We have considered Subscription to a Creed and the Authority of Holy Scripture. Now the question of changing a Confession, and the issues of liberty of opinion and taking exceptions are addressed more specifically.
While the Church can never pronounce on everything in Scripture, she can never consent to add to or contradict Scripture through her Confession. If she discovers that such has occurred she is bound to change, as the framers of the Scots Confession of 1560 (replaced by Westminster in 1647) pointedly stated, and as was reaffirmed in 1847 by the Free Church of Scotland Assembly when it approved the Constitutional Catechism.
Revision, restatement or correction of the Confession will not involve significant change in its Catholic, Protestant and Calvinistic character. On the issues involved in these matters Scripture is clear, although we may find better words to express them as language changes or a better grasp of particular biblical passages is achieved.
It is on other issues, usually of secondary importance, where scruples may arise. In the event of some scruple arising as to anything in the Confession a subscriber must keep in mind that the Confession is not his only but also that of the Church. The Confession is the consensus of the Church not to silence dissent but to prevent tyranny over the whole body by dissenting individuals and factious parties. We are all prone at times to be over-scrupulous and/or undisciplined, hence the Church in proper Assembly is the proper forum for resolutions of difficulties.
Some scruples arise from misunderstanding. In the PCEA subscription is to “the whole doctrine” of the Confession, that is to all its teaching both major and minor. However, that does not mean that I declare that the statements of doctrine in the Confession are necessarily formulated in the best manner, that they are exhaustive statements of the doctrines expressed, that every teaching of Scripture is dealt with or every error condemned, or that mere allusions or incidental remarks are binding.
Here and there the changed historical circumstances of a church with a long history like ours may mean misunderstanding.
(1) Long-standing, godly elders are not always aware that WCF 23:3, about the role of the civil magistrate in calling Synods, was limited by the Church of Scotland when it adopted the Confession in 1647, and is therefore limited by us, and rightly.
(2) I’ve heard some of our people express the opinion that the questions used at ordinations and inductions need to be recast a little to relate them more to our Australian situation than to the Disruption in Scotland in 1843. I think there’s merit in this.
(3) Others may not realise that the term ‘psalms’ in WCF 21:5 was not intended by our Mother church in 1647 to be necessarily equated to the Psalter, or to decide the limits of Biblically permissible songs in God’s worship.
(4) Still others may misunderstand the reference to the papacy in WCF 25:6, or even the reference to creation in the space of six days, 4:1.
The antidote in such matters is a bit of historical study and maybe some clarifying updating of the text.
Liberty and its limits
There remains the question of liberty of opinion. The framers of the Confession never intended their work to decide every issue. It was, after all, a consensus, and dealt with all the major doctrines. So there will be areas where different opinions on subsidiary/ undefined issues will be held by those who are intelligent and genuine strict subscribers.
But what about areas the Confession does speak to? Can there be disagreement there? Yes and No, I would say.
Yes, because even the Confession itself distinguishes between errors censurable in their own nature (eg. the grounds of divorce), and other errors which are censurable because of the manner in which they are maintained and propagated (WCF 20:4). It therefore seems to be open for the church to accept as an office-bearer someone otherwise qualified who has certain exceptions [being ‘errors not censurable in their own nature’], which are not maintained and propagated in an objectionable manner.
No, given that no distinction is made between major and minor doctrines when accepting ‘the whole doctrine’. In the PCEA any exceptions would have to be dealt with at Synod level, and we have not had occasion to do so hitherto.
Most churches, including the PCEA, have allowed good sense to rule in those few minor points where well recognised differences exist. For example, a number of the best ministers in our tradition [eg. Murray M’Cheyne of Dundee, John Sinclair of Geelong] were of pre-millennial persuasion (although not dispensational). This is hardly fully consistent with the Confession but has not given rise to censure.
Sometimes it is argued in less strict bodies that one has a ‘liberty of opinion’ to believe but not to teach a different viewpoint on some secondary issue dealt with in the Confession. I do not believe this is tenable. It leads to a new papalism where the authority of the church binds the conscience improperly. A promise not to teach something one regards as the teaching of the Word of God is rightly forbidden by WCF 22:7. It follows that if a Church accepts an office-bearer otherwise qualified who had certain exceptions, those exceptions should be in relatively small matters (‘not censurable in their own nature’) and could be publicly expressed by that person, so long as there was respect for the consensus Confession of the Church. In other words, the manner of maintaining them would have to be appropriate, not fomenting schism, etc.
The liberty of opinion clauses that became common in larger Presbyterian bodies around 1900 were framed in a context where there was dissatisfaction with major doctrines like the atonement and God’s decrees, even Scripture itself. To grant an undefined liberty of opinion (and logically therefore liberty of expression also) in matters not essential, without defining the essentials unambiguously, is to invite a broadening of teaching beyond the limits of Scripture. Is it being loyal to Christ the only Head of the Church? Yet in rightly strongly objecting to such a procedure as replacing a definite creed with a fluctuating one we must be careful not to advance a confessionalism which undercuts the supremacy of Scripture and thus denies our Confession!
Yes, we need a strict subscription, yet always the recognition that if anything is found apparently repugnant to the Word of God we will give satisfaction from that Word or amend the confession to make it conform to Scripture.1 Of course the future orthodoxy of a Church will not be secured simply by fine trust deeds or formulas of subscription, but by godly men who know, live and teach the Word of God.
Also, while checks against hasty or ill-considered action are good, the Christian Church must always be free to obey her Lord in entering into a wider expression of visible unity in agreement with the Word of God, where that possibility presents itself.2
So how would one summarise a proper subscription?
Here follows my draft of the substance of what I believe is involved in my own subscription as a PCEA minister. It is couched in rather different words than the questions and formula I signed in 1976 in order to illustrate what I have been saying, and to further understanding of the proper place of the Confession.
1. I wholeheartedly and willingly acknowledge before God without mental reservation, that the Holy Scriptures, consisting of the Old and New Testaments, are the Word of God and the only rule of faith and conduct.
2. I further wholeheartedly and willingly acknowledge before God that I believe all the doctrines contained in the Westminster Confession of Faith as received by the Church of Scotland in the year 1647, and interpreted in the Disruption documents by those who formed the Free Church of Scotland in the year 1843, to be a faithful setting forth of the teaching of the Word of God. To all those doctrines, both major and minor, I subscribe without reservation and confess to be my own understanding of the teaching of the Word of God, which I will assert, maintain and defend.
3. In making this subscription I understand that the Westminster Confession is not on a level with the Word of God. Thus, I do not declare that the statements of doctrine in it are necessarily formulated in the best manner, or that they are exhaustive statements of the doctrines expressed, or that every teaching of Scripture is dealt with or every error condemned, or that mere allusions or incidental remarks are binding. Nevertheless, I subscribe as previously stated to all the teachings intentionally conveyed by the Confession because I believe them to be derived from the Holy Scriptures and in agreement with them.
4. I pledge myself faithfully to adhere to all the teachings of the Westminster Confession and to reject all doctrines or opinions whatever that are contrary to or inconsistent with them. Should at any time a question arise as to my understanding of any of the teachings of the Word of God that may seem to conflict with my subscription to the teaching of the Confession, I solemnly undertake not to act or teach independently but to bring such a matter before the relevant church assembly for clarification or resolution, including by final appeal to the Word of God.
5. I further acknowledge that the principles of Presbyterian government by elders duly met in congregational, regional and broader assemblies, as also the simplicity and spirituality of worship as practised by this Church, are soundly based on the Word of God. I acknowledge the authority of the Church to administer the teaching of the Word of God in subjection to that Word, and I promise to observe the Practice and Procedure of the Church in an orderly manner and to uphold its worship, government and discipline. Should I have cause in conscience to disagree with a decision of the church, I recognise that I may clear my conscience by a formal dissent, but that I remain obligated to submit to my brothers in Church assembly and to promote the unity of the Church.
* From The Presbyterian Banner, April 2001.
1 This provision was expressly stated by the framers of the Scots Confession in 1560.
2 A strict subscription to the WCF, as I have defined it, would not appear inconsistent with a similar strict subscription to the Three Forms of Unity also, except perhaps in regard to the theoretical underpinning of the fourth commandment where the early Reformation position reflected in the TFU has been supplanted in the WCF by the binding moral obligation of a weekly day of rest, cf. Richard Gaffin, Calvin and the Sabbath (Christian Focus/Mentor 1998); Z. Ursinus, Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism (English translation 1852) on Q 103; G.I.Williamson, The Heidelberg Catechism – Study Guide (P & R 1993) on Q 103. Note the two views well stated in Acts of the Reformed Ecumenical Synod, 1972, pp. 146-166. In practical terms there appears no great difference in Sabbath observance among the strict subscription churches at the present time, if one allows for cultural variations.