The Justification of Confessions and the Logic of Confessional Subscription

Westminster Assembly

These are my reflections on an essay by David F. Coffin, Jr. in The Practical Calvinist entitled “The Justification of Confessions and the Logic of Confessional Subscription.”

This is the only article in this series that I’ve completely rewritten.  I hate starting over, but after several days of reflection, I’ve changed my mind regarding Coffin’s position on the logic of confessional subscription.  His essay is definitely the most difficult topic for me to address.  I sympathize with the arguments on both sides of this debate that is now over 100 years old in the Presbyterian churches in America.

Coffin argues for what has traditionally been known as the strict confessional subscription position advocated by the traditionalists.  However I don’t believe this essay argues for traditionalism (evidenced by the author’s openness to the possibility of Presbyterian churches modifying their official confessional documents through the proper and legal channels).  He is arguing against the system subscription position which allows ministers and ministerial candidates to subscribe to the system of doctrine contained in the doctrinal standards, and advocating as the ideal a strict (or full) subscription.  As I see it, the strict subscriptionists desire to maintain unity of doctrine which should lead to unity of purpose and fellowship, while the system subscriptionists desire to maintain unity of fellowship which should lead to basic unity of doctrine (a common system) and tolerance of dissenters on minor point not fundamental to the system of doctrine contained in the standards.

But again, Coffin is not a slavish devotee of tradition.  He recognizes that many ministers have conscientious objections at certain doctrinal points, and these exceptions to the confessional standards should be tolerated if the majority of presbyters in the presbytery agree that they are amenable to continued fellowship and ministry (p. 341, point 6).  What is fundamentally at stake is honesty and forthrightness.  Those who are examining a candidate for ordination to the ministry have the right to know what he believes about every point in the doctrinal standards (especially in a confessional church)—whether he agrees that the Scripture teaches what the documents teach, or whether he demurs at certain points, believing the Scripture to teach contrary to the standards.  Allowing for the possibility of exceptions is a gracious and tolerant view within the strict subscriptionist position.  I wholeheartedly agree in principle, for it seems fundamentally dishonest and obfuscatory for a candidate to decide secretly whether his beliefs fit the system of doctrine contained in the confession without fully explaining his views during ordination examinations.

I say that I agree in principle, because this kind of honesty and grace can be (and has been) abused by men who sit on ordination examination committees—after all, they are sinners too.  It is all too easy to withhold the grace of tolerance toward a ministerial candidate (or a group of people who take exception at common points) and temporarily revert to a strict full subscription position.  This can happen for numerous reasons: personality conflicts, desire to safeguard the majority position on a particular doctrine or perspective in the presbytery, or even a desire to punish an undesirable view held by the candidate that is nevertheless outside the purview of the confession.  I’m sure there are more.  I believe Coffin’s call for honesty and forthrightness fits the biblical requirement for fidelity in truth, and his position of gracious and tolerant strict subscription will promote the purity and peace of the church in the long run.  But we must always remember to put irrelevant prejudices aside and judge candidates according to the spirit of the law, not the letter.

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