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The Meaning of Subscription

In The Presbyterian on 12/08/2011 at 13:03

The following article appeared in an October issue of THE PRESBYTERIAN, authored by the Rev. Benjamin McKee Gemmill. Rev. Gemmill was a graduate of Lafayette College and Princeton Theological Seminary, and pastor of the Presbyterian church in Hartsville, PA at the time of writing this article. He had previously served on the staff of THE PRESBYTERIAN from 1904-1908.
Full context would require looking at the work and issues behind the Special Commission of the PCUSA’s General Assembly referenced at the start of Gemmill’s article. But not having the time for that here, I think the reader should be able to make sufficient sense of the article without that background. Gemmill is writing as a conservative northern Presbyterian.

The Meaning of Subscription to the Presbyterian Standards

By Rev. Benjamin McKee Gemmill, Ph.D., D.D.
[The Presbyterian 96.43 (28 October 1926): 6-7, 26.]

THE report of the Special Commission, on pages 10 and 15, respectively, says:

“Among those who take a different view of this matter are some who think that there is need for revision of our terms of subscription or for some clearer declaration of the rights of those who subscribe to the Standards, and of their obligation only to the system of doctrine which the Standards contain; but others think that the present terms and declarations and guarantees are adequate and that all that is necessary is a spirit of trust among us and a recognition of divergencies of view which are within our just liberties and do not affect our essential evangelical faith”; “The first of these controversies within the American Presbyterian Church ended with the acceptance of the Adopting Act of 1729. The first presbytery, formed in 1706, and the first synod, organized in 1716, fell heir to the discussions over subscription to the Confession of Faith which had distressed the churches in the motherland and had brought division into the Irish Church. Before 1729, the American Presbyterian Church was divided in its sentiment regarding subscription to the Confession of Faith. . . . The matter was keenly debated and in the end a compromise was effected. The Adopting Act was worded so as to be acceptable to everyone and laid the basis of a creedal church.”

The Commission then quotes the preliminary act which it calls by mistake the Adopting Act.

I am not one of those who think “that there is need for revision of our terms of subscription,” but I do think that a clearer statement of the meaning of subscription to our Standards might do good, and, therefore, I venture to make some observations upon the subject.

In the present agitated state of the church and in view of certain affirmations and signed papers which have disturbed the peace and harmony of the church, we are persuaded that this subject is of first importance. If we can clearly ascertain and agree upon the meaning of subscription, there would be an end to a part, at least of the contention-and anxiety which now exists. It is with this in view and on the principle laid down by the Commission that discussion of these serious problems “may proceed in a way that will persuade the minds and win the hearts of men,” that I contribute my mite to a better understanding of this matter.

The History of the Adopting Act

When the presbytery, from which the General Assembly has grown, was organized about 1705 or 1706, no formal constitution was adopted by that body, the members, in fact, regarding themselves as belonging to the Church of Scotland and bound by its standards. After some years, as the body grew, the necessity of a formally recognized standard of doctrine and order became apparent. All the members held the doctrines of the Westminster Confession which they had accepted at their ordination. In 1727, Rev. John Thomson introduced an overture for the adoption of these standards as the public constitution of the church. In the meantime, the presbytery had sub-divided and taken the name of synod. When this overture was introduced and urged by the Scotch-Irish, it caused no little apprehension. It was therefore postponed. In 1728, it was again introduced and was referred to the next synod, which was appointed to be “a full synod,” and notice sent to all the Presbyterian ministers and churches in the Colonies. Early in 1729, President Dickinson published certain remarks on the overture, in which he took the position of being opposed to enforcing subscription to any human composure as a test of orthodoxy and standard of faith. He afterwards abandoned this position. Mr. Thomson’s overture presented the following definite propositions to the synod: (1) That the Westminster Confession, Catechisms, etc., be adopted “for the public confession of. our faith, as we are a particular organized church.” (2) That every candidate and incoming minister be required to subscribe the said Confession, etc., and promise not to teach or preach contrary thereto. (3) That “if any minister within our bounds shall take upon him to teach or preach anything contrary to any of the said articles (of the Confession) unless, first, he propose the said point to the presbytery or synod, to be by them discussed, he shall be censured, so and so.”

When the synod met in 1729, the overture was referred to a committee. This committee reported the next morning and its report was unanimously adopted “after long discussion.” The vote was taken before the noon adjournment. The paper thus adopted was afterward by the synod designated as the “First or Preliminary Act,” and was cited as such in subsequent discussions. This Preliminary Act repudiates the claim to any right or desire to impose their faith on other men’s consciences, and declares their willingness to admit to fellowship all true believers, and asserts the duty of the church to transmit the faith pure and uncorrupt to posterity. To this purpose, it was agreed that all the ministers of the synod and that should afterwards be admitted, “shall declare their agreement in, and approbation of, the Confession of Faith.” The Preliminary Act exceeded the strictness of the overture itself. The latter only proposed to apply these requirements to new members, but the Act laid hold of all who were already on the roll of synod, and required them, too, to declare their adoption of the Confession. In the afternoon, the members signed the standards of the church. As individuals and as a synod, they set up the Westminster Confession as the standard of faith for the Presbyterian Church in America. They also declared that the Directory for Worship” was “to be agreeable in substance to the Word of God, and founded thereon.” In 1730, the synod declared that the design of the Acts of 1729 was to enforce on entrants the adoption of the Standards “in the same manner, and as fully as the members of Synod did, that were present.” In 1736, the Synod passed an Explanatory Act. Somehow the Preliminary Act was published without the Adopting Act, and certain misconceptions arose. The synod thereupon formally and without a dissenting vote declared that it had adopted and still adhered to the Westminster Standards, “without the least variation or alteration,” and without regard to die said distinctions of the Preliminary Act; “And further declare that this was our meaning and true intent, in our first adopting of said Confession, as may particularly appear by our Adopting Act,” which they then recite in full, as evidence of the people “of firm attachment to our good old received doctrines contained in our Confession without the least variation or   alteration.” Such is the history of the Adopting Act.

The Interpretation

The interpretation of the Adopting Act would seem to be very plain. It was not until the case of Mr. Barnes that any view arose different from the plain statement of the Act itself. The authors of the Act had in their minds and gave expression to something more specific and more worthy than to make indefinite provision for liberty of departure from the doctrines of the Standards.

The members agreed in solving all scruples “against any articles or expressions in the Confession,” and in the exception made to “certain clauses in the twentieth and twenty-third chapters.” They talk of essential and necessary Articles, not doctrines. The Act does not indicate a discrimination between “necessary and essential doctrines” of the Confession and those which are not so, but between the “essential and necessary articles,” and it is not until the very last sentence that we find the phraseology slide into “these extra-essential and not-necessary points of doctrines.”

The question put to every candidate for ordination and to every minister coming, into a presbytery in our church is in these words: “Do you sincerely receive and adopt the Confession of Faith of this church, as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures?”

This is a very solemn moment in a minister’s life. He herein assumes a serious responsibility. If his convictions do not correspond with his profession, and in many cases it is feared that such is the case, the man lies not only unto man, but unto God. The candidate has no right to put his own construction upon the meaning of the words asked him. This is the principle of the Jesuits. The “chemistry of thought,” it is said, makes all creeds alike. Some modernists have boasted that they could affirm or sign any creed, and I guess they could. John Henry Newman, just before his open apostasy, wrote a tract in which he defended his right to remain in the Church of England, while holding the doctrines of the Church of Rome. He claimed the right to sign the creed in a “non-natural” sense. Such conduct shocks the common honesty of men. “The turpitude of such a principle is much more clearly seen intuitively than discursively.” The words of the subscription must be taken in their plain, historical meaning, and according to the intention of the Church in requiring the profession.

What is the “system of doctrine,” or what does the Church understand the candidate to profess when he says that “he receives and adopts the Confession of Faith of this church as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures.” There are three answers to this question: (1) Some say that in adopting “the system of doctrine,” the candidate is understood to adopt the system not in form or manner in which it is presented in the Confession, but only for “substance of doctrine,” that by the system contained in the Confession is meant the essential doctrines of Christianity, and nothing more. Dr. Charles Hodge said that there are four objections to this interpretation, and Dr. Henry B. Smith, a New School theologian, agreed with him, viz., (a) This is not the meaning of the words employed; (b) this view is contrary to the mind of the church; (c) the phrase, “substance of doctrine,” has no definite .assignable meaning, and (d) has been tried, and found to produce the greatest disorder and confusion. (Church Polity, Dr. Hodge, page 320, seq. Commentary on Confession of Faith, A. A. Hodge, page 539, seq.)

II.  The second view is that the person who answers the ordination question in the affirmative professes to adopt every proposition in the Confession.   The objections to this view are substantially the same as against the former view,   (a) It is contrary to the historical viewpoint; (b) it is contrary to the mind of the church; (c) it is impracticable;  (d) it would foster the spirit of evasion and subterfuge.

III.  The third view is that the intrant adopts the “system of doctrine” only, not the substance, nor every proposition.  The phrase “system of doctrine” has a fixed historical meaning. The  Preliminary Act used the phrase, “systems of doctrine.”  I do not know when or by whom the “s” was dropped from system, but there are three systems of doctrine in the Confession of Faith. The organizing principle of Presbyterianism is the sovereignty of God, and its fundamental feature is its theology growing out of that principle.

The first element in the Presbyterian Standards consists in the doctrines held by all Christians; the second element in those distinctly Protestant, and the third is the Calvinistic element. The general doctrines are those of the existence of God, of the unity of God, of the Trinity, of the plan of God, of creation, of Providence, of the fall of man, of sin and its punishment, of the freedom of will,” of the person of Christ, of the personality of the Spirit, of salvation through a divine Redeemer, and of the resurrection from the dead. The second element, the Protestant, includes such doctrines as the supremacy of the Scriptures as the only inspired and infallible rule of faith, the Lordship of God over the conscience, the vicarious sacrifice of Christ, justification of the sinner by faith alone, the entrance of saints into the glory at their death, and their instant and complete perfection. Such doctrines unite evangelical Protestantism into a vital oneness of faith. The third element in the Confession is Calvinistic, and consists of the doctrines which are ordinarily spoken of as the five points of Calvinism. These five points are: (a) unconditional election; (b) definite atonement; (c) total depravity; (d) efficacious grace; (e) final perseverance. These five points are the differentiating features of the Reformed or Presbyterian doctrine; they are the points that separate Calvinists from other evangelical Christians.

The candidate professes the faith in the doctrines of these three systems when he answers in the affirmative. The Presbyterian theology is consistent throughout. It acknowledges the sovereignty of God in all things. Rationalism gives the control of the universe to unintelligent natural causes. Arminianism makes man the arbiter of destiny and introduces the whims and variable will of man as the controlling factor in the universe.

In a subsequent article I hope to show what are the articles of faith that are “essential and necessary” to these systems. We are concerned now with what the candidate professes. There are, no doubt, some so far advanced in modern theories that they declaim against all creeds. The value and importance of creeds or subordinate standards is a very interesting topic for discussion, but inasmuch as the Commission states, “All parties appear to be willing to rest upon the Constitution of the church as- it stands,” we need not discuss that at present. Creeds are absolutely necessary as the bond of agreement among those associated in the same ecclesiastical connection, and are employed in every religious society. In our church there has not developed any very great diversity of opinion regarding the necessity of creeds. The divisive question is, how is the subscription or assent to our Standards to be interpreted? Or, with what degree of strictness is the phrase, “system of doctrine,” to be explained? There are those who give the phrase such a latitude that anyone, who holds the great fundamental doctrines of the gospel, as recognized by all Christians, might adopt it; while others interpret it strictly as to make it to include the doctrines of the Confession not only, but to preclude any diversity of interpretation. They are disposed to regard those who hold laxer views and who remain in the church as guilty of a departure from moral honesty. Such uniformity has never been required in our church. There has always been an open and avowed diversity of opinion on many points, without causing suspicion of insincerity or dishonesty, but never regarding things fundamental to the system. Nine-tenths of the ministers of our church, admitting that some diversity of opinion is admissable, adopt the Confession of Faith with a clear conscience. Where is the line to be drawn? What departure from the strict historical sense is allowable?

The phrase, “system of doctrine,” conveys a definite idea—the idea of a regular series of connected opinions, having a mutual relation and constituting one whole. A man professes to believe the whole series of doctrines constituting that system, in opposition to every other. That is, he professes the whole system of Calvinism in opposition to the Socinian, Pelagian, Semi-Pelagian, Arminian, or any other opposite view of Christianity. Now if it be asked what latitude of explanation or interpretation is to be allowed, we would answer, any which does not really affect the essentials of a doctrine, or deny the clear statements of the revealed will of God. Who is to judge whether such explanation or interpretation does or does not interfere with what is essential to a particular doctrine? We would say, that every man is responsible here in the sight of God to his own conscience and to his Presbytery and finally to the General Assembly. Therefore the Presbytery examines every candidate for ordination, to ascertain whether the candidate believes the doctrines of the church or not, and no one who is in serious doubt or unable to affirm what the church believes has any right to take upon himself the solemn engagements to preach. This would be an act of gross dishonesty, and no presbytery has the right to admit anyone who rejects or explains away any of the doctrines required by the integrity of the “system of doctrine” in the Confession.

If this rule, which is Presbyterian, Confessional and Scriptural, were followed in all cases, it would end much general crimination on the one hand, and much wild and loose declamation on the other. I certainly am not in favor of any lax formula of subscription or any lax administration of the present formula. I cannot think that it is square and honest to accept a creed, or to live under a creed, a part of which we do not believe. The present formula of subscription is both liberal and safe. “It is as liberal as it is consistent with God.” It is a binding formula—a strict one—in the use of which we are sound Calvinists. “No one,” says Dr. Benjamin B. Warfield, “can sign this formula who is not a strict Calvinist; no one who denies any one of the doctrines which enter into the structure of the Calvinistic systems as taught in the Confession of Faith. It allows all the liberty consistent with the preservation of the whole truth, and thus evinces itself as an ideal formula.”

There is a moral laxity or departure from strict moral principle in professing to receive and adopt a system of doctrine, and yet reject one or more of its constituent parts. The demoralizing tendency of a mere formal subscription is one of the greatest of all objections to latitudinarianism on this subject. It is morally wrong. It saps the spiritual life of .the minister. It is a living lie. It is a violation of the truth.

These are the principles upon which the Presbyterian Church has always acted. No man can be a minister in that church who rejects any of its vital doctrines. Some are disposed to resort to discipline at every diversity of explanation;” others are apt to wink at the rejection of doctrines regarded as vital —“essential and necessary” to the Calvinistic system.

Presbyterianism through its rigid Calvinism has always been the friend of right conduct, and social order, and religious and civil liberty. It produces a God-fearing believer and the law-abiding citizen. The need to-day is a thorough-going study of her doctrines and polity, and an “unshaken loyalty to the Son of God as he is presented to us in the Scriptures, and to the systems of doctrine set forth in the Westminster Confession of Faith.”

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