By: William VanDoodewaard
What does it mean to be a confessional church? Looking to our history helps us understand the role of our confessional standards. The Reformation-era roots of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church go back to Scotland, where shortly after the Reformation, the Church of Scotland adopted the Scots Confession (1560) as its doctrinal standard. The basic purpose of the confession of faith was to positively state the church’s shared belief commitments, promoting its peace, purity, and prosperity.
Like other Protestant confessions in Europe, this was affirmed as the “subordinate” statement of the church’s doctrine; while the Scots Confession stood as a faithful summary of scriptural truths, it stood under Scripture’s primary and ultimate authority. Church mechanisms intentionally allowed those with conscientious objections to appeal for scriptural modifications to the Confession’s content or form. Where the Scots Confession was seen as summative and subordinate, the whole Word of God was the church’s primary standard and ultimate confession.
Westminster Confession of Faith
This understanding was abundantly clear when the Church of Scotland moved to also adopt the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms as her confessional standards (1647–1648). A wide consensus had developed that the more substantive and detailed Westminster Standards would further strengthen the church’s commitment to and understanding of God’s Word. The following persecution under Charles II and James II, forced many committed Presbyterians out of their churches. Most rejoined the Church of Scotland in 1690 with the restoration of the Presbyterian church, with some—later known as Reformed Presbyterians—remaining outside.
In order to serve in the restored Church of Scotland, ministers and elders were required to declare their commitment to the Westminster Confession. They were asked:
Do you sincerely believe the whole doctrine contained in the Confession of Faith… to be founded upon the Word of God; and do you acknowledge the same as the confession of your faith?
They were also required to sign their names to the statement:
I —– do hereby declare, that I do sincerely own and believe the whole doctrine contained in the Confession of Faith… to be the truths of God; and I do own the same as the confession of my faith.
During the early part of the 1700’s the “Marrow controversy” (1718–1725), and the controversy over patronage (1733) occurred in the Church of Scotland. The last was the immediate cause for the formation of the Associate Presbyterians, a body committed to the “Marrow” understanding of Christ’s sufficiency for salvation. The Associates maintained the Church of Scotland vows, but added to the statement to be signed by ministers the requirement to “own and believe… the whole doctrine contained in the Larger and Shorter Catechisms.” This was a significant expansion, particularly through the inclusion of the content of the Larger Catechism. Beyond these, the Associate church made further doctrinal clarifications as a denomination—such as the Act Concerning the Doctrine of Grace, which defended Christ’s sufficiency.
Over time varying degrees of latitude developed in ministerial examination and in the requirement for pastoral commitment to the confessional standards. Some presbyteries were strict, others lax. Ultimately, it fell to the Reformed Presbyterian Synod and the Associate Presbyterian Synod (united in North America as the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Synod) to encourage confessional fidelity and decide the nature and limits of subscription.
By 1796, debates raged over what confessional subscription on the nature of the church and state relationship meant, and whether what the confession stated was in harmony with Scripture. The Associate theologian, John Dick, called for a biblical charity, wisdom, and robust commitment to confessional subscription in response to those feeling dubious towards a fully confessional theology and church order.
While confessions of faith were necessary to the life of the church, and committed subscription should be required of ministers, Dick wrote, “there is room for examining and reviewing all human creeds and doctrinal articles” in the light of Scripture, for “it is possible that our Fathers have erred”. A “hearty assent”—honest initial and continued subscription—required “utmost deliberation and care”. Dick stated that situations in the church’s life and history may change so that a point of a confession, while not wrong, may become “unnecessary… to preserve the purity of the great truths of the gospel, and to maintain order and peace”.
Should concerns arise regarding church standards, they ought to be brought before church courts and considered. If the concern was in harmony with Scripture, the confession of the church must then be revised, amended or expanded, as necessary.
In America, the ARP Church in the South followed Dick’s approach through the 19th century; during the 20th it moved towards a hybrid of American and Scottish patterns: presbyteries granting exceptions for minor scruples while continuing the tradition of confessional amendment, adding chapters and qualifying notes to her form of the Westminster Standards.
By God’s grace, our history reveals the understanding that the church stood under the authority of the whole of Scripture—her confession and catechisms summarizing and explaining that commitment.
William VanDoodewaard is an ARP minister serving as Associate Professor of Church History at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. He is the author of The Marrow Controversy and Seceder Tradition: Atonement, Saving Faith, and the Gospel Offer in Scotland (Reformation Heritage Books, 2011), a history of the ARP’s theological roots.