Gordon Clark and Confessional Subscription

I recently had a very interesting discussion with Erick Nieves about the Old School / New School Controversy of the Presbyterian Church in the 19th century.

On thing I learned was to distinguish between the positions within the Old School on subscription to the Westminster Confession of Faith. The Princetonians, like Charles Hodge and B. B. Warfield, held to a “System Subscription” whereas the Southern Presbyterians like Thornwell and Dabney are generally said to have held to a “Strict Subscription” to the confession.

Gordon Clark had heritage from the Old School Presbyterians (his father, David S. Clark studied at Princeton with A. A. Hodge and B. B. Warfield in the 1880s.). The question arises: did Clark hold to the Princeton position; did he hold to “system subscription?”

In brief, there are essentially 3 positions on subscription.

The first, known as “Substance Subscription,” is the position that the ordinand must be in agreement with a significant proportion of the Confession. That is, he must hold to the essentials or fundamentals of the Confession. What these essentials are seems ill-defined. From what I can tell, the New School Presbyterians of the 19th century probably held to this view.

The second, known as “System Subscription” or “Good Faith Subscription” is the position that the ordinand must affirm the system of doctrine contained in the Confession. He is expected in “good faith” to query the presbytery concerning any “scruples;” any differences he has with the Confession. The presbytery then decides whether the ordinand is in line with the essentials or fundamentals. This views differs from “substance subscription” in that the scruples, I’d imagine, must be of much lesser import; they must not harm the overall system. Regardless, it is the presbytery who decides on the candidate in either case, whether “Substance” or “System.” The “System” position was held by the Old School Presbyterians at Princeton (Hodge, Warfield, Machen), as well as (I think) John Murray. Today it is the position of the PCA and argued for by William Barker.

The third, known as “Strict Subscription” or “Full Subscription” is the position that the ordinand must affirm the confession in its entirety. No exceptions to the standards are allowed, expect minor ones regarding the wording of phrases. Thus, the presbytery is little more than a rubber stamp, the General Assembly (or really the Westminster Assembly of 1646) being the body that judges the candidate. This position, it is said by some, was held by the Southern Presbyterians of the Old School in the 19th century. (as far as I know Dabney and Thornwell are to be included here. Though J.V. Fesko has argued that they fit in the “System Subscription” category better) Today it is the position of R. Scott Clark, Morton Smith, and George Knight among others.

Clark certainly put a high value on the Westminster Confession of Faith. It could accurately be called the unifying principle in his theology; that is, (almost?) all of Clark’s philosophy was worked out with the Confession in mind.

The evidence in his writings to determine what position Clark held, however, is scarce. There are two passages which shed some light on his position.

First, in 1934, in an article published by the Reformation Fellowship, the precursor group to the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Clark wrote of his concern regarding lack of fidelity to the Confession:

“Dangerous as it always is to attempt predictions, one is tempted to guess the future when a parallel case is vivid in one’s memory. In Canada a union of Congregationalists, Methodists, and Presbyterians was recently engineered. About half of the Presbyterians refused, on doctrinal grounds, to enter the union, and a great deal of dissatisfaction has been aroused. Even if the creed of the union Church had been satisfactory — which it was not — there was another serious defect. What good is a creed if no one is obliged to subscribe to it? Such is approximately the case in Canada, and the situation here is similar. Heretofore, ministers have been required in some Churches to subscribe to every phrase of the creed, or as is the case with one of the two bodies now contemplating union, they have subscribed to the system of the creed, as the system taught in the Scriptures, which system they unfeignedly hold true. Now, however, the terms of subscription are to be made so loose that the creed will no longer be regarded as containing the system taught in the Holy Scriptures. This type of subscription embodied in the present proposal of union would produce a Church which would stand for nothing definite; and if the church politicians who are now rushing this union through succeed, the split in Canada will undoubtedly be duplicated here.”

Second, in 1983 at the Clark-Hoover debate, Clark emphasized the nature of the confession as a “system.” He said, “I quite agree with something that the moderator just said, mainly that Christianity is a system of doctrine. It is not a haphazard aggregation of true propositions. These propositions form a system. And our ordination vows say that we accept the Westminster Confession as the system of doctrine contained in the Scriptures.”

From the first quote (and just general knowledge about Clark) we can rule out that he held to the “Substance Subscription” position. He was not a New School Presbyterian. From the second quote, we have some reason to believe that “System Subscription” was Clark’s position.

Since these quotes aren’t definitive, I asked the question to Dr. Talbot, a student of Dr. Clark’s from his Covenant College days. According to Dr. Talbot, Dr. Clark did not hold to Strict Subscriptionism, but rather allowed for stated scruples. This I take to mean that Clark held to “System Subscription” – affirming my suspicions and matching well with the quotes above.

As I mentioned in the beginning of this article, Gordon Clark was the son of a old Princeton theologian, David S. Clark, who had studied with Warfield and the younger Hodge. Although Gordon Clark strongly objected to the Common Sense Realism philosophy of Princeton (and later rejected the Postmillennialism of his father), he largely adopted the rest of the theological positions that his father (and Princeton Seminary) held.

Also in the line of the Princeton theologians was J. Gresham Machen, Clark’s theological hero and mentor. Machen too held to “System Subscription.” He wrote:

“Subscription to the Westminster Standards in the Presbyterian Church of America is not to every word in those Standards, but only the system of doctrine which those standard contain. … It is no new thing to take this position regarding creed subscription. It is the position which has long been taken by orthodox Calvinistic theologians.” – J. Gresham Machen, Presbyterian Guardian, Vol. 3, #2, p. 21.

Thus the case seems closed. Clark held to “System Subscription” as did his theological forebears.

Edit 9/28/2015. From the Clark-Hoover debate, Clark says: “I quite agree with something that the moderator just said, mainly that Christianity is a system of doctrine. It is not a haphazard aggregation of true propositions. These propositions form a system. And our ordination vows say that we accept the Westminster Confession as the system of doctrine contained in the Scriptures.”

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About douglasdouma

I am a graduate of the University of Michigan (BSME), Wake Forest University (MBA), and Sangre de Cristo Seminary (Mdiv). I've learned far more from books than in school. I'm particularly in debt to Martin Luther, Ludwig von Mises, and Gordon H. Clark for any thoughts I have.
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