What Does It Mean to Subscribe to the Westminster Standards?
No one can be a minister, ruling elder and deacon in the OPC without first giving an affirmative answer to the following question:
“Do you sincerely receive and adopt the Confession of Faith and Catechisms of this Church, as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures?”
We are all familiar with this vow, but what does it mean? According to Charles Hodge our vows have been understood in three different ways in the history of Presbyterianism.
“First,” says Hodge, “some understand them to mean that every proposition contained in the Confession of Faith is included in the profession made at ordination. Secondly, others say that they mean just what the words import. What is adopted is the ‘system of doctrine.’ The system of the Reformed Churches is a known and admitted scheme of doctrine, and that scheme, nothing more or less, we profess to adopt. The third view of the subject is, that by the system of doctrine contained in the Confession is meant the essential doctrines of Christianity and nothing more.”
The first, says Hodge, was never the view even among Old School Presbyterians. Men have always been free to say that they do not think this or that word, or phrase, is the best way of saying what the Bible teaches. And with this I am in hearty agreement. To explain why, I want to cite two examples.
In Chapter VII, section 4, of the Westminster Confession we read that the “covenant of grace is frequently set forth in Scripture by the name of a testament…” The problem is that while everything else in this statement is true, I do not think the word ‘frequently’ is accurate. May I not, then, be free to state this fact without anyone saying I dissent from the doctrine of the covenant?
Or take the statement in Chapter XXI, section 8, where the Confession explains how the Sabbath is to be sanctified. Here we are informed that men are not only required to “observe a holy resting all that day, from their own works, words, and thoughts about their worldly employments and recreations, but are also [to be] taken up, the whole time, in the public and private exercises of [God’s] worship…” Now my problem here is not that I disagree with the doctrine, but that I do not think this is the best way of stating the doctrine. I do not think we should be involved in ‘worldly’ employments or recreations on any day of the week, any more than on the Sabbath. I think a better term here would be ‘daily’ or ‘everyday.’ The other term that I would like to see improved on is the word ‘exercises.’ This term seems to me to conjur up the idea of a kind of mechanized spirituality, as in read the Bible and pray all day Sunday. Sometimes I think the best thing for me to do on Sunday is to take a short nap (which could hardly be called an exercise)!
Other examples could be given. But my point is that the text of the Confession is not perfect as the inspired text of the Bible is. So there ought to be the right to disagree with a particular expression here and there, so long as the disagreement really is with the wording, and not with the doctrines.
The other view that Charles Hodge opposed was what can be called ‘the substance of doctrine view.’ And here, too, I am in hearty agreement with him. If there is one thing that I have learned from recent church history, it is the devastation that this view has brought upon Presbyterian Churches around the world.
In 1879 the United Presbyterian Church in Scotland invented what was called a Declaratory Act or Statement. Other churches soon followed their example (the Free Church in 1892 and the Presbyterian Church in New Zealand (PCNZ) in 1901). By this act, the PCNZ said:
Diversity of opinion is recognized in such points of the Confession as do not enter into the substance of the Reformed Faith, and full authority to determine what points fall within this description is retained for the church.
Whatever may have been the intention in adopting this act, as Rev. Jack Sawyer noted:
The historically observable effect of this Act was to allow the assemblies of the church to permit increasingly significant deviations from the express doctrinal propositions of the Westminster Confession, until at last the Westminster Confession in reality ceased to have any binding authority as a subordinate standard of the church.1
As Dr. Hodge himself put it, “the substance of the doctrine is not the doctrine, any more than the substance of a man is the man.” To say “I adopt the Confession of Faith and Catechisms of this church, as containing system of doctrine contained in the Scriptures” is one thing. To say “I adopt the substance of the system of doctrine contained in the Confession of faith and Catechisms teaching” is another.
The fatal flaw with this view is that there is no definition of what the substance of the system of doctrine is. We know what the system of doctrine is because it is clearly (though not perfectly) expressed in the Westminster Standards. But no one knows what is meant by speaking of “the substance of” this doctrine.
The only viable view, then – according to Dr. Hodge – is the adoption of the Confession of Faith and Catechisms as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Bible. And concerning this Dr. Hodge says:
The candidate has no right to put his own sense upon the words propounded to him. He has no right to select from all possible meanings which the words may bear, that particular sense which suits his purpose, or which, he thinks, will save his conscience. It is well known that this course has been openly advocated, not only by the Jesuits, but by men of this generation, in this country and in Europe. The ‘chemistry of thought,’ it is said, can make all creeds alike. Men have boasted that they could sign any creed. To a man in a balloon the earth appears a plane, all inequalities on its surface being lost in the distance. And here is a philosophic elevation from which all forms of human belief look alike. They are sublimed into general formulas, which include them all and distinguish none. Professor Newman, just before his open apostasy, published a tract in which he defended his right to be in the English Church while holding the doctrines of the Church of Rome. He claimed for himself the Thirty-nine articles in a ‘non-natural sense’; that is, in the sense which he chose to put upon the words. This shocks the common sense and the common honesty of men. There is no need to argue the matter. The turpitude of such a principle is much more clearly seen intuitively than discursively.
The two principles which, by the common consent of all honest men, determine the interpretation of oaths and professions of faith, are; first, the plain, historical meaning of the words; and secondly, the animus imponentis, that is, the intention of the party imposing the oath or requiring the profession. The words, therefore, ‘system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures,’ are to be taken in their plain, historical sense. A man is not at liberty to understand the words “Holy Scriptures,” to mean all books written by holy men, because although that interpretation might consist with the signification of the words, it is inconsistent with the historical meaning of the phrase. Nor can he understand them, as they would be understood by Romanists, as including the Apocrypha, because the words being used by a Protestant Church, must be taken in a Protestant sense. Neither can the candidate say, that he means by “system of doctrine” Christianity as opposed to Mohammedanism, or Protestantism, as opposed to Romanism, or evangelical Christianity, as distinguished from the theology of the Reformed (i.e., Calvinistic) Churches, because the words being used by a Reformed Church, must be understood in the sense which that Church is known to attach to them. If a man professes to receive the doctrine of the Trinity, the word must be taken in its Christian sense; the candidate cannot substitute for that sense the Sabellian idea of a modal Trinity, nor the philosophical trichotomy of Pantheism. And so of all other expressions which have a fixed historical meaning. Again, by the animus imponentis in the case contemplated, is to be understood not the mind or intention of the ordaining bishop in the Episcopal Church, or of the ordaining presbytery in the Presbyterian Church. It is the mind or intention of the Church, of which the bishop or the presbytery is the organ or agent. Should a Romanizing bishop in the Church of England give “a non-natural” sense to the Thirty-nine articles, that would not acquit the priest, who should sign them in that sense, of the crime of moral perjury; or should a presbytery give an entirely erroneous interpretation to the Westminster Confession, that would not justify a candidate for ordination in adopting it in that sense. The Confession must be adopted in the sense of the Church, into the service of which the minister, in virtue of that adoption, is received. These are simple principles of honesty, and we presume they are universally admitted, at least as far as our Church is concerned.2
Presbyterian and Reformed history demonstrates the fact that there is no absolute safeguard in any form of subscription. This is not to say that no improvement is possible. When the Reformed Churches of New Zealand adopted the Westminster Confession of Faith alongside the Three Forms of Unity, they also modified the wording of the form of subscription. The phrase “all the points of doctrine” was changed to read “the whole system of doctrine.” And it is my opinion that this is a modest improvement. But be that as it may, the fact remains that nothing will protect the church from error but diligence on the part of those who administer this oath.
In other words the men who already are ministers and ruling elders must be diligent and careful as they examine men who aspire to the biblical offices. They must do this in order to elicit as clearly as possible the testimony of these men that they really mean it when they say they sincerely receive and adopt the Confession of Faith and Catechisms as faithful (though not infallible) statements of what the Bible teaches. It is my opinion that this – more than anything else – has enabled the Orthodox Presbyterian Church to continue in the line of those men who sacrificed so much back in 1936 because they believed these doctrines.
We, as office bearers of the OPC, need to be men of integrity. We need to examine our own hearts before the Lord to make sure that we are faithful to our commitments. And one of these is the duty to ascertain that those who are ordained by us give convincing evidence of their hearty agreement with the system of doctrine contained in the Westminster Standards.