The Iron Vise

There is some chatter on a Presbyterian blog about the importance of actively defending the distinctives of Westminster theology, following in the footsteps of Machen (a Presbyterian from the early 20th century). I think that there is an object lesson to be had for the Reformed, although I doubt that they will see it (or else it will be simply rejected).

One participant writes this:

But there are issues worth putting it all on the line for. Now, which issues those are requires wisdom to determine. But once determined, we’re called to nothing less than militancy. [Emphasis added]

Let us set this alongside a remark from John Frame, a Presbyterian theologian. He is writing about subscription to the confessional standards: that is, the practice of requiring ecclesial officers (and in some communities, even the lay membership) to affirm that they agree with a denomination’s doctrinal standards. This is somewhat analogous to the Catholic principle that one must believe all that the Church proposes for belief. But there is a question amongst Presbyterians as to how rigorous this demand for subscription must be. There are (for example) those who insist upon adherence to everything taught in the Westminster Confession and its catechisms (which you may find here), but there are others who no less ardently argue for a form of subscription that requires belief in nothing more than the “system of doctrine” that is taught in the denominational standards (whatever that system might be). Frame writes:

Extra-biblical confessional documents such as the Westminster Confession have done the church good service as baptismal instruction, witness to the world, and warning against falsehood, to list the first three purposes of such documents that I names earlier. But the attempt to maintain orthodoxy in the church by confessional subscription has not, historically, achieved its goal. Many denominations that require subscription, even strict subscription, have fallen away into liberalism and other heresies. And my experience has been that in churches that use confessions as tests of orthodoxy, much time has been wasted trying to exegete the confession that could have been spent exegeting the Bible.

So, I maintain some skepticism about the very practice of confessional subscription. I admit, however, the unlikelihood that this practice will be abandoned in Presbyterian and Reformed churches any time soon. So, I have a fall-back position. Granted that churches will continue to use confessional subscription to maintain orthodoxy, I would argue that the form of subscription should be loose enough to allow the confession to be reformed by the word of God.

A few years ago there was a debate in the Presbyterian Church in America on the nature of confessional subscription. Some argued for “strict subscription,” in which an officer must subscribe to every statement in the confession. Some strict subscriptionists allow for ministers to take exceptions to minor points of the confession, but they forbid the ministers to teach or preach their exceptions. Looser forms of subscription include “system subscription,” the present formula of the PCA, in which the minister subscribes to the confession “as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Scriptures.” Usually this is understood to mean that the minister need not subscribe to every statement of the confession, but must only affirm that the confession teaches the system (the main elements) of the Bible’s teaching. Still looser forms are used in more liberal denominations, as when the minister agrees only to “be guided by” the confession.

In my judgment, strict subscription violates the sufficiency of Scripture. It prevents any teaching in the church that contradicts the confession. Thus, in effect, it recognizes no difference in authority between the confession and the Bible itself. If the sufficiency of Scripture is to have any meaning in the church, it must be possible to recognize error in the extra-biblical confessional document, bring that error to the church’s attention, and revise the confession to make it agree with the Bible. But strict subscription guarantees that the confession will never be reformed according to the word of God. (Source) [emphasis added]

I should point out that this passage comes from a web page which describes the content as part of a preliminary draft of a book that Frame is writing. Consequently it is possible that the content may be revised or even go away altogether. So it’s not my intent here to say that this quotation is what Frame officially teaches or believes; I do not wish to misrepresent him.

Nevertheless—whether these few paragraphs of his are retained or not—it seems to me that we get a helpful glimpse at the consequences of Sola Scriptura here. It is a vista we have previously enjoyed with the help of Daniel-Rops. Attempting to enforce a doctrinal standard other than the Bible contradicts the principle of “Scripture alone.” If the church can err—if popes and councils and bishops and prelates and scholars and everyone else can screw up—then there is no good reason that any man should accept what they say just because they said it. On the other hand, if this is so then there is likewise no way to prevent the sort of ecclesial and doctrinal chaos that characterizes Protestant history. There isn’t even a way of distinguishing “orthodox” from “heterodox,” because one man’s faithful interpretation of Scripture is another man’s doctrinal deviation.

So it seems that an enterprise like that proposed in our first quotation is doomed from the outset. What does he propose to be militant about? Either this requires a doctrinal rigidity that is explicitly contrary to the spirit of Protestantism and will reduce to the usual factionalism, or else it will amount to a reduction of Christian faith to a minimalistic handful of “essentials” (the enumeration of which similarly contradicts the spirit of Protestantism…But I digress). In short, Protestant calls to doctrinal fidelity can never amount to anything but mere appeals to more rigorous factionalism without first abandoning the foundational Protestant idea of Sola Scriptura.

Posted in Protestantism, Solo Scriptura

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