How did early Protestants think about confessional subscription?


By Michael Lynch

In a recent post at Reformation21, Guy Waters argues that a “Presbytery does possess the power to instruct one of its members or licentiates not to teach a difference that the court has determined an exception.” I agree. Interestingly, I can’t imagine this being an issue in the early modern period.

Walter Balcanquahall, who was a Scottish minister sent as a delegate by King James I to the Synod of Dort, was surprised to realize that the ministers in the Netherlands, if they were to stay in the ministry, had to embrace every particular thesis of the Canons of Dort:

“methinketh it is hard, that every Man should be deposed from his Ministry, who will not hold every particular Canon; never did any Church of old, nor any Reformed Church propose so many Articles to be held sub poena excommunicationis.”

I think this gives us an insight into what confessional subscription looked like in the early modern period. Nowadays, the emphasis on confessional subscription is often placed on what the subscriber personally believes. Yet, I’m not convinced that this quite captures the nature of subscription to an ecclesiastical confession of faith in the early modern period.

Note, for example, the well-known 1571 Canons of the Discipline of the Church of England and their section regarding Preachers (Concionatores). It reads in part:

But chiefly [preachers] shall take heed, that they teach nothing in their preaching, which they would have the people religiously to observe, and believe, but that which is agreeable to the doctrine of the old Testament, and the new, and that which the catholic fathers, and ancient Bishops have gathered out of that doctrine [33]. And because those articles of Christian religion, agreed upon by the Bishops, in the lawful, and godly convocation, and by their commandment, and authority of our noble princess Elizabeth assembled and holden, undoubtedly are gathered out of the holy books of the old, and new Testament, and in all points agree with the heavenly doctrine contained in them: because also the book of common prayers, and the book of the consecration of Archbishops, Bishops, Ministers and Deacons, contain nothing repugnant to the same doctrine, whosoever shall be sent to teach the people, shall not only in their preaching, but also by subscription confirm the authority, and truth of those articles. He that doth otherwise, or troubleth the people with contrary doctrine, shall be excommunicated.

Note well that the emphasis is placed – not on personal belief – but on public teaching. Why? Because these ecclesiastical confessions are not the confessions of any particular preacher, but are the confessions of a church body, even a political body such as England. The idea that a preacher must agree with every jot and tittle of a confession of faith is subordinate to the notion that what he publicly teaches and practices must be in accord with the liturgy and doctrine of the confessing body.

To publicly teach something which was in contradiction to an early modern ecclesiastical confession of faith was subject to censure, even the possibility of being held, as Balcanquahall said, sub poena excommunicationis (under the penalty of excommunication). It is a strange shift in emphasis from the early modern period that Presbyterians are willing to allow ministers to publicly teach what is contrary to what the church confesses. It is one thing to allow a minister to privately believe something contrary to the public confession of an ecclesiastical body, especially when the confession is quite prolix. It is another for him to publicly teach something out of accord with it. This distinction is an important one. Consciences cannot be bound, and there is a certain leeway we give those called to the ministry. We allow for exceptions. Liturgy and public teaching can and should be bound by the collective wisdom of a confessing body. Just as the civil government has no judicial power to bind conscience, they do and should have judicial power to bind the practice of its citizens.

As a Presbyterian, I may believe that the fourth commandment has been abrogated or fulfilled in such a way as to no longer demand that “[t]he sabbath is to be sanctified by a holy resting all that day, even from such worldly employments and recreations as are lawful on other days; and spending the whole time in the public and private exercises of God’s worship, except so much as is to be taken up in the works of necessity and mercy,” (cf. WSC Q. 60) but if I were a minister, should I be allowed to teach what is contrary to this? Historically speaking, the purpose of confessional subscription was to regulate public teaching and, hence, such an exception ought not to be taught.

Michael Lynch is a PhD candidate at Calvin Theological Seminary and teaches Latin and Greek at Tall Oaks Classical School in Delaware.
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