On The Hermeneutics Of Subscription (Part 3)

Confessional subscription must be supported by the entire community, reinforced, and if lacking, disciplined

“Most of us would benefit from a dividing of the very important question about subscription.  I also believe that in the process we will learn some valuable things both about ourselves and our parents in the faith.  What I suggest is that we first interpret what our forefathers intended, with as little eisegeting as possible. Courage is called for, for we may find that we disagree with them; or that they disagree with us.”


In the beginning of his treatment of the background of the Adopting Act, Charles Briggs noted that in 1693 the General Assembly of Scotland allowed for a rather clear-cut subscription statement.  That 1693 vow was: “I do sincerely own and declare the above Confession of Faith, approved by former General Assemblies of this Church, and ratified by law in the year 1690, to be the Confession of my faith, and that I own the doctrine therein contained to be the true doctrine, which I will constantly adhere to.”[1]  Later in 1698 the Synod of Ulster resolved: “That young men licensed to preach be obliged to subscribe to our Confession of Faith and all the articles thereof, as the confession of their faith.”[2]  Further, Briggs noted that this 1698 Act was renewed in 1705. He contends that, “the year 1705 was the first formal subscription among Protestant churches”,surely a dubious claim in light of the Elizabethan churches a century earlier, not to mention the reformed churches in Europe in the sixteenth century.  Still later Briggs reported that the Synod of Belfast, “In 1716 debated the matter, and expressed themselves as in favor of including subscription to the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Toleration Act.”  Hence, there was some precedent for the American style of subscription, and many of these could provide a hermeneutic for the Adopting Act.

In fact Leonard Trinterud,an antagonist of subscription,does an able job of recounting some of the controversies in Scottish Presbyterianism over subscription.  He admits that in 1690 and in 1696 the General Assembly of Scotland both allowed subscription to the Confession of Faith as a test of ministerial communion and further forbade anyone to “speak, write, preach, teach, or print anything whatsoever that would be contrary to or even inconsistent with, any view contained in the Confession.”[3]

Some of the earliest Colonial practice is also seen in the adoption of the Heads of Agreement (authored by Cotton Mather).  One could re-read such standards and find the earliest colonists adopting an Americanized version of the Westminster Confession of Faith (hereafter, WCF) without equivocation.[4] The record itself is unambiguous.  “Own” was the common usage of that day, as in the 1711 Scottish terminology below, which probably inspired the 1784 British “Formula and Rules” above.

For students of confessional history, Ian Hamilton has provided a fine study,[5] chronicling the decline of confessional orthodoxy among Scottish Presbyterians from 1730-1879.  In that American Presbyterianism followed a similar course, all those who wish to see an antecedent to our own symbol- ogical history would do well to absorb this chapter from Scottish history.

Hamilton notes that the Westminster Confession of Faith held a position of prominence among confessional documents within the reformed Presbyterianism of an earlier day.  Proceeding chronologically, Hamilton begins by detailing the Scottish subscription formulae of the early eighteenth century.  Documenting that from 1711 on, the General Assembly of Scotland required a strict subscription (The value for this as interpretive of the 1729 American Adopting Act is yet to be assessed.), Hamilton discusses the early evolution of the pertinent ordination vow, illuminating how it eroded from unequivocal adoption of the WCF as “ones own” and as “believing the whole doctrine contained” to an ambiguous and less specific adoption of the confession as containing a “general sense.”  Hamilton shows how this considerably weakened the doctrinal orthodoxy of the Scottish church by 1840.  One of the real contributions by Hamilton is the documentation refuting the claim that prior to the 1840s Scottish Presbyterianism accepted a latitudinarian approach to subscription.

In a subsequent chapter chronicling the atonement controversy in the 1840s, Hamilton opines that this was the beginning of evident deterioration in confessional orthodoxy.  Hamilton continues his anatomy of erosion, as the Union discussion between Scottish Presbyterians from 1863-1873 shows more cleavage.  Growing theological laxity is seen when during the Union discussions, the participants maintain that they still believe and have an unwavering commitment to the WCF, despite clear denials of particulars.  If this sounds familiar to what American Presbyterians would hear a few decades later, that is likely due to the organic strain of the common theological virus.  In fact, it may be that precedent-setting American Presbyterian cases, such as those surrounding Charles A. Briggs, were indeed guided by these controversies.  Briggs himself (Although Hamilton does not extend these lessons to the American venue) no doubt, was aware of this very strategy, noting its success.  This chapter in Scottish history should at least be seen as a probable precursor to Briggs and other American trends in terms of confessional orthopraxy.

The main point could be summed up briefly in Hamilton’s own words as follows: “The effect . . . was to undermine the belief that truth was absolute and unchanging, and to initiate the conviction that it was rather relative, genetic, and evolutionary.”[6]  In that this evolution was a critical chapter in the life of confessional history, this work is essential for any wishing to understand the meaning of subscription to the WCF.  Hamilton identifies the pathology of confessional relaxation in a sequence moving first from a general ambiguity over the “sense” of the confession, to particular denials (principally over the atonement and other particularities of Calvinism), then on to the failure in practice to discipline, onward to a zeal for union valued over purity, finally to actual revision of the confession and dilution of the subscription vow itself.  For those who have seen this repeated in American Presbyterianism, this could be a helpful caution for the future.[7]

Moreover, it should be noted that this era of Scottish history was important for American Presbyterians in two regards.  First, it was substantially the same drama which would be re-enacted on American soil a few years later.  Second and more importantly, the Scottish views in the early 1700s, in that the tie between Scottish and American Presbyterianism was still very close,even almost umbilically connected,form some of the best interpretive backdrop from which to understand the intent of the American Presbyterian Adopting Act and the subsequent affirmations of the WCF in American Presbyterianism.  Perhaps therefore, one can view issues more objectively if viewed in another venue.  Hopefully our understanding of the need and tenor of confessional subscription will be aided by this, even if it has the potential of overturning some of the work by latter-day American Presbyterian historians who favored confessional relaxation.

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