The Application of Confessional Subscription: Full Subscription by Prof. Renihan
In the light of Scripture, history and sound reason, full subscription seems the best course for churches and associations to follow. Why should we insist on full subscription, and not make allowances for differences of opinion, beyond exceptions over specific words or phrases?Most often when I hear this question, it is in the context of disagreement with the article on the Sabbath Day found in our Confession. Some argue that this issue is debatable, and therefore ought not to be regarded as a test of identity for Reformed Baptists. I must disagree, for two reasons. 1st, among us, the Sabbath issue is settled. It is part of our theological conviction. I know that there are many who disagree with our position on it, but so far as we are concerned, it is a matter that relates to the moral Law of God. But 2ndly, if we were to adopt such a position, we would set a precedent for similar exceptions on other matters that are equally disputed. I could conceive a circumstance such as this happening: a church applies for membership in an association, and in the process it is discovered that they do not hold to the statements on definite atonement found in chapters 3 and 8. They argue that some of the best men, such as e.g. J. C. Ryle, have held Amyraldian views. Should this exception be allowed? Or again, what if a church were to apply for membership stating that they held to all of the doctrines in the Confession except for eternal punishment? Or again, what if some so-called “full-preterists” who assert that the resurrection is past might apply? Or once more, what if a church denied the free offer, but applied for membership? None of these are hypothetical. All of these are real possibilities, and every one challenges doctrines central to Reformed Baptist theology.
At the 1689 General Assembly, a similar question confronted the churches. An attempt was made by some 7th Day Sabbath men to gain admittance to the Assembly. The participating churches refused to allow admission, the Bagnio/Cripplegate church book stating, “they were so apprehensive of ye ill effects of doeing it that they laid down 8 arguments for observing ye Lords Day, to establish their churches in ye practice thereof.” We would do well to take heed to their action. There are practical ramifications to the different positions on the abiding validity of the Lord’s Day Sabbath. Our 17th century brothers saw this, and so should we. Outside of the General Assembly, some of the London churches maintained cordial relations with the 7th Day church. Its pastor, Joseph Stennett, frequently preached in the pulpits of the 1st Day churches. But in the Association they had to maintain consistent doctrinal standards. So should we. Let us acknowledge that those who differ from us are our brothers, that we love them, that we respect their convictions, and that we can find ways to encourage true fellowship with them. But with sadness of heart we must also state that we cannot enter into the closest of relationships because of this issue.
It would not be difficult to cause the Confession to die the death of a thousand qualifications. In fact what we need is a document that is strong, that asserts the common doctrines that we hold. Yes, we must do so with genuine humility and with a frank acknowledgment that we could be mistaken on some points. But all Christians ought to be willing to do that. It helps no one to water down theological commitments for the sake of expediency or pragmatism. If the argument is simply that we should accept churches based on the exception of one chapter, we then must ask, which chapter(s) can we allow as exceptions? The same argument could be made for the different positions mentioned above: Amyraldianism, full-preterism, conditionalism, hyper-Calvinism. It would be a great mistake to head down this road. We would do well to repeat those words written more than 320 years ago: “There is one thing more which we sincerely profess, and earnestly desire credence in, viz. That contention is most remote from our design in all that we have done in this matter: and we hope the liberty of an ingenuous unfolding our principles, and opening our hearts unto our Brethren, with the Scripture grounds on which our faith and practice leanes, will by none of them be either denyed to us, or taken ill from us.”
A final question: Does full subscription imply lock-step uniformity? Well, the answer to that is, no, it does not. It is not difficult to demonstrate that there were some theological differences present among the men who subscribed the Confession in the 17th century. The necessity of believer’s baptism for church membership is an obvious example, though it was intentionally non-confessional. But there are some areas addressed explicitly in the Confession in which differences were accepted. Two brief examples illustrate this point: the role and nature of the office of elder, and the details of eschatological conviction.
While the majority report seems to have been for a plurality and parity of elders, a small number of churches drew a distinction between teaching and ruling elders. This seems to have been most common in some of the Western churches. Similarly, Benjamin Keach seems to approach the view that there should be one pastor in the church, a view explicitly advocated by John Gill not many years later. The application of these confessional ecclesiological principles occasionally differed from church to church.
On the eschatological front, we must be careful to remember that our categories were not so clearly delineated in the 17th century, and so there is some fluidity and difference in the views held by those men. It would be easy to be anachronistic in our reading of categories into the Confession, and much caution must be exercised. Some of those men, probably only a few, would have held an amillennial position similar to that which is common among us today. Others, such as Hanserd Knollys, had been influenced by the so-called Fifth Monarchy men, and looked for the coming of the fifth monarchy, the reign of Jesus Christ and his saints. Knollys, as late as 1689 advocates a position that is more akin to postmillennialism, saying “the Primitive saints believed that they shall reign with Christ on Earth, and the latter-day Saints also have Scripture ground to believe, that they shall Reign with Christ on Earth, Rev. 20.1-4. . . . This is his virtual, spiritual, powerful and glorious coming in his Saints . . . Our Davids Mystical Kingdom on Earth among his Saints, when he shall be King of all the Earth, and all the Kingdoms of this world shall be Christs. “ In a different vein, Benjamin Keach held a view that seems remotely akin to premillennialism saying, “The Lord Jesus will come, because all the kingdoms of the world are given unto him, and he shall reign a thousand years upon the earth with his saints . . . I see no room for any to doubt of this, though some take it for a mystical reign.” These latter two positions were probably the majority views held by these men. We may adapt Iain Murray’s words from The Puritan Hope: “The Particular Baptists had no party divisions determined by prophetic beliefs.” There was room, even within a close confessional theology, for differences of opinion.
In conclusion, brothers, let us be men of our word as we subscribe our Confession. To use Paul’s terms, let us remember that we do so in the sight of God and our King Jesus Christ. To use the words of our 17th century brothers, let us “solemnly own and adopt it.” May it never be said of us that we played the hypocrite in the most important matters of life: the doctrines contained in Holy Scripture. Let us take these things that are “Most surely believed among us” and ensure that that is exactly what they are: surely believed among us. No one should fault us for being truthful and honest. We must hold our Confession with humility, recognizing that it is not the Bible, and is only a subordinate standard. But we adopt it in its entirety because we are convinced, to the best of our ability, that it reflects the teachings of the Bible. May God be honored in our truthful acceptance of this grand old document. Amen.
Bagnio/Cripplegate Church Minute Book, 26.
Hanserd Knollys, An Exposition of the whole BOOK of the Revelation (London: William Marshall, 1689), 77; The Parable of the Kingdom of Heaven Expounded (London: Benjamin Harris, 1674), 68. Bold emphases mine.
Benjamin Keach, Exposition of the Parables: Series Two (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1991 reprint), 248.
Iain Murray, The Puritan Hope (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1971), 55.