Archives and Manuscript Repository for the Continuing Presbyterian Church

Manuscript Collections :
Synthetic Collections :

Historic Documents in American Presbyterian History

A Study Paper from the PCA's Tenth General Assembly (1982)

[9th General Assembly (1981), Appendix K, pages 272-277.]

The following document appears on pages 220 - 224 of the Minutes of the Tenth General Assembly (1982) of the PCA. It should be noted that in the Report of the Committee of Comissioners on Judicial Business, under Recommendation 24 (Minutes, page 103), that this paper was received as information only:
"Adopted: That the paper 'Confessional Subscription'...be received as information and that it be commended to the presbyteries, Sessions and Board of Deacons for study."


The Presbyterian Church in America affirms that the Bible, being the Word of God written, is the only infallible, inerrant document of the Church. And, it recognizes that our Confessional Standards are fallible as all documents of human origin are. But, still, such documents have been found to be necessary. Among other things, the Confession of Faith and Catechisms, which our Church has declared to be a true and faithful interpretation of the teaching of the Word of God, serve as articles of agreement without which true fellowship and cooperation would be impossible. And, as such, they do bind the consciences of men, not for any authority resident in them, but because they are Scriptural and because those who subscribe to them do so voluntarily. [1]

". . . a Creed is a symbol (literally, it 'throws together'). where it is intelligently and conscientiously accepted it serves as a bond of union between Christians 'thrown together' by a common faith. It declares what doctrines they hold in common and indicates their undertaking to afford each other mutual support in the assertion, defence, and maintenance of these doctrines . . . This is not a union of those who have agreed to differ. It is a union of men whose mind and hearts meet in an intelligent and cordial loyalty to the great affirmations of the evangelical succession." [2]

The instrument of subscription in the Presbyterian Church in America is the second ordination vow.

"Do you receive and adopt the Confession of Faith and Catechisms of this Church, as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures; and do you further promise that if at any time you find yourself out of accord with any of the fundamentals of this system of doctrine, you will on your own initiative, make known to your Presbytery the change which has taken place in your views since the assumption of this ordination vow." [3]

The wording of the first half of this vow was originally adopted in 1788 by the combined Synod of New York and Philadelphia. [4] and, while this was "new" wording, it seems clear that the Synod of 1788 intended this form of the vow to convey the same meaning as was set forth in the "Adopting Act" [5] of the Synod of 1729. By this "Adopting Act," the Synod of 1729 accepted the Confession of Faith and Catechisms totally with reservations only regarding possible interpretations of some clauses concerning the authority of the civil magistrate in relation to the Church in chapters twenty and twenty-three of the Confession. [6] It must be emphasized that the only reservations allowed by the "Adopting Act" were interpretations of the paragraphs under question in these chapters and not to the wording of the chapters themselves. Nor did the "Act" limit subscription only to "essential and necessary article" but required the adoption of the Confession and Catechisms. [7] Such a strict view of subscription was in complete accord with the attitude of the men of the Westminster Assembly each of whom pledged themselves to the following: "I do seriously promise and vow...that...I will maintain nothing in point of doctrine but what I believe to be most agreeable to the Word of God." [8] And such was the position of the Old School Presbyterians at leat up through 1857 even as seen through the eyes of the New School.

"The Old School insist that the Confession must be received not merely as a whole, but as in every part of the infallible truth. It is to them the Bible transcribed. They embrace it as one of the editor has said, 'cover and all.' -- Not only so, they insist that it must be understood in a certain prescribed way--they give no latitude of interpretation." [9]

Now, the Presbyterian Witness from which this quote was taken was opposed to any rapproachment between the New School and the Old School and it may have been that their view was a bit biased regarding the degree of latitude of interpretation allowed by those of the Old School, especially in the light of the latitude contained in the Confession itself regarding certain doctrines, for example the Millennium. But, nevertheless, this view does illustrate the extent of subscription demanded in the Old School.

But the fact that the Synod of 1788 has included the words, "the system of doctrine," led Charles Hodge in 1858 to reject such a strict view of subscription. [10] He said, "The words 'system of doctrine' have a definite meaning, and serve to define and limit the extent to which the Confession is adopted." [11] There is nothing to be contradicted in this statement. But, John Murray, who cited these words in his excellent, unpublished paper, "Creed Subscription in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.," neither supplies us with a definition for the words, nor does he indicate that Charles Hodge did. And it must be recognized that any definition that is supplied to these words would also indicate how they must be construed. If the definition is comprehensive, as seems to have been the intention of the Synods of 1729 and 1788, the view of subscription must be strict. But, if the definition is limited, then the view of subscription must be broader. And just such a limited definition brought about, for the first time in a Presbyterian denomination, an official position on subscription that was a less than total. [12] The 1898 in thesi statement limiting subscription only to "so much as is vital to the system as a whole." [13] But, it left to judicial process the task of determining what should or should not be considered as "vital." It is interesting to note that the documents of the less conservative Presbyterian Church in the United States of America indicated as late as 1945 that more than this was demanded in the Church. [14]

Historically speaking, there have been three views of subscription: 1) subscription only to the "substance of doctrine;" 2) to "every word of the doctrines;" and 3) to the "system of doctrine." [15] Practically speaking, however, there have been four views, because there have also been two interpretations of the meaning of "system of doctrine."

One of these interpretations is reflected by that statement of the 1898 Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States to the effect that subscription is only to "so much as is vital to the system." [16] This is essentially the view of the New School Presbyterians.

The other and, perhaps, older interpretation of "system of doctrine," is the view of Old School Presbyterians such as James Henley Thornwell. "When we assented to them," (i.e., the Confession of Faith and Catechisms) "upon our admission to the ministry, we verily thought within ourselves that we were assenting to the very doctrines and precepts of the Word, and not to the ratiocinations of men." [17] Even though Charles Hodge was later, in 1858, to advocate a relaxation of the view of Old School Presbyterians, in 1839, he recognized that the view of Thornwell was representative of the view of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America. "There is not the slightest evidence that nay of the Presbyteries ever admitted, during the period under review, any minister who dissented from any of the doctrinal articles of the Confession of Faith." [18]

Beginning, therefore, with the broadest or least restrictive view and ending with the strictest of the views, the four views might be called: 1) the "substance of doctrine" view; 2) the "vital to the system" view; 3) the "very doctrines of the Word" view; and 4) the "every word of the doctrines" view.

It may be that some have held the last or the strictest of these views, the view that every word of the doctrines as they are expressed in the Confession and Catechisms is subscribed to in the vow, but it ought not be the view that is advocated by the Presbyterian Church in America. This view contradicts the first ordination vow for it would seem to elevate an admittedly fallible document to the same level as the Word of God. It is also internally inconsistent in that the Confession of Faith is itself written in such a manner regarding certain doctrines so as to allow some degree of latitude in undertanding. This point will be developed later.

The first or the least restricted view, the view that subscription is only to the "substance of doctrine," was recognized even by the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America to be "opposed to the practice of the Church from the beginning." [19] Surely the Presbyterian Church in America would not desire to adopt a view which was rejected even by one of the more liberal predecessors of the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America.

The choice and the tension, therefore, lies between the remaining two views: the view of the Prebyterian Church in the United States and the New School or the "vital to the system" view, and the view of the Old School or the "very doctrines of the Word" view.

Perhaps it should be recognized at this point that certain phrases in the Book of Church Order of the Presbyterian Church in America might be viewed as lending themselves tot he broader of the two remaining views of subscription and may in fact find their origin in the 1898 statement of the Presbyterian Church in the United States. The first of theses phrases is found in the second half of the second ordination vow. This phrase is "the fundamentals of this system of doctrine." The second has reference to errors, which may be the basiss for deposition from office and are found in BCO 34-5, "the vitals of religion." These two phrases apparently are not synonymous. The second of them may even be more comprehensive than the one which appears in the vow. If such is the case, this poses an interesting situation. It might not be inconceivable for someone to be charged with holding erroneou doctriness which strike at "the vital of religion," to be found guilty and to be deposed from office and yet not be guilty of holding doctrines which disagree with "the fundamentals of this system of doctrine." The General Assembly may desire, apart from its determination in the matter which is presently before, it, to study the implications of these phrases in our Book of Church Order.

The "vital to the system" view of subscription is set forth in The Manual for Church Officers and Memberss (PCUSA, 1945).

Legal subscription, as stated, is the 'system of doctrine.' The Church in the Adopting Act of 1729 required, so far as doctrines are concerned, obligatory subscription only to the 'essential and necessary articles.' The principle then enacted is the usage of the Church at present." [20]

While this statement does limit "system of doctrine" to "essential and necessary articles," a part of the statement is a categorical error. There is abolutely no reference to "essential and necessary articles" in the Adopting Act of 1729. Thee words did appear in a paper, which has been called by the Synod of 1729 "the first or preliminary act," [21] which was read and adopted during the morning session of the day on which the Adopting Act itself was later affirmed. [22] But the words do not appear in the Adopting Act. The Manual is therefore in error to say that "the Adopting Act...required...obligatory subscription only to 'essential and necessary articles." It should become apparent then that the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America in 1945 advocated a form of subscription which was less than total. Although this Church did view the phrase "system of doctrine" to include much more than only "so much as is vital to the system as a whole," -- the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America considered "system of doctrine" to include "theology, duty, worship, and government," [23] -- the view of the Presbyterian Church in the United States beginning with the 1898 decision and the view of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America are similar in that neither denomination demanded subscription "to the Confession itself but to an undefined something within the Confession." [24] Neither of these representations of the "vital to the system" view is too far removed from the "substance of doctrine" view.

The fourth view to be considered, the "very doctrines of the Word," is the view of the Old School Presbyterians, the true forefathers of the Presbyterian Church in America. It affirms that "The Confession simply expresses our view of the teaching of Scripture on important doctrines...." [25] Even as the primary standard, the Scripture, is a unified whole of propositional truth, so the confession or secondary standard expressed no compartmentalization of 'fundamentals' but rather an ordered whole of the revealed will of God." [26] While this remark by Dr. Roy W. Butler was intended to show a decided contrast between the viewpoint of the "fundamentalist" and the "reformed" perspective, it is applicable because some Presbyterians dudring the early part of the Twentieth Century tended to make the so-called "fundamentals of the faith" a new confession or secondary standard more important than the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms.

Even some in the Presbyterian Church in the United States, who would not have agreed with the Old School view expressed by Thornwell or Butler, recognized the inconsistency of the interpretation provided by the 1898 statement of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States. Writing for the official publishing house of that Church, George S. Hendry, of Princeton Theological Seminary, noted that "...it has been held that acceptance of the system does not imply acceptance of every individual doctrine in it. But it would be difficult to say precisely how the distinction between the system and the doctrines is to be drawn..." [27] In the face of the fact that there are some who claim to agree even with what is vital to the system s a whole while taking exception to certain doctrines which they find to be embarrassing or offensive and that there are some Presbyteries which are willing to receive such men on the basis of their sincerity, Hendry's candor is refreshing.

But such a strict view of subscription as was held by Old School Presbyterians is not an embarrassment to those who presently advocate it. Other denominations of a Reformed persuasion demand similarly restrictive pledges to their secondary standards as, for example, the Christian Reformed Church.

"We the undersigned...do hereby...declare...that we heartily believe and are persuaded that all the articles and points of doctrine, contained in the Confession [28] and catechism [29] of the Reformed Churchess, together with the explanation of some points of the afore-said doctrine, made by the Synod of Dordrect, (1618-19) do fully agree with the Word of God." [30]

The vow of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church is less ambiguous than the vow of the Presbyterian Church in America and is in near conformity to the vow used by the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America in the late Eighteenth Century. [31]

It has been noted before that confessions bind the conscience only as they agree with the Scripture. And is this not simply a reaffirmation of the biblical regulative principle coming to expression with reference to confessions? As Presbyterians, we affirm that "The Church must have positive Biblical warrant for all that it prescribes in the realm of faith and worship." [32] The same must apply to our secondary standards. Are they not the confession of our faith? Then they must be consistent with and faithful interpretations of the Word of God. If they are not, then we err in vowing subscription to them. but, if they are "consonant with the word of God," [33] then our subscription to them must be "without equivocation or mental reservation." [34]

But, does not such a view require a person to bind himself in a position which, as stated by John Murray, is hardly consistent with the liberty of judgment on certain points of doctrine which has been characteristic of the Reformed Churches?" [35] Reference has already been made two times to the fact that the secondary standards of the Presbyterian Church in America, the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms, were so written as to allow for a limited degree of latitude concerning some doctrines. To answer John Murray's reservation with one of his own arguments, "In Section VI" (Chapter III) "the statement: 'Wherefore, they who are elected, being fallen in Adam, are redeemed by Christ....' is so drawn as to be noncommittal on the supralapsarian and infralapsarian debate." [36] There is therefore, the tolerance of two view concerning the doctrine of the decree of God relative to election allowed by the Confession, while the very same statement does not admit of any sublapsarian view of the decreees. Therefore, the Confession is at the same time both tolerant and restrictive. Another example might be seen in the eschatological debate. While the confession of Faith may be viewed without violating its integrity as allowing for the Post-millennial, A-millennial, and certain Pre-millennial views, there is clearly no allowance for those views of the Second Coming which are termed as Dispensational.

"Now disguise it as we may, truth is dogma. Let men sneer at catechisms and creeds, as bondages and shackles, let them call them skeletons, or bones, or something more offensive still, these formularies are meant to be compilations of truth. In so far as they can be shewn to contain error, let htem be amended or flung aside, but in so far as they embody truth, let them be accepted and honoured as most helpful to the Christlike life; not simply sustaining it, but also giving it stability and force; preventing it being weakened or injured by change, caprice, love of novelty, or individual self-will." [37]

The Presbyterian Church in America set out to be a "continuing church". But in doing so, she has found that the Church she had sought to "continue" had allowed other non-biblical accretions to the Presbyterian system. The Presbyterian Church in America is a "continuing church". But the tradition which she "continues" is older and more biblical than that tradition from which she immediately came.

The position which the Presbyterian Church in America takes regarding what is intended by subscription to the Confession of Faith and Catechisms may well become the action which determines whether the Presbyterian Church in America shall in fact be the presbyterian church in America.

Four views of subscription have been discussed in this preliminary opinion. One of those four views, it would appear that the view which holds the Confession and Catechisms assert nothing more or less than the "very doctrines of the Word," is the view that would be most consistent with reference to the history of biblical prebyterianism and the Word of God.

"O Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to you, avoiding worldly and empty chatter and the opposing arguments of what is falsely called 'knowledge' -- which some have professed and thus gone astray from the faith." (I Timothy 6:20,21). [38]

"Retain the standard of sound words which you have heard from me, in the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus. Guard, through the Holy Spirit who dwells in us, the treasure which has been entrusted to you." (II Timothy 1:13,14). [39]

"For the overseer must be above reproach as God's steward...holding fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, that he may be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict." (Titus 1:7,9). [40]


1. Hodge, A.A., The Confession of Faith, pp. 2,3. The Banner of Truth Trust, London, 1964.

2. MacLeod, Donald, "The Westminster Confession Today," Banner of Truth, No. 101, February, 1972, London, p. 16.

3. The Book of Church Order of the Presbyterian Church in America, Committee for Christian Education and Publications, Decatur, Georgia, Fifth Edition, 1981, Paragraph 21-5.

4. Murray, John, "Creed Subscription in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.," pp. 15, 16, n.d., (an unpublished stencil printed paper).

5. "Adopting Act," Encyclopedia of the Prebyterian Church in the United States of America, Alfred Nevin, ed., p. 14, Presbyterian Encyclopedia Publishing Company, Philadelphia, 1884.

6. a. Murray, p. 6; b. "Adopting Act", p. 14; Smith, Morton H., "The Presbyterians of the South (Part I), Westminster Theological Journal, Volume XXVII, Number 1, November, 1964, Philadelphia, p. 25.

7. Smith, p. 24.

8. Smith, Egbert Watson, The Creed of Presbyterians, pp. 32, 33. Presbyterian Board of Publication, Philadelphia, 1901.

9. Thompson, Ernest Trice, Presbyterians in the South, Volume I: 1607-1861, p. 545, John Knox Press, Richmond, Virginia, 1963.

10. Murray, p. 19.

11. Ibid, p. 20.

12. Smith, Egbert Watson, pp. 14, 15.

13. A Digest of the Acts and Proceedings of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States: 1861 - 1965, p. 213, Office of the General Assembly, Atlanta, 1966.

14. Manual for Church Officer and Members, 13th Edition, p. 30, Publications Division of the Board of Christian Education of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, Philadelphia, 1945.

15. Ibid.

16. A Digest, p. 213.

17. Thornwell, James Henley, Collected Writings, Volume IV, pp. 366, 367, Banner of Truth Trust, Edinburgh, 1974.

18. Palmer, B.M., The Life and Letters of James Henley Thornwell, p. 184, The Banner of Truth Trust, Edinburgh, 1974.

19. Manual, p. 30.

20. Ibid., pp. 30, 31.

21. Murray, p. 5.

22. "Adopting Act," p. 14.

23. Roberts, Rev. William Henry, A Manual for Ruling Elders and Church Sessions, pp. 13-20, Presbyterian Board of Publication and Sabbath-School Work, Philadelphia, 1919.

24. MacLeod, p. 15.

25. Macpherson, Rev. John, The Confession of Faith, p. 2, T. and T. Clark, Edinburgh, 1958.

26. Butler, Dr. Roy W., "The Reformed Faith Defined," Banner of Truth, Number 87, December 1970, London, p. 6.

27. Hendry, George S., The Westminster Confession for Today, p. 12, John Knox Press, Richmond, Virginia, 1962.

28. The Belgic Confession of 1561.

29. The Heidelberg Catechism of 1563.

30. Van Dellen, Idzerd, and Martin Monsma, The Revised Church Order Commentary, p. 38, Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1967.

31. "Do you accept the doctrines of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, contained in the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms, as founded on the Word of God and as the expressions of your own faith, and do you resolve to adhere thereto?", Form of Government of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, p. 27, Associate Reformed Presbyterian Center, Greenville, South Carolina, 1972.

32. MacLeod, "Liberty of Conscience," Banner of Truth, Numbers 94 and 95 (combined), July-August, 1971, London, p. 2.

33. Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter XXXI, Section II.

34. Ibid., Chapter XXII, Section IV.

35. Murray, p. 20.

36. Murray, John, "The Theology of the Westminster Confession of Faith," Scripture and Confession, John H. Skilton, ed., p. 133, Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1973.

37. Bonar, Horatius, "Religion Without Theology," Banner of Truth, Number 93, June 1971, London, pp. 38, 39.

38. New American Standard Bible, The Lockman Foundation, La Habra, California, 1973.

39. Ibid.

40. Ibid.