15 April 2014

Westminster: Subscription in America

warfieldIn a previous post I pointed to John Murray’s views on subscription to the Westminster Confession. Murray, who taught at Princeton and then at Westminster Theological Seminary, argues against an overly-strict subscription to the confession. The idea of ‘system subscription’ to the Confession has been the historical view of the Presbyterian Churches in America. In a very interesting quote, B B Warfield, writing just three years before the Church of Scotland’s Declaratory Act, compares the situations on either side of the Atlantic vis a vis the Confession:
We observe, then, . . . [t]hat so long as we remain a Calvinistic Church, the American Church, with its free and yet safe formula of acceptance of the Confession, is without the impulse which drives on some other churches to seek to better their relation to the Standards. We have always accepted the Confession only for ‘‘the system of doctrine’’ contained in it, and hence since 1729 have possessed what the great Scotch churches are now seeking after.     Presbyterian Review 10, no. 40 (1889): 656-57.
In another previous post, I also related the warning of Dr William Barker, given whilst he was a member of faculty at Westminster Theological Seminary, against strict subscription as a de facto elevation of the Standards to the same level of authority as scripture. Peter Enns (an elder in the PCA and a former professor at WTS) can write about his oath of subscription to the Confession whilst at Westminster in the following terms:
I believe that this oath—whether at WTS or the PCA—does not mean that someone living today is bound to every word and expression found in the Westminster Standards, but to the “system” of faith that the Standards articulate. In other words, my oath is a system subscription oath, not a strict subscription oath. I have never confessed in any other way, and this is the manner of confessional commitment that was modeled and taught to me by my professors during my MDiv years at WTS (1985-89), not only by Harvie Conn in Eternal Word, Changing Worlds, but the rest of my professors (Ray Dillard, Bruce Waltke, Tremper Longman III, Al Groves, Moises Silva, Manuel Ortiz, Sam Logan, Tim Keller, Will Barker, Clair Davis, Sinclair Ferguson), three of whom are still on the faculty today (Dan McCartney, Dick Gaffin, Vern Poythress). System subscription is, in my view, the dominant WTS perspective on the matter and needs no significant clarification or defense. It is stricter views that are not only out of line with the particular iteration of Reformed thought at WTS, but run the risk of calling into question the authority of Scripture.
A couple of things can be noted. First, that the ‘system subscription’ paradigm was the accepted understanding in the vibrant Reformed environment of WTS. Second, Enns is also on the money to identify the risk to scriptural authority of ‘strict subscription’.