by Philip Ryan | September 20, 2023
“The words ‘system of doctrine,’ have a definite meaning, and serve to define and limit the extent to which the confession is adopted.” ~ Charles Hodge 
The Westminster Confession and Catechisms are a treasure. When people ask for a good one-volume systematic theology, I usually recommend the Confession and Catechisms. When I first became Presbyterian, I was under the assumption that we viewed the Westminster Standards as the system of Presbyterian doctrine because it is biblical. I do not mean that I viewed them on equal ground with Holy Scripture. I viewed them the way Thornwell did, “it certainly is a convenience to have the teachings of the Bible reduced to a short compass, and announced in propositions which are at once accepted without any further trouble of comparing texts.”
I came into the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) after the passing of Good Faith Subscription (GFS). I have always heard that passing it was a hopeful attempt at resolving arguments in the PCA regarding subscription to our doctrinal Standards. If that was the original intent, it is worth asking ourselves the question “is it working?”
It was over 20 years ago that we decided on GFS, and yet at 2021’s General Assembly there was still a need to have a discussion – which was very well attended – between two prominent Teaching Elders on confessional subscription and unity in the PCA. I think part of our continued confusion has to do with how we understand the phrase “system of doctrine” in our BCO, “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.” (BCO 21-4.f, emphasis mine).
I wonder if many who hold a stricter view of subscription have the same view as Morton Smith, who argued that “full subscription does not require the adoption of every word of the Confession and Catechisms, but positively believes that we are adopting every doctrine or teaching of the Confession and Catechisms.” I believe one could hold Smith’s view and still agree with BCO 21-4.f as it currently stands. The question is not over every proposition, but over every doctrine. Part of the confusion regarding how to interpret “the system of doctrine” and with subscription in general may be traced back to the published views of Charles Hodge.
Charles Hodge is rightly a giant in American Presbyterianism. However, he did contradict himself over the course of his writing on this topic of confessional subscription. Hodge at one place argued that “by system of doctrine, according to the lowest standard of interpretation, has been understood the Calvinistic system as distinguished from all others.” Hodge argued that the theology in question which is contained in the Confession is basic Calvinism. He wrote in his book on church polity, “It is one thing to adopt the system of doctrine contained in the Westminster Confession, and quite another thing to adopt every proposition contained in that confession. John Murray takes issue with Hodge’s statement here, “It needs to be pointed out that Dr. Hodge is not accurate…It is not simply the system of doctrine contained in The Confession that is adopted; the Confession is adopted as containing the system of doctrine taught in Scripture. John Murray gives an excellent short history of various General Assembly actions and statements on “the system of doctrine.” I want to highlight one particular action from the 1824 General Assembly. At that Assembly, the body adopted a statement which read, “That though the Confession of Faith, and the standards of our church, are of no original authority, independent of the Scriptures, yet we regard them as a summary of those divine truths which are diffused throughout the sacred volume. They, as a system of doctrines, therefore, cannot be abandoned in our opinion, without an abandonment of the word of God…”
One danger of reducing “the system of doctrine” down to a generic “Calvinistic system” – such as we see argued for by Charles Hodge – is that such a move was not the original intention of either our American Presbyterian forefathers or the Westminster Divines. What is fundamental to our doctrinal standards? Is it Calvinism? I would hope so. During Hodge’s day there were considerable battles over soteriology, so we should not be surprised to see him reduce the system of doctrine down to Reformed soteriology.
I do not believe there is any ordained Teaching Elder who does not hold Reformed Soteriology. TE Charles McGowan at this year’s General Assembly said that we are more Reformed now than we were at our founding. If we are, why are there PCA churches not instituting Reformed worship? Here I am not even touching on arguments over style but substance. For example, what is the proper – or normative – mode of baptism in Reformed churches? What is the proper way to serve communion? How should we observe the Sabbath? What about images of Christ? All of these are of central concern to the Holy Scriptures, so why are they not considered fundamental to the doctrinal standards we confess as “containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures”? I agree with Clark’s argument that “if a confession is not biblical, it should be revised so that it is biblical.” If we are constantly approving ministers’ stated differences in these areas, why not write an overture (or several overtures) requesting revision of our Standards at these points? Many apparently think the Confession is unbiblical on these points, so why not just change the Confession (and by extension, the Catechisms)?
Ligon Duncan’s excellent and neglected article on “Owning the Confession” covers the history of subscription and views of the Westminster Standards in Scottish Presbyterianism. He concludes with a series of observations and warnings for the PCA.
One of his key observations is “Many of the current objections to the practice of “strict” or “unqualified subscription” to a human document, like the Confession, often heard in Reformed circles today are actually arguments against the use of creeds at all, and would have been, frankly, shocking to our Scottish ancestors. When the Kirk argued for the propriety of unreservedly adopting the uninspired words of a creed as an adequate and binding expression of a Biblical and, hence, eternally true theological proposition, such an act necessitated neither the equation of human language with Holy Scripture, nor the rejection or weakening of the Kirk’s commitment to the Reformational axiom of sola scriptura. Many who charge otherwise betray a view divergent from the historic Reformed tradition on the role of confessions (and perhaps a positively anti-confessional spirit) as well as a disturbing view of the ability of human language to convey absolute truth (being functionally equivocalist in their view of correspondence).”
He concludes with two warnings that we need to take seriously. First, by allowing exceptions, we essentially allow each man to create his own declaratory act about how to interpret the Standards. I would add to this warning that our Constitution as it stands does not require (or facilitate) agreement on what the Westminster Standards convey as our denomination’s doctrinal statement. By allowing each man to be his own interpreter, we end up with endless “Confessions” operative in the Church. The problem here is that I may disagree with one man’s “Confession,” and he disagree with mine. Further, the argument that presbyteries retain authority has been proven inadequate for settling the matter as we continue to debate in the Committee on Review of Presbytery Records (RPR) and in cases heard by the Standing Judicial Commission (SJC) how presbyteries rule on the stated differences – or exceptions – of ministerial candidates and ordained officers.
Dr. Duncan’s second warning is the question at the heart of this article. What is the core doctrine of the Confession? “Classic federal theology is so much a part of the warp and woof of the Westminsterian system, that removal of any component of its covenant theology would bankrupt the very idea of a ‘Westminsterian system of theology’ of any meaning.” You may think you are questioning isolated doctrines of the Confession but in reality you are questioning the “very heart of its theological system.”
To be frank, I was afraid to write this short article. I am not alone in this fear. Ligon Duncan shared a similar trepidation when he wrote in favor of a stricter form of subscription than that which we currently observe in the PCA. He said, “One frequently encounters the idea that an unqualified subscription to the Confession is the invention of contemporary right-wing extremists. Great derision is usually heaped upon any suggestion that the Confession should be held to as a whole.” I think I have shown that “the system of doctrine” phrase in the past referred to the Confessional documents themselves as containing the doctrines found in Holy Scripture. What I fear is that we are moving – perhaps supported by a misguided appropriation of the published views of Charles Hodge – towards referring to a “system” within the “system of doctrine,” whether it be generic Calvinism, the supposed basics of Reformed theology, or even something less clearly defined as ‘essential doctrines.’
 Charles Hodge, The Church and Its Polity, 326.
 R. Scott Clark, Recovering the Reformed Confession, 160.
 David Hall, “Southern Presbyterians: The Virtue of Confessional Relaxation?” in Confessing Our Hope: Essays Celebrating the Life and Ministry of Morton H. Smith, 126.
 Morton Smith, The Case for Full Subscription to the Westminster Standards in the Presbyterian Church in America, 8.
 S. Donald Fortson, “The Old School Sage: Charles Hodge on Confessional Subscription,” https://journal.rts.edu/article/the-old-school-sage-charles-hodge-on-confessional-subscription. Fortson’s article notes other contradictory statements in his writing. See also Murray’s observations on these contradictions in John Murray, “Creed Subscription in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.” in The Case for Full Subscription to the Westminster Standards in the Presbyterian Church in America, 97.
 Charles Hodge, The Church and Its Polity, 326.
 John Murray, “Creed Subscription in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.” in The Case of Full Subscription to the Westminster Standards in the Presbyterian Church in America, 96.
 Ibid, 93. Italics mine.
 Clark, Recovering the Reformed Confession, 173.
 Clark, 178.
 Ligon Duncan, “Owning the Confession: Subscription in the Scottish Presbyterian Tradition,” in The Practice of Confessional Subscription, 87.
 Ibid., 88.
 Ibid, 78.
Philip Ryan is a PCA Teaching Elder serving as Assistant Pastor of Discipleship at The Kirk Presbyterian (PCA) in Savannah, GA.