“Many of the historic debates in ecclesiastical communions are in no small part intertwined with certain hermeneutical decisions. That is the case for any who seek an understanding of the crucial set of issues discussed in this work. Several hermeneutical matters will be of paramount importance. This volume could be considered a success if it at least begins to settle some of the hermeneutical issues.”
Interpretation is a difficult art, nearly as much so with a hermeneutic of history as with a hermeneutic of Scripture. Of course, the former both is governed by more certain principles and also is more rewarding. Still, many of the historic debates in ecclesiastical communions are in no small part intertwined with certain hermeneutical decisions. That is the case for any who seek an understanding of the crucial set of issues discussed in this work. Several hermeneutical matters will be of paramount importance. This volume could be considered a success if it at least begins to settle some of the hermeneutical issues. Several will recur, such as:
- What was the meaning of the term “subscription” itself?
- What did fellow-Christians prior to the 1729 Adopting Act mean by subscription?
- What did those contemporaneous with and after the 1729 Adopting Act intend by subscription?
- What, if anything, from these earlier strands of tradition are we justified in accepting or rejecting?
This essay will serve to introduce a few of these matters, which will be thoroughly discussed in the remaining chapters.
1. First, as to the meaning of the term “subscription,” part of the difficulty is that this word, like many others, has a diversity of meanings. Some of the difficulty in arriving at the meaning of this crucial term arises because it bears several distinct connotations. Recognition of difference in nuance is imperative in understanding the very meaning of subscription. It can, and is used to, mean any of the following within the ecclesiastical literature reviewed.
a) To simply sign, as in to publicly affix one’s signature and reputation to a document to provide authenticity; as in a legal deposition or protestation. For example, Charles Briggs refers to several instances of this practice at the time of the Westminster Assembly. Also during the Reformation colloquies, various proponents would frequently sign their name to their theses as a sign of authenticity.
b) To formally commit oneself to a cause or to raise funds, as the practice in early American Presbyterianism to subscribe to pay for ministers’ widows’ pensions. In this case, subscription indicated an earnest pledge to contribute funds to a charity or ministry.
c) To sign as an indication of joining some ministerial communion. In American Presbyterianism, when candidates, licentiates, or translating ministers signed the presbytery roll book, they were said to “subscribe.” Still today, this is done in some presbyteries.
d) To endorse a creed or signify agreement. Subscription during the time of the later Elizabethan Archbishops, in their attempt to prosecute any who did not endorse the Thirty-Nine Articles, is an example of this.
Hence, if one were to perform a computer search throughout the existing corpus of presbyteriana, and mechanically list all occurrences of the term “subscription,” still a hermeneutical task would remain: What is subscription to the confession? However, at the outset, one (or more) of the above nuances is more at the center of our particular focus than the others. Thus, interpretation is essential, as is recognition of diversity of nuance.
2. This being understood, it is also necessary to raise the question: What did fellow-Christians prior to the 1729 Adopting Act mean by subscription? There was a definite pre-history, stemming at least from the Reformation. Reformation creeds themselves were frequently subscribed, even if that technical term was not used. For example, in Calvin’s Geneva, Calvin himself advocated the formal adoption of a Catechism (1536) by all citizens. The Ministers of the Presbytery (Company of Pastors) frequently signed documents indicating both their authenticity, as well as their affirmation. Numerous other Reformation creeds and confessions were signed. Later, the First Scots Confession, and subsequently, even polity documents, were subscribed. Beza and others subscribed the French Confession of Faith at the Synod of Emden in 1571. The Lutheran tradition of subscription at the Reformation was clear when it is remembered that certain leading Lutheran leaders were not allowed to subscribe the Augsburg Confession (1530) because they demurred at one particular article concerning the uniquely Lutheran view of the sacrament. James R. Payton, Jr. observes, “Their request to subscribe with a proviso was denied: subscription had to be to the confession in toto or not at all. The rigor with which this defense of an unqualified confessional subscription was maintained in the midst of exceptionally dangerous circumstances speaks volumes regarding the attitude of the early Protestants toward a confession.”