If we are to recover our confessional integrity, brothers and sisters, we must do more than analyze what is wrong. We must take our own responsibility seriously to love and defend and promote a healthy adherence to the Westminster Standards, in the firm conviction that the theology, piety, and practice expressed and promoted in them will best serve the health of the church, the salvation of the lost, and the glory of Jesus Christ.
Having stated the scriptural and ecclesiastical necessity of confessions, the purpose of this second article is to reflect on the role the Standards play in our denomination. I rather suspect that, at least so far as the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) goes, there would be near unanimous agreement among our officers and in our courts concerning the duty of confessionalism in general. The problems begin to appear when we ask how we ought to use our confessional standards? In what sense ought we to adhere to them?
Good Faith Subscription
If you’ve been in the PCA for long, you will know that we have had our share of battles over the form of confessional subscription required by our officers. At a denominational level, that was settled in 2002 when we adopted what’s referred to as “Good Faith Subscription.” My objective here is to help us begin to think through carefully the “why” and the “how” of meaningful, vibrant confessionalism within the PCA, within the current constraints of Good Faith Subscription. Having said that, permit me to add that, in my judgment, as a descriptor for a mode of confessional subscription, the term “Good Faith Subscription” is not especially helpful, and since it nowhere appears in our Book of Church Order (BCO), I do not believe we should feel overly wedded to it. However, as I understand the term, Good Faith Subscription is intended to mean that we receive men into our presbyteries based on their own declaration of commitment to the Westminster Standards, indicating what, if any, differences they may hold with its teaching. These differences having been stated, if they are judged by the presbytery to be acceptable, it is then assumed by the presbytery in good faith (hence, the name Good Faith Subscription)—that the candidate agrees with everything else in the Westminster Standards. That, I think, is what is intended by Good Faith Subscription.
But the model of confessional subscription aside, I think there is mounting evidence that the role played by our Confession and Catechisms—or at least, the use made of them in the PCA—is far from healthy at the present time. Anecdotally, one interesting, and frankly distressing, development that I’ve begun to hear more and more examples of, is when a man declares that he has no exceptions to the Standards on the floor of a presbytery during his examination, and his position is viewed with suspicion by his fellow presbyters. I’ve heard of members of presbytery responding to a declaration of “no exceptions,” that they do not think a man can have possibly read the Confession and Catechisms carefully enough. They seem to find it incredible, having been granted certain exceptions from the teaching of our Standards themselves, that anyone else could actually agree with the Standards and not with them! Friends, something terribly wrong is happening in the PCA. It is a mark of real spiritual division and doctrinal declension when a brother, who declares no differences with our stated doctrinal position, is being treated as suspect, and elders are rising to try to catch him out by finding undeclared exceptions that even he did not know he had! So much, at this point, for the practice of Good Faith Subscription!
The PCA’s Position: The Standards without Exception
Now I think it is important at this point to remember that the Westminster Confession and Catechisms, as adopted by the PCA, state the sense in which our denomination understands the teaching of Scripture. And the PCA, as a church, has no officially declared exceptions. None. Our Standards are presented to the world as the complete and official statement of our doctrine. This is what we teach. To agree with them wholly and without exception is surely only to say what we ought, ordinarily, to expect every elder to say, “I stand with the PCA. I believe what the PCA says she believes. I teach what the PCA says she teaches in her public standards.” We ought never to be scandalized or consider it problematic when someone declares no differences with our confessional position. But we should pause and examine every difference we hear with great care. Exceptions to the teaching of the Standards should be rare, and anyone who is prepared to stand before a presbytery to declare a stated difference with our Standards ought to have his reasons thought through thoroughly, and to be ready to articulate and defend his convictions on the matter from Holy Scripture, or have the presbytery refuse to receive him.
And yet, more and more, certain differences have become almost an expected norm, and are granted by credentials committees and presbyteries with little scrutiny, while those who make no declaration of difference are viewed with increasing suspicion as dangerous hardliners who ought to be interrogated as possible threats to the peace of the church. Bannerman said that confessions are meant to be instruments of unity. They are supposed to offer an agreed-upon summary of shared conviction regarding the teaching of the Word of God, around which our elders can unite. But when those who agree with our Standards are being challenged, while those who do not are being waved through the process with barely an eyebrow raised, then the role our Confession and Catechisms as instruments of unity have been seriously undermined in an alarming way.
The Right of Presbytery to Limit Teaching
Another related issue has to do with the question of whether a man can be required by his presbytery not to teach contrary to the Standards of the church. The Review of Presbytery Records (RPR) committee of General Assembly has said, “No, a presbytery may not forbid an exception to be taught.” On the other hand, several presbyteries have said “Yes” and have, in fact, forbidden such teaching. At least one presbytery has now repeatedly been cited for placing precisely this restriction on candidates. But it seems to me, fundamental to the rights and duties of presbytery in its capacity as a guardian of the truth, that it is always free—indeed it is bound by duty in the sight of God—to require that all the teaching that takes place within its bounds does not contradict the sense in which we understand the Bible. Put another way, the presbytery ought to require that all the teaching within its bounds be consistent with the Standards of our church.
No Uniform Practice
To this it might be replied that if presbytery has granted an exception to the teaching of the Standards, it has already judged the difference either to be merely semantic, or, if more than semantic, neither hostile to the system of doctrine nor striking at the vitals of religion. Therefore, what possible harm can be done to the teaching of the Confession and Catechisms by allowing the man to teach and propagate such benign differences? And that seems, at first glance, to be a reasonable response. However, consider that there is no uniform practice in the PCA between presbyteries concerning what qualifies as semantic, or fundamental, or striking at the vitals of the system of doctrine. Thus, in one presbytery, a difference may be deemed merely semantic, which, in another, may be deemed substantial, or even hostile to our system of doctrine. What is allowable in one place may not be in another. What then ought we to make of a case when a man is permitted freely to propagate an idea that is contrary to the Standards of our church in one place, when he would be entirely excluded from ministry altogether in a neighboring presbytery? One presbytery thinks the difference taken by this brother is minor and benign, while the neighboring presbytery might consider it to be sufficiently erroneous as to disqualify him from the teaching office.
Confessions within the Confession? Affinity Presbyteries?
If presbyteries do not have the right to require that all the teaching within their bounds conform to the Standards of the PCA, then it is not clear to me how they can be said to have a functioning confessional standard at all. The only recourse that is left to a presbytery in this scenario would be to draft its own list of acceptable and unacceptable differences, and to refuse to receive a man within their bounds unless he conforms to that list. But this would be to create a confession within the confession, and would surely lead to a still more thorough fracturing of fellowship in our denomination. A man who embraces a non-literal interpretation of the creation days, for example, may be unordainable in one presbytery, while a man who holds to 24-hour, six-day creation may receive the same treatment in another. What solution is there to this problem, except to resort to some instrument of ecclesiastical unity other than a shared confession of faith? Should we abandon geographical presbyteries and develop presbyteries according to theological affinity instead? But where would that lead in the end? Far from promoting unity, in my judgment, it would only foster even more entrenched siloes and divisions, and all but ensure a final breach of our already fragile denominational unity.