Presbyterianism, whose bodies are also called Reformed Churches, share a common origin in the 16th-century Swiss Reformation and the teachings of John Calvin, and today is one of the largest Christian denominations in Protestantism.

Confidence in Our Brethren: Creedal Subscription in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church

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    Confidence in Our Brethren: Creedal Subscription in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church

    John R. Muether

    John O’Sullivan, the editor of National Review, is fond of citing what he calls “O’Sullivan’s Law,” which states that any group that is not explicitly right-wing will become left-wing over time. O’Sullivan applies his law generally to political organizations: parties, action groups, think tanks, etc. Students of American church history may be tempted to apply O’Sullivan’s Law to ecclesiastical contexts as well, to assert that any church that is not explicitly conservative will become liberal over time. After all, American culture, with its religious pluralism, anti-intellectual populism, and advancing secularization is hardly friendly terrain for Christian orthodoxy. More specifically, conservative Presbyterians may want to frame the principle in this way a Presbyterian church that is not explicitly Old School will become New School over time, or, alternatively, those who are not explicitly strict subscriptionist will eventually become loose subscriptionist. The burden of this essay is to survey the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (Hereafter OPC) with respect to its view of creedal subscription. Along the way we wish to test the reliability of an ecclesiastical version of O’Sullivan’s Law.

    The OPC, throughout its nearly sixty-year history, has established a reputation for rigorous doctrinal orthodoxy. George Marsden, for example, located the OPC within what he calls the “doctrinalist” strand of American Reformed tradition: “Orthodox Presbyterians meant by Reformed’ strict adherence to Christian doctrine as contained in the infallible Scriptures and defined by the standards of the Westminster Assembly. Only Christians whose creeds were fully compatible with Westminster’s and who viewed subscription to them as paramount were fully within the pale.[1] Similarly, Mark Noll noted, not very sympathetically, that OPC “has prided itself more on confessional precisionism than on ecclesiastical diplomacy.”[2]

    As Marsden and Noll indicate, the popular impression is that the OPC has a high level of confessional integrity that results in little diversity of theological expression. What is curious about that image, however, is that for all its reputation for creedal integrity, the OPC is without a history of debate on the nature of creedal subscription. When compared to the public debates in the Presbyterian Church in America over subscription,[3] what is most remarkable about the OPC is its remarkable silence on the topic. The language of “strict” or “full” subscription on the one hand, and “loose” or “system” subscription on the other hand, is virtually absent in the OPC. The question begs itself: Why is this so? We will suggest the answer lies in unique elements in the story of the OPC. Events surrounding the origin of the OPC, and events that took place in its early history established a definite creedal sensibility within the church. Yet, however strong that sensibility is, it is not the product of careful reflection on the part of the denomination, but rather the result of an unarticulated corporate culture.

    Subscription and the founding of the OPC


    A deep respect for the Westminster Confession pervades the writings of J. Gresham Machen, the New Testament scholar from Princeton who would found both Westminster Seminary and the OPC. He was reluctant to refer to the Confession as a “man-made creed” and referred to it instead as “the creed that God has taught in his Word.”[4] As he became involved in the fundamentalist-modernist debates in the Presbyterian church in the 1920s and 1930s, his concern was in defending the Reformed faith as expressed in the Westminster Standards.[5] When over 1300 Presbyterian ministers signed the Auburn Affirmation in 1923, asserting that biblical infallibility, the virgin birth of Christ, his miracles, substitutionary atonement, and resurrection were merely theories that Presbyterians may or may not believe, Machen responded that the Affirmation’s skepticism challenged not only the authority of the Bible, but also the confessional character of the church.

    In several works Machen lashed out against the brazen dishonesty of the modernists within the church, who were deceptively using traditional language to take control of the church, all the while denying the Confession and the infallibility of the Bible. Revival in the church will come only with the renewal of “just plain old fashioned honesty of speech.”[6] In his most popular work, Christianity and Liberalism, Machen reflected on the ordination vows in the Presbyterian Church: “if these constitutional questions’ do not fix clearly the creedal basis of the Presbyterian Church, it is difficult to see how any human language could possibly do so....[T]he ordination vow declaration is part of the constitution of the Church. If a man can stand on that platform he may be an officer in the Presbyterian Church; if he cannot stand on it he has no right to be an officer in the Presbyterian Church.”[7]

    In another essay, “The Creeds and Doctrinal Advance,” Machen lamented the anti-doctrinal spirit of his age. Modern Church-unionism” sought unity through a watering down of confessional commitments. The goal of ecumenical movements was to “make doctrine as meager and vague as possible,” in the name of religious progress. Machen countered that creeds are an expression of the truth, not an expression of the historically-conditioned experience of faith. Creeds of the past were premised on the idea of truth, and ignoring them led not to doctrinal progress but to “doctrinal regression or decadence.” While he did countenance the possibility of doctrinal advance within the Presbyterian Church, he also believed that his was not a “creed-making age.”[8]

    Machen’s confessionalism — coupled with his high ecclesiology — led him to champion the “corporate witness” of the church. The church as a whole was a witness to the truth through its constitutional documents. Ministers occupy pulpits in the church only with the endorsement of the church. “The preacher therefore speaks not only for himself but for the church.”[9] If he were to preach heresy it would be heresy for which the whole church would be responsible. The church must therefore be a doctrinally strict company through the instruments of its doctrinal standards. Machen saw the corporate witness compromised not only by liberal preachers and the underhanded tactics of the modernist church bureaucracies, but also the indifference of the “moderates,” who sought to stand aloof from the doctrinal controversies. The principle of corporate witness was to be held above institutional loyalty or prestige.

    Thus, when the Old School identity of Princeton Seminary was compromised by its 1929 reorganization (the new Board included signers of the Auburn Affirmation), Machen founded Westminster Seminary, announcing at its opening convocation that “Princeton Seminary is not dead, the noble tradition of Princeton Seminary is alive.” Westminster would maintain that tradition, “not on the foundation of equivocation and compromise, but on an honest foundation of devotion to God’s Word, to maintain the same principles that old Princeton maintained that the Christian religion, as set forth in the Confession of Faith of the Presbyterian Church, is true.”[10]

    Seven years later, when Machen was defrocked by the PCUSA for opposing modernism in the Foreign Missions Board, he and his sympathizers began what became known as the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in order “to perpetuate the true Presbyterian Church regardless of cost.”[11] Its charter proclaimed that the new church would maintain and defend the Bible “as the Word of God” and the Westminster Confession “as the system of doctrine taught in Holy Scriptures.”[12] Thus the OPC was the “spiritual successor” to the PCUSA in a way similar to the founding vision of Westminster Seminary. Spiritual succession was understood in terms of fidelity to the theology of the Westminster Confession that had formerly characterized the Presbyterian Church and Princeton Seminary.

    Doctrinal Divisions in the OPC


    Though Machen died six months after its founding, the OPC was beset with doctrinal controversies.[13] In 1937, Carl McIntire and other fundamentalists left the young church to form the Bible Presbyterian Church. This split was the result of several issues, including the relation between the Church and its Confession. Among the early issues to resolve was the form of the Westminster Confession that the Church would adopt. McIntire argued that unless the Church adopted the 1903 revisions to the Confession, it could not legitimately claim to be the Presbyterian Church’s “spiritual successor.” The second General Assembly, however, voted to eliminate the 1903 revisions because they were Arminian in character. Another issue was whether or not to amend the Confession to allow for a premillennial interpretation of the return of Christ. Although the Confession seemed to rule out premillennialism, Machen argued against revisions. A premillennial could still receive and adopt the Confession in good faith: “for the reasonable interpretation of the meaning of the ordination vow, so far as the return of Christ is concerned, we must have confidence in our brethren.”[14]

    A decade later the church found itself embroiled in the “Clark controversy.” In part the debate was procedural: Did the Presbytery of Philadelphia license and ordain Gordon H. Clark properly? It also involved a Theological dispute: Did his view of the incomprehensibility of God do justice to the majesty and mystery of God? There were other significant issues lurking in the background as well, having to do with the mission and character of the OPC: Would it be evangelical or conservative as defined by the emerging evangelical movement, or would it be distinctively Reformed as defined by the Westminster Standards? Clark’s supporters saw the OPC as an evangelical church opposed to modernism, while his opponents envisioned the church opposing modernism by defending and propagated the Westminster Standards. In the end Clark and his followers left the church, leaving the issues to be framed by the terms of his opponents.

    The Clark case was almost immediately followed by the Peniel dispute. Some ministerial members of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church became involved in the Peniel Bible Conference in upstate New York. The Conference began to take on peculiar teachings on new revelations of the Spirit that, according to critics, challenged the sufficiency of Scripture.

    Peniel’s critics in the OPC were frustrated by the selective way in which the movement seemed to embrace the Reformed faith, and found a “serious lack of clarity and precision” in Peniel’s formulations. Like Clark’s supporters, Peniel’s defenders critiqued the direction the OPC was heading. Clark called it a small circumscribed, obscure group. Peniel described it as cold, withdrawn, and inflexible. In both cases debate often focused on the tension between a strong Reformed identity and greater size and influence.

    Thus, by its 30th anniversary, with the collective effects of the McIntire exodus, along with the Clark and Peniel controversies, the confessional identity of the church was fairly well established, though not explicit. The boundaries of Machen’s movement, vaguely defined at first in the battles against modernism were clarified by these divisions in the direction of traditional Presbyterianism. While none of the debates saw the nature of Creedal subscription spelled out, each resulted in the exodus of those yearning for a broader vision of the church: McIntire left for the fundamentalist cause; the evangelicals departed in the Clark and Peniel disputes. The growth of the church was stymied, and the OPC remained relatively small and, to use Noll’s term, firmly established in “confessional precisionism.”

    Subsequent Reflection of Subscription


    Later events provided opportunity for the Church to reflect on its Confession. The OPC followed closely events leading to the adoption of the Confession of 1967 in the UPCUSA.[15] In adopting the Confession of 1967, mainline Presbyterians included the Westminster Confession within a book of ancient and contemporary confessions, and altered the ordination vows for church officers. No longer was there the requirement to “sincerely receive and adopt the Confession of Faith and Catechisms of this Church, as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures.” Instead ministers were to “perform the duties of a minister of the gospel in obedience to Christ, under the authority of the Scriptures, and the guidance of the confessions of this church.” OPC commentators saw some positive benefit to the new confession: the new vow to submit to confessional “guidance,” along with doctrinal changes rendered by the Confession of 1967 introduced long-overdue honesty in the Presbyterian Church. The new confessions “grants creedal tolerance to the unbelief of the Auburn Affirmation,” wrote Edmund Clowney.[16]

    At the same time, it thrust the remaining conservatives in the mainline church into a confessional crisis. These changes placed the Westminster Confession in a “creedal museum,”[17] keeping it only because it was historic, not because it was true. Indeed, the doctrine of confessional progress required the new Confession to prevail over the Westminster Confession. As the new Confession contradicted Westminster at several points, the new subscription formula required that officers in effect deny the Westminster Confession. Norman Shepherd summed up the OPC evaluation well when he wrote: “The tragedy of the confessional crisis in the United Presbyterian Church is surpassed only by the glory of the opportunity now at hand to confess anew and unequivocally the Lordship of Jesus Christ in the fellowship of a church where the Westminster Confession and Catechisms are sincerely received and adopted.”[18]

    During roughly the same time, the church studied subscription from another perspective. In the late 1960s the church began to discuss merger with the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod.[19] During these discussions, as well as later discussions with the Presbyterian Church in America in the 1980s, much of the debate focused on alleged differences in subscription between the uniting parties. Did these potential partners engage in credible subscriptions of the Westminster Standards? Many who opposed the merger questioned the creedal integrity of the RPCES and the PCA, often recounting anecdotal horror stories during the Assembly debate. Others responded with confidence in the integrity of these bodies. What emerged from the OPC reflection was ambiguity over its own understanding of subscription, with considerable confusion over what an officer of the church affirms when he accepts the doctrinal standards of the Church.

    On a practical level, the OPC engaged in a subscription discussion in the one area of the Confession that proves most vexing to contemporary Presbyterians, i.e., its teaching on the Sabbath.[20] In 1968, the Presbytery of Wisconsin, in the midst of a discipline case over a minister’s views of the Sabbath, overtured the General Assembly, requesting that the church “evaluate the teachings of the Westminster Standards concerning the Sabbath with the purpose of defining the nature of subscription to the Standards on this matter.”[21] The Assembly’s Committee on Overtures and Communications recommended that the Assembly take a strong Sabbatarian position: “the second ordination vows for office bearers entails belief that, as to Sabbath observance, the prescriptions and prohibitions of the Fourth Commandment under the new covenant apply to the first day of the week, in distinction from the other six days.” The Assembly itself determined, however, that it did “not deem it advisable, apart from appeal from a decision by the Presbytery, to render a decision.”[22]

    That appeal would come in the very next year, in the form of a complaint entered against the Presbytery of Wisconsin for failing to discipline the minister. Among the reasons in the complaint was “a failure to uphold the Confession of Faith and Catechisms of this Church as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures” and “in effect to declare that those secondary standards are themselves in error.”[23] In response, the Assembly appointed a “Committee on Sabbath Matters.”

    Four years later, that committee presented a divided report, in 1973. The majority report essentially upheld the complaint against the Presbytery. It concluded “So far as the teaching of our secondary standards regarding the Christian Sabbath or Lord’s Day is the teaching of Scripture, its acceptance is required by the second ordination vow” [emphasis added].[24] A Minority Report took strong exception to this conclusion. The offenses alleged in the trial before the Presbytery of Wisconsin were “not contrary, on any construction, to the Reformed system of doctrine.” The report went on to argue that the “core of the church’s faith” should not be a Reformed faith that requires what is “confessionally unique with the Westminster standards.”[25] In other words, a “continental” view of the Sabbath should not be beyond the bounds in the OPC. The majority report was adopted, but not without significant dissent. What is important in this debate for our purposes is that it represents the first case in the OPC when the Assembly focused specifically on the nature and extent of subscription. Both the strict-leaning majority report and the system-leaning minority report claimed that their understanding was in the spirit of the founding of the OPC.

    On at least one occasion, there was movement to resolve the apparent ambiguity in favor of more exact and binding forms of subscription. In 1993, for example, the Presbytery of Northern California delivered an Overture to the General Assembly requesting that the church’s Form of Government be amended to establish a full subscription view of the confession. The proposed changes included the definition of “system of doctrine”:
    The “system of doctrine” referred to in the subscription vows for licentiates and officers in the Church is the whole body of truth which the Holy Scriptures teach. The Confession of Faith and Catechisms are to be received by the licentiate and officer as a most satisfactory exposition of this truth in an integral and indivisible whole. By receiving and adopting the standards, he thereby affirms and agrees with nothing less than the complete set of assertions contained in the Confession of Faith and Catechisms.[26]
    Rather than adopt the overture, the Assembly returned it to the Presbytery for proper grounds and it has not yet reappeared.

    The OPC as a Community of Interpretation


    From its origins under Machen’s leadership, the church affirmed the centrality of the Confession in its worship and life, yet fell short of assuming a rigidly strict position. The church seemed able to profess forthrightly its confessional identity in general terms, yet hesitant to specify the nature of creedal subscription in internal debates. To be sure, the church understood that vague assent to the “system of doctrine” had opened the door to heresy in church history. Yet the OPC has resisted “overstrictness,” not employing exacting subscription formulas to guard against decline.

    This brings us back to O’Sullivan’s Law. The OPC experience suggests that an ecclesiastical version of this principle needs some qualification. The OPC is a church that was never explicitly strict subscriptionist, and it has not, over the course of 58 years, become loose subscriptionist. The church does not easily fit on either side of the strict or loose subscription debate in contemporary Presbyterianism.[27]

    How has the church avoided the tensions of strict and loose subscription? The history suggests that the church has established a community of interpretation that has enabled it to maintain both peace and orthodoxy without the polarizing effect of a rigorously enforced subscription. Providentially, the OPC has been, relative to other communions, clear about its theological identity. Both the doctrinal divisions that it has experienced, as painful as those were, and its failures at merger, as disappointing as they seemed, were helpful at least in this sense: they kept narrow the focus and identity of the OPC. If these episodes have kept the church numerically small, they have also kept it theologically cohesive.

    Moreover, this corporate culture has developed in a way that has avoided the modern temptations of advanced bureaucratization and high levels of organizational efficiency. As a result, the OPC engages in very deliberate (and often painfully slow) debate on theological issues. The OPC has demonstrated the principle that theologian Richard Lints expresses in his book, The Fabric of Theology: “the construction of a theological framework and the appropriation of a theological vision are properly tasks of the Christian community and not of isolated individuals The communal character of interpretation serves to suppress the tendency of an ecclesiastical aristocracy or an academic elite to reign supreme in matters pertaining to the Bible.”[28]

    The OPC believes that, “in the final analysis there simply is no constitutional device that will guarantee continued orthodoxy.”[29] Just as important is the necessity of a vibrant community of interpretation. As Machen put it in the premillennial debate, the OPC endeavors to interpret the Confession with “confidence in our brethren.” “Unless we have that mutual confidence,” Machen wrote in 1936 to a five-month old church, “it would have been better that we should not have attempted to form a church at all.”[30]

    The OPC has forged one model of being a confessional church in the modern world: seeing the Church as an ethnos, a community that operates within an interpretative consensus. That the Church could remain orthodox without an articulated position on subscription is a testimony to the power of that consensus. But the OPC model may not be easily appropriated. The OPC consensus is undoubtedly aided by its small size. This ought never to be a cause for boasting, but it may be a cause for reflection. Perhaps in an individualistic, narcissistic, and anti-creedal age, size is the necessary sacrifice of confessional integrity.

    This sharpened identity by no means implies theological unanimity, doctrinal tensions continue to challenge the church. Recently, the “New Life” movement within the OPC could have threatened its consensus to the point of raising the issue of subscription, but the voluntary realignment of these churches into the PCA averted that debate. There are important doctrinal issues that still divide the OPC, such as theonomy and exclusive psalmody, with some arguing that these are confessional matters. Yet the OPC has achieved a certain peaceful coexistence on these issues, and no party has prosecuted its opponents for violations of subscription vows.

    Finally, this analysis offers no opportunity for the OPC to be presumptuous about its confessional identity. The OPC’s confessional precision and its shared consensus has been challenged in every decade of its existence. It must be constantly vigilant in maintaining Machen’s vision of a “hermeneutical circle,” preserving both its heritage, the glorious Standards, and the community that accords “confidence in our brethren.”


    Notes:


    [1] George M. Marsden, “Reformed and American” in Reformed Theology in America: A History of Its Modern Development, ed. David F. Wells (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985), p. 2. The other two strands in Marsden’s taxonomy of American Calvinism are the “pietist” and the “culturalist.”

    [2] Mark Noll, “The Spirit of Old Princeton and the Spirit of the OPC” in Pressing Toward the Mark: Essays Commemorating Fifty Years of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, ed. Charles G. Dennison and Richard C. Gamble (Philadelphia: Committee for the Historian of the OPC, 1986), p. 243.

    [3] For example, the Knight-Barker dialogue in Presbuterion X (1984) and the Barker-Smith debate at the 1992 General Assembly.

    [4] J. Gresham Machen, What is Christianity? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1951), p. 229.

    [5] For a comprehensive study of Machen’s involvement in this struggle and his role in the formation of the OPC, see Ned B. Stonehouse, J. Gresham Machen: A Biographical Memoir (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1954) and D. G. Hart, Defending the Faith: J. Gresham Machen and the Crisis of Conservative Presbyterianism in Modern America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994).

    [6] J. Gresham Machen, “The Issue Before the Church” in God Transcendent, ed. by Ned B. Stonehouse (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1982), p. 44.

    [7] J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981 [1923]), pp. 163-164.

    [8] J. Gresham Machen, “The Creeds and Doctrinal Advance,” Scripture and Confession, ed. John H. Skilton (Nutley, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1973), pp. 149-157.

    [9] J. Gresham Machen, “The Parting of The Ways,” Presbyterian 94 (Jan. 24, 1924), p. 8.

    [10] Machen, What is Christianity? pp. 232-233.

    [11] Ned Stonehouse, J. Gresham Machen, p. 496.

    [12] Ibid., p. 495.

    [13] It is not possible to describe the details of these struggles here. For a fuller explanation of them, see Fighting the Good Fight of Faith: A Popular History of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, by D. G. Hart and John Muether, forthcoming.

    [14] “The Second General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of America” Presbyterian Guardian 3:3 (November 14, 1936), p. 43.

    [15] The Presbyterian Guardian devoted a series of articles to the new confession, and the faculty of Westminster Seminary produced an anthology, Scripture and Confession (Nutley, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1973).

    [16] Edmund P. Clowney, Another Foundation (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1965), p. 6.

    [17] Ibid, p. 4.

    [18] Norman Shepherd, “Subscription Crisis for Presbyterian Officers,” Presbyterian Guardian 34 (Nov. 1965) p. 145.

    [19] The discussion would climax with the vote at concurrent General Assemblies in 1975, where the OPC approved the union plan but the RPCES assembly rejected it.

    [20] Another area is in the teaching on creation. Does the Confession require a six 24-hour day creation that eliminates an animal ancestry for Adam? Or does such a requirement direct the church toward an extra-confessional fundamentalism? It is likely that OPC will debate these issues in the near future.

    [21] Minutes to the 35th GA, 1968, p. 9.

    [22] Ibid, p. 119.

    [23] Minutes to the 36th GA., 1969, p. 12.

    [24] Minutes to the 40th GA, 1973, p. 106.

    [25] Ibid, p. 111-12.

    [26] Minutes of the Sixtieth General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (Horsham, PA: Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 1993).

    [27] This point should not be lost on those in the PCA, on both sides of the debate, who have suggested that the PCA’s “strict subscriptionists” might seek re-affiliation with the OPC. Many of the strict subscriptionists in the PCA may be surprised at the lack of heightened sensitivity in the OPC toward subscription.

    [28] Richard Lints, The Fabric of Theology: A Prolegomenon to Evangelical Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), p. 286.

    [29] Clair Davis, “Creedal Changes and Subscription to the System of Doctrine” Presbyterian Guardian 36 (March 1967), p. 46.

    [30] “The Second General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of America” Presbyterian Guardian 3:3 (November 14, 1936), p.43-44.
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