An Essential Question for the PCA

I was reading a recent acquisition, Herman Witsius’s Sacred Dissertations on the Apostles’ Creed. Dissertation 2 was worth the price of admission for me. It is entitled “On Fundamental Articles.” In this article, Witsius tries to do the impossible. Whether he succeeded or not is a fair question, but no one could deny that he says some very important things along the way. The question he is seeking to answer, and one that is essential for the PCA right now, is this: how can we know what doctrines are fundamental and/or necessary to the Christian faith?

Witsius is cautious about this, as it is an exceedingly difficult question. He writes, “This, indeed, is so abstruse a topic, that it has very much embarrassed even the most judicious and acute Theologians who have attempted to explain it; and scarcely any one has given full satisfaction to himself, much less to others” (p. 16 of volume 1). Throughout this particular dissertation, we find similar statements of caution. For instance, he says also, “To point out the articles necessary to salvation, and precisely to determine their number, is a task, if not utterly impossible, at least extremely difficult” (p. 27). And especially when it comes to judging the state of salvation must we be careful: “It does not become us to ascend into the tribunal of God, and to pronounce concerning our neighbor, for how small a defect of knowledge, or for how inconsiderable an error, he must be excluded from heaven. It is much safer to leave that to God” (p. 29). This is immediately balanced, however, with a statement that ensures critical and judicial thinking on the part of the church: “It may not be safe and expedient for us to receive into church-fellowship, a person chargeable with some error or sin; whom, however, we should not dare, on account of that error or sin, to exclude from heaven” (ibid). In other words, on the one hand, delineating which doctrines are essential for salvation is very difficult. On the other hand, we must not on that account stop trying to determine this, nor should we equate membership in our church with membership in heaven. Witsius says unequivocally that “her (the church, LK) safety is ill consulted by those who, under the specious pretext of peace and toleration, would have her to embrace with open arms, all that hold errors not entirely fundamental” (p. 32). We can afford, nay, cannot afford not, to be stricter when it comes to what the church teaches in comparison with what is necessary to be saved. Otherwise, the peace and purity of the church will always be suspect.

In terms of actual criteria of what constitutes fundamental doctrine, Witsius is exceedingly helpful and careful. First, some helpful distinctions are in order concerning the realm of necessity:

[D]octrines may be said to be necessary,-to Salvation,-or to Religion,-or to the Church. A doctrine, without the knowledge and faith of which, God does not save grown-up persons, is necessary to Salvation; that, without the profession and practice of which, no one can be considered religious, is necessary to Religion; and that, without which none is admitted to the communion of the visible church, is necessary to the Church.

It seems fairly clear that Witsius’s intention here is to delineate three expanding realms of necessity. The smallest is Salvation, next is Religion, and the last is Church. In other words, the fewest number of doctrines are necessary for salvation, more are required for Religion, and most are required for the Church.

A second caveat he has is that people can hold necessary doctrines with different degrees of clarity: “It is in different measures of clearness, abundance, and efficacy that divine revelation, the means of grace, and the communications of the Spirit are enjoyed” (p. 17). However, this does not mean that people should be satisfied with the bare minimum. On the contrary, “The command of God, indeed, lays an indispensable obligation upon all men, to make every possible effort to attain a most clear, distinct, and assured knowledge of divine truth” (p. 18). In terms of the bare minimum regarding any particular doctrine, “The smallest measure of the requisite knowledge appears to be this, that, when an article of faith is explained, the mind so far at least apprehends it, as to recognise (sic) and embrace it as true” (p. 18). Witsius will add later that “It is possible, too, that a man who holds the foundation, may embrace some error inconsistent with a fundamental article” (p. 27).

A third caveat he issues is in regard to time. The more light there is available to us, “the more extensive and more explicit knowledge is necessary to salvation” (p. 18). This is particularly true when we move from the Old Testament to the New Testament. He quotes Thomas Aquinas in a very clear expression of how this works: “The articles of faith have increased with the lapse of time, not indeed with respect to the faith itself, but with respect to explicit and express profession. The same things which are believed explicitly, and under a greater number of articles, by the saints in latter days, were all believed implicitly, and under a smaller number, by the fathers in ancient times” (p. 19, quoting Summa, II.1.7).

The actual criteria for what constitute necessary doctrines then follows: 1. It must be contained in Scripture; 2. It must be clear enough in Scripture that any person can perceive that it is Scriptural (he includes here an important qualification that articles contained in scripture “must include not only those which they teach in express words, but also those which, to all who apply their minds to the subject, are obviously deducible from them by necessary consequence” (p. 20)); 3. “that it be of such a nature that neither faith in Christ, nor true repentance, can subsist without it;” 4. Any article is fundamental, the denial of which leads to destruction (the reverse does not always hold, if the promise of life is annexed, giving baptism as an example, see page 23); 5. if the Scriptures call it a foundation; 6. any article which is necessary to understand another necessary article is also necessary; 7. This one is a bit difficult, but basically Witsius says that if a more doubtful doctrine is said to be essential, then the less doubtful article that follows from it must also be essential.

One last caution is in order, with regard to heretics:

Our faith consists not in words, but in sense; not in the surface, but in the substance; not in the leaves of a profession, but in the root of reason. All the heretics of the present day, that claim the name of Christians, are willing enough to subscribe the words of the Creed; each however affixing to them whatever sense he pleases, though diametrically opposite to sound doctrine.

So does all this boil down to the PCA today? Several points deserve reflection here. Firstly, many people think that it is perfectly okay for ministers of the PCA not to hold to all the articles in the Westminster Standards. This would be to confuse the different realms that Witsius has so helpfully delineated. Now, here we must be careful. It is evident that Witsius was speaking of the Apostles Creed, and not of the Westminster Standards. However, he freely acknowledges that the Church can, and even should, have stricter requirements of doctrine that what is essential for getting into heaven (i.e., what church membership would entail). Chalk this up to maintaining peace and purity among like-minded people. Secondly, we have not even begun to reflect upon the nature of essential doctrine in the PCA today. Has anyone really talked about this in our day with a sophistication even approaching Witsius? And yet, how many confusions have arisen in the PCA over just these points? Is not the entire debate over subscription based on a confused understanding of these more basic, underlying issues? Furthermore, Witsius’s last warning is extremely salutary for today: every FV person, for instance, will say he holds to the Westminster Standards. At least, every one in the PCA will say that his doctrine does not conflict with the standards. The question is this, though: is the doctrine the FV holds diametrically opposite to the sound doctrine that is actually meant in the Westminster Standards? Are they affixing whatever sense they please to sections of the Westminster Standards? We cannot assume that when someone says that they hold to the Westminster Standards, that they actually do.

Lastly, and maybe most importantly, who are we as a denomination? How do we wish to be defined? By the bare minimum? Can we not see that if we create a standard within the standard (what I like to refer to as a Barthian hermeneutic of the confessions), we will create disunity of the highest degree. It is not the confessionalists, then, who are creating disunity in the PCA today. Rather, it is those who desire not to hold to everything in the Westminster Standards, those who do not wish to be defined by Reformed confessions. Witsius, in effect, connects elaborate confessions and catechisms to the Church. That is what the church should do for the sake of unity and peace. If a person, then, desires not to hold to the Westminster Standards, there are many denominations out there who will welcome them with open arms. Why do we need another generally evangelical denomination?



  1. Wes White said,

    October 19, 2010 at 11:32 am

    Lane, that’s a very helpful post for thinking about this issue. Such careful thinking on these issues is rare in these days. That’s why I think that we should regularly go back to men like Witsius as we think about these things. You have done a good job explaining this.

    I think one of the most common mistakes is the failure to distinguish between ministerial and church communion. Arguments are sometimes made that because we have a strict standard for ministerial communion, then we will make a very narrow definition of the catholic church. This does not follow. What we think is necessary for someone to serve as a minister is much stricter than what we think is necessary for someone being a member.

    The Bible clearly makes this distinction. All those who profess the true faith are baptized and added to the number of the church, yet the Scripture tells us that we should not lay hands quickly on anyone. In the case of ordination, you are guilty until proved innocent, that is, you should be assumed to be unqualified for the office until you prove otherwise.

  2. October 19, 2010 at 11:33 am

    Great stuff, Bro!

  3. proregno said,

    October 19, 2010 at 11:58 am

    Great article about a very important question, thank you. In my own country and denomination it is also a question many believers struggle with.

    I would like to ask a related question: is belonging to a church denomination for a local reformed/presbyterian church a fundamental/essential issue or not ?

  4. Dave Sarafolean said,

    October 19, 2010 at 12:00 pm


    Great post. All the more reason that we continue to interact with historic reformed theology (its confessions and theologians) and rely upon it for guidance.

  5. sean said,

    October 19, 2010 at 12:00 pm

    Wow, that’s really helpful. See, every once in a while the internet generates more light than heat.

  6. greenbaggins said,

    October 19, 2010 at 12:02 pm

    proregno, I think the question revolves around a related question: is denominational affiliation part of “the communion of saints” or not? Can a church be part of the communion of saints and not belong to a denomination? I guess one would have say yes, and yet…I hesitate. Are they really being consistent in holding to the communion of saints if they cannot join a larger body of believers? Are there no denominations to which a given church could belong? That seems a bit sectarian to me.

  7. proregno said,

    October 19, 2010 at 12:30 pm

    “Are there no denominations to which a given church could belong? That seems a bit sectarian to me.”

    The answer to this question will depend on the answer: what is the fundamental doctrines a denomination should agree on and what should be left to the freedom of the individual churches. What will be seen as secterian to some, would be seen by others as essential doctrine for the Church.

    For instance:
    – some would say women in office is essential, others would say it is not.
    – some would say what we sing in worship is essential, others would say it is not.
    – some would say what translation we use is essential, others would say it is not.
    – etc.

    BTW, I am from a dutch reformed background, and if I understand the Dordt Church Order correctly (art.31), the decisions of the synod is binding on all churches, and therefore means that all churches are responsible for those decisions. If someone or a church do not agree with a decision, they can appeal to synod, but if his appeal are rejected by a following synod, he must rest his case in that decision (art.46) or leave the denomination.

    Moral question: can a local church stay in a denomination with which they are not united in doctrine, worship and church government, because of ‘practical advances’ ? Are such a church then not also responsible for the wrong doctrines and practises of that denomination ?

  8. Andrew Voelkel said,

    October 19, 2010 at 5:11 pm

    I know it drives you crazy, but the PCA is simply not a strict subscription denomination. The reason “many people think that it is perfectly okay for ministers of the PCA not to hold to all the articles in the Westminster Standards” is because “… our Constitution does not require the candidate’s affirmation of every statement and/or proposition of doctrine in our Confession of Faith and Catechisms … ” (PCA BCO FORM OF GOVERNMENT 21-4e).

    And you are wrong to say “every one in the PCA will say that his doctrine does not conflict with the standards.” That simply is not true. Many PCA ministers have openly declared to their Presbyteries doctrinal differences which conflict with the standards.

    You say “It is not the confessionalists, then, who are creating disunity in the PCA today. Rather, it is those who desire not to hold to everything in the Westminster Standards, those who do not wish to be defined by Reformed confessions”; but again, the PCA Constitution allows for men who do not hold to everything in the Westminster Standards, and the PCA Constitution does not require that ministers be “defined by the Reformed confessions”.
    Ministers who honestly declare their differences to their Presbytery, and are approved for ministry by their Presbytery, should not be labeled as automatically creating “disunity”.

    “Good Faith Subscription” seems to be a root of our problem, but only because some PCA folks refuse to accept it. And the PCA does seem to have a growing problem with elders rejecting the judgement of Presbyteries and seeking to enforce strict subscription practices which go beyond policies required by our Constitution.

    If you and others want the PCA to be a strict subscription denomination, then seek to make the changes at GA. I am sure that ministers with doctrinal differences will leave if that happens. But until/unless that happens, it would be nice if PCA pastors, like yourself, were more careful in speaking about fellow ministers holding doctrinal differences.

  9. grit said,

    October 19, 2010 at 5:29 pm

    Honestly, it is with some measure of vanity that I take pride in being a member of a conservative Reformed communion. I have often noted this when comparing various Presbyterian communions, particularly in distinguishing the PCA or OPC from the PC(USA), and I am humbled by it. While I applaud the PCA, OPC, and some others for initially attempting to unify an inclusive diversity, and even being mindful of the tearful stress and ardent ministry which led many conservatives to fragment into withdrawal and formation of ‘continuing’ purity, I’m always humbled by the greater diversity of the New Testament or Apostolic Church. Yes, beyond salvific faith, there are worthy distinctions between the thief on the cross, the woman at the well, the anointer of Jesus’ feet, and Nathanael, “an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no guile” (John 1:47, Douay-Rheims); but it might even be suggested by some that the Apostle Peter, Barnabus, James, and a number of Jewish Christians of Jerusalem and the party of the circumcision may have taken a shine to some FV tendencies, though called to account.

    There indeed continues much distress, sufferings, and even death over significant differences between Christians (by name or otherwise) within the Church, and within parties or denominations, but I don’t know that many of our oppositions, compellings, or emphasis of practice matches the controversies of those early years and centuries, where even Judaizers and Arians were included for a while. Herman Witsius is wise to delineate realms and caveats of doctrinal clarity in confessional oath, and certainly God’s striking dead an Ananias and Sapphira whose hearts were filled by Satan gives one awe and unction in proper church discipline, but refining our stance as of Paul or Apollos or Cephas or Christ, while enthusiastically rallying the troops, does little to boost my morale or witness before the world, not as I find we often conduct ourselves.

    I’ll acknowledge, being a child of the 60’s, it took me a while in my youth to find adequate merit in denominationalism, and perhaps the hippie lingers, but I still find maintaining stricter requirements of doctrine for particular gatherings of Christians than what is found essential before Christ and Heaven may not be chalked up to preserving peace and purity among like-minded folk. It indeed fosters to “create disunity of the highest degree”. We remember the Geneva Bible and the original Westminster Standards partnered the Pope with Satan, but we remember too our Lord’s admonition to Peter, “Get behind Me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to Me; for you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but man’s” (Matt. 16:23, NASB), the very man He later charged to “feed my lambs” (John 21:15, NAB). “In Essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity”, is at least an ancient maxim worth PCA reflection as the wisdom of Witsius’ three-tiered elements of salvation, religion, and church. I find that brother ministers should not be shunned to disunity apart from what strikes at the elements of salvation. The Westminster Standards, though undoubtedly flawed, are certainly meant to convey the system of Scriptural doctrine that adequately summarises as much. It’s true we too often get rather uncharitable with those differing from us, whether within or without our denomination, but it’s no simple matter to simply ask an Ananias, Sapphira, or even Peter to move along to somewheres else for the sake of peace. Discipline is as discipline does, and it begins at home if anywhere.

    – grit

  10. Dan MacDonald said,

    October 20, 2010 at 8:50 am


    Great, brilliant post, for the most part. But how you got from Witsius’ careful delineations to the idea that strict confessionalism is the answer, escapes me. I think we need to do the hard work you advocated in the majority of your post, in figuring out who we are and where we make divisions, before we make pronouncements of the definitive kind you end your post with. I think Andrew’s comments (#8) to be insightful, on point, and wise.

    Still, the Witsius stuff was terrific. Thanks.

  11. greenbaggins said,

    October 20, 2010 at 9:43 am

    I’m not sure how anyone got “strict subscription” out of my post. Didn’t say it, and didn’t mean it. I have said it in the past, and I will say it again: I’m okay with good faith subscription, as long as it is understood correctly. Presbytery has the duty to determine whether someone’s difference with the standards constitutes a merely semantic distinction, an exception that doesn’t strike at the vitals of religion or the confession, or something that prevents ordination.

  12. October 20, 2010 at 9:48 am

    I commend to everyone T. David Gordon’s essay on subscription found here:

    He basically argues for the allowance of exceptions, but with a fundamental loyalty to the Confession, so that the exceptions do not become de facto parts of the Constitution. That is what the amendment process is for.

    I also think it is very helpful to realize that there are not 2 categories of doctrines — essential to salvation, and non-essential, but *at least* three — essential, important, and adiaphora. Important doctrines are our way of defining what the church believes to be true without unchurching those who disagree, as the Cambellites did. (This is from PCA pastor David Bowen’s thesis, “John Calvin’s Doctrine of Ecclesiastical Adiaphorism” unfortunately, not in print.)

    The problem with strict subscription is it may unduly prevent Kingdom growth by not allowing a gifted man to grow in his convictions as he honestly wrestles through the Confession. The problem with many broad “good faith subscriptionists” in my view is almost a disregard for the Constitution, where they teach what they want without an essential loyalty to the “pattern of sound teaching” they are supposed to uphold.

    So, for instance, I happen to think the Confession is in error on six-day creation, but I must hold my exception humbly, realizing that the PCA permits me a pulpit only by exception (hence the word), and so it is not my duty to undermine the Confession in any way but to support it. If I wanted badly enough to change it, then I must attempt to amend it through the courts.

    FWIW, Chris Hutchinson
    Blacksburg, VA

  13. Dan MacDonald said,

    October 20, 2010 at 9:49 am

    Good to hear; sorry to have misunderstood your last paragraph.

  14. greenbaggins said,

    October 20, 2010 at 9:55 am

    Chris, I think your point is the exact point at issue: is good faith subscription a carte blanche to reject whole swaths of confessional teaching? Or is it a mechanism to allow people who are fundamentally in agreement with the confession to take an exception here or there that is not essential to the system? Woe to us if we regard it as the former.

  15. Peter Green said,

    October 20, 2010 at 12:10 pm

    Rev. Keister,

    Although I certainly don’t have the breadth of knowledge of the PCA as you do, I was quite surprised to hear that there are those in the PCA who want a “generally evangelical denomination.” I know you didn’t say that explicitly, but that seems to be the good and necessary inference of your last paragraph. I could see some wanting a “generally Reformed denomination”, but who in his right mind would want the PCA to become a “generally evangelical” denomination? Do you have anyone in particular in mind?


  16. Cris D. said,

    October 20, 2010 at 12:37 pm

    So, help an old brother out – one who was away from American Presbyterianism (Canadian Reformed) for a number of years. “Good Faith Subscription” is that the same as “system subscription,” as in I subscribe to the system of doctrine contained in the Westminster Stds; I do not find the teaching at ch xzy to be compelling/convincing/of the essence of the “Westminster System”? Is “system” subscription very different from “good faith subscription”?
    How far off is “good faith subs” from a “full-orbed” subsc.?

    Somebody describe the current spectrum and its terminology, please.

    And I offer this idea: Church Office is a special privilege, it is a specialized sub-set of the local (or regional) church. As such it is a voluntary group. There are no automatic members in this special circle; no inalienable rights to stay in/remain in, once membership is gained. In terms of presbyters (RE & TE), one aspect of that is doctrinal purity/fidelity. If one’s views change over time, to become out of step with the subscription vows, the system accepted by all, that one should step down, seek a call elsewhere, etc.

    This was Machen’s expectation, and of course, the liberals didn’t se it that way, and Machen was defrocked instead.

    But what if there was explicit recognition that a man’s pension fund/retirement plan, and a severance package were available to those who, duty-bound by conscience, needed to admit they were doctrinally out of harmony and desired to move on without trial, etc. In particular, then, they don’t remain against their conscience, and therefore they don’t also seek to subvert the system, the church(es), etc. Sorry for not being briefer.


  17. October 20, 2010 at 12:51 pm


    A common phrase in some PCA circles is to try to have a large “generic Reformed church” which would be broad enough to encompass Dutch & Scottish traditions. Of course, the devil is in the details, hopefully just metaphorically. In other words, that generic-ness must look like something, so it would be good for those advocating for this to spell out exactly what they would allow which the PCA Constitution does not — e.g. women deacons?, non-historical Adam & Eve?, paedo-communion?, 4-point Calvinism?, etc. What exactly does a generic Reformed denomination look like, and why do we care if we are lumped into one denomination or continue to cooperate apart? Hope that helps…

    Chris Hutchinson

  18. October 20, 2010 at 12:54 pm


    No, good faith subscription is not meant to be a carte blanche, and woe be to us if Presbyteries are not accurate in their recording of exceptions, and/or Review of Presbytery Records does not do their job.


  19. greenbaggins said,

    October 20, 2010 at 1:08 pm

    This is my understanding of the different ways of subscribing (and I am fairly certain that not everyone would agree with these definitions): strict subscription means that no differences are allowed. Good faith means that the candidate states his differences, and Presbytery rules on whether said difference is merely semantic, or an exception that does not strike at the system of doctrine/vitals of religion, or something that cannot be allowed. After the candidate states his differences, it is assumed on good faith that he agrees with everything else in the Standards. System subscription means that one holds to the system of the Westminster Standards, while not being held to all the details of it (and the candidate is not required to state all his differences). Loose subscription basically means that one gives lip service to the standards, and then proceeds to teach whatever one wants.

  20. greenbaggins said,

    October 20, 2010 at 1:11 pm

    Peter, I am not willing to name names at this point. But there are those out there who desire to push the envelope of what is Reformed to the point where many non-Reformed folks will be perfectly happy being ministers in the PCA. I would say that there are many practical Arminians in the PCA, as well as way more FV folk than we had originally thought.

  21. Peter Green said,

    October 20, 2010 at 1:48 pm

    Rev. Keister,

    I respect the fact that you want to exercise restraint before naming names. I wish more people would engage in similar restraint. However, allow me to humbly suggest that such abstract and general accusations against unnamed individuals is not usually helpful. It tends to foment fear, suspicion, and an “us vs. them” attitude. Also, it is generally not conducive to constructive criticism and dialogue. How can we have a substantive conversation about ideas within the PCA when we really don’t know who and what we are talking about? One could say “there are those in the PCA who want to divide the church in order to pursue church purity to an unrighteous degree.” Of course such a general accusation isn’t really helpful for dialogue. Who are these people? Are they really trying to divide the church? Has their desire for a pure church really reached an unrighteous level?

    Certainly, I know that you are not trying to “foment fear, suspicion, and an “us vs. them”, nor do I think you are trying to stifle constructive dialogue. However, I do fear (ha) that such general statements without any specific referents can be problematic.

    Rev. Hutchinson,

    Thanks, that was helpful. Those are the right questions to ask, I think. Also, I really appreciated your comment @12. I didn’t read the article, but I think you very helpfully and in a balanced way summarized the strengths and weaknesses of SS and GFS.

  22. Dan MacDonald said,

    October 20, 2010 at 2:01 pm


    What brings you to believe the FV thing is so widespread?

  23. greenbaggins said,

    October 20, 2010 at 2:29 pm

    Peter, I have seen your kind of statement before, and yes, it is certainly possible to err on that side. However, if I were to name names, I would have to back it up with substantial evidence. Since this was not the main point of the post, but rather one of the applications, I don’t really feel that I have the time at this point to do that.

    Dan, evidence that my friend Wes White has accumulated over the last two years leads me to believe this. If you would like that evidence, you will have to ask him whether he is willing to show it to you.

  24. Scott Truax said,

    October 20, 2010 at 5:04 pm

    What we have in the PCA, sometimes referred to as “good faith” subscription, does protect the standards. The oaths taken re-enforce that.

    In the final analysis, any system is only as good as the enforcement of its integrity, which in our system is the collective wisdom of men carefully selected by the qualifications of Scriptures to protect, promote and defend them.

    A study of God’s Word quickly reveals He will not suffer fools in violating, taking lightly oaths, particularly those who have been given much.

    Much prayer needs to be directed for and toward these men who are entrusted with something very big and very important in the Kingdom of God.

    We also need to be praying for the seminaries where men are learning Bible, our confessional standards, the sanctity of oaths, and the spiritual nature of our courts.

  25. Reed Here said,

    October 20, 2010 at 7:33 pm

    Andrew, no. 9:

    “But until/unless that happens, it would be nice if PCA pastors, like yourself, were more careful in speaking about fellow ministers holding doctrinal differences.”

    This is an unfair and an unkind criticism, as I think the ensuing discussion from Lane demonstrates. As a PCA pastor, like Lane in a lot of ways, you’ve tarred me as well with your carelessly swung brush.

    In other words brother, maybe a little more charity even on your part is called for? I sincerely do not think you intended, but you did the very thing you accuse Lane and others of doing. You were careless in your speaking (labeling).

    Nothing more than a gentle admonishment intended. Please receive it with my sincere expressions of brotherly love.

  26. thomastwitchell said,

    October 20, 2010 at 8:04 pm

    “It cannot be doubted, that ever article is fundamental, to the denial of which, God, not withstanding the grace and benignity of the Gospel, has annexed a threatening of destruction. I say, not withstanding the grace of the Gospel; for according to the rigour of the law, all culpable ignorance of any truth which God has revealed is damnable.”

  27. October 21, 2010 at 1:50 pm

    […] Green Baggins has a nice post utilizing Witsius’ second Dissertation from Sacred Dissertations on the Apostle’s Creed. Witsius’ language regarding the “fundamentals” of the faith reflects a different understanding than what many American Christians might think of with regard to “Fundamentalists” and the Modernist controversy that swept the mainline denominations in the early 20th century, but his discussion is no less (even more?) important. Rev. Keister applies Witsius’ categories to questions swirling in the PCA.   […]

  28. Andrew Voelkel said,

    October 21, 2010 at 4:54 pm

    Reed, no.9 — Admonishment received. I was “hot under the collar” (not a clerical collar) after reading post, and should have taken more time before responding.

    Lane – I see from comments that the “strict subscription” label is one you don’t claim for yourself, and that you say you are not advocating for “strict subscription” in this post. I apologize, therefore, for associating that term with you. I think you and I must define that term differently, and I will refrain from imposing my definition on you.
    I do believe some minor changes to our BCO could be made to support and enforce the views put forth in your last two paragraphs. But, as good and reasonable as your view(s) may be, they (in my opinion) do not seem to fit well with our current constitution. To advocate for those views at this time and in this forum seems to put a negative light on all PCA ministers who happen to have some doctrinal differences with the WS.

  29. Lee said,

    October 21, 2010 at 9:25 pm

    Good post. I appreciate the distinctions made by Witsus. However, I am confused by your Good Faith Subscription description. You say in reply #14 Good Faith Subscription is being “fundamentally in agreement with the confession [but able] to take an exception here or there that is not essential to the system”. But yet in the post you claim that it does not “create a standard within the standard” nor is it a “Barthian” hermenuetic of the Confession. How can both these statements be true? If the WCF contains both essential and non-essential elements, how is it not a Barthian method of subscription? Either the WCF is the system or it contains the system.

    I admit that I am not sure I completely understand Good Faith Subscription, so I look forward to being educated. I fear that you are wrong and that the PCA has already thought threw this issue, and it has come out in a view of subscription that does not take seriously subscription.

  30. Andrew Duggan said,

    October 22, 2010 at 3:00 pm

    I think this subject is one of the places where Scott Clark is actually helpful in in his Recovering the Reformed Confession. Which is discussed in the chapter entitled “Recovering the Reformed Identity (2)”. Pg. 153-191.

    As I understand it he defines two major categories of subscription, quia (because) and quatenus (in-so-far), and argues that strict, system and good-faith are all just sub types of quatenus subscription.

    Based on his proposal on pg 189,190 for NAPARC to draft a new confession that all the churches could adopt and ministers could subscribe quia, leads me to conclude especially in light of the historical survey at the beginning of the chapter that Clark views quia subscription as an important aspect of being Reformed.

    While I disagree with Clark with respect to the need for a new confession as I subscribe quia to the WCF/LC/SC (tongue-in-cheek/somebody has to ) I think he is rather right, about the mode of subscription since it would be better for churches to a have a confession that was their actual confession, rather than disagreements over something that many seemingly view as a historical relic best protected in the archives behind bullet proof glass, but treated as a malleable document that means anything or nothing as the reader sees fit

  31. Jeff Cagle said,

    October 24, 2010 at 2:33 pm

    Andrew (#30):

    I believe an important discussion needs to take place here concerning the terms quia, quaternus, and good faith.

    As I read RRC, I was not favorably impressed by Clark’s call for quia subscription and his criticisms of Kuiper. This is not because I want to grant people the right to have undeclared exceptions to the Confession — Lane’s description of “good faith” seems right on — but because the way in which Clark describes quia subscription appears to run counter to the Confession itself.

    That’s not to say that Dr. Clark is actually thinking contra-Confessional thoughts; merely that his description is problematic.

    Here’s the passage I have in mind:

    RRC, p. 178:

    It is not that the authority of the confessions is “very nearly tantamount to that of Scripture”, but it is tantamount to that of Scripture, assuming that a given confession is biblical and intended to be subscribed because (quia) it is biblical. If a confession is not biblical, it should be revised so that it is biblical, or it should be discarded, or it should be discarded in favor of a confession that is biblical.

    By contrast, the Confession states:

    WCoF 1.10: 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 31.3: All synods or councils, since the Apostles’ times, whether general or particular, may err; and many have erred. Therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith, or practice; but to be used as a help in both.

    The Confession assumes here a stance that Clark does not consider: that no confession can be assumed above error. All confessions, which are the products of synods and councils, may err. It is not, therefore, the actual presence of error, but the mere potentiality of error, which prevents us from elevating the authority of the Confession to the level of the authority of Scripture.

    So I can neither revise the Confession to make it more biblical (I think it’s just fine, thank you!); nor can I make its authority tantamount to Scripture — the Confession is fallible; the Scripture is infallible. Clark asks an impossibility.

    To be clear: WCoF 1.10 and 31.3 forbid us from making the Confession either (a) above the scrutiny of Scripture, or (b) a rule of faith that is finally determinative of faith and practice, or (c) of authority tantamount to that of Scripture itself.

    And if (a) is true, then the only proper way to subscribe is quaternus.


    What lurks at the heart of the debate is the concern that quaternus allows people to make “mental reservations” in their subscription. If one is allowed to subscribe “insofar as the confession is Biblical”, then (it is argued) one may keep one’s reservations to oneself. Lane raises this possibility here (11-24-2009).

    And I would agree whole-heartedly with Lane that mental reservations should be disallowed. A “good faith” kind of subscription, with honest declaration of exceptions, is necessary for both conscience’ sake and for maintaining Confessional boundaries.

    My disagreement would be on the proper way to describe it. If we are indeed holding Scripture as the final rule for faith and practice, then “insofar as” must be our subscription to all subordinate standards. The language of “because” is ambiguous, and carries logical import that slides over into giving the Confession authority tantamount to the authority of Scripture — and this it does not have.

  32. Andrew Duggan said,

    October 25, 2010 at 10:54 am


    I see no conflict between your RS Clark quote from RRC and the quotes from WCF 1:10 and 31:3. In fact I see them as pretty much saying the same thing. Even in our own personal thinking do we not discard formerly held positions when we conclude they are wrong, in a favor of what we now understand to be right? It almost seems as though you are suggesting we should maintain one or two erroneous positions just to make sure that we allow Scripture to be always be right. Historically, though, Clark argues (pg 160 ff) that quia was generally the way in which the Reformed Confessions were subscribed. So to suggest that quatenus is the only legitimate model belies the historical reality. A quia subscription does not in any way imply the confession is without error. It does imply that the confession is without any error that the subscriber knows of, but in light of WCF 1:10 and 31:3 it contains the necessary that the confession it self is in fact subject to error. Therefore as Christ leads his church in to an increasing understanding of him by his Holy Spirit, the confession should be revised to reflect that. The fact that the confession hasn’t be revised to correct errors in the last few centuries, is a condemnation of the hardness of our hearts in resisting the Holy Spirit in leading the Reformed Churches into all truth.

    If you take the confession that you subscribe to insofar as it is biblical, and edit out all the parts that you don’t believe to be biblical, would you not then be left with a confession that you would yourself say is biblical?

    In fact I would argue everyone actually holds to their own personal revision of the confession because it is biblical, what varies is what parts of the confession we hold to be biblical. At the end of the day, most, I think, would rather keep the air of authority of the entire confession while jettisoning as little or as much as they desire. Every exception granted ultimately has the effect of diminishing the confession by what ever is excluded in that exception, and so the constitution of the church does end up dying a death of a thousand cuts.

  33. Jeff Cagle said,

    October 25, 2010 at 12:56 pm


    Thanks for the thoughts. The perceived conflict lies in the choice Dr. Clark offers:

    (1) Receive the Confession as biblical (meaning: having authority tantamount to Scripture), OR
    (2) Revise it so that the resulting Confession is biblical (again, meaning: having authority tantamount to Scripture).

    I’m arguing that 31.3 never allows us to draw up a Confession with an authority tantamount to Scripture. Both (1) and (2) are impossible.


    Because Scripture has the unique authority to be the “final word in which we are to rest”, the “supreme judge by which all doctrines of men are to be examined.”

    The Confession does not occupy that place, nor can it. Its authority is simply not tantamount to Scripture’s.

    Likewise, the Confession lays out a method: When there is controversy over the meaning of a passage of Scripture, that controversy is to be resolved by reference to other, clearer passages of Scripture — and not the Confession.

    Now it may very well be that Dr. Clark agrees with all that. I trust and hope that he does! All I’m saying is that the language in RRC is infelicitous, especially the term “tantamount.”

    Andrew: A quia subscription does not in any way imply the confession is without error. It does imply that the confession is without any error that the subscriber knows of, but in light of WCF 1:10 and 31:3 it contains the necessary that the confession it self is in fact subject to error.

    Yes, that is certainly one interpretation of “because”, and that would be the sense in which I subscribe (with an exception for the specific mode of Sabbath observance). Of course, one could just as easily say that one subscribes “insofar as — which is entirely, as far as I know.”

    Unfortunately, there are other senses of the word because (corresponding roughly to the four types of Aristotelian causes). Not all of these senses are good.

    Let’s take a 13-year-old communicant. Dr. Clark (per RRC) would want all members of the church to subscribe to the Confession , so presumably this fellow also. We ask our lad: Do you receive the WCoF as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Scriptures?

    How should he answer? What is the sense of his because? Has he examined Scripture, then tested the Confession against it (per WCoF 1.10), and found it to contain the system of doctrine taught in Scripture?

    Not likely.

    More likely, he would be receiving the Confession because he believes it to be biblical — as an article of faith. On the grounds of someone else’s say-so, he trusts that the Confession is biblical. So “because” here is not an examined because (as Lane has argued for), but an axiomatic because.

    In other words, the term quia does not demand of us an actual examination of the Confession in light of Scripture; the term quaternus does.

    If you doubt this, consider what happened to the Scriptural knowledge of the priesthood in the Middle Ages. Some (Luther!) retained a knowledge of Scripture; but many simply passed on the traditions unexamined. This is, in my view, where a quia approach can lead — simply because the word quia admits of ambiguity.

    Note that quaternus need not admit of any exceptions. We might require people to subscribe “insofar as, which is entirely.” You could even retain quaternus and exclude me and my Sabbath exception.

    The point of quaternus, as I see it, is to indicate a specific relationship between the two: Scripture is primary, Confession is derivative.

    It also assumes a particular kind of subscription: a subscription on the basis of a prior knowledge of Scripture, by which one may ex animo state that the Confession is a faithful and true summary of the system of doctrine taught in Scripture.

  34. Andrew Duggan said,

    October 26, 2010 at 5:21 pm


    I appreciate your remarks as well. I don’t, however, see the ordinary sense of “because” making the confession the standard by which the the Scriptures are to be interpreted. That would absurdly reverse the entire process, as in John 1:18 teaches that Jesus is God because WSC 21 says Jesus is “the eternal Son of God.”

    In other words, the term quia does not demand of us an actual examination of the Confession in light of Scripture; the term quaternus does.

    If you say so, but I could not disagree more. How can the word because have any meaning in that case?

    No one has made such an examination of the Scriptures to meet such a requirement as it seems you are raising, in your example of the 13 year old. Whether it is our own or another’s biblical research the philosophic and epistemological issues are the same either way.

    The trouble with the Middle Ages not the alleged quia, but Pope vs. scriptures. Believe this because the Pope says this. The problem is not the because but the authority, i.e. the Pope instead of the Scriptures. In the Reformed church we have a confession that says believe “this” because the scriptures teach “this”.

    It boils down to what is the reason for having a confession as part of the constitution of the church in the first place. It is so we can be agreed as to what Scripture teaches and so be be able to walk together.

    You don’t subscribe to the confession on how the Lord’s Day is to be sanctified because you don’t believe that Scripture teaches what the confession says on that subject. But do you believe that Jesus is the eternal Son of God as WSC 21 teaches? If so do you believe it because of passages like Ps 2:7, John 14:6 and John 1:18? If not for that reason then why? Can you answer “why” with out “because”?

    It would be my guess that you do have some belief regarding the Lord’s Day that you do think is what the Scriptures teach, if so why?

    Don’t you reject the confession with regard to the Lord’s Day because you believe that the WCF is not biblical on the subject? Why?

    So, do you reject the confession contained in the little ditty, “Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so”, on the basis of the “for/because”? Should it be rewritten as “Jesus loves me this I know insofar as the Bible tells me so”? Really???

    If because is too troublesome a word, how about, is? As in, the WCF/LC/SC is my confession as to what the Scriptures teach on the doctrines they (WCF/LC/SC) speak. My guess is though that anyone can apply the same sort tactic as “what does ‘x’ really mean?” Even with “is”, we had a a President of the US argue it all depends on what the definition of “is” is. I’m sure it’s not hard to find a philosophical defence for Orwellian new-speak.

  35. Jeff Cagle said,

    October 26, 2010 at 6:00 pm


    My sense is that we are very close on substance but differ on the right way to say it. Your remarks show that the term quaternus is not without problems, either.

    As in, the WCF/LC/SC is my confession as to what the Scriptures teach on the doctrines they (WCF/LC/SC) speak.

    This is perfectly agreeable.

    My two desires would be:

    (1) That when officers (thinking especially of REs and deacons) stand for ordination, their vow to receive and adopt would include the notion that they have read the Scriptures and tested the Confession against it, to the best of their ability.

    (2) That when we make theological arguments, that arguments from Scripture would be taken as serious arguments, rather than dismissed as evidence of “biblicism.”

    I am encouraged that (1) and (2) are often the case; yet disturbed that they are not universally the case.

  36. curate said,

    October 27, 2010 at 2:24 am

    I am in sympathy with your article, in principle. But there are some realities that need to be taken into account when implementing these ideas.

    At College we had an elective where the Creeds and Confessions were evaluated and compared. It was hard going, and dry. Few attended. In real life Creeds and Confessions are largely symbolical, because they require too much hard work. There is open space between the formal theology and the actual theology of most Pastors.

    The Principal of my College complained that people did not learn anything from their time there. They simply continue with the theology they learned at Sunday School – by which he meant children’s SS. I think he is largely right.

    The second thing is that people like you, Lane, who are sincere about these things, are yourselves blind to your own theological faults. You deny the plain, grammatical, and contextual meaning of the articles on the sacraments, for example. IOW you yourself are guilty of falling short of the mark that you are setting up.

    If we take for granted that you are acting in good faith, and that I am making a good faith critique of your agenda, how do we resolve this conundrum? We both wish to be confessional, but we fundamentally disagree on the meaning of a plainly stated article?

    In principle we should be on the same side, and ideally have ecclesiastical fellowship, but we find ourselves in opposition on a fundamental point. We are both Reformed, we both believe that we are being faithful, but each of believes that the other is plain wrong on a central doctrine.

    In an ideal church, I believe that you would be barred from the Ministry until you saw the light on the sacraments, and so do you regarding me.

    How do we resolve a situation where two Reformed Pastors, acting in good faith, are fundamentally opposed on a fundamental article? It is easy to say that we should serve in different denominations, but how does that obey the creedal confession that believes ONE catholic and apostolic church?

  37. grit said,

    October 30, 2010 at 3:01 pm

    To quote curate, “How do we resolve a situation where two Reformed Pastors, acting in good faith, are fundamentally opposed on a fundamental article? It is easy to say that we should serve in different denominations, but how does that obey the creedal confession that believes ONE catholic and apostolic church?”
    It is too easy to say they should serve in different denominations, just as it is too easy to divorce. Let real persecution or hardship or prayer in a garden before crucifixion come to them and just see how quickly they resolve to act as brothers.

  38. October 30, 2010 at 9:55 pm

    […] An Essential Question for the PCA […]

  39. Steven Carr said,

    November 4, 2010 at 12:01 am

    Curate: you may have heard that Lane was cleared of the charge you brought against him by his presbytery, which even has some FV sacramentalists. Maybe you ought to keep that in mind. BTW whatever an ideal Church might be, it sure isn’t what you think it is.

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