First, a little background: the Westminster Standards are a set of documents, consisting of the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Westminster Larger Catechism, and the Westminster Shorter Catechism. These were the product of an assembly in the mid-1600s, which set forth the theological standards for many Reformed congregations and denominations (especially Presbyterian ones). In my denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), the Westminster Standards, along with our Book of Church Order, form the constitution of our church as a denomination. (Presbyteries and congregations may add to that constitution through by-laws, standing rules, etc. — so long as the additions are not in conflict with the constitution.)
A little more background: in 2002, the 30th General Assembly of the PCA voted to approve "Good Faith Subscription" to the Westminster Standards by changing the Book of Church Order, chapter 21, section 4, which states explicitly what the requirement for subscription is and shall be (and how it shall be determined). With the passage of this amendment, the following language was added to the PCA's constitution:
While our Constitution does not require the candidate's affirmation of every statement and/or proposition of doctrine in our Confession of Faith and Catechisms, it is the right and responsibility of the Presbytery to determine if the candidate is out of accord with any of the fundamentals of these doctrinal standards and, as a consequence, may not be able in good faith sincerely to receive and adopt the Confession of Faith and Catechisms of this Church as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures (cf. BCO 21-5, Q. 2; 24-5, Q.2).
Therefore, in examining a candidate for ordination the Presbytery shall inquire not only into the candidate's knowledge and views in the areas specified above, but also shall require the candidate to state the specific instances in which he may differ with the Confession of Faith and Catechisms in any of their statements and/or propositions. The court may grant an exception to any difference of doctrine only if in the court's judgment the candidate's declared difference is not out of accord with a fundamental of our system of doctrine because the difference is neither hostile to the system nor strikes at the vitals of religion.
The alternative to "Good Faith" Subscription as described above is "Full" or "Strict" Subscription, which would turn the very first sentence of the added language on its head, in effect saying: "Our Constitution requires the candidate's affirmation of every statement and proposition of doctrine in our Confession of Faith and Catechisms." And this is essentially the basis of my friend's question; why not require Full Subscription?
Problem 1: "I'm right, you're wrong"
One presbytery asked me, in examination, "Do you believe in Strict Subscription to the Westminster Standards?" to which I replied, "Believe it? I've seen it with my own eyes!" And I have; I know brothers in several presbyteries, including some in which I have been a member, who are Full/Strict Subscriptionists. I count some of them as my friends. I don't have a problem, in principle, with their claim of being a Strict Subscriptionist — though I DO have a problem with some of them who hold it against me that I am not also one.
Which brings up the first issue with Strict Subscription: the "I'm right, you're wrong" issue.
As stated in the second added paragraph in BCO 21.4 (as well as in BCO 19.2.e), presbyteries have a right to determine exactly what their standards for membership shall be. A presbytery may, if it chooses, apply a "Full Subscription" standard for all ordinands and transfers, and refuse membership to any Teaching Elders or prospective Teach Elders who do not meet that standard. Some PCA presbyteries have done this, more or less (though the standard sometimes seems to be selectively-applied).
Many PCA presbyteries have elected to apply the "Good Faith Subscription" standard, however. And in each of those presbyteries, her members must follow the standards determined by the whole of Presbytery. Therefore, even members who themselves are Strict Subscriptionists are required to judge ordinands and transfers according to the standards set by their Presbytery — not according to their own standards for subscription. If an ordinand or transfer declares an exception to a particular phrase or idea in the Westminster Standards which the Strict Subscriptionist believes to be "hostile to the system of doctrine" or "[striking] at the vitals of religion" — but the rest of his Presbytery views as an acceptable exception — the burden of proof is on the Strict Subscriptionist to show that the rest of the body is wrong.
In one presbytery I have been a member of (which accepted Good Faith Subscription), a fellow presbyter who is (or at least was) a Strict Subscriptionist would regularly vote against the approval of every part of an ordinand's exam, if that ordinand had registered any exception to the Westminster Standards. Setting aside the problem of a fallacy of composition (does he REALLY disagree with EVERY part of the exam? Or just the theological parts — which he has the specific opportunity to vote against?), this is simply a divisive practice which sets the Strict Subscriptionist at odds with his brothers and fellow presbyters unnecessarily. Personally, I think an argument could be made to discipline someone like this if that spirit were to persist.
But this is not just the problem of one or two Teaching Elders; it is increasingly common to hear (or more likely, read — on the internet) from a Teaching Elder who doesn't like the way a certain matter was decided by the courts of the church (usually in favor of allowing someone's real or perceived variation from the Standards), so they make no bones about it. Tell me, which Teaching Elder is better exercising his vows to submission to the brethren: the one who registered his exceptions and allowed the courts to judge them, willing to accept their judgment either way; or the one who speaks out openly and publicly in opposition to that judgment, invoking accusations of compromise, heterodoxy, and heresy?
Problem 2: Language changes
Can we agree that, in the 400+ years since the writing of the Westminster Standards, it is possible — even likely — that the meaning and usage of some of the words and phrases have changed?
Certainly, anyone who has studied language would acknowledge this in principle; seminarians learn Koine Greek, not Classical or Modern Greek, because the nuances of the language are sufficiently different so that the translation, and more importantly the interpretation, of the text of the New Testament could be unclear or even wrong if one of the others were employed. Even more so English, itself a fairly young language, and one which has seen significant changes even in the last 50 years, let alone 400.
How do those language changes affect our ability to subscribe to the statements? I think it has the potential to affect them greatly. This is precisely why one of the descriptions of such an exception is that the stated difference is "merely semantic in nature" — meaning, essentially, we would word it differently today, we all know that, and that is basically what said exception is affirming.
Otherwise, consistency questions arise by the handful. Should we insist on a specific English translation of the Bible, for similar consistency (perhaps the KJV, as that is the version the writers of the Westminster Standards employed)? If the language of the Standards is immutable, what does that suggest about amendments to it? And so on.
[As an aside: this can be equally a problem with our BCO, as well. We have to allow for the fact that things aren't perfectly worded, as well as for the
Problem 3: Historical precedent
In American Presbyterianism, there is a long history of Good Faith Subscription. In 1729, the Adopting Act was passed, which required that every Teaching Elder present to his synod/presbytery his "scruples" regarding differences and exceptions to the Westminster Standards, which would then be judged as to whether they were differences on essential or non-essential matters. Sound familiar?
The point isn't what constituted essential vs. non-essential matters, or even what precipitated any sort of compromise that this act represented between "liberal" and "conservative" theological convictions. The point is that they all agreed that some matters were essential, while others are non-essential — even for the ministers of the Church.
The other point is that this is always about submission to the body. No Teaching Elder simply gets to decide whether his exceptions are or not about essential matters (and further steps have been taken in the PCA in recent years to ensure that this in not ever assumed to be the case). Rather, he subjects himself to the judgment of his presbytery — and, if there are questions there, then the presbytery itself is subject to the review of the General Assembly.
But the adamant Strict Subscriptionist (and know this: NOT ALL Strict Subscriptionists are adamant) will reject it all: the historical precedent and practice, the vote of the General Assembly to allow her presbyteries to enact Good Faith Subscription as they wish, the judgment of those presbyteries about which matters are essential and non-essential, and the review of the General Assembly of those judgments. Instead, he will grumble about how wrong everyone is but him (and now we're back to problem #1 again).
Problem 4: Constitutional issues
The original Westminster Standards of 1646 said some things that are NOT in our Westminster Standards today — particularly, it stated that civil magistrates had the authority to call for synods and councils of the Church, and that the Pope was the antichrist. I don't agree with either of those — do you?
Neither did the Presbyterians in early U.S. history — which is why, when they adopted the Westminster Standards for their constitution in 1789, they removed these portions of the Standards.
One of the "trick" questions that is often asked during an ordination trial is this one: "Why isn't the Bible part of the constitution of the PCA?"
The answer: because the Bible cannot be amended.
As I mentioned above, the Westminster Standards, along with the PCA Book of Church Order, are the constitution of my denomination. As a constitution, both of these documents can be amended. And, in fact, they SHOULD be amended, from time to time. We pass amendments to the BCO every year, and it is a very dynamic document. The Westminster Standards are much less so. Still, the writers of the Standards themselves recognized that their work should not be seen as immutable:
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)
These writers had themselves in mind, first and foremost, when they wrote that paragraph. I am as certain of this as I am of anything else that I believe about the Westminster Confession. We would do well to think like that, as well.
These words are not canon; they are not written in stone, and they can be and have been amended. I have little doubt that, within my lifetime, they will be again.
In light of that, the next problem arises...
Problem 5: Which Standards?
This is the question I most want to ask my Strict Subscriptionist friends (and HAVE asked some of them). Is their Strict Subscription to the original 1646 version? If so, do they register their exceptions to the 200+ year-old amendments? And if not, how do they justify their claim to "Strict" Subscription?
More importantly: if the PCA were to amend the Standards in the years to come (likely, since we've seen several overtures asking for that at the last couple of General Assemblies), how would they handle those amendments? If they are Strict Subscriptionists to THIS version of the Standards, would they register exceptions to the amendments?
The best answer I have gotten from a Strict Subscriptionist friend is, "I would follow the will of the church — and if the Assembly votes to amend the constitution, I submit myself to that." Meaning, they would be just as strictly a Strict Subscriptionist to the new version as they are to the current one.
But to that I say, "Okay, but the Assembly HAS voted to allow exceptions, by way of an amendment to our constitution; why is that different?"
I don't think there is a good answer to these questions, if you are a Strict Subscriptionist. At least, not if by "good" you mean (at least) "consistent" — which I do.
And that leads me to my last problem (for now).
Problem 6: Inconsistency abounds
In one presbytery examination, the Teaching Elder being examined (who was transferring in) claimed that he took no exceptions at all to the Westminster Standards. When the floor was opened for questions, he was asked, "Would you please describe for us your practices for the Sabbath day?" After some hemming and hawing, he eventually said, "I admit that my Sabbath-day practices are not in accordance with what is described in the Westminster Confession of Faith."
What should the body have done? As I see it, our options were two: either discipline him for openly and callously violating his own convictions about the fourth commandment, or help him to craft a statement of exception that brought his practices into conformity with his (newly) declared convictions. (We did neither, by the way.)
In another exam on another day, a Teaching Elder was asked about his exception to WCF 21.8, concerning Sabbath-day practices: "Would you participate in organized sports on Sundays, or would you allow your children to do so?" His response was, "Well, I like to watch NFL football, so I guess I would have to say 'yes.'" The questioner had no response (possibly because he himself enjoyed watching professional sports on Sundays, as well).
In yet another exam, a brother openly stated that he was a "Strict Subscriptionist" — which precipitated a question about whether the Pope was, indeed, the antichrist. He first dismissed the question on the basis that our current version of the Westminster Confession of Faith did not contain that accusation, but then backpedaled and began to argue that, in fact, the Pope was AN antichrist. (But wait: if you claim to strictly subscribe to the language of the original 1646 version, that document actually says, "THE antichrist" — not merely "AN antichrist." So would that be an exception, because the original writers were wrong to say "THE"?)
The point here is this: I don't know
Early in my years of ministry, a good friend and mentor commented to me that, "Anyone who says they don't have ANY exceptions to the Westminster Standards probably hasn't read them very carefully."
I think he's right, and my experiences (even with Strict Subscriptionists) stand as anecdotal evidence that he is. That's why I have a couple of pages' worth of exceptions registered with my presbytery (as I did with the presbytery I was ordained in). So far, each presbytery I've been a member in has judged me to be orthodox in my beliefs, and for that I am grateful.
But if I were convinced that Scripture did not teach something that was considered to be a "vital" matter in the Standards, I would submit to the ruling of the Body on that — even if it eventually meant losing my ordination. (I hope they would find that I had a teachable spirit, and would respond to that accordingly first before stripping me of credentials!) The Westminster Standards cannot be viewed as infallible, and I will gladly leave any body in which they are viewed as such.
I also think that, if the writers of the Standards were around today, they would be a little bit aghast that we were still using a 400 year-old document as our confession of faith. But I think they would also allow that Teaching Elders should be able to note our "scruples" with the non-essential matters of the documents (though I consider the term "scruples" to be a matter of difference, if only a semantic one.)