By Brian Murray
As was pointed out in the last Emphasis article, the main principle behind the question of confessions of faith is the principle of truth.
The ARP is a confessional church because we believe God revealed absolute truth in the Bible. The function of a confession is simply to faithfully sum- marize that unchanging truth of God. To argue at this point would be to argue not against confessions, but against the doctrine of scripture itself.
In the second part of this article, we will be dealing with a far more divisive issue (even within the ARP Church); namely, the level of subscription required to a confession of faith within a denomination.
As soon as we begin to deal with the question of subscription to confessional standards, we are not dealing with the issue of truth per se, rather, with the issue of authority. In other words we are essentially dealing with the question of who has the ultimate authority to determine a faithful summary of God’s Word.
Generally speaking, there are three answers to this most fundamental question. We will briefly summarize these three positions and then assess the im- portance of the issue of subscription within the ARP Church.
Full Subscription or Tight Subscription?
As the title would suggest, this ap- proach puts the emphasis of doctrinal authority on the church as represented by her courts. In this position, it is the duty of the courts of the church to collectively write and approve a confession of faith. It is also the duty of the courts of the church to amend those same con- fessions if they are determined by the courts to be contrary to God’s Word.
As such, individual office bearers, as well as congregants, are bound by those confessions in their entirety so long as
they are members of the denomination. This position places the collective church, as represented in her courts, as the final authority in doctrinal matters in the church – and makes the individual subservient to the church in matters of doctrine. In this position, it is the confession of faith as written that articulates what the individuals in a denomination believe.
System Subscription or Loose Subscription?
This position places the emphasis of doctrinal authority on the individual within the broader context of the church. Here, one is said to adhere to the basic system contained in a confession of faith, but is left free to agree or disagree with the particulars of his church’s confession of faith. In this po- sition, the confession of faith serves as a helpful guide when it comes to doctrinal particulars; but the individual is left free to adopt or reject those particulars as they are represented in the confes- sion of faith.
In terms of assessing what a particular denomination believes, a confession of faith only serves to articulate a general system; anything beyond this must be determined by ascertaining the particular beliefs of individuals within a denomination.
The Middle Way
The final position seeks to uphold the authority of the church, while at the same time giving the individual the lib- erty of his own conscience. Like the full subscriptionists, this position ascribes the authority of adopting and amend- ing confessions of faith to the church as represented by her courts.
Further, these confessions are gener- ally binding and publicly represent the belief of a denomination. Where this po- sition differs from the full subscriptionist position is in the ability of the individual to take personal exceptions to the particulars of the adopted confessions.
As an individual takes an exception to the confession of faith, the church courts determine whether or not the exception is acceptable. And if so, the individual vows not to publicly teach against the adopted confession. In this way, it is thought, that the individual is able to maintain a liberty of conscience and at the same time the church is able to maintain an outward authority in doctrinal matters. This system, however, guarantees only an external cohe- sion of belief.
As one can see in these very basic summaries of the different subscription positions within the church, the issue is not primarily one of truth. Representatives of each position can honestly and unanimously confess the Bible as the authoritative and absolute truth of God.
The issue is that of final authority when it comes to determining principles of truth from the Bible. Each of the positions summarized in this ar- ticle approach this issue of authority from a radically different perspective and as such, a unified position regarding subscription becomes essential to the peace and unity of the church.
The ARP as a denomination is crystal clear on her position regard- ing the Bible as the authoritative and absolute truth of God. However, we have yet to make clear our position regarding this most fundamental and essential issue of subscription. We are a confessional church; the question remains: what does subscription mean for us??
Rev. Murray is the associate pas- tor at Grace Church, Woodstock, ON, Canada.