Tom Chantry has written a series of very helpful blog articles on the subject, “Words and their Meaning: Confessional Subscription and Divine Impassibility.” In part 1 he writes:
Confessions of faith are intended as tools of doctrinal unity within a church or an association of churches. To “subscribe” to a confession of faith is to claim it as a summary of your own theological convictions. Thus when many people subscribe together to the same confession, they profess that they believe the same things about those matters addressed in their confession. Such subscription is necessary at some level; otherwise we would be forced to cooperate with those who have defined Christ and the faith differently than ourselves.
Various approaches to subscription have been taken. Historically, churches that have attempted a generalized “system” subscription have demonstrated the error of such an approach: when subscription to a confession does not mean subscribing to its particular doctrines, then it means nothing. System subscription has proven to be a highway to apostasy. Some have followed a stricter approach, but allowed for various “exceptions.” In most cases there is an agreed-upon list of doctrines to which one may take exception, but defining “acceptable” exceptions may become a far messier process than many would imagine.
Associational Reformed Baptists have followed an approach called “strict” or “full” subscription. This does not mean accepting the Confession as inspired truth in a word-for-word sense, but rather an agreement with every doctrine found in the confession as a true and biblical doctrine. Individuals have voiced objections to certain wordings but have confessed agreement with every doctrine taught in the confession.
However, in order for such subscription to mean anything, one other principle is necessary: we must subscribe to the doctrines intended by those who wrote the confession; otherwise we subscribe to a malleable confession – a living document which might be twisted to mean anything. Just as constitutionalism requires constitutional history, so confessionalism requires historical theology. We cannot knowingly confess unless we know what we are confessing, and for that we must know what the writers of our confession meant by their words.
It is when we find that we cannot subscribe to the words of a confession as its writers intended them to be read that we find ourselves outside of a confessional community. This is why new confessions have been written. If we were at liberty to press the words of our confessions into new meanings, we would never need to separate from an old confession and write a new one. Of course, subscription would once again be meaningless.
As an example, consider the Westminster Confession of Faith. The framers of the Second London (1689) clearly respected the work of the Assembly. Why did they not merely adopt its confession? You know the answer: they were Baptists by conviction. But does that really mean that they could not adopt the words of the Westminster Confession? I realize there are other differences, but probably the key difference is found in Westminster 28:4, which reads:
Not only those that do actually profess faith in and obedience unto Christ, but also the infants of one, or both, believing parents, are to be baptized.
Is it really so difficult for a Baptist to confess those words? What if we were to argue that in our understanding this paragraph were teaching that the spiritual children of believers – i.e. those whom they led to faith – are to be baptized? Such a reading is at least plausible. Paul spoke in Galatians 3:7 of those who shared Abraham’s faith as his children, and that principle applied more broadly than only to Abraham. In I Timothy 1:2 he called Timothy “my true child in the faith,” clearly meaning a spiritual descent. Oh, you say, but the framers of the confession covered that by speaking not only of children, but of infants! Except that in I Corinthians 3:1 Paul called immature Christians “infants in Christ.”
Why don’t we just confess the words of the Westminster Confession, but say that in our understanding 28:4 means that Christians and all whom they lead to faith, even if they be spiritually immature, should be baptized? What Baptist couldn’t confess that? And after all, we’re using Paul’s own eminently biblical language to say it. Honestly, think about this question: why write a new Confession of Faith?
The reason is that of course we all know that immature spiritual children in the faith is not what the Westminster Assembly meant. As such, it would be dishonest on our part to pretend that we hold their Confession when we neither believe nor practice in accordance with their own meaning of their own words. It would be silly to pretend otherwise. To subscribe to WCF 28:4 we would have to believe what the Westminster Assembly meant by 28:4; our own plausible re-interpretation of their words simply won’t do.
I am not arguing for “historical subscription”, but merely for a sane form of “full subscription.” I did not say that we must be exactly like the framers of our confession in every way; only that we must believe the same doctrines they were talking about when they wrote the confession.
Consider, I do not say that we must be just like them in practice. (Most of them sang no hymns.) I do not say that we must be just like them in every detail of theology. (The Confession does not address the Millennium.) I do not say we must be like them politically. (They were monarchists, of course, which played a role in forming the 1689, chapters 23, 24, and also – if you know the history – 25.) We do not need to adopt their philosophical systems, their form of clerical dress, or (thankfully) their hairstyles. But to subscribe to the 1689 Confession, we must believe what they intended by the words they wrote. That’s really a pretty obvious fact, without which full subscription means nothing at all.
Where it seems less obvious is simply where our knowledge of historical theology wanes. If we didn’t know what the Presbyterians believed about baptism, perhaps the faux interpretation of their words offered above would not seem so absurd. To interpret a Confession, then, we need some historical background; otherwise how will we know what we are subscribing to?
At times, discovering the original meaning of the confessional text even serves to make it easier for us to subscribe. Many Baptists have taken issue with 1689, 26:4, particularly the language, “…but is that antichrist, that man of sin, etc.” To the modern ear, this sounds like an identification of the last, apocalyptic antichrist at the end of the age, and many have balked at assigning that designation to the papacy. Most, though, upon further reflection on the confessional meaning, find themselves easily subscribing. The 17th century did not obsess over the apocalyptic antichrist, being more concerned with the “spirit of antichrist” which, we are told, is already in the world. To them, the word “that” did not indicate a shift from the general antichristness of the pope to some form of eschatological specificity. Once we know what they meant, the phrase becomes a lot less problematic. Continue reading