Confessional Subscription Levels in the Church

Introduction


Subscription Defined and Summarized

Subscription must be defined and summarized relating to the different subscription levels. First, what is a subscription? In his book, Robert Gonzales Jr., says, “In ecclesiastical parlance, however, the term ‘subscription’ or ‘subscribe’ refers to one’s affirmation of, agreement with, and commitment to a fixed body of doctrines or articles of faith that are officially representative of a local church’s or denomination’s beliefs.”[2] Here is a good starting point for understanding what subscription means. Scripture provides the church with a sure and steady anchor. Scripture is to be the true north, the one constant, but confessions provide a navigational tool for understanding the Scriptures.

It is easy to see why a confession is important, but it is not as easy to see how much of it is appropriate to utilize and how much the congregation must understand and agree. Carl Trueman draws a distinction when he says, “Second, we need to understand that subscribing to a creed or confession does not mean that we believe every phrase in the document was as well expressed as it could have been or that if we wrote it today we would use exactly the same vocabulary and phrasing.”[3] Level-headed Baptists will not hold the confession to the status of God-breathed, so in this distinction, there is room for negotiation. As Trueman says, confessions are ecclesiastical documents, and can, therefore, be adjusted to suit the needs of a local church or denomination. It is essential to understand the difference so that the well-intentioned does not injure the conscience of another. If one subscribes to a confession at a lower level than someone believes it should be, that is not the same as throwing out parts of the Bible someone does not like. With all this in mind, the next step is to identify the most common levels or types of subscriptions, and derivations are abundant so that this paper will focus on the most central.

Before listing the types of subscriptions, some terms must first be understood. Two Latin terms pertain to how someone views a confession. The first is quia-subscription, which means subscribing to a confession because it is biblical. The second term, quatenus-subscription, means insofar as it is biblical. Gonzales states, “Traditionally, the first is associated with tighter views of subscription and the second with looser views.”[4] He says that some forms involve a combination of both ideas. Additionally, there are nuances to subscription levels that can involve exceptions, sometimes called scruples, meaning some individuals might take exceptions to certain words, phrases, or even the promoted doctrine. It does not necessarily imply a rejection of the confession or a particular statement, but it has abstinence in view. Lastly, a confession must be taken in good faith with sincerity. The congregation and leadership must have a firm commitment to the confession. The Latin term Animus Imponentis refers to the intentions of the mind or heart, but in this case, it is a corporate, i.e., a church or denominational viewpoint, and this covers a wide path of confessional latitude. Next, the different subscription levels are reviewed and summarized.

Absolute Subscription

If one were to survey all the confessions since the church age began, one would find a lot of them. The answer to this seems obvious. It is a product of time and developing standards. In their book, Fairbairn and Reeves say, “At one level, all theological statements are local. That is, all such statements are influenced by the particular situation they arise and the problems they address. This is true of the biblical writings themselves, which is why we insist on ‘context, context, context’ as we interpret the texts.”[5]

            Absolute subscription is heavily context driven. In this view, the confession is taken as it was originally written with no variation, as this is the earliest form of subscription, and it seems obvious why given the period in which its adherents lived. They were the original writers of the confession they subscribed to. If they needed to reject a doctrine, it would have quickly occurred at the time of the writing. Outside of strict orthodox sects, absolute subscription is uncommon.

Historical Subscription

The historical subscription is like the absolute subscription, except the subscriber must agree to the intent of the original writers of the confession. The difficulties seem apparent, for how can someone living in the 21st century know the intent of someone in the 17th? The written words provide the intention of the writer’s thoughts. On this, it seems logical. If somebody is going to subscribe historically rather than absolutely, there would have to be some change, but it is not easy to ascertain what that might be. Gonzales avers, “Apparently, then, the historical view requires one to agree not merely with the basic sense of the words, propositions, and doctrines in a confession, but also with all the metaphysical and epistemological viewpoints of the confession’s authors or signatories.”[6] That proves the historical subscription to be a difficult position for those outsides of the ability to read minds.

Full (or Strict) Subscription

While the full subscription view does not hold a death grip on the confession, it carries a strict confessional and doctrinal stance. It runs close to the absolute subscription and only allows exceptions for words or phrases. R. Scott Clark, a Presbyterian scholar, and James Renihan, a Reformed Baptist, are the leading proponents for this position. Clark appears to hold the confession to that of Scripture. He says, “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.[7]

System Subscription

System subscription is the next subscription level moving from the right (conservative) to the left (liberal). As the absolute and historical subscriptions appear starch and rigid, the full and system subscriptions allow for some leeway. The system differs in that it allows more than words or phrases. It allows the subscriber exceptions to non-essential doctrines or propositions. What exactly constitutes an essential doctrine or proposition might be in the eye of the beholder, but it appears the intention is in the right place to allow for the system of a confession to operate within a church but not place an undue burden on its congregants and leaders.

At least on paper, system subscription appears to seek a balance that offers flexibility without compromising consistent orthodoxy, although not everyone sees it in the same light. Lecturing at a 2009 Conference, John Fesko makes these remarks, “[A] number of things that I have read over the years have shown that some people are of the opinion that system subscription inevitably leads to some form of liberalism or doctrinal demise in a number of different church settings throughout the history at least of the Presbyterian church.”[8] Fesko explains that the most important thing about understanding the full approach to system subscription is how it works out in practice. Waldron rightly states, “Liberty is not the right to do as I please. Liberty is the right to do as God pleases without fear.”[9] Internal motivating factors and a call to seek the right balance are within all the subscription levels.

Substance (of the Evangelical Faith) Subscription

The next level of subscription is substance (of the Evangelical) which continues to loosen its grip upon the strictness of the earlier levels. Substance Subscription requires adherence to core doctrines of the evangelical faith contained within the confession and an expressed commitment to the doctrines and a belief in them. Generally, this level does not require a declaration of the exceptions in the confession. One of the concerns with this level is that it becomes a slippery slope. What are the core doctrines, and who is the definer of them? Exactly where can lines be drawn legitimately?

            Stan Reeves, in his updated translation of the confession, provides some valuable insights:

Such a time-tested statement of biblical doctrine can give us clarity beyond our present level of study. Here is how it works. As we study the various doctrines articulated by the confession, we find that the confession faithfully summarizes the teaching of Scripture in these areas. Then we realize the countless godly pastors, theologians, and churches sharing these same convictions through the centuries have held that they are part and parcel of a biblical system of doctrine that is summarized by the confession.[10]            

In like manner to the Scriptures, “There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures” (2 Pet. 3:16), confession twisting is possible. Not every chapter will carry the same weight as Chapter 1 on the Holy Scriptures or Chapter 3 Of God’s Decree, but it is not easy to make quick and easy decisions about what is and what is not a core doctrine. All decisions need careful handling.

Substance (of the Christian Religion) Subscription

Rarely does a broadening of terms produce a more orthodox value system. It generally tends to slide down the slippery slope. Not only does it slide, but it slides quickly, which is the case with this form of substance subscription. In general terms, “of the Christian Religion” appears to be a solidly fundamental viewpoint.[11] What the term has come to mean is theological liberalism.

            Gonzales defines this level and pulls no punches as to the dangers involved, “The step of subscribing to a confession as containing the substance of the evangelical faith may lead to the further step of reducing the “essentials” to broader fundamentals or tenets of the Christian religion. This very loose form of substance subscription is where many of the mainline denominations landed in the twentieth century. Gonzales describes how quickly the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA) quickly descended into full-blown liberalism.            

Similarly to the previous subscription level of the Christian Religion, it leaves open doors for various interpretations. Gonzales provides a compelling case of how quickly the liberal slide can happen. In 1910 the PCUSA decided that five articles of faith were essential and necessary to the Christian faith.[12] Fast forward to 1977, and the PCUSA found it challenging to condemn homosexuality as a sinful act that would result in eternal condemnation.[13] While the liberal slide is the most likely, it is also possible to slide into a more extreme version of fundamentalism.[14] Some churches appear on the surface to be in the fundamentally balanced orthodox camp and make a claim to the 1689 Confession. However, in practice, they twist it to their own destruction, picking and choosing the best doctrines that fit their needs. These practices often work themselves out in a more rigid society, but the rigidity is ruled by the leadership in the church that has a tendency to disregard doctrines they dislike, not necessarily doctrines that are unbiblical. [15]

Application for Leaders and Members

Now that the different subscription levels have a working definition how should they be implemented at the church level? Is it appropriate to demand the same level of understanding from a seasoned church leader as a new convert? Fortunately, there is a considerable amount of latitude on both topics. The Scriptures do not provide explicit instructions on implementing such a document into the church’s life; however, they provide specific parameters that can guide along the path.

            Carefully choosing a confession is imperative to the success of any church.[16] The choices primarily involve the Westminister Confession of Faith (WCF) or the 2nd London Baptist Confession of Faith (2LBCF), assuming a Protestant background. Considering whether one is a Presbyterian or a Baptist makes this a clear choice. Within the Baptist line, there are options between the 1689, the Abstract Principles, or the New Hampshire Confession of Faith. In many instances, churches will utilize two confessions in conjunction with one another, such as the 1689 and the New Hampshire Confession. Herein, it provides an opportunity for various commitment levels built into the two confessions. The 1689 is considerably more in-depth and requires a deeper understanding, whereas the New Hampshire Confession has a more streamlined approach.

            In some cases, the officers would affirm faith to the 1689 and church members would confess the New Hampshire. A second option is to have two subscription levels contained within the 1689. Officers may be required to be full or strict subscriptions, and the non-officers have a system subscription. It also bears mentioning that confessional knowledge and affirmation should not be required for church membership. The confession itself states the requirement is a credible profession of faith, and obedience unto God (26.2 of the 2LBCF). No matter the ultimate decision, it seems the best thing to provide the most flexibility without compromising a firm orthodoxy is to discuss and reach a consensus among men of goodwill. The issue is rarely the wrong subscription level, although not entirely, but is often one of the domineering personalities that must have their way. The goal for noble churchmen should be the glory of God and seek Him to bless their labors.

Conclusion

Confessions of faith and the use thereof provide countless benefits for the church if used correctly and within the confines of leaders with pure desires. No matter how great a document might be, it is difficult to control if it is in the hands of someone bent on hurtful behaviors, and this is true of nearly anything under the sun. The subscription levels of confessions create a framework for an operation that can guide and direct the church and provide a systematic method for growing in sanctification and love. When the confession is rightly honored as subservient to the Scriptures and used as a guardrail to protect the church it serves its purpose well. Then it can be trusted to keep oneself within the confines of sincere orthodoxy.


1] The 2nd London Baptist Confession of Faith is often abbreviated as the 1689, and this paper will refer to it as such, or abbreviate it as 2LBCF.

[2] Robert Gonzales, Jr., ed., The Confessing Baptist: Essays on the Use of Creeds in Baptist Faith & Life. (Conway, AR: Free Grace Press, 2021), 133.

[3] Carl R. Trueman, The Creedal Imperative (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 192.

[4] Gonzales, The Confessing Baptist, 134.

[5] Donald Fairbairn and Ryan M. Reeves, The Story of Creeds and Confessions: Tracing the Development of the Christian Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2019), 8

[6] Gonzales, The Confessing Baptist, 139-140.

[7] R. Scott Clark, Recovering the Reformed Confession: Our Theology, Piety and Practice (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2008), 178. Quoted in Robert Gonzales, Jr., ed., The Confessing Baptist, 141.

[8] John Fesko, “System Subscription,” Lecture 2 Transcript, accessed December 6, 2022, https://www.pncnopc.org/audio/audio-presbytery/2009-animus-imponentis-conference. Quoted in Robert Gonzales, Jr., ed., The Confessing Baptist, 147.

[9] Samuel E. Waldron, A Modern Exposition of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith. 5th ed. (Durham, UK: Evangelical Press, 2016), 310.

[10] Stan Reeves, ed., Confessing the Faith: The 1689 Baptist Confession for the 21st Century (Cape Coral, FL: Founders Press, 2012), 9.

[11] When referencing fundamental I am referring to what Packer termed Evangelicalism, not the pejorative used today to describe extreme sects of Christian Fundamentalism. J. I. Packer, Fundamentalism and the Word of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1958), 24.

[12] “Five Articles,” The doctrinal deliverance of 1910, accessed December 8, 2022, https://pcahistory.org/documents/deliverance.html. Quoted in Robert Gonzales, Jr., ed., The Confessing Baptist, 151.

[13] “The Church and Homosexuality: A Preliminary Study,” PCUS, 1977, accessed December 7, 2022, https://index.pcusa.org/nxt/gateway.dll?f=templates$fn=default.htm,

[14] Here the term fundamentalism is being used as a pejorative

[15] This is a personal observation, lived out for nine years inside of a church declaring their loyalty to the confession and living in direct opposition to many of its basic tenets.

[16] An assumption is being made that the churches being dealt with here are and will be confessional. There are reasonable statements of faith available for those not choosing the confessional course, but that is not what is being discussed in this paper.


Bibliography

Clark, R. Scott. Recovering the Reformed Confession: Our Theology, Piety and Practice. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2008. Quoted in Robert Gonzales R. Jr., The Confessing Baptist

Fairbairn, Donald, and Ryan M. Reeves. The Story of Creeds and Confessions: Tracing the Development of the Christian Faith. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2019.

Fesko, John, “System Subscription.” Accessed December 6, 2022, https://www.pncnopc.org/audio/audio-presbytery/2009-animus-imponentis-conference

“Five Articles.” The doctrinal deliverance of 1910. Accessed December 8, 2022. https://pcahistory.org/documents/deliverance.html.

Gonzales, Robert R. Jr., ed. The Confessing Baptist: Essays on the Use of Creeds in Baptist Faith & Life, Conway, Arkansas: Free Grace Press, 2021.

Packer, J. I. Fundamentalism and the Word of God. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1958.

Reeves, Stan. Confessing the Faith: The 1689 Baptist Confession for the 21st century. Second Printing, 2013. Cape Coral, FL: Founders Press, 2012.

“The Church and Homosexuality: A Preliminary Study,” PCUS, 1977. Accessed December 7, 2022, https://index.pcusa.org/nxt/gateway.dll?f=templates$fn=default.htm,

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016.

Trueman, Carl R. The Creedal Imperative. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012.

Waldron, Samuel E. A Modern Exposition of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith. 5th ed. Durham, UK: Evangelical Press, 2016.

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