  61. Lauren Kuo said,

    April 14, 2009 at 4:36 pm

    Jeff was the one who labeled the PCA as a big tent. I was just agreeing with him. He went on to give examples of different presbyteries who went in different directions on doctrine. And, it has been my understanding that presbyteries have been given a lot of leeway on different doctrines. Transferring from one PCA church to another is risky for doctrines different both within the presbytery and between presbyteries.

  62. Jeff Cagle said,

    April 14, 2009 at 8:02 pm

    Well, of course, chicken is a lot easier than Church. I’ll bet that no “chicken creeds” have ever been needed to guard against poultry Gnostics. :)

    When I labeled the PCA as a big tent, I see it encompassing Thornwell Presbyterianism, Old Princeton (Hodge) Presbyterianism, the Murray-Kline spectrum, paleo- and neo-Calvinists.

    But none of those are heresies per se, though I certainly disagree with some.

    I think the PCA is still making a good-faith effort to police the boundaries. It’s just slow.

    And it should be slow. Take the case of Dr. Leithart. He has legitimately rendered good service to the Church in some of his writings. It would be a tragedy if either he fell into error and no-one caught him, or alternately if he were tarred as heretical if in fact he is not.

    It’s really important to get this stuff *right*, exactly right, and that takes time.

    Jeff Cagle

  63. Jeff Cagle said,

    April 14, 2009 at 8:04 pm

    Out of curiosity, when did you and your husband join the PCA?

  64. Stephen said,

    April 15, 2009 at 9:29 am

    Lauren, I am not sure what kind of Episcopal church you visited. Historically Presbyterians have used a form of liturgy that is similar to what you will find in a low Anglican type of church. The congregation I pastor uses an order of service that is similar to a low Anglican church as do many PCA churches. The order of service that Presbyterians use is patterned after Calvin’s liturgy in Geneva. John Knox used a similar liturgy as Calvin did. If you compare these two liturgies with the liturgy of Edward VI from the 1552 Book of Common Prayer and John Baxter’s Savoy Liturgy of 1661 they are similar. Some of the Puritans opposed the Book of Common Prayer because they did not want to be tied to rituals and forms, but Baxter as an Anglican wanted a liturgy that did not bind the conscience or promote a rigid form. There were some Anglicans who were involved with the formation of the Westminister Confession of Faith. Historically Anglicans subscribe to the 39 Articles, which rejectes baptismal regeneration and paedo-communion. The 39 Articles would not affirm the heresies of Rome or the tyranny of the Pope. I would suspect you attended a liberal Episcopal Church, which uses a revision of the Book of Common Prayer and does not hold to its historic standards, just like the PCUSA. The appointment of elders to a life term is a different issue, which has nothing to do with an episcopal form of government. Many Reformed denominations hold to a life term membership for ruling elders. It would not be a violation of our confessional standards to appoint ruling elders for life as opposed to term limits.

  65. Stephen said,

    April 15, 2009 at 9:39 am

    Lauren, I think you are confusing two different things here. FV has nothing to do with Anglicanism. N.T Wright is an Anglican Bishop who is a Federal Visionist and first created this problem, but many Anglicans would not affirm FV. The particular views espoused by the Federal Vision would not be in line with historic Anglicanism. I although share your concern about the direction of the PCA and feel we are already on the slippery slope. I will say the PCA had problems before the FV issue came to light. There are a number of problem areas in the PCA but are not necessarily limited to the FV heresy.

  66. Scott said,

    April 21, 2009 at 3:47 pm

    It’s very helpful to hear how the denominations that have strict (full) doctrinal subscription apply their system.

    Can we have some further illustration of how a system would deal with scruples (exceptions)?

    For example, how would the various systems view a scruple that would allow ‘light recreation’ on the sabbath? How might they deal with “semantic” based differences?

    Thank you.

  67. January 29, 2010 at 3:31 pm

    […] more confessional, not less. These boundaries are not hurtful things, but helpful things. See here, here, here, and here for some other thoughts related to […]

  68. February 4, 2010 at 11:41 am

    […] and then saying that that is the Reformed faith. I have dealt with various views of subscription here. The one point I wish to reiterate here is that the Federal Vision debate is NOT about strict […]

  69. June 23, 2014 at 9:06 am

    […] to a loose confessional subscription for many years which is why the splintering has occurred…. Different Kinds of Confessional Subscription | Green Baggins __________________ "God's will, decree or purpose to justify his elect, is the eternal […]


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