Documents of Synod:
Study Papers of the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod (1965 to 1982)


149th GS MINUTES, MAY 14, 1971, pp. 63-72.

ORDINATION VOWS COMMITTEE: The Rev. George Miladin gave the report.

SPECIAL COMMITTEE REPORT
ON THE SECOND ORDINATION VOW

I. THE PROBLEM STATED

To declare the intent and meaning of ordination vow No. 2, removing the ambiguities therein. Question two reads: Do you sincerely receive and adopt the doctrinal standards of this church, the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms, Larger and Shorter, as embodying the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures, to the maintenance of which this church is bound before God by solemn obligation? The problem emerges more clearly in the following two questions: 1) What is the antecedent to the last clause, "to the maintenance of which . . . is bound by solemn obligation?" Is the antecedent a) the Doctrinal Standards; b) the System of Doctrine; or c) the Holy Scriptures? 2) In what way does the phrase "system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures" modify the words, "the Confession of Faith and Catechisms," if indeed there is modification at all? Are certain statements in the Standards to be viewed as lying outside the system of doctrine taught in Scripture, or are the Standards in their entirety co-extensive with the system of doctrine? If the former, which articles are considered essential and necessary (cf. Church Polity by Charles Hodge pp. 338-340); if the latter, then, is not the subscriber bound to every word, phrase and expression in the standards?

II. THE APPROACH TO THE PROBLEM

The grammatical-historical method will be applied in hope of arriving at a sound answer to the above questions. This basically involves two questions: 1) What is the plain meaning of the words, grammatically and lexically? 2) What is, and has been, the mind of the church (animus imponentis) on the meaning of the words.

III. THE METHOD APPLIED

A. Problem No. 1. Method is the antecedent to the last clause, "to the maintenance of which this church is bound before God by solemn obligation?

1. Grammatically, it is admissible for each of the three phrases in question to serve as the antecedent, all things being equal, the nearest antecedent having the edge. (However, as it will be shown, the nearest antecedent -- the Holy Scriptures -- in this case is the most unacceptable of the three possibilities.)

2. The Mind of the Church has not had many years to reflect upon this particular question since the phrase in question is of recent history. For a recent exhibition of the mind of the church, refer to the discussion on this question by the Joint Fraternal Relations Committees of the RPCES - OPC contained in the paper sent to ministers of the two denominations dated December 31, 1969. The concluding remarks are most pertinent: It was suggested that the answer to this problem is a) the form of subscription in the Form of Government of the RPCES is the same in substance as the form of substance as the form subscription of the OPC in that both forms require the sincere receiving and adopting of the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms, and b) that in both forms of Government the subscription is qualified by a reference to "the system of doctrine contained in Holy Scripture." The nature of that qualification will be discussed (under problem two). At this point your committee agrees with the above conclusion, rejecting the Holy Scriptures as the antecedent on the ground that such a subscription would vitiate the intent and force of the entire question which is designed to set forth the relationship of the subscriber to the subordinate standards rather than to the Holy Scriptures. To state that the church is bound to the Holy Scriptures is to affirm no more than what has already been affirmed in ordination question No. 1. The net effect of this interpretation would be to remove us from being a creedal church.

B. Problem No. 2 In what way does the phrase "system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures" modify the words, "Do you sincerely receive and adopt the doctrinal standards of this church?" (This is the weighty consideration, having occupied the attention of Presbyterian and Reformed theologians for many years!)

1. Grammatically (in its context). Ordination question No. 2 says these things: a) that the man who gives an affirmative answer receives and adopts something sincerely (with the understanding, in full persuasion, and without any mental reservation). b) that which he adopts is not the Reformed Faith broadly defined, or some essentials of Christianity, but rather, the Westminster standards themselves! No other meaning of the words is permissible. c) He adopts these standards with an important modification, i.e., "as embodying or containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures." This affirmation has a positive as well as a negative implication. Positively, the Westminster Standards do, as a matter of fact, embody (contain) will be further enlarged upon in the following point.
2. The Mind of the Church on the modifying clause, "embody (contain) the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures."
Has the American Presbyterian Church in its history taken the modifying clause to mean that the standards do in fact contain statements that are outside the system of doctrine taught in Scripture? (That is, in the sense of non-essential and unimportant doctrines.) If it has, then the church's usage of the word "contain" is analogous to the current UPUSA usage of the word "contain" in the 2nd Catechism answer -- "The Word of the God which is contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments is the only rule how we may glorify and enjoy Him." "Contain" in the UPUSA context means "enclose" or "include" (cf. Webster's New World Dictionary), and thus, there are things extraneous to the Word of God in the Holy Scriptures. On the other hand, is there evidence to show that American Presbyterians historically have been in favor of an equivalent meaning of the word "contain" as it appears in ordination question No. 2. [?] (There is no doubt as to the equivalence meaning being the correct one in Catechism Question 2.) This committee believes that the evidence is clearly in the direction of the equivalence meaning which would make the Standards in some sense co-extensive with the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures.
THE EVIDENCE (This, and subsequent material is taken by permission from an OPC paper, "Does Subscription to the Standards Require Acceptance of What They Teach Regarding the Sabbath?" Authors: George Knight, George Marston and John Mitchell. All emphases added.)

a. Adopting Act of 1729
On the afternoon of the same day all ministers of this Synod now present, except one. . .after proposing all the scruples that any of them had to make against any articles and expressions in the Confession of Faith and Larger and Shorter Catechisms. . . have unanimously agreed in the solution of those scruples, and in declaring the said Confession and Catechisms to be the Confession of their faith, excepting only some clauses in the twentieth and twenty-third chapters, concerning which clauses the Synod do unanimously declare that they do not receive those articles in any such sense as to suppose the civil magistrate hath a controlling power over Synods with respect to the exercise of their ministerial authority. . . The Digest (1930) p. 94.

b. Explanator Resolution of Synod of 1734
Overtured, that the Synod do now declare that they understand these clauses that respect the admission of intrants or candidates in such a sense as to oblige them to receive and adopt the Confession and Catechisms at their admission in the same manner and as fully as the members of Synod did that were then present. Which overture was unanimously agree to by the Synod. The Digest (1930) p. 98.

c. Explanation of the Adopting Act, Synod of 1736
That the Synod do declare that, in as much as we understand that many persons of our persuasion, both more lately and formerly, have been offended with some expressions or distinctions in the first or the preliminary act of our Synod. . . the Synod doth declare that the Synod have adopted and still do adhere to the Westminster Confession, Catechism and Directory without the least variation, or alteration, and without any regard to said distinctions. And we do further declare that this was our meaning and true intent in our first adopting of said Confession. . . Digest (1930) p. 126.

d. Hodge's Affirmation
There can be no doubt, therefore that the adopting act, as understood and intended by its authors, bound every new member to receive the Confession of Faith and Catechisms, in all their parts, excepting certain specified clauses in chapters twentieth and twenty-third. Charles Hodge in 1839. (Taken from the Constitutional History of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. p. 155ff.) This excerpt is not included in the OPC paper.

e. Plan of Union -- Synods of New York and Philadelphia -- 1758

vi. that no presbytery shall license or ordain to the work of the ministry, any candidate until he declare his acceptance of the Westminster Confession and Catechisms as the Confession of his faith. . . (Records of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. Philadelphia 1904 quoted in the paper "Creed Subscription in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A." John Murray.)

f. Constitution Ratified and Adopted, Synod of 1788
. . . And the Synod order that the said Directory and Catechisms be printed and bound up in the same volume with the Confession of Faith . . ., and that the whole be considered as the standard of our doctrine, government, discipline, and worship. Digest (1930) p. 547 drawn up and adopted: "Do you sincerely receive and adopt the confession of faith of this church as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures?"

g. Explanation of Significance of Standards: Assembly of 1824
"That though the Confession of Faith and standards of our church, are of no original authority, independent of the Scriptures, yet we regard them as a summary of those divine truths which are suffused throughout the sacred volume. They, as a system of doctrine, therefore, cannot be abandoned in our opinion without an abandonment of the Word of God. (Minutes of the General Assembly from 1821-1835 inclusive. Philadelphia, n.d., p. 114 as quoted in Professor Murray's paper.)

h. Sense in Which Standards Adopted, Assembly (Old School) of 1848
(In answer to the following question . . .) Are such ministers and officers (ordained in the Presbyterian Church) to be understood as embracing and assenting to the doctrines, principles, precepts, and statements contained in the Larger and Shorter Catechisms in the same unqualified sense in which they are understood to embrace and assent to the doctrines, principles, precepts and statements contained in other parts of the Confessions of Faith? (The Assembly answered in the affirmative) Digest, p. 18.

i. Relation of Standards to Scripture, Definition of Essential and Necessary Articles: Assembly of 1896
. . . This Christian Church requires its standards of doctrine and government to contain as essential and necessary articles only those things which are "either expressly set down in Scriptures, or by good and necessary consequences may be deduced from Scripture" (cf. Ch. 1, Sec. 6). In matters which are non-essential, and which may be "ordered by the light of nature and Christian prudence, it is the law of the church that in their ordering the general rules of the Word are always to be observed. (cf. Ch. 1, Sec. 6) . . . This admission of liability to error, however, is not to be used as if it lessened the authority of the doctrinal and governmental standards of the Church over those who have voluntarily accepted them. Far otherwise! It is simply the declaration by the Church of its dependence upon the divine Author of the interpretation of his Word and in the formulation and application of its Standards.
Resolved, 2. that this Assembly draw the attention of the Judicatories and members of the Church to the declaration of the Standards above quoted which set forth in explicit terms the belief of the Church, that all the standards are founded upon and in accordance with the Holy Scriptures. Digest (1930) p. 168ff.+

j. Definition of Essential and Necessary Articles of Faith: Assembly of 1910
"It is to be noted that the adopting act in 1729 recognizes the holding by a candidate of 'scruples' about articles not essential and necessary in doctrine . . ., but at the same time the act calls upon the candidate 'to declare his sentiments to the Presbytery of Synod,' and likewise calls upon the Judicatory to decide as to what is essential and necessary.
II. Accordingly the General Assembly does also make a declaration with regard to certain essential and necessary Articles of Faith, to wit: (The five fundamentals are then given. The Assembly of 1923 adopted a similar series of "essential doctrines") Digest (1930) p. 297ff. Also Minutes of the General Assembly, 1927, pp. 78-82.

IV. ANALYSIS

Attention is called to the significant change in the definition necessary articles as indicated by the General Assembly in 1896 and that of 1910. According to the former assembly such articles were defined as only those things which are "either expressly set down in Scriptures, or by good and necessary consequences may be deduced from Scripture." (cf. Ch. 1, Sec. 6) "In matters which are non-essential, and which may be 'ordered by the light of nature and Christian prudence, it is the law of the church that in their ordering the general rules of the Word are always to be observed' " (letter i, p. 5). However, according to the latter assembly (1910), while a declaration was made concerning certain necessary and essential doctrines (the five fundamentals) it is obvious that what was considered to be necessary and essential was something less than what was considered to be necessary and essential was something less than before. So far as the evidence goes, there seems to have been no effort made to distinguish the contents of the subordinate standards as to "essential" and "non-essential" until the declaration on the "fundamentals" in 1910 . . . It must also be noted that the 1910 declaration in its reference to the idea "scruples" and "essential and necessary" articles refers there to what it calls the "Adopting Act" of 1729. This is an error of fact. These terms were not in the "Adopting Act" proper, but were in the Preliminary Act. The "Adopting Act" proper, and all the explanatory declarations that were approved in following years, made fully plain the fact that Synod did not allow for any "scruples" beyond one in respect -- not to a doctrine -- but to an interpretation that might have been put upon certain words and phrases having to do with the civil magistrate. All that was allowed was an objection to one of several possible interpretations. This was the state of affairs, so far as pronouncements of Assembly indicate, until 1910.
However, as far back as 1867 Charles Hodge wrote an article on the "meaning of the Second Ordination Vow" which first appeared in the Princeton Theological Review and is also to be found in his book, The Church and Its Polity. The article may well be regarded as the crack in the wall or the initial hole in the dyke. It has been maintained that Hodge plainly and bluntly marked the distinction between essential and non-essential doctrines. Thus it is said that in his view, the essential doctrines were those of "Basic Christianity" and those of the consensus of Reformed opinion, all other doctrines in the Confession, including the Sabbath, were deemed by him to be non-essential. But that he made this distinction is unclear from his won words; in fact the opposite seems to be the case (see Church Polity, pp. 338-340; also Hodge's Commentary on the Confession of Faith is prefaced by Dr. Charles Hodge's article on "The Meaning of the Second Ordination Vow." It is to be noted that the section in which the "Sabbath" is mentioned contains this statement, "concerning which there is no difference of opinion among Presbyterians." Evidently at this point the Sabbath had not yet been eroded by the Continental view, and relegated to the status of a non-essential doctrine.)
It should also be noted that the subscription vow (question) is not what some have maintained Hodge says it is, namely, a subscription simply to a system of doctrine. This would be a misinterpretation of the vow. What one vows is to "receive and adopt the Confession," not some otherwise undefined system of doctrine. He adopts the Confession, not just so far as it happens to contain the system of doctrine taught in Scripture, he adopts it and understands it to contain that system of doctrine, i.e., he adopts the Confession as his own because he recognizes it to be a faithful summary of scriptural doctrine.


V. RESULTS

Hodge's position or that maintained to be his, was never officially adopted by any General Assembly. Indeed, the action taken by the General Assembly in 1896 was in effect a repudiation of his alleged position. However it is quite possible that Hodge's article influenced the General Assembly in 1910 and the subsequent assemblies to take positions which went far beyond Hodge's alleged position in their limiting the meaning of the second ordination vow. These actions taken by the 1910 General Assembly officially opened Pandora's box with rapid doctrinal retrogression following.
In 1903, in the interest of union with the Cumberland Presbyterians, the Presbyterian Church of the United States of America altered three chapters in the Confession of Faith, reducing its Calvinism thus indicating that the distinctive doctrines of the Reformed Faith were no longer regarded as necessary and essential doctrines.
In 1918-20 a plan for organic union with other Protestant bodies, passed by some 100 presbyteries, indicated the willingness of many in the church to compromise on the "generally Christian" doctrines. It is evident from the "Auburn Affirmation" that by 1923-24, some 1300 ministers in the Presbyterian Church USA no longer regarded the five fundamentals as necessary and essential doctrines. It was the aforementioned principles adopted by the 1910 General Assembly which, under the impetus of modernism, gave rise to the Confession of 1967 and a new ordination vow which requires no allegiance to that interpretation of Holy Scripture set forth in the Westminster Standards.

VI. THE PROPOSED SOLUTION

We must reject this eroding principle of a "loose" subscription, lest it destroy the R.P.C.E.S. even as it did the Presbyterian Church from which part of us withdrew in 1936. (Even at this present time there are ministers in our denomination who deny portions of our subordinate standards on the ground that these portions lie outside the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures.) To reject this eroding principle requires that we reject the view that the second ordination vow requires only the acceptance of those doctrines in our secondary standards which are essential and necessary to the system of doctrine set forth in those standards. Positively, we must return to the original meaning of this vow which called for a recognition of the Westminster Standards (in all their several parts) as setting forth the system of doctrine contained in Holy Scripture.

A. A COMMON OBJECTION

Will not the proposed solution bind the subscriber to an every word (ipsissima verba) interpretation, thereby elevating the Standards to the same plane as Scripture? The answer to this question is a categorical no!
The subscriber's affirmative answer to ordination question No. 1 precludes any such elevating of the subordinate standards. He has just affirmed his belief that the Confession and Catechisms are not infallible rules, are not perfect in every word, phrase, or even every proposition, and that the Scriptures alone are the "only rule of faith and practice." Also in question No. 2 an affirmative answer means that the subscriptionist has adopted the clear qualifications made by the Confession itself, recognizing its own limitations, fallibility, and place of subordination to the Word. It submits itself to the "supreme Judge . . . the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture." (Ch. I, Sec. X).

B. PRESBYTERIAL AND SESSIONAL GUIDELINES

The Committee believes that guidelines must be established to be applied by Presbyteries and Sessions in evaluating the positions of men who inform the Judicatory to which they come for examination as teaching or ruling elders, or the Judicatory to which they already belong, that they differ with our secondary standards at a certain point or points. (It is suggested that in the interest of doctrinal purity and also future doctrinal formulation, these differences be submitted in writing.) Pursuant to the above it is suggested that the following two principles be adopted: 1) We do not insist that one must accept every minute detail but rather that no chapter of the Confession of Faith, or Catechism Question and Answer may be rejected in its entirety or in respect to its main features. 2) This still leaves to be faced the importance of exceptions which an individual might hold within the limitations stated in the previous section. Concerning this matter, if any teaching or ruling elder judges that an exception is important, then in accord with his sixth ordination vow, he must proceed to reject an applicant or to take disciplinary action against anyone who is already holding office.

VII. SPECIFIC RECOMMENDATIONS

In order to remove the ambiguities surrounding the second ordination vow bringing its meaning into closest conformity with the mind of the church in that period when she had the highest regard for the truth, the committee recommends:

1. That the 149th General Synod of the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod aver its conviction that the second ordination vow binds the subscriber to the Confession of Faith and Catechisms which he has vowed to receive and adopt as his own confession; not just so far as they happen to contain the system of doctrine taught in Scripture, but because he recognizes them to be a faithful summary of scriptural doctrine.
2. That the 149th General Synod of the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod urge its Presbyteries and Sessions to require candidates for the office of deacon and elder (ruling and teaching) to submit in writing to the clerk of the appropriate Judicatory, the points of doctrine at which they diverge from the standards of the church.
3. That the 149th General Synod of the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod in the interest of clarity of expression and closeness of subscription revise the second ordination vow to read: Do you sincerely receive and adopt the doctrinal standards of this church the Westminster Confession of Faith, and Catechisms, Larger and Shorter, as your own confession of faith, and as a faithful setting forth of the system of truth taught in the Scriptures?

Respectfully submitted,

George C. Miladin (chairman)
Elmer Smick
David Winscott

Recommendation No. 1 of the Committee was moved and seconded. It was moved, seconded and passed to amend by adding "Furthermore, we do not bind our presbyteries by item VI, B, of the Committee report. Recommendation No. 1 as amended passed. Dr. Harris asked and received permission to have his negative vote and reasons for same recorded:

I object to the present action of the Synod for two main reasons. First it attempts to change by mere Synodical resolution the force of my ordination vow under which I have lived for thirty-five years. I took this oath very solemnly and at some cost. Now I could be forced to change it. I could continue to profess to believe some details which I do not believe, but I do not feel that this would be an honorable procedure. I regard the present action as tantamount to an ex post facto law which is usually thought to be an objectionable thing. I find the Synod's action strange in the extreme.
Secondly, I cannot in good conscience receive the standards in the detail which is now envisioned and I question how many other of our ministers and ruling elders can. I feel sure that some men allow only one scriptural ground for divorce. The standards specify two. I carry in my pocket a picture of Jesus and see no harm in that. But Question 109 of the Larger Catechism forbids all pictures or images of any person of the deity. The adoption of this motion makes my subscription suspect and I think that it affects many of us. It is a pernicious departure from 100 years of Presbyterian history and if the action is further strengthened, could wreak havoc in our church and seriously affect our possible union with the Orthodox Presbyterian Church which has no such ordination vow.

It was moved and seconded to adopt Recommendation No. 2.

It was moved and seconded that it be amended by adding "as well as all present elders and deacons and trustees" after "ruling and teaching."

It was moved and seconded and passed to receive the whole report with thanks and take no further action on the recommendations, and to refer the report to the presbyteries for their study. (However, see below)

Synod adjourned this sederunt at 6:05, with prayer by Dr. Franklin S. Dyrness.

FIFTH SEDERUNT -- WEDNESDAY, 8:30 A.M.

Synod was called to order by the Moderator at 8:30 a.m. After the singing of a hymn Synod was led in prayer by Dr. Will Barker.

The reading of the minutes of the Fourth Sederunt was deferred until they could be reproduced.

It was moved and seconded that we approve the minutes of the 148th General Synod, noting that due to a printer's error, pages 121 and 124 were transposed. Motion was lost, inasmuch as minutes are approved sederunt by sederunt.

It was moved, seconded and passed to reconsider the question on referral of the report of the Committee on the Second Ordination Vow to presbyteries. It was moved, seconded and passed to rescind the action on recommendation No. 1 and that the whole report be sent down to the presbyteries for study.

There was no report from the Ordination Vow Committee.

Minutes of the 149th General Synod of the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod, held at Covenant College, Lookout Mountain, Tennessee, May 14-20, 1971, pages 63-72.

[Documents of Synod, pages 314-323.]

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