If we grant the legitimacy and usefulness of a confession of faith,[i] we’re faced with two practical questions: first, what particular confession of faith should a local church or collective body of churches adopt? And, second, what type or level of confessional subscription[ii] should such a church or body of churches require of its officers and members? Below I’d like to suggest a few biblical and theological guidelines to assist in answering these questions.
The Bible doesn’t give explicit instructions on how a Christian church must use a particular confession of faith. Nowhere does Jesus or the apostles address the issue of confessional subscription. And obviously the biblical writers don’t explicitly identify what creed we should use since the creeds and confessions framed throughout the history of the church did not yet exist. Of course, some in my theological tradition might be tempted to resort to a kind of cabalistic hermeneutic to uncover the numbers “1-6-8-9” in the biblical text.[iii] But I wouldn’t recommend that methodology for choosing a confession.
So we can’t answer the questions above with a simple proof-text or two. Nevertheless, I would submit that the Bible provides us with some biblical and theological parameters not only for choosing a good confession but also for deciding on how we should use and subscribe to that confession. These parameters are, in my opinion, not so narrow so as to restrict us only to one possible confession or even to one specific form of subscription. But they are relatively narrow enough to exclude certain confessions and kinds of subscription as either wrong or unwise.
Some Biblical and Theological Guidelines
What are the biblical and theological “filters” we can use in order to decide what confession to use and how precisely to use it?
1. The Main Purpose of a Confession
Elsewhere we have argued that the Bible calls us to confess our faith publicly (Matt 10:32-33; Rom 10:9-10) and to explain precisely what we mean by what we confess (Neh 8:5-8; Acts 17:1-4; Eph 4:11-14).[iv] In other words, the very aim and goal of publicly confessing our faith is to provide others an accurate summary of what we believe the Bible teaches.
Now this conviction should influence which confession we choose as a church, as well as the type or kind of subscription we require. If our beliefs and practice correspond most closely with, say, the Reformed and the Baptist traditions, why would we choose a confession of faith that’s not Reformed and that’s not Baptist?
For instance, if I believe in the doctrine of election and God’s absolute sovereignty, why would I choose a creed or confession that denies the truths of election and limits God’s sovereignty? I suppose I could take an Arminian statement of faith like, say, “A Treatise on the Faith of the Free Will Baptists” and find a “substance” of core truths within that confession I could agree with.[v] But an Arminian confession as a whole would not convey to others what I really believe about God’s sovereignty and the grace of the gospel. Why would I choose to identify with a confession that substantially misrepresents some of my core beliefs?
Let’s use another example that’s much closer to home. What about the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF)? Could I, as a church leader, or could my local church adopt and subscribe to the WCF as its official confession? After all, the WCF does affirm election and God’s absolute sovereignty, as well as many of the core beliefs my church and I share. Certainly, I would share much more in common with the WCF than I would with the Arminian statement of faith referenced above.
I suppose I could adopt and subscribe to the WCF provided that I could take exception to some aspects of its covenant theology, its view of baptism, and its form of church government. However, why would I, as a Reformed Baptist, choose the WCF as the confession for my church when we have at our disposal the Second London Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689 (2LCF) -- a Baptist revision and adaption of the WCF?
My point is that a church or a body of churches should choose a confession of faith that accurately and substantially represents its profession of faith and reflects its beliefs about the teachings of the Bible.
2. The Virtue of Clear and Honest Communication
The general principle underlying the ninth commandment requires us to speak the truth to our neighbor clearly and honestly. Conversely, the ninth commandment prohibits any kind of communication or behavior that is sinfully deceptive (Exod 20:16). As the psalmist David states it, “Behold, [God] delight[s] in truth in the inward being” (Ps 51:6). And the New Testament writers also commend this virtue of truthfulness and honesty. The apostle Paul exhorts the members of the church in Ephesus, “Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another” (Eph 4:25).
Now the fact that the Bible enjoins us to communicate with our neighbor in a way that is not misleading but is truthful and sincere has a bearing on the confession we choose and the type of subscription we use. Obviously, we want to avoid confessions that advocate clear and serious falsehoods. We want a confession that we can be confident is an accurate though not infallible summary of the Word of God.
Moreover, we want to employ a form of confessional subscription that requires transparency and honesty. Modes of subscription that allow the subscriber to hold undisclosed mental reservations about this or that doctrine are, I think, imprudent. Whatever form of subscription we require of our members and especially church officers should be one that disallows the proverbial “crossing of the fingers behind the back.” If the subscriber or ministerial candidate has a conscientious scruple about this phrase or that doctrinal proposition, he needs to make it known to the elders and, if necessary, to the entire church.[vi]
At this point, I’ve basically ruled out confessions that are substantially erroneous or inaccurate. Moreover, I’ve also ruled out types of “substance subscription” that require only a commitment to a set of ambiguous and undefined “core” teachings of the confession but that don’t require one to openly and honestly identify those parts of the confession to which he takes exception.
3. The Doctrine of Progressive Sanctification
Sanctification is a livelong process according to Scripture. Not all of God’s people are at the same place in their journey. Some are babes in Christ and need the simple “milk of the Word” (Heb 5:12-13; 1 Pet 2:2). That is, their understanding of Christian doctrine is fairly basic and rudimentary. Conversely, other believers have had time to grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord. They’re no longer babes in Christ who need milk but they are more mature disciples who are ready for doctrinal meat (Rom 15:14; Gal 6:1; Heb 5:14).
This principle of progressive sanctification applies not only to individual Christians but also to local churches. Some churches have been well taught and are firmly grounded in the faith. Other churches, because they are new or immature or just at the beginning of doctrinal reformation, are still in the process of searching the Scriptures in order to see if this or that doctrine is so. See the description of the churches of Asia Minor in the Book of Revelation, chapters two and three.
The reality of progressive sanctification (individual and corporate) has a bearing on the questions of what confession a church should use and what form of subscription it should require of its members and officers. I believe church officers and teachers of the Word should be held to a stricter standard than the average layperson (James 3:1). Moreover, some members in your church have not arrived at the level of spiritual and doctrinal maturity to understand and receive some of the deeper doctrine in a more comprehensive confession of faith like the 2LCF. Remember Jesus’ words to his disciples, “I have many things to say to you, but you’re not (presently) able to bear them” (John 16:12).
To accommodate for this reality, a church might adopt one confession (e.g., 2LCF) but allow for two types or levels of subscription, i.e., a tighter form for the church officers and a looser form for the church members.[vii] On the other hand, a church might adopt two different confessions: one that’s more comprehensive and detailed like the 2LCF for its officers and another that’s more simple and concise for its members (e.g., the Abstract of Principles or New Hampshire Confession of Faith). We might differ on which of those two approaches is better. But I hope we agree that we need to take into account the doctrine of progressive sanctification when we’re trying to choose and use a confession of faith.
4. The Holy Spirit’s Ongoing Work of Illumination
We cannot understand God’s word properly and truly apart from the Holy Spirit’s work of illumination (1 Cor 2:12-14). This applies not only to the individual believer, but also to the church has a whole (Eph 1:18-23). And I think it’s fair to assume that Holy Spirit has been illuminating Christians and the church as a whole throughout church history. We might even say that the Spirit’s work of illumination is like the Spirit’s work of sanctification: it’s progressive.
In light of the Spirit’s ongoing work of illumination throughout the history of the church, we shouldn’t despise church tradition. Much of church tradition—if it’s good—reflects the Spirit’s work of bringing the church to a better understanding of God’s word. To despise all older church tradition is not only an act of chronological snobbery, but it may also be an instance of despising the Spirit’s work of illumination in earlier times.
But the Spirit’s work of progressive illumination is a two-edged sword. Not only must we resist despising all historical doctrine; we must also be open to the Spirit’s further work of illumination in modern times. In other words, we must acknowledge that the Spirit’s work of illumination did not cease at the 16th or 17th centuries. We should be open to the possibility that the Holy Spirit can prompt and enable the church to further reform and refine aspects of its doctrinal beliefs even in our day. This is the theological principle of semper reformanda.[viii]
Examples? Well, what I might view as a relatively recent doctrinal advancement others may not. Nonetheless, in my opinion, the contributions of Cornelius Van Til in the areas of epistemology and apologetic methodology represent an example of the Holy Spirit’s ongoing illumination in the 20th century. Van Til was a professor at Westminster Theological Seminary from 1927 to 1972, and he labored to develop an epistemology and apologetic methodology that’s informed by the Bible itself and not by autonomous reason. His approach became known as “presuppositional apologetics” and is exemplified in such works as his The Defense of the Faith.[ix] Scholars like Greg Bahnsen, John Frame, William Edgar, and Scott Oliphint have labored to refine and apply Van Til’s insights.
5. The Doctrine of Scripture
I think our doctrine of Scripture has an important bearing on the question of what confession we use and what form of subscription we employ. There are at least three characteristics or attributes of Scripture highlighted in the Westminster and/or 1689 Baptist confessions itself that should serve to inform our choice of a confession and our manner of subscription.
The Qualified Clarity of Scripture
While the message of Scripture is clear and intelligible (Deut 30:11-13; Ps 19:7-8; 1 John 5:11-13), not every teaching in in Scripture is equally clear or intelligible (2 Pet 3:15-16). In the words of the Confession, “All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves” (WCF/2LCF 1.7).
Now one purpose of a good confession is to remove ambiguities in Scripture where possible and warranted. However, one must beware of “adding” to Scripture what isn’t really there in an effort to “clarify” the Bible’s teaching (Deut 4:2). The Pharisees were prone to this mistake (Matt 15:1-9). In light of this danger, we may be warranted to take exception to a teaching in a given creed or confession that isn’t clearly taught in Scripture.
For example, the 2LCF asserts, “Elect infants dying in infancy are regenerated and saved by Christ through the Spirit” (10.2). Now if an infant dying in infancy is numbered among “the elect,” he or she will certainly go to heaven. What’s more, there are lines of biblical teaching that one may use to give grieving parents hope. But some Bible scholars question whether passages and doctrines used to support either the notion that all infants go to heaven or the idea that infants of believers are elect teach that doctrine clearly and unambiguously. It may be that God in his wisdom has chosen to remain silent on this issue.[x] And if that’s true, we’re warranted to abstain from affirming the Confession at this point.
The Infallibility and Inerrancy of Scripture
A good confession may not always express every doctrine in the best possible way. But a good confession should be accurate as a whole. Nevertheless, even accurate confessions are not infallible, that is, incapable of error. That attribute belongs to Scripture alone. Furthermore, even if one takes no exceptions to a given confession, I don’t think it wise for that individual or church to affirm said confession as “inerrant,” that is, absolutely reliable. The adjective “inerrant” is usually reserved for the Bible in theological parlance today. Indeed, the 1689 Baptist Confession refers to the Holy Scripture as “the only ... certain ... rule of all saving knowledge, faith, and obedience” (2LCF 1.1). If the modifier “certain” is the 17th century equivalent of “inerrant,” as some scholars argue,[xi] then it’s ironically unconfessional to refer to the Confession as inerrant since the Confession reserves that attribute for Scripture alone.
The Ultimate Authority of Scripture
Although confessions are wonderful guides and summaries of biblical teaching, we must beware of putting them on the level of Scripture. The Protestant doctrine of sola Scriptura[xii] insists that the Bible is the ultimate authority for all questions of faith and practice. And this doctrine has been wonderfully codified in confessions such as the WCF and 2LCF:
The supreme judge, by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Scripture delivered by the Spirit, into which Scripture so delivered, our faith is finally resolved (WCF/2LCF 1.1).
All synods or councils, since the Apostles’ times, whether general or particular, may err; and many have erred. Therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith, or practice; but to be used as a help in both (WCF 31.3).
Reflecting on this strand of the Westminster Confession’s teaching, Chad Van Dixhoorn draws an appropriate conclusion:
Are there “controversies of religion” that need to be settled? Then there is only one standard that is necessary for us to use, one court to which every Christian and church must appeal. Are there “decrees of councils” that need to be evaluated? Then there is only one canon by which these councils and their decrees--including the decisions of the Westminster assembly and this confession of faith--can be authoritatively considered right or wrong.... And that “can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.”[xiii]
Placing a confession of faith on the same level as Scripture may never be an issue among Protestants at a theoretical or doctrinal level. It can, however, be a problem at a practical level. At a practical level, churches and/or individuals have sometimes treated the Confession as if it were the “last word” in any doctrinal dispute. They can judge another church or Christian as “unorthodox” simply on the basis of the Confession itself. Such a practice is not only unbiblical; it’s profoundly unconfessional!
Summing It Up
We’ve already ruled out confessions that are substantially inaccurate expressions of what we believe. We’ve also ruled out forms of “substance” subscription that don’t demand complete transparency and honesty from the one subscribing the Confession.[xiv] But I think these other biblical and theological considerations should discourage us from adopting any teaching in a confession that tries to be more precise than Scripture warrants and that, therefore, adds to Scripture. Moreover, I think that the forms of “absolute,” “historical,” and an unqualified “strict” or “full” subscription can undermine the Spirit’s ongoing work of illumination and the doctrine of semper reformanda. In principle, confessions can be amended. Thus, forms of subscription that require a Christian or a church to affirm the Confession’s teaching as “the very doctrines of Scripture” and the Confession’s authority as “tantamount to Scripture,” which are positions that some strict subscriptionists advocate, can undermine the very doctrine of Scripture they are seeking to protect.[xv]
Where does that leave me? I believe the 2LCF best represents what I believe the Bible teaches. It intersects with the contours of the Bible’s teaching more consistently than other confessions I’ve seen. Nevertheless, I don’t think the 2LCF is inerrant. And my commitment to the supremacy of Scripture leads me to favor a form of subscription that allows for minor, non-substantial doctrinal exceptions, provided that those exceptions are communicated openly and honestly. This places me somewhere between “system subscription” and an unqualified “strict subscription.” I would, therefore, advocate a form of “full subscription” that allows for minor or non-substantial exceptions. I explain my reasons in more detail in my article, “Confessional Subscription: Strict vs. Substantial.”
~ Robert Gonzales, Dean
Reformed Baptist Seminary
[ii] See my article "Confessional Subscription: Its Key Terms and Basic Types."
[iii] I serve in a seminary and local church that subscribes to the Second London Baptist Confession of 1689.
[v] Historically, Baptist churches that deny the doctrine of particular election have been called General or Arminian Baptist churches. In 1827 an association of such churches agreed to formulate a statement of faith articulating its views and distinguishing them (in places) from Particular Baptist churches that affirmed the doctrine of election. The confession or "treatise" (as it was called) was first published and adopted in 1834. Later, the association of Free Will Baptists revised and adopted the confession in 1948. See William Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions of Faith, rev. ed. (Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1969), 367-76.
[vii] At this point, someone may ask, “Is it biblical to make a distinction in the level of commitment to a church confession one requires of a member as opposed to the level of commitment one requires of a pastor or church officer"? Some, like the Reformed scholar R. Scott Clark, believe that the same level of commitment to the church’s confessional standards should be expected of the clergy and the laity. In his book Recovering the Reformed Confession, Clark remarks, "It is not obvious that establishing two levels of subscription, one for laity and another for ordained officers, is either biblical or consistent with the Reformation.... If the Reformed confession defines what it is to be Reformed, then establishing two distinct relations to the same constitutional document would seem to be a recipe for confusion and effectively two churches within one." Recovering the Reformed Confession: Our Theology, Piety, and Practice (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2008), 179.
In my opinion, Clark’s position is neither biblical nor confessional for the following reasons:
(1) In the New Testament, baptism and church membership usually precede a thorough grounding in Christian doctrine (Matt 28:19-20; Acts 2:41-42; Eph 4:11-14). Thus, while a fuller affirmation of the church’s confession may be the goal for membership, it shouldn’t be a prerequisite for membership. This places the cart before the horse.
(2) This approach is inconsistent with the 1689 Baptist Confession. According 26.2 (“Of the church”), which reads,
All persons throughout the world, professing the faith of the gospel and obedience unto God by Christ according unto it, not destroying their own profession by any errors everting the foundation, or unholiness of conversation, are any may be called visible saints; and of such ought all particular congregations to be constituted.
The prerequisite for church membership is, simply, a credible profession of faith that is not contradicted by serious doctrinal error or ungodly behavior. Mastery of the Confession as a requirement for membership is conspicuously absent from the Confession itself.
(3) Confessions and creeds are designed to protect the church from false teachers, not from new or immature believers. The 18th century Reformed Baptist scholar Andrew Fuller underscores this point:
If a religious community agrees to specify some leading principles which they consider as derived from the Word of God, and judge the belief of them to be necessary in order to any person’s becoming or continuing a member with them, it does not follow that those principles should be equally understood, or that all their brethren must have the same degree of knowledge, nor yet that they should understand and believe nothing else. The powers and capacities of different persons are various; one may comprehend more of the same truth than another, and have his views more enlarged by an exceedingly great variety of kindred ideas; and yet the substance of their belief may still be the same. The object of articles [of faith] is to keep at a distance, not those who are weak in the faith, but such as are its avowed enemies. Emphasis mine; Andrew Fuller, Complete Works, 3 vols. (1832; reprint, Harrisonburg: Sprinkle Publications, 1988), 450.
(4) A creed or confession is an extension of human, specifically, ecclesiastical authority. Many church constitutions require members to be teachable and submissive to the church’s constitution, confession, and covenant. God’s requirement that we submit to such authority does not necessitate that we fully agree with the authority, especially on matters that are non-essentials.
For these reasons, I believe we should not require full subscription to a larger confession like the 2LCF of our members. An affirmation of and commitment to the essential truths of the gospel is the minimum requirement. As a matter of prudence, we should make them aware of our distinctives (Calvinist, Reformed, Baptist, etc.). Moreover, we should make sure they’re not decidedly opposed to the distinctive doctrines and polity of the church and that they’re teachable. For a further development of this position, see Carl Trueman, The Creedal Imperative (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012), 171-75.
[viii] The doctrine that the church is "always being reformed" by the Holy Spirit in line with the Holy Scripture.
[ix]The Defense of the Faith, fourth edition (1955; reprint, Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2008).
[x] I can think of reasons why. If the Bible taught that all who die in infancy automatically go to heaven, we may be tempted to refrain from our efforts to stop abortion. Indeed, we might begin to view abortion as a form of evangelism or missions. Now I realize that such a conclusion would be unwarranted. But the sinful human heart is quite good at finding ways to justify unholy means in light of an assumedly positive end.
[xi] See L. Russ Bush and Tom J. Nettles, Baptists and the Bible, revised and expanded (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1999), 49.
[xii] The doctrine that the Bible alone is ultimate authority for all truth claims.
[xiii] Emphasis added; Confessing the Faith: A Reader's Guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2014), 27-28.
[xiv] For a description of these types of subscription, see my article "Confessional Subscription: Its Key Terms and Basic Types."