Thursday, December 08, 2016

2016 "What is a Reformed Baptist?" Poll December Update

Eleven months ago we began a poll on the blog. If you identify yourself as a Reformed Baptist and you haven't already taken part in the poll, please check out the "What is a Reformed Baptist?" Poll on the right sidebar on this page (the red box with white type). The intention is to run the poll for one year with an interest in how the Reformed Baptist community might answer this question. I have given four options for answers that I think basically sum up the various groups or individuals that I have found to be using the term. Here are the four possible answers:
To regard oneself as a Reformed Baptist, one must ...

1) adhere at a minimum to a Calvinistic soteriology.

2) adhere at a minimum to a Calvinistic soteriology and to Covenant Theology.

3) adhere substantially to the Baptist Confession of 1689 (e.g. modify regarding Impassibility).

4) adhere strictly to the Baptist Confession of 1689.
For those interested, here are the results thus far:
13% say that one must adhere at a minimum to a Calvinistic soteriology in order to be regarded a Reformed Baptist.

24% say that one must adhere at a minimum to a Calvinistic soteriology and to Covenant Theology in order to be regarded a Reformed Baptist.

42% say that one must adhere substantially to the Baptist Confession of 1689 (e.g. modify regarding Impassibility) in order to be regarded a Reformed Baptist.

21% say that one must adhere strictly to the Baptist Confession of 1689 in order to be regarded a Reformed Baptist.
Again, if you haven't yet taken part in the poll, please do so. You may read more about the poll here in order to understand better why it is phrased as it is.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Excellent ESV Resources for e-Sword

I have always been grateful to the folks at Crossway for making the English Standard Version freely available for e-Sword. While other modern versions are available for e-Sword at a modest price, the ESV is completely free, including introductory notes for each book, cross-references, and maps.


The picture above shows the basic ESV module without notes.


The picture above shows the ESV+ module with basic book introductions and cross-references.


 The picture above shows the ESV+ module with a book introduction showing.


The picture above shows the ESV+ module with a textual note showing.


The picture above shows the ESV+ module with a cross-reference showing.


The picture above shows the e-Sword graphics viewer containing the ESV maps.

If you haven't checked out e-Sword yet, I highly recommend it as the best free Bible study program available. There is also a large community of advanced users constantly developing free resources for e-Sword.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

"A Model for Giving Thanks" by John MacArthur



This teaching on 1 Chronicles 16:8-36 is appropriate as we continue to celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday this weekend. As always, John MacArthur does an excellent job teaching the word of God.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Ten Years of the Reformed Baptist Blog

As I recall, I first started a Blogger account back in 2002 or 2003, at which time I reserved the name Reformed Baptist Blog, knowing that I would want to start writing such a blog at some point. I didn't start posting on the blog, however, until November of 2006.

The reasons I had for starting to write the blog include my conviction that I might have more to offer the body of Christ in my role as a pastor, as well as my realization that some issues that I was facing in ministry were not always being addressed sufficiently by others. For example, I had been encountering a form of the House-Church Movement that I had not seen anyone else addressing, even though one of its primary leaders claimed to hold to the Baptist Confession of 1689, as did many of its adherents.

Anyway, such were the beginnings of the Reformed Baptist Blog, which has sought to maintain a pastoral focus, with a balance of teaching the Church as well as warning the Church to beware of both potential and actual errors. The blog has also sought to inform our brothers in the body of Christ -- especially within the Reformed Baptist community -- about matters of interest to them. And, of course, it is hoped that unbelieving visitors will be able to discover a clear presentation of the Gospel so that they may come to know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.

In July of 2009, Richard Belcher joined the blog and contributed a series of posts entitled CHARLES G. FINNEY: Heretic or Man of God? He also contributed another series of articles concerning the history of Baptist ecclesiology, but this was later taken down when he converted the series into a book. Dr. Belcher was unable to contribute after that, given his focus on writing the Journey books and his advancing age. His contribution is missed, and our prayers are with him in his twilight years of service for Christ.

However, Dr. Belcher did make one other important contribution to the blog when he introduced me to Jeff Johnson. He had been a reader of Jeff's outstanding book The Fatal Flaw of the Theology Behind Infant Baptism, and he wanted me to read it and to write about it on the blog. He felt that, since my recommendations of his Journey books had been so helpful to him, perhaps I could help in promoting Jeff's book as well. He had also been a mentor of mine and felt that Jeff and I were kindred spirits and that we should get to know one another. Well, not only did I like Jeff's book and give it a positive endorsement (in 2010) but I also liked Jeff immediately and asked him to join the blog the following year.

The most recent member of the blog team is Bob Gonzales, who joined us in March of this year. Regular readers of this blog may recall that Bob is one of my favorite theologians, and I am happy to say that he has already contributed a couple of terrific posts. We look forward to his further contributions, and we are grateful for his participation, especially given his busy schedule as the dean of the Reformed Baptist Seminary.

As I pointed out earlier, the focus of this blog has been pastoral from the beginning. We have thus never sought to be controversial simply for the sake of controversy. Too many blogs have adopted the alternative approach in an apparent attempt to get more readers, but we have waded into the waters of controversy only when we felt it necessary and truly helpful to the body of Christ.

It has been a great first ten years. We thank the blog's readers for their consistent support, and, Lord willing, we hope to serve you well in the coming years. May our blog always seek to bring glory to God through Christ Jesus our Lord!

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

2016 "What is a Reformed Baptist?" Poll November Update

Ten months ago we began a poll on the blog. If you identify yourself as a Reformed Baptist and you haven't already taken part in the poll, please check out the "What is a Reformed Baptist?" Poll on the right sidebar on this page (the red box with white type). The intention is to run the poll for one year with an interest in how the Reformed Baptist community might answer this question. I have given four options for answers that I think basically sum up the various groups or individuals that I have found to be using the term. Here are the four possible answers:
To regard oneself as a Reformed Baptist, one must ...

1) adhere at a minimum to a Calvinistic soteriology.

2) adhere at a minimum to a Calvinistic soteriology and to Covenant Theology.

3) adhere substantially to the Baptist Confession of 1689 (e.g. modify regarding Impassibility).

4) adhere strictly to the Baptist Confession of 1689.
For those interested, here are the results thus far:
14% say that one must adhere at a minimum to a Calvinistic soteriology in order to be regarded a Reformed Baptist.

24% say that one must adhere at a minimum to a Calvinistic soteriology and to Covenant Theology in order to be regarded a Reformed Baptist.

42% say that one must adhere substantially to the Baptist Confession of 1689 (e.g. modify regarding Impassibility) in order to be regarded a Reformed Baptist.

20% say that one must adhere strictly to the Baptist Confession of 1689 in order to be regarded a Reformed Baptist.
Again, if you haven't yet taken part in the poll, please do so. You may read more about the poll here in order to understand better why it is phrased as it is.

Thursday, November 03, 2016

James White Offers a Timely Rebuke to Calvinists Who Are Inconsistent and Ungracious



Sadly, there are far too many inconsistent Calvinists who need to hear this rebuke! The booklet James mentions -- "The Practical Implications of Calvinism" -- may be downloaded for free here.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Grace Bible Institute Class on Biblical Interpretation


I am thankful for the opportunity to help Grace Bible Institute in any way I can to fulfill the command of Scripture, as Paul wrote to Timothy, that "the things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also" (2 Tim. 2:2). I ask for your prayers as we seek to equip our brothers for ministry and to build up the Church of Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. I hope some of our readers will be able to make it for the training.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Semper Reformanda Baptist Library

Back in January of 2014 I posted here that Stuart Brogden has made freely available a fairly extensive library of works pertinent to Reformed Baptists. He describes his website as the "Home of the Semper Reformanda Baptist Library, a free tool intended to encourage and equip my fellow Baptists to stand firm and dig into our rich history and theology, while never growing weary of reforming to the Word of God." I received a message yesterday stating that the web pages had been updated to provide links to library content by topic. Check it out and let us know what you think, or suggest other sites for our readers to check out.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

2016 "What is a Reformed Baptist?" Poll October Update

Nine months ago we began a poll on the blog. If you identify yourself as a Reformed Baptist and you haven't already taken part in the poll, please check out the "What is a Reformed Baptist?" Poll on the right sidebar on this page (the red box with white type). The intention is to run the poll for one year with an interest in how the Reformed Baptist community might answer this question. I have given four options for answers that I think basically sum up the various groups or individuals that I have found to be using the term. Here are the four possible answers:
To regard oneself as a Reformed Baptist, one must ...

1) adhere at a minimum to a Calvinistic soteriology.

2) adhere at a minimum to a Calvinistic soteriology and to Covenant Theology.

3) adhere substantially to the Baptist Confession of 1689 (e.g. modify regarding Impassibility).

4) adhere strictly to the Baptist Confession of 1689.
For those interested, here are the results thus far:
14% say that one must adhere at a minimum to a Calvinistic soteriology in order to be regarded a Reformed Baptist.

25% say that one must adhere at a minimum to a Calvinistic soteriology and to Covenant Theology in order to be regarded a Reformed Baptist.

42% say that one must adhere substantially to the Baptist Confession of 1689 (e.g. modify regarding Impassibility) in order to be regarded a Reformed Baptist.

20% say that one must adhere strictly to the Baptist Confession of 1689 in order to be regarded a Reformed Baptist.
Again, if you haven't yet taken part in the poll, please do so. You may read more about the poll here in order to understand better why it is phrased as it is.

Monday, October 03, 2016

Confessional Subscription: Strict vs. Substantial

We normally associate the term “subscription” with an arrangement to receive a certain number of periodicals, journals, and/or magazines to which we’ve “subscribed.” In religious or ecclesiastical parlance, however, the terminology “subscription” or “subscribe” when predicated of a creed, confession, or doctrinal statement refers to one’s agreement with or affirmation of a fixed body of doctrines or articles of faith that are officially representative of a church’s or denomination’s beliefs. The issue of subscription is important for churches or ecclesiastical bodies that are self-consciously “confessional,” especially as it relates to the commitment expected of the church’s or denomination’s officers and teachers.


Degrees or Levels of Subscription


Most churches and denominations require a higher level of commitment to their doctrinal standards from their leaders and teachers than they expect from their members.[1] Historically, there have also been different degrees or levels of subscription expected of church officers, teachers, or candidates for the ministry. On the one hand, some advocate modes of subscription that allow for a looser or more flexible commitment to the church’s, denomination’s, or organization’s official creedal statements. On the other hand, others advocate a mode of subscription that requires complete or nearly complete agreement with the doctrinal standards in view. Those who support looser forms of subscription often express a concern to protect the subscriber’s liberty of conscience and/or the primacy of Scripture’s authority. Those who support tighter forms of subscription are concerned to protect the church from too much doctrinal latitude that could open the door to serious theological error or heresy.



Strict Subscription Defined


From a desire to preserve the church’s orthodoxy and doctrinal distinctives, some Reformed leaders today advocate a “strict” form of subscription. Those who advocate this form of subscription usually define it both in terms of the nature and also the extent of one’s commitment to the Confession. As to the nature of the subscriber’s commitment, he is to affirm the Confession’s teaching because it is biblical in contrast to affirming its teaching insofar as it is biblical. This mode of subscription is usually identified by the Latin term quia (meaning “because”) as opposed to quatenus (meaning “insofar as”). With regard to the extent of the subscriber’s agreement, he is to affirm the Confession in its entirety. Accordingly, this form of subscription is also called “full subscription.”



Nothing More or Less than the Very Doctrines of Scripture


Advocates of this kind of subscription include R. Scott Clark,[2] Morton Smith,[3] and George Knight III.[4] Smith, for example, identifies “full subscription” with quia subscription[5] and argues,

In professing the Confession and Catechisms of this Church [Presbyterian Church in America] as his confession, [the ordinand, minister, or teacher] is subscribing to all of the doctrines in the Confession and Catechisms; they are all part of the system of doctrine.[6]
More specifically, for Smith and Knight, “The Confession and Catechisms assert nothing more or less than the very doctrines of the Word of God” (emphasis added).[7] This perspective seems consistent with Clark’s quia view of confessional subscription, which requires the ordinand and the church to view the teaching of the Confession as equivalent to that of Scripture. Writes Clark,
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.[8]

Every Doctrine, Not Necessarily Every Word


Strict subscription acknowledges that not all doctrines in the Confession are of equal importance just as all teachings in Scripture are not of equal importance.[9] Moreover, while strict subscription requires agreement with every doctrine, it doesn’t require full agreement with every word or phrase in the confession. At least this is true of the version advocated by Smith and Knight. Smith clarifies,

Full subscription does not require the adoption of every word of the Confession and Catechisms, but positively believes that we are adopting every doctrine or teaching of the Confession and Catechisms.[10]
This raises certain questions. To begin with, what constitutes a “doctrine” or “teaching”? In his debate with William Barker, Morton Smith agreed to the following definition or description:
Every declaratory statement states something true or false. And every declaratory statement in the Standards is either one doctrine or several doctrines.[11]
But since the meaning of a “declaratory statement” is determined by the words and phrases that constitute the statement, how can one disagree with a word or a phrase without in some sense modifying the doctrine or teaching?

When pressed for examples, Smith offered two examples where one might take issue with phrases that employ archaic language. For instance, the Westminster Confession, like the 1689, uses the term “vulgar language” to mean the vernacular (1.8).[12] Smith also alluded to the Larger Catechism’s prohibition of “keeping of stews” (WLC Q139).[13] In these cases, we may suppose that Dr. Smith would recom­mend we substitute them with synonymous expressions that would be intelligible to a modern audience.

Two other examples offered by Smith seem to allow for actual differences at a semantic level. Smith acknowledged that there was difference of opinion as to whether the term “testament” is the best term to portray the biblical concept (cf. WCF 7.4). Apparently, one could disagree with that term as an appropriate gloss for the Hebrew and Greek terms yet still affirm the doctrine that term was conveying. Smith also alluded to the practice of Dutch churches requiring full subscription to the Three Forms of Unity but allowing the subscriber to question whether Paul really wrote the Epistle to the Hebrews, as the Belgic Confession suggests when it refers to the “fourteen Epistles of the Apostle Paul,” which includes “one to the Hebrews.” Preferring the ordinal “thirteen” instead of “fourteen” would not constitute, in Smith’s view, a disagreement with a doctrine but simply with the wording of a doctrine.[14]



What About Scruples or Exceptions?


For R. Scott Clark, the answer appears quite simple: “If a confession is not biblical, it should be revised so that it is biblical, or it should be discarded in favor of a confession that is biblical.”[15] Apparently, Clark doesn’t believe a subscriber should be allowed to have scruples or take exceptions to his church’s confession. In his words,

Why should a church adopt a confession that some or even most of the church believe to be at least partially unbiblical? Why should a church not draft and adopt a confession she believes to be wholly biblical? ... Wherever there are exceptions, then it is no longer clear which document is being subscribed. Every time an exception is taken, the document being subscribed functionally changes at least for that subscriber and arguably ... for the body permitting the exception.[16]
“One could hold,” writes Smith, “that no exceptions to doctrines taught in the Confession and Catechisms should be allowed.” He continues, “This is the position that the full subscriptionist prefers.”[17] On the other hand, Smith suggests, “One could hold that exceptions may be allowed so long as those who take the exceptions are not permitted to teach views contrary to the Standards.”[18] In his debate with William Barker, Smith made clear that in allowing an exception the presbytery was in effect labeling the exception as “error” but deeming that the error did not strike at the heart of the gospel.[19]


Some Problems with Strict Subscription


While I respect the good intentions behind those who advocate this mode of subscription, I believe it’s unwise and potentially unhealthy. In particular, I see at least three problems with strict subscription.



Inconsistent


If the church believes the Confession to “assert nothing more or less than the very doctrines of the Word of God,” on what basis can she allow for exceptions? Moreover, I would submit that to change the meaning of even one word or phrase is to alter the doctrine to which that one word or phrase contributes. For example, how can I say, “I affirm the entire Confession to teach nothing more or nothing less than the very doctrines of Scripture” but simultaneously object to the Confession’s depiction of a biblical covenant as a “testament”? Wouldn’t that be taking exception to a doctrine? Or, to use another example, aren’t we rejecting a doctrine of the 1689 when we refuse to affirm (with Judgment Day certainty!) that the pope (or papacy) is “that [final, eschatological] antichrist”?

It seems to me that for full subscription to be perfectly consistent, it could not allow for any exceptions.[20] After all, if the doctrines of the Confession are nothing more or less than the very teaching of Scripture, what warrant could there be for taking exception to said teaching? Furthermore, the only allowable exceptions to the wording of the Confession would entail one’s preference for a certain synonymous word or phrase over another. For the moment one substitutes a word or phrase that differs in meaning from the original he has altered the doctrine (be it ever so slightly!). This is a departure from what one professes when he subscribes to the Confession in the language demanded by strict or full subscription.



Unrealistic


Those who advocate strict subscription are careful to affirm the primacy of Scripture and subordinate role of the church’s doctrinal standards. The Bible is infallible and ultimately authoritative. The human creeds (including their own confession) are not infallible, and their teaching is derivatively authoritative, insofar as it agrees with the Bible. Yet at times the advocates of strict subscription speak as if there is or could be a one-to-one correspondence between the teaching and authority of Scripture and the teaching and authority of the church’s doctrinal standards. “If a confession is not biblical, it should be revised so that it is biblical, or it should be discarded in favor of a confession that is biblical” may sound sensible to some. In my opinion, I think it betrays a lack of realism.

The Westminster Standards and the 1689 Confession, unlike some creeds and doctrinal statements, are fairly lengthy and comprehensive documents. Is it really reasonable to advocate a position that requires one to affirm such an extensive doctrinal statement as fully biblical in its entirety? The fact that we deny the Confession is infallible doesn’t necessitate that all the doctrines of the 1689 Confession are erroneous. Nonetheless, given the length and breadth of the Confession, it’s highly probable that there’s some part of the Confession—be it ever so small and limited—that’s not quite in accord with Scripture.[21] Accordingly, I find strict subscription, especially when tied to lengthy and comprehensive doctrinal standards, to be an unrealistic expectation to place upon the subscriber.[22]



Unhealthy


I don’t question the sincerity and conviction of those who advocate an unqualified full subscription yet simultaneously insist that they’re not elevating the Confession to the level of Scripture. However, I fear that the practice of an unqualified full subscription will often have the very practical consequences that these sincere brothers wish to avoid. It will bind men’s conscience to the Confession in a way that only Scripture itself warrants. Moreover, it will make the Confession practically unamendable and irreformable, which undermines the Reformation principles of sola Scriptura and semper reformanda.

An unqualified full subscription promotes an inordinate and unhealthy view of the Confession relative to the Scripture. The late Dr. John Murray wrote,

It seems to the present writer that to demand acceptance of every proposition in so extensive a series of documents would be incompatible with the avowal made in answer to the first question in the formula of subscription and comes dangerously close to the error of placing human documents on par with Holy Scripture.[23]
In other words, our first and primary calling and commitment is to teach the whole counsel of God as taught in Scripture, not necessarily to teach and defend the Confession.[24] Murray’s reservations about a strict form of subscription also surface in the reflections of Benjamin B. Warfield. “The most we can expect,” writes Warfield, “and the most we have the right to ask is, that each one may be able to recognize [the Confession] as an expression of the system of truth which he believes.” He continues,
To go beyond this and seek to make each of a large body of signers accept the Confession in all its propositions as the profession of his personal belief, cannot fail to result in serious evils—not least among which are the twin evils that, on the one hand, too strict a subscription overreaches itself and becomes little better than no subscription; and, on the other hand, that it begets a spirit of petty, carping criticism which raises objections to forms of a statement that in other circumstances would not appear objectionable.[25]
Furthermore, an unqualified full subscription can quench the Spirit’s ongoing work of illumination and, as a result, the church’s ongoing reformation. John Fesko, a professor at Westminster Seminary California, remarks, “If we posses [sic] the very doctrines of Scripture in the Standards, then how is one supposed to disagree or revise ‘the very doctrines of Scripture’?”[26] That is, one would have to renounce his vow before he could ever entertain the thought that per­haps something he’s reading in the Bible doesn’t quite mesh with something taught in his Confession.[27]

In order to protect the supremacy of Scripture and to keep the church’s doctrinal standards in a position where they’re subject to the scrutiny of God’s Word, I suggest some other form of subscription than the version of strict or full subscription described above.



A Better Way: Substantial Subscription


Smith and Clark argue that if a Confession is unbiblical at any point, the church ought to renounce whatever article is out of accord with Scripture and adopt one that is in accord with Scripture.[28] Of course, there’s an element of truth in this sentiment. Ideally, if we know something’s wrong, we ought to fix it. On the other hand, in a sin-cursed world we shouldn’t expect a perfect confession.[29] Nor is it easy to get churches to amend their confessions.

Dr. Sam Waldron reflects a more realistic view, in my opinion. As he stated it in an address to the 2010 General Assembly of the Association of Reformed Baptist Churches of America, “I believe in the 1689 Baptist Confession .... It’s not a perfect confession; it’s just so much better than all the rest.”[30] If that’s the way we view the 1689 Confession—not perfect but the best we know of—then shouldn’t the kind of confessional subscription we expect and promote correspond to our view of the Confession, i.e., the best, but not perfect?



Substantial Subscription Defined


For that reason, I prefer the mode of subscription required by Reformed Baptist Seminary. In its Articles of Cooperation, the Reformed Baptist Seminary declares,

The doctrinal standard of RBS will be the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith. This requires that every overseeing church and every instructor in the seminary must substantially subscribe to this confession (emphasis added).
One should distinguish “substantial subscription” from what is known as “substance subscription.” The term “substance” in this context means something like “essentials” or “fundamentals.” The idea is that one is affirming whatever he or the church deems to be the essentials or fundamentals of the Confession without adopting the entire Confession. Historically, this mode of subscription has tended to allow too much latitude. “Essential” is only intelligible when one ties it to some reference point. On the one hand, it may simply refer to the bare essentials of Christianity. On the other hand, it may refer more narrowly to the essentials of Reformed Christianity. In any case, it seems to allow a bit too much fluidity.

“Substantial subscription” is closer to the kind of “system subscription” known as “Good Faith Subscription,” which has been officially adopted by the PCA and which reflects the “Old School Presbyterian” version of system subscription. This mode of subscription requires that the subscriber affirm the system of doctrine contained in the Confession, which “system” is presumably “Reformed theology.” Moreover, it requires the ordaining entity to query the candidate concerning any scruples and requires the candidate in “good faith” to be open and honest about any and all scruples he may have with respect to the confessional standards. The ordaining authority must then determine whether any of the candidate’s reservations or exceptions are “out of accord with any fundamentals of the system of doctrine” and ensure that his exception is “neither hostile to the system nor strikes at the vitals of religion.”

Though similar to system subscription, I prefer the modifier “substantial.” The primary usage of “substantial” is “of ample or considerable amount, quantity, size, etc.” Thus, unlike “substance” or “system” forms of subscription, substantial conveys the message that the subscriber is in agreement with a significant proportion of the Confession. Moreover, like “good faith” subscription, substantial subscription requires the subscriber to be open and honest about any and all of his scruples related to the teaching of the Confession. Furthermore, like “system subscription,” substantial subscription is tighter than substance subscription.

But substantial subscription goes farther than system subscription in that it formally conveys a high level of agreement not merely with the system in the Confession but with the Confession as a whole. Indeed, since substantial subscription takes the whole Confession as its starting point and since by its nature only allows for a limited amount of non-substantive exceptions,[31] it may be viewed as a version of “full subscription” that formally allows for a limited number of non-substantial caveats or exceptions.[32]



Substantial Subscription Commended


I think “substantial subscription” commends itself in several ways.



It guards the doctrine of sola Scriptura.


When the full subscriptionist says, “the Confession asserts nothing more or less than the very doctrines of the Word of God,” he’s blurring the line between a fallible human document and the infallible Holy Scripture. That may not be his intention, but his mode of subscription lends itself to that effect. I’ve already cited Murray’s warning above. One of my seminary students shared the same concern in his assessment of R. Scott Clark’s quia subscription:

Such an approach muddles the necessary distinction between the supreme authority of Scripture and the subordinate authority of the confession. Sola Scriptura not only means that the church goes to the Word as its standard and rule in all matters of Christian life but also that the church by necessity treat no other standard with the same level of deference and respect owed to the Word.[33]
On the other hand, if we approach the Confession as an excellent though not perfect summary of the doctrines of Scripture and if our form of subscription formally acknowledges that discorrespondence, we maintain the integrity of the Confession (it’s excellent) and we uphold the uniqueness of Scripture (the Confession isn’t infallible; Scripture is).


It protects the integrity of the subscriber’s conscience.


As Francis Turretin observed, “[Creeds] cannot bind the inner court of conscience, except inasmuch as they are found to agree with the word of God (which alone has power to bind the conscience).”[34] Accordingly, if we concede that the Confession doesn’t possess a perfect one-to-one correspondence with Scripture in terms of authority and accuracy, why should we adopt a mode of subscription that seems to require one to view the Confession as “tantamount” to the very doctrines of Scripture? Ironically, I think an unqualified full subscription is more likely to tempt pastors or professors to “fudge” with respect to the integrity of their conscience. John Frame agrees and remarks,

Arguably, the stricter the formula of subscription, the more people will be tempted to subscribe ignorantly or deceptively, keeping to themselves the parts of the confession that they don’t understand, or that they doubt.[35]

It maintains a healthy esteem for ecclesiastical tradition.


Not all tradition is bad. Moreover, though Scripture is our supreme authority, that same Scripture delegates authority to the church. Consequently, we should show respect toward creeds and confessions that are expressions of ecclesiastical authority, particularly those that are officially endorsed and adopted by the ecclesiastical body or bodies we serve. The balance, though, is maintaining a high esteem for ecclesiastical tradition and authority without unduly venerating it. As Frame observes,

When the claims of a tradition are suitably modest, and that tradition facilitates the communication of the biblical Word of God, that tradition should be respected, even while being viewed with a critical eye. What we should avoid is traditionalism, such as (1) the view that once a tradition is established, it can never be changed, (2) the notion that some tradition is just as authoritative as Scripture, and (3) the notion that we should not test traditions by the Scriptures.[36] 
Substantial subscription affirms that the confession is an “excellent guide” that “facilitates the communication of the biblical Word of God.” But it stops short of requiring a commitment to the Confession that views the Confession’s teaching as “nothing more or less than the very doctrines of the Word of God.”


It encourages a Berean spirit and facilitates semper reformanda.


Our primary concern and preoccupation should be to study the Scriptures. And as we study God’s Word, we need to maintain a willing disposition to bring ecclesiastical tradition into greater conformity with the Holy Scriptures. John Murray encourages this Berean spirit when he notes,

However architectonic may be the systematic construction of any one generation or group of generations, there always remains the need for correction and reconstruction so that the structure may be brought into closer approximation to the Scripture and the reproduction be a more faithful transcript or reflection of the heavenly exemplar.[37]
On the one hand, by publicly declaring the 1689 to be an excellent and overall accurate summary of biblical doctrine and by requiring substantial agreement with it, we discourage those with major differences and divisive agendas from throwing in their lot with us. By formally allowing men to take exceptions, a church or an association isn’t placing an unreasonable stricture on a man that prevents him from evaluating his tradition under the light of Scripture with a critical eye. This mode of subscription upholds the doctrine of sola Scriptura, protects the subscriber’s integrity of conscience, maintains a healthy esteem for ecclesiastical tradition (thereby preserving orthodoxy and our theological distinctives), and facilitates the application of semper reformanda to our Confession, freeing us to make a good thing even better.
_______________

Endnotes: 


[1] Some, like R. Scott Clark, believe that the same level of commitment to the church’s confessional standards should be expected of the clergy and the laity. “It is not obvious,” Clark observes, “that establishing two levels of subscription, one for laity and another for ordained officers, is either biblical or consistent with the Reformation.... If the Reformed confession defines what it is to be Reformed, then establishing two distinct relations to the same constitutional document would seem to be a recipe for confusion and effectively two churches within one.” Recovering the Reformed Confession: Our Theology, Piety, and Practice (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian & Reformed, 2008), 179. In my opinion, Clark’s position is neither biblical nor confessional for the following reasons: (1) In the New Testament, baptism and church membership usually precede a thorough grounding in Christian doctrine (Matt 28:19-20; Acts 2:41-42; Eph 4:11-14). Thus, while a fuller affirmation of the church’s confession may be the goal for membership, it shouldn’t be a prerequisite for membership. This places the cart before the horse. (2) This approach is consistent with the 1689 Baptist Confession. According 26:2 (“Of the church”), “All persons throughout the world, professing the faith of the gospel and obedience unto God by Christ according unto it, not destroying their own profession by any errors everting the foundation, or unholiness of conversation, are any may be called visible saints; and of such ought all particular congregations to be constituted.” The prerequisite for church membership is, simply, a credible profession of faith that is not contradicted by serious doctrinal error or ungodly behavior. Mastery of the Confession as a requirement for membership is conspicuously absent. (3) Confessions and creeds are designed to protect the church from false teachers, not from weak or immature brethren. And (4) a creed or confession is an extension of human, specifically, ecclesiastical authority. God’s requirement that we submit to such authority does not necessitate that we fully agree with the authority, especially on non-essentials. See also Andrew Fuller, Complete Works, 3 vols. (1832; reprint, Harrisonburg: Sprinkle Publications, 1988), 450.
[2] See Recovering the Reformed Confession, 177-91.
[3] See Morton H. Smith, “The Case for Full Subscription,” in The Practice of Subscription, ed. David W. Hall (Oak Ridge, TN: The Covenant Foundation, 1997), 185-205.
[4] See George W. Knight III, “Subscription to the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms,” in The Practice of Subscription, 119-148.
[5] Holding Fast to the Faith: A Brief History of Subscription to Creeds and Confessions with Particular Reference to Presbyterian Churches (Self-Published, 2003), 15.
[6] “The Case for Full Subscription,” 185.
[7] This language, which Smith cites approvingly, is taken from a study paper submitted to the 10th General Assembly of the PCA. The paper is available online here (accessed Nov 16, 2011). In the audio debate on subscription between William Barker and Morton Smith, Barker cites this phrase as representative of Smith’s position. The audio debate can be accessed here: “Confessional Subscription Debate: Smith/Barker”, Part 1  (accessed Nov 16, 2011.) The summary of the debate, which is available on the Orthodox Presbyterian Church website (click here), also employs this clause to describe Smith’s position. Knight also refers to the study paper and affirms the “doctrines of the Confession are to be regarded as ‘the very doctrines of the Word.’“ “Subscription to the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms,” 129.
[8] Emphasis his; Recovering the Reformed Confession, 178. For a helpful review and critique of Clark’s book, see Nicolas Alford’s “The Quest for Illegitimate Religious Traditionalism (QIRT): A Review of R. Scott Clark’s Recovering the Reformed Confession” (accessed Nov 16, 2011).
[9] “The Case for Full Subscription,” 185.
[10] Ibid., 186.
[11] This definition was actually proposed by someone in the audience seeking clarification of Smith’s position. It occurs towards the end of the debate about 29 minutes into part two:  “Confessional Subscription Debate: Smith/Barker”, Part 2 (accessed Nov 16, 2011).
[12] Today, “vulgar language” normally denotes crude, coarse, or obscene language.
[13] The reference to “stews” in the Larger Catechism is slang. At one time “stews” referred to public bathhouses. Since these bathhouses were often associated with prostitution or illicit sex, the Catechism is apparently using the term by way of association.
[14] I gleaned these examples from the audio debate between Barker and Smith.
[15] Ibid., 178.
[16] Ibid., 180.
[17] Holding Fast to the Faith, 60.
[18] Ibid.
[19] This was stated at about 49 minutes into the debate.
[20] Or as Smith suggests, at least bar men from teaching such exceptions.
[21] Scripture is God speaking to man. Theology is human reflection on God’s revelation. Thus, the distinction between Scripture and theology reflects the Creator/creature distinction. Failure to distinguish between the authority of Scripture and the authority of human creeds results in a blurring of the Creator/creature distinction. Of course, we must also affirm the possibility of correspondence between divine revelation and human theology. God’s knowledge is archetypal and our knowledge is echtypal. D. A. Carson illustrates the analogical but not univocal relation of objective truth and subjective interpretation of the truth with the asymptote. He observes, “A curved line may approach a strait line asymptotically, never quite touching it but always getting closer…. In precisely the same way, we may not aspire to absolute knowledge of the sort only Omniscience may possess, but the ‘approximation’ may be so good that it is adequate for placing human beings on the moon.” The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 121.
[22] The so-called Apostles’ Creed is not nearly as comprehensive as the WCF or 1689. While most Reformed believers can affirm the Apostles’ Creed, a good number would take exception to the phrase that depicts Jesus as descending into hell. At the very least, they’d feel the need to qualify that language.
[23] “Creed Subscription in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.” in The Subscription Debate (Greenville, SC: Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, n.d.), 79.
[24] Certainly, the Confession may and should serve as a helper and a guide in our proclamation and defense of Scripture. As Spurgeon expressed it to his congregation, “This little volume is not issued as an authoritative rule, or code of faith, whereby you are to be fettered, but as an assistance to you in controversy, a confirmation in faith, and a means of edification in righteousness.” Cited in the preface to the Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689 (Carlisle, PA: Grace Baptist Church, n.d.), 8.
[25] From his “Presbyterian Churches and the Westminster Confession,” as cited by George W. Knight III in “Subscription to the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms,” 135.
[26] “The Legacy of Old School Confession Subscription in the OPC,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 46:4 (Dec 2003): 695.
[27] John Frame agrees and writes, “[Confessions] could never be amended; anyone who advocated change would auto­matically be a vow-breaker and subject to discipline.” Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1987), 308. Similarly, James E. Urish remarks, “Of course, if one took the ‘strict’ full subscriptionist position, one could not teach anything contrary to any articles in the Confession or Catechism. One wonders how the Church could ever perfect these standards with this kind of constraint. It does seem that from the full subscriptionist position there is an implicit assumption that the Westminster Standards fully or satisfactorily summarize the teaching of the Bible and ought not to be amended.” “A Peaceable Plea About Subscription: Toward Avoiding Future Divisions,” in The Practice of Subscription, 223.
[28] In his debate with Will Barker, Smith remarks, “If we don’t believe them, then we should not prescribe them” (about 58 minutes into the audio, Part 1). Clark’s viewpoint has been cited above.
[29] John Frame avers, “There is no perfect creed, and there never will be. A perfect creed would of necessity have the same authority as Scripture, and that can never be.” Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, 305.
[30] Emphasis added. I’m citing from the opening words of Waldron’s sermon “A Church with a Passion for God’s Son and God’s Glory,” which may be downloaded here (accessed Nov 16, 2011).
[31] One important note on “exceptions.” Exceptions do not necessarily imply belief that a statement is unbiblical. Exceptions can also mean that the statement is a matter of opinion that shouldn’t be elevated to level of the confession. Exception simply implies that the statement is not confessed. It is not necessarily a “no vote.” It may be viewed, rather, as an “abstention” on that particular statement.
[32] The Association of Reformed Baptist Churches of America (ARBCA) requires “full subscription” but has apparently taken a step in the direction of formally allowing for exceptions. In a recently drafted set of procedural guidelines for handling exceptions, the association states, “Any exceptions to terminology or phrases must be stated by the applying church to the sponsoring church before application to ARBCA. No exception may undermine the integrity of the doctrine in any Article, or the integrated system of the historic Reformed Faith in the confession, or any of our Baptist distinctives defined in the Confession.”
[33] Nicolas Alford, “Confessional Imbroglio” (Unpublished paper, 2010), 4-5.
[34] Institutes of Elenctic Theology, trans. George Musgrave Giger, ed. James T. Dennison (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1997), 3:284.
[35] The Doctrine of the Word of God (Presbyterian and Reformed, 2010), 287n.5.
[36] The Doctrine of the Word of God, 282.
[37] The Covenant of Grace (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1988), 5. In a similar vein, Murray warns, “However epochal have been the advances made at certain periods and however great the contributions of particular men we may not suppose that theological construction ever reaches definitive finality. There is the danger of a stagnant traditionalism and we must be alert to this danger, on the one hand, as to that of discarding our historical moorings, on the other.” “Systematic Theology,” in vol. 4 of Collected Writings of John Murray (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1982), 7-8.