A Pair of Germinal Ideas Concerning Denominations and Confessional Subscription

The concept of the perfect or pristine Christian denomination or church seems ever in demand, but never in sight. Here are two inchoate ideas worth thinking about, Denominations, and Confessions.

Denominational Names versus Descriptive Adjectives

I was recently considering the name The Reformed Evangelical Church, because it would describe exactly what we are (Reformed to Scripture and Evangelical). I like it because it is obviously distinct from the non-reformed evangelicals, but keeps the identity of the Baptists and other, non-reformed groups as brothers in the faith, yet as distinctly non-reformed. However, this is nearly identical to the Confederation of Reformed Evangelical Churches, which draws a great deal of heat for its federal vision tendencies.

I also like the name Reformed Catholic Church because it describes more accurately the universal church, fits the ideals of the original reformers, keeps the historic identity, and notion of the reformed theology. However this name suffers from bad company and may be a stumbling block to those who are, rightly, anti-Rome.

So why not Evangelical Reformed Catholic Church? Three adjectives may be too many, but these three describe what the church of Jesus Christ is. There is one body, catholic; one true gospel, evangelical; and a historical theological identity in the reformation, reformed. I like all three titles for different reasons. However, multiplying adjectives in a denominational name is irritating and likely to create a sectarian way of thinking.

Perhaps a better way to do this is to use these adjectives as descriptions rather than make a denomination; like, Bride of Christ: an evangelical, reformed, catholic, Church. To describe the church one could argue that it is fully evangelical and does not see other denominations as enemies, but brothers insofar as they trust in Jesus alone for their salvation, and holds to the historic catholic creeds. Nevertheless, the Church is thoroughly reformed back to scripture in all of its theology, piety and practice. This reformation identity plays itself out in the subscription to the historic creeds and confessions of the Christian Church as a constitution.

Creeds and Confession:

I was also considering the creeds and confessions. The intended pattern for reforming the church is to impose the confessional documents of the reformation.

The Apostles Creed, Nicea, Chalcedon, Athanasius, the Three Forms of Unity, and Westminster Standards have some, not many, but present internal disagreements, and inconsistencies with scripture. Simply, they have errors because they were written by fallible humans. Therefore, if one uses the continental and English documents, he runs into problems.  I say this because of the way many use the confessions in a strict way.

Historically subscription was seen as a constitution for the Church as a body. It preserved the liberty of the people from overbearing tyrants, and the purity and peace of the church from misconduct or false teaching. If that is so, then in the case of strict subscription, it would be impossible to have both the Belgic and Westminster Confessions because there are differences, minor ones, but present differences nonetheless. This is why the old view of system subscription is superior.

There is a sort of false dichotomy between the terms “strict” and “system” subscription to confessions in the contemporary discussion.

Strict subscription, with its “tittle and yod” approach would place the confession closer to the level of scripture than it would teach in itself. Thus one needs to hold to the system of doctrine, not to the things written down in the text because it is subject to human error.

Therefore one may look toward system subscription for help, but not find any help there. The system subscription of many is not at all what the system itself historically taught. System subscription has been used for the defense of various views, e.g. the current URCNA debate of the old earth and creation days. It rests in the notion that the confession is only binding insofar as the animus imponentus, mind of the imposing body, says that it is binding. Therefore all one needs to change the binding nature on something is a majority vote. The words stay the same, but no one believes them anymore! Talk about a dead letter! This is not the historic view of system subscription, but a perversion of it. This is not common law libertarian confessionalism, but progressivism.  

A better view of subscription is strictness to the original intended system of doctrine which undergirded the documents. The puritans and scholastics did not leave us without witness as to what they did and taught. This avoids two pitfalls, “title and yod” subscriptionism, and progressivism in the view of a document as liquid.   

The only way one can hold to both the English and Continental confessions, creeds, a catechisms is by adopting them as a systemic constitution upon which liberty and constraint are clearly and specifically delineated, defended, and described. The proof-texts, commentaries, and expositions of these documents demonstrate that these are for teaching the bounds of Christian freedom as a contemporary application of the scripture to the Church of Jesus Christ.

This could be called strict system subscription, or constitutional subscription. The notion undergirding them is that they are not reforming scripture, but reforming the Church back to scripture with a deliberate and decisive interpretation of scripture.

The flipside of this is tyranny or unprincipled libertinism. The danger from the fascist and the danger from the anarchist live in harmony with one another, but the Christian church needs to respond to both of these with a decisive definition, and, therefore, explanation, of where liberty begins and ends. The lay person and the clergy will therefore have one document to which they submit. Neither the document of an ethereal theology of the imposing body, nor the whims of the common man’s desire, will be able to pervert the gospel unchecked.

On this basis alone can one hold to all of these forms of unity which symbolize the doctrinal system set forth for the church.