The Confessional Subscription Debate at Westminster Theological Seminary in California

Graham Harbman

Extracted from Ordained Servant vol. 9, no. 2 (April 2000), pp. 39-42

Subscriptionism: A Crucial Debate

Numerous theological debates continue to swirl within Reformed circles. Proponents for each side ardently insist that this or that particular issue must be defended at all cost in order to prevent further erosion of our Reformed heritage. Notable issues currently at the forefront in various Presbyterian and Reformed denominations are: the days of creation, the regulative principle of worship, and the ordination of women. There is, however, one recurring feature in all these issues. That feature is the role of confessions. How one views the authority of his church's confession bears directly on his approach to each of the above issues. But there continues a debate, particularly in American Presbyterianism, over the exact role of confessions, specifically the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms. What exactly does it mean for a candidate for the ministry to vow that he "receives and adopts" the Westminster Standards? What constitutes taking an exception to the Standards and what limitations, if any, should the church place on a man who takes an exception?

The Student Association of Westminster Theological Seminary in California recently hosted a debate on confessional subscription to examine these questions on September 17-18, 1999. Dr. William Barker, professor of church history at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, spoke in defense of system (or loose) subscription and Dr. Morton Smith, professor of biblical and systematic theology at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, defended full (or strict) subscription. In order to lay the historic background, Dr. Robert Godfrey, president and professor of church history at Westminster in California, spoke on the development and role of creeds and confessions in church history up through the Reformation, and Dr. Michael Horton, professor of historical theology at Westminster in California, addressed the church's need for creeds and confessions in postmodern America.

Historical Background and the Need for Confessions Today

Dr. Godfrey reviewed the precedent for creeds in the New Testament and Ancient church. Drawing implications from the 1619 Form of Subscription from the Synod of Dordt, he said that the church must not treat confessions as out-of-date museum pieces, but rather, she must actively conform to them and willingly amend them wherever necessary. Doing so is essential for preserving the sole authority of the Bible. Confessions are not, however, mere compendiums of systematic theologies from which we can pick and choose at leisure. They are not simply one man's theology; they are the corporate church's theology. As such, they should be embraced not only by her officers, but also by her members. He noted that this continental approach is contrasted with American Presbyterian A. A. Hodge who said that the church ought not make any condition for membership which Christ did not make for salvation.

Dr. Horton emphasized that confessions are necessary for the church in postmodern America as she fights against individualism, pragmatism, and sectarianism. Put positively, confessions help keep succeeding generations in the covenant and give the church an identity in missions. Confessions also allow us to be more ecumenical in the face of sects whose exponential growth promotes schism.

American Presbyterianism

With that introduction, Drs. Barker and Smith, both ruling elders in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), focused on the particular issues in American Presbyterianism. They have written extensively on this subject and engaged together repeatedly in similar forums over the past 20 years. Before reviewing their presentations, it would be helpful to define terms. Both men agree that strict and loose subscription do not adequately describe their positions. While full and system are not perfect, they are better descriptors. First, neither position says that every phrase and proposition in the standards must be received and adopted. There is no evidence of anyone in the history of American Presbyterianism who held such a position. Both sides acknowledge that particular phrases and words could be sharpened without compromising any doctrine. [Note: There is room for a nuance here in what exactly constitutes a doctrine and this nuance will show itself in the remaining discussion. Suffice it so say, however, that there is general agreement on this specific point.]

Full subscription says that every doctrine in the Westminster Standards is "essential and necessary" and should not be excepted by any ordained officer. System subscription says that a minister need not receive and adopt every doctrine but only those which are "essential and necessary" to the system of doctrine contained in Scripture. If one remarks at this point that these two definitions only force the question of what constitutes a doctrine as opposed to an "essential and necessary" doctrine, he is right on track for following the rest of the debate!

The Adopting Act of 1729

Their differences begin with interpreting the Adopting Act of 1729 in which the General Synod of the Presbyterian Church in colonial America adopted the Westminster Confession and Catechisms. Each speaker presented a detailed analysis of the actions taken by the General Synod on September 19, 1729 and the precedence which those actions set for subsequent synods.

On that day, two different acts were adopted, the "Preliminary Act" in the morning and the "Adopting Act" in the afternoon. Much of the discussion that day had to do with portions of chapters 20 and 23 regarding the civil magistrate. Since many took exception to these portions, the Preliminary Act made reference to "all the essential and necessary articles" of the Standards. The Adopting Act in the afternoon specifically identified these exceptions as pertaining only to the civil magistrate and therefore no reference was made to "all the essential and necessary articles."

Smith and full subscriptionists hold that the Adopting Act definitively interprets the intent of the Preliminary Act. The Adopting Act determined that the portions regarding the civil magistrate and no others were acceptable exceptions to the Standards. The emphasis is on the Adopting Act being a definitive interpretation of the Preliminary Act, settling the only issue regarding subscription so that there is now no justification in altering their decisions. Barker and system subscriptionists hold that the Adopting Act and Preliminary Act must be viewed together. Instead of having the Adopting Act definitively interpret the Preliminary Act, we must see it as setting an example for subsequent church courts. Later courts must in turn determine for themselves whether a particular doctrine is "essential and necessary" to the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures in the same manner followed by this first court.

The Real Question

Armed with his own interpretation of the Adopting Act, each speaker cited the same church court cases and the massive writings of Charles Hodge to support his position. After the detailed presentations, the speakers offered rebuttals and exchanged questions to further clarify the issue at stake. By the end it became evident that their main difference can be summarized with one pivotal question. Their difference over what constitutes an "essential and necessary" doctrine turns out, in the final analysis, to be a matter of judgment. Neither speaker could offer a definitive criterion for how to distinguish between a doctrine and an "essential and necessary" doctrine. The real question comes down to whether a man should be allowed to teach something which the church courts hold to be out of accord with its standards.

Barker submits that the church has no place to bind a man's conscience and limit what he teaches. If a man believes something which the courts determine to be contrary to its standards, it has two options. It can either: (1) decide the issue is not an essential and necessary doctrine and therefore choose to ordain him with no limitations placed on his teaching, or (2) decide the issue is an essential and necessary doctrine and not ordain him. (He was quick to point out that every minister has the responsibility to protect the peace and unity of the church and so must exercise extreme sensitivity as he teaches and preaches on such topics.) Barker believes that to ordain a man and then tell him that he cannot teach something because it is contrary to the church's standards is unbiblical because it binds his conscience to something other than the Word of God and thus elevates the standards to the authority of Scripture.

Smith submits that there is biblical warrant for insisting on full subscription and the church must prohibit any teaching contrary to the standards in order to preserve orthodoxy. The Westminster Standards teach "nothing more or less than the very doctrines of the Word." If exceptions are allowed to be taught, then ruin is inevitable. Smith cited the demise of the Northern Church in the Old School/New School controversy of the 19th century as an example of what happens when system subscription is tolerated.

Barker objected to the claim that the Westminster Standards teach "nothing more or less than the very doctrines of the Word." According to him, this is de facto elevation of the Standards to the authority of Scripture. In fact, many Presbyterians agree that the Westminster Standards indeed go beyond Scripture regarding the Sabbath, and most would agree that the Word has more to say on eschatology than the Westminster Standards does.

Smith defended himself against the charge of elevating the Westminster Standards to the authority of Scripture by appealing to language within the Confession itself which teaches that the Scripture is our single rule for faith and life. If the Confession says this so clearly, then certainly one cannot charge the Confession with being elevated to a position which itself denies.


In conclusion, these two leading authorities on confessional subscription agree that the debate boils down to one crucial question. Is it biblical for the church to prohibit a man to teach a doctrine which it determines to be an exception to its own standards? Smith says yes because it is necessary to preserve the orthodoxy of the church. Barker says no because it unbiblically binds the man's conscience and elevates the standard to an authority equal with Scripture.

Throughout the debate, both men conducted themselves in a true spirit of humility and mutual respect. It was a pleasure to see men with such deep convictions present themselves with such exemplary character. The Church of Christ needs more leaders who will set such a godly example of how to humbly conduct oneself in the midst of significant differences among brothers. At the conclusion of the debate, both men remarked that their continued dialogue in forums such as this has helped narrow the gap of their differences and increase their appreciation for the vast similarities in their positions.


The following are helpful writings by both men on subscriptionism:

A Quotation from John Murray

"The persons subscribing to that creed are bound to adhere to its teachings as long as they enjoy the privileges accruing from that subscription and from the fellowship it entails. They must relinquish these privileges whenever they are no longer able to avow the tenets expressed in the creed. In this sense a creed may be said to be normative within the communion adopting it. For the Church concerned officially declares in the creed what it believes the teaching of Scripture to be. And so the person who has come to renounce the tenets of the creed to which he once subscribed has no right to continue to exercise the privileges contingent upon subscription. He may not in such a case protest his right to these privileges by appeal to Scripture as the supreme authority. It is entirely conceivable that the creed may be in error and his renunciation of it warranted and required by Scripture. But his resort in such a case must be to renounce subscription and with such renunciation the privileges incident to it. Then he may proceed to expose the falsity of the creedal position in the light of Scripture." (Collected Writings, 4:272.)

Graham Harbman is currently engaged in theological studies at Westminster Theological Seminary in California. He is in the third year of his studies and hopes to enter the ministry of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.