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Unashamedly Confessional

By admin | November 10, 2008

Unashamedly Confessional:Confessional Subscription and Ministerial Education

By Stefan T. Lindblad (WSC/IRBS 2001)

The Association of Reformed Baptist Churches of America (ARBCA) is a self-consciously confessional communion of churches.  We subscribe fully The London Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689 (LBCF), but not because the Confession supplants the authority of Holy Scripture.  No, on the basis of Scripture itself, we subscribe because we believe the LBCF is a full and faithful summary of the system of theology God has disclosed in Scripture.

As a confessional body, ARBCA is at a pivotal juncture with regard to ministerial education.  In fact, as we consider the prospect of expanding the Institute of Reformed Baptist Studies (IRBS) our communion faces quite the challenge: not only maintaining, or perhaps first recovering fully, our distinctive (yet simultaneously catholic, Protestant, and Reformed) confession in an age of ever-increasing individualistic and idiosyncratic theologies and forms of piety, but doing so in the context of “the noncredal (sic), non-confessional, and sometimes even anti-confessional and anti-traditional biblicism of conservative American religion.”[1]

For this reason Richard Muller argues, and rightly so, that one of the great issues facing confessional Reformed folk today is “the retention and maintenance of the integrity and stability of the Reformed faith in its confessions.”[2] Scott Clark goes one step further, contending that the Reformed confession (its theology, piety, and practice) is in need of recovery.[3] In such a context how are we to proceed with ministerial education?  Though the following essay is suggestive rather than exhaustive, we will contend that the only way for ARBCA and IRBS to move forward in this particular venture is to recover fully and to maintain our confession.  Our approach to ministerial education, in other words, must be understood as vitally and indispensably linked to our commitment to our theological and ecclesiastical symbols, at present the LBCF.  If ARBCA and IRBS are confessional in identity then our approach to ministerial education must be unashamedly confessional in practice.

What follows is not a defense of full (or strict) subscription; that particular form of subscription is assumed as the most consistent and most practical.[4] Nor is this essay the last word on the matter.  Instead the following reflections on the necessary relationship between confessional subscription and ministerial education are offered as a point of entry into this vastly important subject.

Confessional Integrity

Essential to the future of ministerial education in ARBCA is confessional integrity; that is, a universal, association-wide commitment to subscribe sincerely and honestly to our Confession of Faith.  This necessitates abiding by two inter-related principles: (1) interpreting the Confession, both in its individual parts and as a whole, according to its plain meaning; and (2) employing the language of the Confession, and thus the terminology of historic Christianity, in its plain sense.  In short, the maintenance of confessional integrity depends upon subscribing the Confession on its own terms, not on our terms.  Much like the Scriptures, we cannot read into the statements of the Confession anything we so choose.

At the root of much of the theological disarray and practical disunity in Reformed circles today is this very issue of confessional integrity.  Our generation, however, is not the first to witness the effects of dishonest subscription.  One notable example is found in the Presbyterian controversy of the 1920’s and early 1930’s, which led to the theological demise of the denomination’s flagship institution, Princeton Theological Seminary.

Time and again in his polemic against the anti-evangelical and anti-confessional forces within the Presbyterian Church USA, J. Gresham Machen lamented that certain ministers and elders in the church were engaged in a policy of concealment and deceit.[5] Though they had taken ordination vows to believe that the Holy Scriptures are the Word of God and the only infallible rule of faith and practice, and to sincerely receive and adopt the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures, they were instead contradicting the church’s standards and violating their ordination vows by “the double use of language” and “traditional terminology” (i.e., using traditional vocabulary without the traditional, or confessional, meaning) and by interpreting “a perfectly plain confession of faith to mean its exact opposite.”  To eviscerate the meaning and force of the doctrines of the Confession by the subtle use of language was tantamount to “chicanery and deceit.”[6] Machen countered:

Whether we like it or not, these [evangelical or confessional] Churches are founded upon a creed; they are organized for the propagation of a message.  If a man desires to combat that message instead of propagating it, he has no right, no matter how false the message may be, to gain a vantage ground for combating it by making it a declaration of his faith which-be it plainly spoken-is not true.[7]

Sadly, Machen and his fellow confessionalists were unable to hold the line.  His arguments were largely repudiated, and his pleas for Princeton to maintain her confessional identity and cause were soundly rejected.  In the wake of this confessional dishonesty old Princeton was lost, as evidenced by the reorganization of the seminary’s board in 1929.

If ARBCA is to expand her efforts to educate men for the gospel ministry we must heed the warnings of history and subscribe ex animo to our Confession, otherwise the theological and spiritual decline of associations and denominations of the past – as well as their respective seminaries – will be our lot as well.  Ex animo subscription – subscription from the heart, honestly, sincerely – must be the status quo among the churches of the Association, the officers in our churches, and the board of trustees and faculty of our seminary.  Though we must be careful to maintain confidence in our brethren and their commitment to the Confession, and though we must not cry deceit when the real issue is instead a misunderstanding of the Confession, we must nevertheless take and maintain our vows of subscription with all solemnity before God and all sincerity before one another.  To that end we must adopt, receive, and subscribe our Confession as the confession of our personal faith and as a faithful summary of the system of doctrine taught in Holy Scripture, and we must not inculcate, teach, or insinuate anything which contradicts or contravenes, either expressly or implicitly, anything taught in our Confession.[8]

Honest, whole-hearted subscription to the Confession is already a requirement for membership in ARBCA, and likewise for the faculty of IRBS.[9] One might therefore object that the preceding admonitions are unwarranted.  But the human heart is such that we can never downplay the significance of maintaining our integrity before God and one another.  Our Confession itself warrants giving attention to this issue, since lawful oaths and vows unto God are understood to be matters of great weight (cf. 23:1-5).  Moreover, if the history of our Presbyterian brethren, and specifically of Princeton Seminary, teaches us anything it is the moral obligation of our churches, our ministers, our board members, and our faculty to uphold their subscription vows with all due diligence and sincerity.

Confessional Indifference or Ignorance

Of no less importance for the future of ministerial education in ARBCA is understanding the material content of the Confession.  To subscribe to the LBCF entails more than avowing to uphold the system of doctrine it summarizes; it necessarily requires the intellectual comprehension of that system of doctrine.  And nothing will stifle the educational endeavors of our confessional Association than to be guilty of either indifference toward or ignorance of the teaching of our Confession.

Again, history provides notable examples of formerly confessional churches and seminaries deteriorating due either to indifference or to ignorance.  In the late nineteenth century the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) became embroiled in controversy regarding the origin of Baptist churches.  This controversy necessarily affected the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS), which from its founding had been committed to the Calvinistic system of doctrine.

In his Question in Baptist History then president of the SBTS William H. Whitsitt (1895-1899) argued that the practice of baptism by immersion did not appear in the post-apostolic church until 1641, with the English Baptists.  Whitsitt faced intense opposition from the Landmark Baptists, who claimed they could trace an unbroken succession of true Baptist churches, and thus the practice of immersion, from the time of Christ and the apostles down to the present.  The narrow theological predilections and agenda of Landmarkism dominated the Southern Baptist landscape, to the extent that Whitsitt was compelled to resign.  Motivated to find a man who would remain neutral with regard to this question of Baptist historiography, the trustees nominated E. Y. Mullins and F. H. Kerfoot.  Mullins was elected despite the fact he had been deeply influenced by Protestant liberalism (especially Schleiermacher), the pragmatism of William James, and Arminianism – none of which was in the least consistent with the historic Calvinism of the SBTS.[10] Under Mullins’s watch (1899-1928) modernism and liberalism steadily encroached upon the Seminary, and eventually the Convention.[11]

Mullins deviated from the theology of his predecessors and at the same time set the theological agenda for the future; and he was put in such a pivotal position, in part, because the narrow presuppositions of Landmarkism relegated the robust Calvinism of the Seminary to the dustbin of irrelevance.  As such indifference toward the creedal basis and Calvinistic theology of the seminary and the church was a primary factor in the subsequent erosion of the once-sturdy theological foundations of the SBTS, and consequently of the SBC.

The reorganization of Princeton in 1929 illustrates, on the other hand, the danger of confessional ignorance.  In 1926 the General Assembly of the PCUSA appointed a committee to investigate Princeton.  The subsequent year’s General Assembly not only postponed the appointment of Machen to full professor, but it received the committee’s majority report which recommended that the current boards of directors (overseeing theological and spiritual affairs) and trustees (overseeing economic affairs) should become one board having full control of the Seminary.  Though some argued this was purely administrative, Machen saw in it the continued machinations of the modernist party to expunge the confessionalists, and the Confession itself, from the church.[12] Thus he argued that the vitality, if not the very character, of Princeton depended upon this question of two boards or one.

Maintain the authority, in spiritual affairs, of the present board of directors, which alone has kept the institution (so far as its theological position is concerned) what it is, and Princeton will continue to maintain its historic stand in the defense and propagation of the faith that is taught in the Word of God; substitute for that authority the authority of a single board of control, and the fine old institution, with its noble traditions, will be dead.[13]

Having appealed to Princeton’s long-standing commitment to the full truthfulness of the Bible and to the Westminster Standards as summarizing the system of doctrine the Bible contains, he went on to contend that the evangelical and confessional cause of old Princeton would be lost if the institution came under control of one board comprised of certain church officers who were hostile to the confessional position of old Princeton, and of businessmen who had little or no knowledge of theology.  Ignorance of the Confession would prove fatal.  “[In] theological matters,” he wrote, “ignorance is nearly as likely to throw an institution into the hands of the enemies of the faith as is positive disloyalty to the Word of God.”[14] The maintenance of the two-board scheme may not have safeguarded Princeton from its eventual fate – and I am not suggesting ARBCA adopt the model of old Princeton on this point.  Machen was nevertheless convinced that handing over the spiritual affairs of the Seminary, including the appointment of professors, to a “secular corporation like the board of trustees,” ignorant of the theology of the Confession, would eventuate in the loss of Princeton’s distinctive evangelical and confessional witness.

Two equally destructive pitfalls stand before ARBCA as our churches look to the future of ministerial education.  Mullins’s election to the presidency of the SBTS points to the danger of confessional apathy, or indifference, particularly in favor of a narrow agenda.  Princeton’s reorganization points, on the other hand, to the danger of confessional ignorance.  Our churches, the officers of our churches, and the board and faculty of our institution must be committed to an ever-increasing understanding of the system of theology contained in the Bible and faithfully summarized by our Confession of Faith.  Faith must seek understanding.[15]

Practically speaking this necessitates continued investigation of both the history and the theology of our Confession.  The two, in fact, are intertwined.  The LBCF did not originate, and therefore cannot be understood, in a kind of exegetical, theological, or historical vacuum.  Our Confession represents the ripe fruit of Reformation and Post-Reformation Reformed Orthodoxy.  Through its ties to the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF), the Savoy Declaration (SD), and even the 1st London Baptist Confession of 1644 (LBCF of 1644)[16], our Confession belongs to the noble tradition of not only seventeenth century English Reformed theology, but to the whole sweep of Protestant Scholastic Theology as it developed in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.[17] To be sure, the LBCF is, narrowly speaking, the confessional codification of English Particular Baptist theology of the mid to late seventeenth century.  But our forbearers consistently adopted the strategic methodology of adopting the very best of sixteenth and seventeenth century Reformed theology as their own, thus placing the LBCF within the exegetical and theological milieu of what Robert Godfrey has called “international Calvinism.”[18] If so, one of the greatest deterrents to either indifference or ignorance is a working knowledge of this tradition in which our Confession is historically and theologically situated.[19]

This, however, should be the means to a greater end.  The theology of the Confession should be the primary locus of our attention.  David VanDrunen is correct to point out, “A robust confession by ministers and elders surely requires something more than memorization of the right answers; it requires a grasp of the teaching of Scripture as summarized by the confessional standards in its coherent and beautiful harmony.”[20] Of particular importance, therefore, is acknowledging that our Confession is not a collection of isolated doctrines that have little or no relation one to another.  Following the Scriptures, the Confession has its own internal organizing principle upon which its robust theology, piety, and practice are brought together into one grand, internally consistent and coherent system of truth.  Like its predecessors, the LBCF is organized or unified by the principle of covenant, and specifically in its case the classical three-fold division of the covenants of redemption, of works, and of grace (see 7:3; and 8:1).  Covenant, however, does not become the central dogma of the Confession, so that every other doctrine is reducible to this one.  It is not the center of the system, but it unifies and centers the system.[21] Covenant theology is thus the marrow of Reformed Baptist confessional theology, piety, and practice, to the extent that rather than obscuring the particular doctrines of the Confession it instead illuminates each doctrine in the light of its proper relation to the whole system.[22]

While the above arguments deserve greater attention, at least this much is true: the Confession of Faith is an orderly, lucid, and well-defined system of truth, which, if used properly in our collective effort to educate men for the gospel ministry, will be a significant safeguard against the theological and spiritual atrophy which crippled some of the more noble seminaries of the past.  But that will only be true if we – our churches, our officers, our board, and our faculty – hold fast and hold forth the faith we confess.

Conclusion: Confessional Instruction

No doubt there is an organic and reciprocal relationship between confessional subscription and ministerial education.  Seminaries not founded upon confessional standards of any kind (including those adhering to a minimalistic “statement of faith” so common in post-World War II evangelicalism) face the difficulty of providing any kind of internally consistent and theologically coherent preparation for the ministry.  This may explain something of the current state of many evangelical churches and denominations.  If, however, we subscribe faithfully to our Confession, the men our faculty will teach and the churches they will serve will reap the benefits of an approach to ministerial education distinct from this smorgasbord approach of so many seminaries today.  The future of our churches, the future of our Reformed Baptist identity, is at stake.  “Our Reformed identity,” writes Muller, “depends on our willingness to declare our confessions and in so doing to confess the faith.”[23]

The Confession, in all its fullness, should thus permeate our instruction, as well as our thinking at this important stage in the founding of a seminary.  As we think about the various theological disciplines (i.e., exegetical, biblical, systematic, and practical theology) let us do so in terms of the grand system of biblical truth summarized by our Confession, having it function as a kind of touchstone whereby we hold ourselves theologically and practically accountable in the area of ministerial training.  To this end, and ultimately for the glory of Christ in the church, the foundation and the form of ARBCA’s ministerial training must be unashamedly confessional.

[1] Richard A. Muller, “Confessing the Reformed Faith: Our Identity in Unity and Diversity,” (accessed 28 September 2008), 4.

[2] Ibid., 1

[3] R. Scott Clark, Recovering the Reformed Confession: Our Theology, Piety, and Practice (Phillipsburg: P & R, 2008).

[4] For a more detailed defense of full or strict subscription see James M. Renihan, “What is ‘Full Subscription?'” (accessed 28 September 2008), 7-8; Morton H. Smith, “The Case for Full Subscription,” in The Practice of Confessional Subscription, ed. David W. Hall (Oak Ridge, TN: The Covenant Foundation, 1997), 185-205.

[5] With the Plan of Organic Union of 1920, the preaching of Harry Emerson Fosdick, the Auburn Affirmation of 1923, and the reorganization of the board of Princeton Theological Seminary in 1929 in view, Machen leveled this charge on several occasions.  In chronological order see J. Gresham Machen, Christianity & Liberalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1923), 162-164; “The Parting of the Ways,” in J. Gresham Machen: Selected Shorter Writings, ed. D.G. Hart (Phillipsburg: P & R, 2004), 217-227 (1924); “The Mission of the Church,” in Selected Shorter Writings, 228-236 (1926); “Is There a Future for Calvinism in the Presbyterian Church,” in Selected Shorter Writings, 267-273 (1930); and “The Truth About the Presbyterian Church,” in Selected Shorter Writings, 243-266 (1931-32).

[6] “The Parting of the Ways,” 222, 225; “The Mission of the Church,” 230.

[7] Christianity and Liberalism, 164.

[8] The language of this sentence is adapted from Archibald Alexander’s subscription vow taken on the occasion of his appointment as the first professor of Princeton Theological Seminary; see David B. Calhoun, Princeton Seminary, 2 vol. (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1994), 1:36.  Similarly strong language is found in the form of subscription approved by the Synod of Dordt (1618-1619) for the Dutch Reformed Churches; see W. Robert Godfrey, “Subscription in the Dutch Reformed Tradition,” in The Practice of Confessional Subscription, 69-70.

[9] See the subscription vows in ARBCA’s constitution and the by-laws of IRBS.

[10] For a more detailed description of Mullins’s theological presuppositions and positions see Thomas J. Nettles, “The Rise and Demise of Calvinism Among Southern Baptists,” The Founders Journal 19/20 (Winter/Spring 1995): 17; and By His Grace and For His Glory: A Historical, Theological, and Practical Study of the Doctrines of Grace in Baptist Life (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), 244-257.

[11] This is not to suggest that Mullins himself adopted all of the positions of the aforementioned theological schools.  Nevertheless, in mediating a different species of theology other than the historic Calvinism of the Seminary, Mullins made it possible for his own and subsequent generations to become increasingly comfortable with liberal theological presuppositions and conclusions.

[12] See Machen, “Statement to the Committee to Investigate Princeton,” in Selected Shorter Writings, 299-309 (1926); and “The Attack Upon Princeton Seminary: A Plea for Fair Play,” in Selected Shorter Writings, 310-331 (1927)

[13] Machen, “The Attack,” 319.

[14] Idem.

[15] This does not involve the constant search for new things in theology, disparaging the past.  Scott Clark puts the matter well: “The confessional Reformed approach to tradition…neither canonizes the past nor ignores it nor suspects it as an enemy, but treats it with the respect deserved by fellow brothers and sisters in Christ.  This is the approach J. Gresham Machen (1881-1937) adopted.  He rejected the idea that the Reformed confessions are an obstacle to doctrinal progress, unless that progress is conceived, in Schleiermachian terms, as an expression of the religious experience of a particular period.  ‘Real doctrinal advance’ does not mean substantial revision of classical or confessional Reformed theology.  Instead, it means ‘greater precision and fullness of doctrinal statement,’ and that statement is the setting forth of the truth of Scripture.”  See Clark, Recovering the Reformed Confession, 10.

[16] For the LBCF’s dependence on these source documents see ed. James M. Renihan, True Confessions: Baptist Documents in the Reformed Family (Owensboro, KY: Reformed Baptist Academic Press, 2004).

[17] Cf. Richard A. Muller and Roland S. Ward, Scripture and Worship: Biblical Interpretation & The Directory for Public Worship, The Westminster Assembly and the Reformed Faith, vol. 1, ed. Carl R. Trueman (Phillipsburg: P & R: 2007), 6-10, 37-42.

[18] Cf. Ibid., 9.

[19] James M. Renihan’s recently published thesis on the Confession’s ecclesiology is one example of this kind of historical-theological study.  See Edification and Beauty: The Practical Ecclesiology of the English Particular Baptists, 1675-1705, Studies in Baptist History and Thought 17 (Carlisle, UK: Paternoster, 2008).

[20] David VanDrunen, “A System of Theology? The Centrality of Covenant for Westminster Systematics,” in The Pattern of Sound Doctrine: Systematic Theology at the Westminster Seminaries, ed. David VanDrunen (Phillipsburg: P & R, 2004), 207.

[21] For this distinction and its implications for systematic theology more broadly see Ibid., 209-219.

[22] It is not the purpose of this essay to argue the case fully, but certain examples are rather plain.  The Confession (1) begins its discussion of Christ the Mediator by specific appeal to the eternal, intratrinitarian covenant of redemption (8:1), (2) roots the ordo salutis in the covenant of grace (14:2), (3) explicates the third use of the law in view of the distinction between the law’s former function under the covenant of works and presently under the covenant of grace (19:6), and (4) develops the doctrine of the gospel’s extent against the backdrop of the broken covenant of works (20:1).  There are likewise numerous thematic and linguistic markers throughout which underscore the unifying nature of covenant theology in the Confession.  The most practical may be in 22:2, where worship is given a covenantal cast.  Having just outlined the regulative principle of worship in 22:1, the Confession reminds us that “since the fall” (i.e., the violation of the covenant of works) religious worship is to be given to the Triune God “not without a Mediator, nor in the Mediation of any other but Christ alone” – that is, Christ, the Mediator of the covenant of grace, according to the terms of the covenant of redemption.

[23] Muller, “Confessing the Reformed Faith,” 6.

Topics: Baptist History, Church, Confessions, Covenant Theology, Ministerial Training, Pastoral Ministry, Reformed Theology, Scripture | Comments Off on Unashamedly Confessional

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