Confessional Churches?

When a church or denomination has a statement of faith, a creed, or confession, what does this mean? The reality is that there are a variety of possibilities–ranging from a historical memory, general appreciation, to a present and full commitment on the part of ministers, elders and the church body as a whole. The answer really depends on the way confession, adherence, or subscription vows are implemented and maintained. Issues relating to confessional subscription continue to vex confessional churches, as they have in the past.

In a historical context in some respects similar to that of the present day, a Scottish theologian named John Dick argued in 1796 before the Associate Synod for a biblical charity, wisdom, and commitment toward those who no longer believed in the necessity of a fully subscribed confessional theology and church order.(1) While confessions of faith were necessary to the life of the church and full subscription should be required of her ministers, Dick explained that “there is room for examining and reviewing all human creeds and doctrinal articles” in the light of Scripture, for “it is possible that our Fathers have erred.”(2) Such a “hearty assent,” or honest initial and continued subscription, required “utmost deliberation and care.”(3)

Dick stated that situations may change in the life and history of the church so that a portion of a confession, while not in error, may be “an unnecessary article…to preserve the purity of the great truths of the gospel, and to maintain order and peace.”(4) Should such concerns arise regarding the standards of the church, they ought to be brought before the church and considered. If the concern was in harmony with Scripture, the confession of the church must then be revised, amended, or expanded as necessary.(5)

Challenges to and changing views of the role and nature of confessional identity were such that by the 1820 Synod of the United Secession Church in Scotland, “three ministers, Brown, Balmer, and Harper… criticized the nature of the Church’s relation to the Confession” once again as being too rigid in its expectations.(6) By the 1840s, Brown and Balmer were embroiled in controversy over the extent of the atonement, and the solution of the United Secession Church was to accept a looser adherence to the confession.(7)

It was in this context of loosening confessional adherence that the increasing loss of the confessional federal theology characteristic of Marrow theology also occurred. Without the carefully articulated understanding of the covenant theology expressed by early Marrow theologians such as Thomas Boston and Ebenezer Erskine in adherence to confessional orthodoxy, the emphasis on a free, full, universal gospel offer lost its theological context. The bold language of Marrow theology, “the deed of gift and grant” of Christ and the proclamation that “Christ is dead for you” as He is offered in the gospel, could now be more comfortably retro-fitted to an Amyraldian or universal atonement, which was in fact what occurred in the Scottish context of the mid-19th century.

As we wrestle with a variety of issues related to confessions and statements of faith, including the legitimacy of exceptions, the nature of subscription and varieties of confessional interpretation, John Dick’s words chart a course we do well to consider.

(1) John Dick, Confessions of Faith, 7–11.
(2) Dick, 26.
(3) Dick, 23, 25. Dick states that “if when we solemnly subscribe,
we disbelieve them, or even doubt of their truth, we deceive the church” (Dick,
Confessions of Faith, 23).
(4) Dick, 27.
(5) Dick, 6–7, 23–26.
(6) Ian Hamilton, Erosion of Calvinist Orthodoxy, 17.
(7) Hamilton, 35–84; James Robertson, A Commentary
on the Doctrinal Errors Condemned by the United Associate Synod, May 1842
, 9–24.