The Old School Sage: Charles Hodge on Confessional Subscription
S. Donald Fortson, III
Professor of Church History and Pastoral Theology
Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte
One of the perennial issues that troubles conservative Presbyterians is tension over what it means to subscribe to the Westminster Standards. The practice of confessional subscription to the confession and catechisms falls under the authority of presbyteries, but given the connectionalism of Presbyterianism in Synods/General Assemblies, the responsibility of examining candidates and disciplining errant ministers is also a concern for the larger church. And, as a matter of fact, no two presbyteries (even within the same denomination) are going to practice confessional subscription in precisely the same manner. This potentially produces suspicion among brethren if the perception exists that a given presbytery is not being as faithful as other presbyteries in this sacred duty. Thus, the question again emerges: What does it mean to subscribe to the Westminster Confession and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms? This question is as old as the colonial period, and there is great wisdom to be found in remembering how American Presbyterians historically answered this question.
The period in our Presbyterian past where this question reached a crisis point stretching over a number of decades was the Old School / New School period of the nineteenth century. The prolific spokesmen on this question for the Old School was Professor Charles Hodge of Princeton Seminary. His years at Princeton (1820-1878) spanned the entire era of Old School / New School debates, schisms and reunions. Hodge was a very vocal participant in all the ecclesiastical matters of this period and wrote extensively on the topic of confessional subscription. For Hodge, the debates between the two major parties of the Presbyterian family always came back to the question concerning the extent to which ministers should be expected to hold the doctrines of the Westminster Standards. In the midst of this on-going struggle among Presbyterians, Charles Hodge consistently articulated the “old moderate plan” of the Princeton men.
Hodge and his Princeton colleagues, the “peace men,” were generous towards the New School party and resisted the division of the Old School and New School Presbyterian into separate ecclesiastical bodies right up until the schism in 1837. However, when reunion discussions surfaced in the 1860’s, one banner of northern Old School resistance to reunite with the northern New School church was the voice of the Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review of which Hodge was an editor. His objections to reunion would always return ultimately to his doubts about New School resolve to exercise discipline.
Even though Hodge resisted reunion with the New School in the 1860s, his consistent elucidation of the historic American Presbyterian practice of confessional subscription met the approbation of both the Old School and New School during the reunion discussions. There was an increasing realization of more common commitment to the Confession in the two branches than previous perceptions had indicated. It was Hodge’s explanation of what it means to subscribe to the Westminster Confession and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms that stood the test of time. It appears to this author, that some contemporary discussions around confessional subscription would do well to recall the keen insights of the Old School sage.
Reply to Dr. Cox
Hodge’s earliest essay on subscription came in connection with an 1831 article he had written in response to a published sermon by Dr. Samuel Cox. Dr. Samuel Cox had responded to Hodge’s essay and Hodge printed this communication from Cox in the Review. In his reply to Dr. Cox’s letter, Hodge expressed his views on the meaning of the subscription formula. The question was, “. . . with what degree of strictness is the phrase ‘system of doctrine’ as it occurs in the ordination service, to be explained?” Hodge said two extreme answers “equally to be lamented” argued for either a too loose or too strict of an interpretation of the phrase. After explaining how the two extremes fall short, he offered what he considered the historic view of the Presbyterian Church.
He first reproached the overly strict stance which made the ordination vow, “. . . not only involve the adoption of all the doctrines contained in the Confession, but to preclude all diversity in the manner of conceiving and explaining them.” Several factors demonstrated the danger of this extreme. First, this position “is making the terms of subscription imply more than they literally import.” There are different modes of understanding or explaining a doctrine.
Secondly, a strict viewpoint implied a “degree of uniformity” that never has existed in the church. The Westminster Divines produced a Confession that was a compromise. “When adopted by the Presbyterian Church in this country, it was with the distinct understanding that the mode of subscription did not imply strict uniformity of views. And from that time to this, there has been an open and avowed diversity of opinion on many points. . .”
The third problem with strict subscription was the practical difficulty of such a tenet. This “unauthorized strictness would ruin any church on earth” and be impossible to enforce “in the present state of human nature.” Hodge said, “It is clearly impossible, that any considerable number of men can be brought to conform so exactly in their views, as to be able to adopt such an extended formula of doctrine precisely in the same sense.”
Latitudinarian views will likewise produce “disastrous results” according to Hodge. The words “system of doctrine” clearly mean the Calvinistic system and any other construction of these words was dishonest. Those who would interpret “system of doctrine” to mean “the great fundamental doctrines of the gospel” distort the meaning of the words. It would be better to modify the church’s creed and remain honorable men than to endorse lax subscription that violates integrity. “There seems to be no more obvious principle, than that while a body professes to hold certain doctrines, it should really hold them.” Hodge believed the lax view, “opens the door to all manner of heresies, and takes from the Church the power of discipline for matters of opinion.”
Hodge was dismayed by the abuse countenanced in both extremist camps. “While some may be disposed to resort to the discipline of the Church to correct mere diversity of explanation; others seem disposed to wink at the rejection of acknowledged constituent doctrines of the Calvinistic system.” Hodge was convinced that the majority of nineteenth-century Presbyterians held neither position, rather they were disposed to understanding the ordination vow as a commitment to the Calvinist system of the Confession, albeit, allowing for diversity in the expression of the Reformed system of the Standards.
Ninety percent of Presbyterian clergy would acknowledge that diversity is permissible, yet, the difficulty remains as to where the line should be drawn. This is a “delicate and difficult question.” The phrase, “system of doctrine” entails a definite idea of “a regular series of connected opinions, having a mutual relation and constituting one whole.” Adopting the system of the Confession involves belief in the series of doctrines that make up that system. And it is that system in opposition to other systems of belief. Hodge offered several illustrations of diversity in explaining certain doctrines in the system. For instance, he points to the various explanations given to the “vicarious atonement of Jesus Christ.” Hodge observed that, “. . . some may adopt the strict quid pro quo system; others the infinite value theory; others that of its universal applicability; and yet all hold the doctrine itself.”
Given the appropriate diversity in expression, the central question remained as to the extent of that latitude. Hodge answered that the “essentials” of a doctrine must remain intact. How then can it be determined whether or not one’s explanation exceeded the allowable boundary? This must be determined by both the individual in his conscience before God and the Presbytery that must judge these matters. This was the purpose of Presbytery examinations. “It is their business to decide this very point, whether the candidate believes or not the doctrines of our standards, and they are under the solemn engagements to God and their brethren, to do this honestly.” Hodge added, “And, here the matter must be left.” As long as Presbyteries are conscientious about “admitting no one who rejects or explains away any of the doctrines constituting the system contained in the Confession” there should be no serious problem.
The Constitutional History
About a decade later Hodge’s addressed the subscription issue in his Constitutional History of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America written between 1838-1840. The catalyst for the Constitutional History was the recent Presbyterian schism (1837-38) and the questions it raised about the origin and constitution of the Presbyterian Church. Which branch followed in the train of their Presbyterian forefathers? What is the historic understanding among Presbyterians of the terms of ministerial communion? Was the traditional condition of ministerial communion “assent to the essential doctrines of the Gospel” as some in the New School had suggested? The Constitutional History of the Presbyterian Church was written in part to demonstrate that the historical evidence disavowed this assertion. The core of the matter was interpreting the true intent of the original Adopting Act of 1729.
The Constitutional History was an attempt to establish by documentary evidence that the first generations of American Presbyterians practiced full subscription to the Confession of Faith. Repeatedly Hodge highlighted this issue. His contention was that the original Adopting Act affirmed a strict subscriptionist stance and subsequent Synodical statements in 1730 and 1736 unequivocally strengthen this position.
No man who was not a Calvinist should be admitted to the ministry according to the intent of the original 1729 Synod. The Adopting Act was introduced out of concern to protect the Presbyterians from Arminianism and Socinianism. Since this was its design, it should be clear that the ideal was to affirm not only the “essentials” of Christianity but the Reformed expression of Christianity in particular. Therefore, it was self-evident that the allowance for scruples with “articles not essential and necessary in doctrine, worship or government” referred to “any essential feature of Presbyterianism.”
Hodge admitted that there are several possible motives behind the Adopting Act. Some argued that the wording of the 1729 Act was a compromise, each giving a little, in order to avoid schism. Others suggested that the working outcome was language that each one could fully support as his own position. Hodge favored the latter perspective, yet, he indicated that whatever may have been the case, it was never the purpose of the framers to make ministerial communion solely rely on the “necessary doctrines of Christianity.” The historical record of the acts of the 1729 Synod indicate that after working through their scruples together, the Synod unanimously agreed to adopt the whole Confession with the allowed exceptions in chapters twenty and twenty three. “Such was the latitudinarianism of those days,” concluded Hodge.
In his overview of the period up until the first General Assembly, Hodge dealt with the issues related to the separation and reunion of the Synods of New York and Philadelphia (1741-1758). Article one of the 1758 Plan of Union reiterated the American Presbyterian commitment to the Westminster Standards with these words:
Both Synods having always approved and received the Westminster Confession of Faith, and Larger and Shorter Catechisms, as an orthodox and excellent system of Christian doctrine, founded on the word of God, we do still receive the same as the confession of our faith and also adhere to the plan of worship, government and discipline, contained in the Westminster Directory, strictly enjoining it on all our members and probationers for the ministry, that they preach and teach according to the form of sound words in said Confession and Catechism, and avoid and oppose all errors contrary thereto.
Hodge argued that this was nothing less than the wholesale adoption of the Standards. And subscription was certainly understood in the Calvinistic sense. He explained:
Both bodies declare that they always have received, and do still receive the Westminster Confession as the confession of their faith . . . Every minister and probationer is strictly enjoined to avoid all errors contrary to the standards thus assumed. There must be an end of all confidence among men if such language can be used by those who make assent to the essential and necessary doctrines of the gospel, the term of ministerial communion; if an Arminian, Pelagian, Roman Catholic, or Quaker, can say that he receives a strictly Calvinistic creed as the confession of his faith!
An enlightening incident that bears on the subscription question, according to Hodge, was the case of Samuel Harker, a member of the Presbytery of New Brunswick. Harker was eventually suspended for Arminian opinions by the Synod in 1763. Rev. Harker complained that the action of the Synod of New York and Philadelphia against him violated his rights to private judgment and scruples over articles non-essential. Harker appealed to the Adopting Act of 1729 as proof of his stance. In 1764 John Blair offered a written rebuttal on behalf of the Synod. Blair attempted to clarify the meaning of “essential and necessary” as understood by the Synod. Blair replied to Harker: “But the Synod say essential in doctrine, worship, or government, i.e. essential to the system of doctrine contained in the Westminster Confession of Faith, considered as a system . . . That, therefore, is an essential error in the Synod’s sense, which is of such malignity as to subvert or greatly injure the system of doctrine . . . ”
Several things are worthy of note here. First, Blair appeared to be offering a different understanding of subscription with his emphasis on the phrase “system of doctrine.” The implication was that “system of doctrine” may not necessarily be inclusive of every article (with the exceptions of chapters 20 and 23, of course). This suggested a broader interpretation of the Adopting Act than was implied in the declarations of 1730 and 1736. Secondly, Hodge’s commentary on Blair’s statement was noteworthy for its admission that Blair’s perspective was a legitimate position on adherence to the standards. Hodge observed: “This interpretation of the act is of course not official, and is below that given by the Synod itself in 1730, which allowed of no dissent except from the clauses so often referred to. Mr. Blair’s interpretation is the most liberal for which there is any sanction in the declarations or practice of the church.”
Blair’s interpretation is supported by the Synod’s basis for excluding Harker: “The Synod judged that these principles are of a hurtful dangerous tendency, giving a false view of the covenant of grace, perverting it into a new-modeled covenant of works, and misrepresenting the doctrine of the divine decrees as held by the best reformed churches; and, in fine, contrary to the word of God, and our approved standards of doctrine.” Harker’s teaching, in the Synod’s judgment, subverted the Reformed system of the Confession. The highlighted doctrines contested by the Synod (covenant of grace, divine decrees) were deemed to be “essentials” of that system.
Hodge claimed that the Harker affair was the only case of discipline for doctrinal error on the minutes of the reunited Synod up until the first General Assembly in 1789. In fact, the unanimity of the church at this time was quite amazing considering the fact that there were 177 American Presbyterian clergy by 1788. Hodge said, “It is probable there never was a period of equal length in the history of our church, in which there was such a general and cordial agreement among our ministers on all doctrinal subjects.”
In 1787 the Synod adopted changes in chapters 20 and 23 of the Westminster Confession and ordered that the altered Confession be printed along with the Form of Government and Discipline; these together making up the constitution of the church. When the General Assembly was formed in 1789 this revised version of the Confession was adopted as the constitution of the Presbyterian Church. Hodge argued:
If then the Westminster Confession is a part of our constitution, we are bound to abide by it, or rightfully to get it altered. Ever since the solemn enactment under consideration, every new member or candidate for the ministry had been required to give his assent to this confession, as containing the system of doctrines taught in the word of God. He assents not merely to absolutely essential and necessary articles of the gospel, but to the whole concatenated statement of doctrines contained in the Confession. This, whether right or wrong, liberal or illiberal, is the constitutional and fundamental principle of our ecclesiastical compact.
For Hodge, the early documents from American Presbyterianism displayed consensus on the meaning of subscription. Some of the broad New School interpretations were in error, for there ‘is not a line upon our records’ which suggested that ministers were only required to assent to the “essential and necessary doctrines of the gospel.” On the contrary, ministers were expected to embrace the Reformed system of doctrine contained in the standards. Hodge concluded: “If then, explicit official declarations and the actual administration of discipline can decide the question, it is clear that our Church has always required adherence to the system of doctrine contained in the Westminster Confession of Faith as a condition of ministerial communion.”
“Adoption of the Confession”
Hodge offered his most extensive essay on the subscription issue in the pages of the Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review in 1858. Here he reiterated some of his points made vs. Dr. Cox and incorporates much of his research from the Constitutional History. One of the reasons for the essay was an outcry from a few Old School men over a comment by Hodge in an issue of the Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review. Hodge was giving his annual review of the General Assembly and he offered his perspective on Dr. Breckinridge’s proposal that the General Assembly authorize the writing of a biblical commentary that “shall be in accordance with the Westminster doctrines of this church.” Hodge opposed this concept and indicated the inherent difficulty of achieving agreement on such a commentary. He wondered: “If it is not only difficult but impossible to frame a creed as extended as the Westminster Confession, which can be adopted in all its details by the ministry of any large body of Christians, what shall we say to giving the sanction of the church to a given interpretation of every passage of Scripture?” It would be impossible to require Presbyterian ministers to profess full subscription to the Confession: “We could not hold together a week, if we made the adoption of all its propositions a condition of ministerial communion.”
Based upon the negative reaction to these statements, Hodge concluded that apparently there was still confusion in the Old School camp about the meaning of adopting the doctrinal standards. He was astonished at the uproar in the “Old-school press” over his advocacy of what he considered the historic understanding of subscription. Indeed, that which he had rather matter of factly stated in the review article on the General Assembly, is the identical position he had held for 30 years. What are these new objections to the Old School view? Why have these voices been silent for 30 years if his views were deemed to be in error?
Hodge responded to these criticisms in no uncertain terms. He began his rebuttal by suggesting two principles by which one may interpret the meaning of oaths and professions of faith: “the plain historical meaning of the words” and “the intention of the party imposing the oath or requiring the profession.” Hodge asked the question: “What is the true sense of the phrase, ‘system of doctrine,’ in our ordination service?” There are three answers that have been offered to this question. Hodge took up each one in turn and offers a forceful defense for his viewpoint.
Some said the ordination vow asked the candidate to adopt the Confession for “substance of doctrine.” Hodge’s first objection to this position was that the definition is vague and equivocal. Two potential meanings may be attached to this understanding:
By substance of doctrine may be meant the substantial doctrines of the Confession; that is, those doctrines which give character to it as a distinctive confession of faith, and which therefore constitute the system of belief therein contained. Or it may mean the substance of the several doctrines taught in the Confession, as distinguished from the form in which they are therein presented.
If one referred to the substance or essence of a system of doctrines [italics mine] then the substance of that system is the system. If however, one spoke of the substance of a particular doctrine then it must have a particular form to have meaning. The substance or general truth of a doctrine is not the doctrine itself. One cannot separate the substance from the form of a doctrine. Hodge illustrated his point with the doctrine of original sin: “The different forms in which this general truth is presented, make all the difference, as to this point, between Pelagianism, Augustinianism, Romanism, and Arminianism.”
The second objection Hodge raised to the “substance of doctrine” position was its being “contrary to the mind of the church.” He argued that the constitutional acts of the church prove beyond the shadow of a doubt the intended meaning of the ordination vow. He quoted in full the Adopting Act of 1729, including both the morning “preliminary act” and the afternoon minute. He cited them both as a record of the “fundamental act” which the church has “never repealed or altered.”
As far as Christian communion is concerned, the 1729 Synod declared that all whom Christ welcomes into his kingdom are welcome in the Presbyterian Church. Ministerial communion is established on a higher condition requiring adoption of “the system of doctrine” contained in the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms. Hodge understood adopting the “system of doctrine” to be the meaning of the 1729 phrases: “adopt the said Confession and Catechisms as the confession of our faith” and “agreement in opinion with all the essential and necessary articles of said Confession;” and the two phrases are “an equivalent form of expression.” Concerning exceptions to the confession, Hodge commented, “the only exceptions allowed to be taken were such as related to matters outside that system of doctrine, and the rejection of which left the system in its integrity.”
Hodge further objected that the phrase “substance of doctrine” has “no definite assignable meaning.” He stated: “No one knows what a man professes who professes to receive only the substance of a doctrine, and, therefore, this mode of subscription vitiates the whole intent and value of a confession.” The concept of doctrine is a truth in specific form. One who does not hold the doctrines of the Confession in the form in which they are presented, cannot be said to hold the said doctrines. If one professed this mode of adopting the Confession of Faith, it would be dishonest for it is no real adoption of the doctrines at all.
The final objection to the “substance of doctrine” view is that this concept does nothing but produce “the greatest disorder and contention.” It was this viewpoint, “more than all other causes,” that produced the 1837 division in the Presbyterian Church. There are ministers, who professing to adopt the Confession under this understanding of subscription, have “rejected almost every doctrine which gives that system its distinctive character.” Hodge listed as illustrations of distinctive doctrines of the system – original sin, inability, efficacious grace and definite atonement. These are essential tenets of the Augustinian/Calvinist system that distinguish it from Pelagian or Arminian schemes of explaining these doctrines. If the latitudinarian principle of adopting the confession is again embraced, it will “produce like disasters” as the schism of 1837.
Just as Hodge protested that the substance of doctrine position would destroy Presbyterian unity, he likewise believed that an “every proposition” understanding, “cannot be carried out without working the certain and immediate ruin of the church.” This new scheme of ipsissima verba, Hodge called an “impracticable theory.” He candidly remarked that he could not name more than a dozen ministers who would affirm all the propositions in the Confession. If this “new rule of subscription” were enforced there would be a mass exodus from the Old School Assembly. He added: “As we have no desire to sit thus solitary on the ruins of our noble church, we enter a solemn protest against a principle which would work such desolation.” He continued, “To adopt every proposition contained in the Westminster Confession and Catechism, is more than the vast majority of our ministers either do, or can do.”
Hodge believed strict subscription, at this juncture of the church’s history (late 1850’s), was the self-righteous “mingled spirit of the Pharisee and Dominican.” He added, “God forbid that such a spirit should ever gain the ascendency in our church.” Mandating all-inclusive adoption of the Standards would be asking the majority to abandon their Christian conscience and commit sin. This stance would put persons in the position of “overwhelming temptations” to profess what they do not believe. Hodge observed:
It is a perfectly notorious fact, that there are hundreds of ministers in our church, and that there always have been such ministers, who do not receive all the propositions contained in the Confession of Faith and Catechisms. To start now, at this late day, a new rule of subscription, which would either brand these men with infamy, or exclude them from the church, is simply absurd and intolerable.
To adopt the system of doctrine in the Standards and to adopt every proposition are “two very different things.” The words “system of doctrine” are definite and “serve to define and limit the extent to which the Confession is adopted.” A candidate for the ministry professed to adopt the Reformed system of doctrine contained in the Confession and “no one can rightfully demand of him either more or less.” Hodge believed there were many propositions in the Confession “which lie entirely outside the system, and which may be omitted, and yet leave the system in its integrity.” Hodge insisted that the “every proposition” perspective was contrary to “the mind of the church.” There are a number of ways that the mind of the church has been made manifest. Hodge made an obvious observation:
If the church intended that the candidate should adopt every proposition contained in the Confession of Faith, why did she not say so? It was very easy to express that idea. The words actually used do not, in their plain, established meaning, express it. The simple fact that no such demand is made, is evidence enough that none such was intended.
Again, Hodge argued his median position utilizing the official explanations given by the original Synod of 1729. The Synod of Philadelphia had explicitly excluded certain clauses relating to the civil magistrate in chapters 20 and 23. Yet, the ministers received the Confession as “the confession of their faith.” The formula of adoption does not include the exception of clauses in the two chapters. “It was not considered necessary to make that exception, because the language was not intended to extend to every proposition, but only to ‘the system of doctrine.’ This was the church’s own official explanation of the sense of the words in question.”
Testimony from the men of that first Synod offered an important glimpse of the mind of the church. Among the original ministers in the Synod there were three groups. The first group, represented by Dickinson, were opposed to all creeds as a test of one’s orthodoxy. A second group, represented by Creaghead, wished for unqualified adherence to all that the Confession contained. A third group, “containing the great body of the Synod” urged that the sense of adoption be to “the system of doctrine” in the Confession. In the words of the preamble to the Adopting Act, the Synod decided to receive the Confession “in all the essential and necessary articles” which, says Hodge, was synonymous with “system of doctrine” as elsewhere expressed.
Differences soon arose as to the exact meaning of the formula. The phrase “in all essential and necessary articles” was interpreted by Samuel Harker to mean the essential doctrines of the gospel. On the other side, Mr. Creaghead seceded from the Synod because he believed the Synod never truly adopted the Confession in all its articles. These difficulties called for further explanation. In the later clarifications, we have the true mind of the framers of the formula. As definitive evidence, Hodge cited both the reply of Samuel Blair to Mr. Creaghead and the reply of John Blair to Mr. Harker. Samuel Blair tells Creaghead that the Synod did indeed adopt all the articles of the Confession excepting only certain clauses. John Blair relies to Harker that what the Synod meant by “essential in doctrine,” was the “system of doctrine” taught in the Westminster Confession of Faith. Hodge declared: “Such is the explanation of the adoption of the Confession of Faith, given by the original framers of the act, and by their contemporaries. They did not merely receive it for ‘substance of doctrine,’ nor did they adopt all the propositions which it contains, but they received ‘the system of doctrine’ therein taught in its integrity.”
The final indicator of the mind of the church on this subject was the uniform action of church courts. Hodge argued that the records of the church indicated that no one has ever been denied entrance into the Presbyterian ministry “simply because there are propositions in the book to which he could not assent.” Neither are there records of one being suspended or deposed on such grounds. As long as one could honestly affirm the Calvinist system of the Standards he was not expected to affirm every detail of the Confession.
Reunion with the New School?
When reunion negotiations between the Old School and New School churches in the North were initiated in 1866, a primary goal was to arrive at a consensus on the question of subscription to the standards. Both parties were suspicious and hesitant to fully trust the other party’s intentions. Each perceived the other to hold a rigid position and both branches believed the other had compromised Presbyterian principles. Nevertheless, candid interaction began to reveal more of a consensus on this potentially divisive issue than either side had anticipated. Meetings of the Joint Committee had produced declarations attempting to define the intended meaning of subscription. The spirit of distrust, however, still prevailed in much of the church. Given the historical doctrinal tensions between the two schools, some suspected that the reunion deliberations had been disingenuous. Had confessional integrity been compromised and reunion become an end in itself no matter what the cost?
It was inconceivable to some Old School men that the New School could seriously and honestly affirm the standards as the confession of their faith. It was equally incredulous to New School men that the Old School would actually countenance liberty by allowing exceptions to parts of the doctrinal standards. Despite this underlying skepticism, progress was made in understanding one another. New School clarification of its position was most ably articulated by Professor Henry Boyton Smith of Union Seminary in New York.
At the New School Assembly of 1864, Dr. Henry B. Smith, the retiring moderator, had preached the opening sermon entitled, “Christian Union and Ecclesiastical Reunion” based on Ephesians 4:13. Smith urged his New School brethren to earnestly pursue union with their Old School counterparts. There are three prime conditions for reunion – a spirit of mutual concession, acceptance of the integrity of the Presbyterian system of church order and an affirmation of the Presbyterian doctrinal standards. On the third point, Smith suggested that, “the reunion be simply on the basis of the Standards, which we equally accept without private interpretation – interpreted in their legitimate grammatical and historic sense in the spirit of the Adopting Act, and as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures. My liberty here is not to be judge of another man’s conscience. Any other view not only puts the Confession above the Scriptures, but also puts somebody’s theological system above the Confession.”
Smith would play a vital role in the reunion negotiations because of the respect for him in both parties and his consistent voice for maintaining historic Presbyterianism as the bedrock for reunion. When Charles Hodge attacked the reunion plan in 1867, it was Smith that defended the New School position. Hodge indicted the New School with holding to a latitudinarian principle of subscription. Professor Smith countered that this was an unjust accusation against New School Presbyterians. The New School had been accused of embracing heresy, false doctrine and “evasive subscription;” and all of these charges were unproven. On the contrary, the New School had “uniformly repudiated the principle” with which she was being charged. The whole plan of reunion was staked on this vital point of uniformity in interpreting the form of assent to the Standards. According to Smith, there is no ground of difference between the two schools on the question of subscription.
Smith concurred with Hodge’s perspective that the form of assent was properly understood as including adoption of the “system of doctrine” in the Confession. The Calvinistic or Reformed system was adopted and this meant more than mere affirmation of the “essential doctrines of Christianity.” Likewise, an “every proposition” position was an improper interpretation of the form of assent to the Confession. Smith cited favorably Hodge’s article of 1831 which opposed the two extremes of either latitude or strictness in interpreting the form of subscription. As one example of New School concurrence with Hodge’s position, Smith pointed out that Albert Barnes, in his defense before the Second Presbytery of Philadelphia in 1835, directly referred to Hodge’s 1831 article as expressing his own views.
A significant disparity with his Old School brethren had been disagreement over the proper grounds of ecclesiastical discipline. Hodge believed that there was room for honest doctrinal diversity the Presbyterian Church which did not impair the integrity of the system of doctrine in the Confession. Hodge declared, “It is not enough that a doctrine be erroneous, or that it be dangerous in its tendency; if it be not subversive of one or more of the constituent elements of the Reformed faith, it is not incompatible with the honest adoption of our Confession.”
Hodge described two classes of doctrines which illustrate the discord over allowable diversity among Old School men. There is one class of doctrines which though not unimportant have been tolerated in the “purest Calvinistic churches.” This class of doctrines involves the permitted breadth in explaining the Reformed faith. Hodge cited differences in defining the imputation of Adam’s sin, the atonement and regeneration. The key element was that one affirm the essentials of the doctrines integral to the system. On Christ’s work of atonement, the critical question concerned a real substitutionary atonement and one should not be brought under discipline who can affirm this, though he may differ on the extent of that atonement. “If he taught that the work of Christ was a real satisfaction to the justice of God, it was not made a breaking point, whether he said it was designed exclusively for the elect, or for all mankind.”
A second class of doctrines however are “entirely inconsistent with the ‘system of doctrine’ taught in our Confession of Faith.” Hodge enumerated several doctrines he placed in this category:
Men came to teach that mankind are not born in a state of sin and condemnation; that no man is chargeable with either guilt or sin until he deliberately violates the known law of God; that sinners have plenary ability to do all that God requires of them; that regeneration is the sinner’s own act; that God cannot certainly control the acts of free agents so as to prevent all sin, or the present amount of sin in a moral system; that the work of Christ is no proper satisfaction to Divine justice, but simply symbolical or didactic, designed to produce a moral impression on intelligent agents; that justification is not judicial, but involves a setting aside of the law, as when the Executive remits the penalty incurred by a criminal.
The strain between Old School men arose because some in the strict Old School party desired to invoke discipline against not only men holding the second class of doctrines that subvert the Reformed system but also against those who merely differed in expressions of the same Calvinist faith. This censoriousness was divisive according to Hodge. He described Princeton’s resistance to follow the extremists: “It was considered unreasonable and unfair to condemn one man for errors which had been, and continued to be, tolerated in others . . . It was impossible that they could be brought with unanimity to concur in sustaining charges so heterogeneous, embracing doctrinal statements with which only a small minority of the church could agree.”
Before any formal discussions between the two branches of Presbyterians in the North began, Hodge publicly asked the question: “is it the present duty of these bodies to unite and become one church, as they were before the division?” He believed that this union was desirable if it could occur without the “sacrifice of principle” and if it could be a “real and harmonious” union. Do the original grounds that separated Presbyterians continue? Two issues, from his perspective, were the root of the split – the presence of Congregationalists in the Presbyterian body who never adopted the Presbyterian standards (for faith or order) and discord over doctrine. The major problem with the Congregationalists was not polity but that they were “almost without exception found among either the abettors or protectors of false doctrine.” For Hodge, the causes of the Presbyterian division in 1837 culminated in a disagreement over the rightful exercise of discipline. He explained:
As to doctrine, the difference was not that all the Old-school were orthodox and all the New-school heterodox; not that errors which a large part of the New-school party rejected did in fact more or less prevail among our ministers and churches; but the great and vital difference was, whether these errors should be a bar to ministerial communion.
This diversity over discipline in doctrinal matters stemmed from distinct perspectives on the sense in which subscription to the Confession was to be understood. Discipline and admission to ministerial office in the New School (at least in some quarters) was governed by a perspective that viewed subscription as only binding one to the “essential and necessary doctrines” of Christianity not Calvinism per se. This interpretation, the Old School had implicitly disavowed by its condemnation of errors in 1837.
Hodge’s conviction was that the New School separated from the Old School, therefore, it was a question of whether or not the New School wanted to return to the Presbyterian Church and “whether they are willing to endeavor to secure, by the proper exercise of discipline, that the candidates for ordination and ordained ministers shall embrace the Calvinistic system of doctrine, as presented in the Westminster Confession and Catechisms, in its integrity. If they are willing to do this, we can see no conscientious objection to their return.” When reunion discussions officially commenced in 1866, Hodge fully immersed himself in these issues and in several instances found himself in the eye of the storm. In his annual reports on the General Assembly during the reunion negotiation years (1866-1870), he consistently questioned New School authenticity in subscribing the Confession because of what he considered the New School historic practice of “broad church” principles.
For Hodge, the safeguard was to require that “the doctrines constituting that system should be adopted in the form in which they are stated in the standards of the church.” This is not asking for ipsissima verba for the whole Confession but a use of the confessional language itself to affirm adoption of the essentials of the system that makes up the Confession. A practical solution that Hodge offers was to view the Shorter Catechism as containing the essentials of the Calvinist system of the Confession. “Let the basis of doctrine be the Confession and Catechisms without note or comment; and require that the doctrines should be adopted in the form therein stated. For ourselves we should be willing to license, or ordain any candidate for the ministry, (so far as his orthodoxy is concerned,) who would intelligently and cordially answer in the affirmative the several questions in the Shorter Catechism. As much as this we believe the Church is bound in conscience and good faith to demand. More than this it were unreasonable to require.”
Hodge’s thorough study of the historical sources and his own ecclesiastical experience had taught him that there was but one conclusion to the nineteenth-century question of subscription to the Westminster Confession. For American Presbyterians, confessional subscription had meant neither adherence to every jot and tittle of the Confession nor a minimalist “essentials of the gospel” position. Hodge emphatically stated:
There never was a period in our history in which all our ministers agreed in adopting every proposition contained in the Confession and Catechisms. It is notorious that such agreement does not now exist. On the other hand, to demand less than the adoption of the Calvinistic system in its integrity, would destroy the purity and harmony of the church.
Presbyterians in the eighteenth century, according to Hodge’s analysis had practiced a strict subscription imbedded in the original Adopting Act itself. This conservatism was promoted by an amazing unanimity of views among ministers of this era. By the early nineteenth century, however, Hodge observed more diversity of views among the clergy which was both expressed publicly and openly tolerated in a much larger Presbyterian Church. Nonetheless, these differences among orthodox Calvinists were considered allowable within the historic Presbyterian mode of adopting the Confession. According to Hodge, the criterion for acceptable diversity was the consideration of whether or not one’s exceptions to the standards undermined the Reformed “system of doctrine” in the Confession. This was understood as the original intent of the Adopting Act which had allowed exceptions to certain portions of the Confession.
While Hodge advocated that the examination of ministers must be left in the hands of presbyteries, he was skeptical about some of the New School presbyteries carrying out this responsibility prudently. His objections to reunion would always return ultimately to his doubts about New School resolve to exercise discipline. Hodge believed that some of the New School men, who had habitually practiced extreme toleration, would continue to countenance a degree of laxity beyond that demanded by an honest use of the ordination vow.
In the midst of the heated controversies of the Old School/New School era, Charles Hodge and his Princeton colleagues were the voice of reason. Hodge resisted the extremist camps within the New School and Old School alike. Though an Old School advocate, he realized that the majority of the New School was conservative and the guilt by association foisted upon them by Old School “ultras” was unjust. Hodge consistently defended the 1729 principles of subscription, challenging strict subscription as impractical and lax subscription as dishonest. The old pattern of allowing exceptions, yet, affirming the essential Calvinism of the Confession, was the only fair way to handle confessional subscription. This method was the historic practice of the American Presbyterian Church and any other approach destroyed unity.
Hodge towers above the Old School/New School period. Few churchmen wrote as much as he did about the spectrum of issues that emerged during this volatile period for church and nation, and confessional subscription was a topic he addressed repeatedly in his writings. He ultimately concurred with the terms of confessional subscription in the 1869 Plan of Union, however, he remained skeptical about the reunion itself. Hodge’s chief concern was that the New School would not have the will to exercise discipline against doctrinal aberrations. Here Hodge anticipated the great challenge that Presbyterians would face in the twentieth century. Hodge’s suspicions were sound – solving the subscription dilemma would not safeguard the church from theological error. Combating unacceptable doctrinal innovation is won and lost in the trenches of church courts.
This author is convinced the Old School sage provides us a prudent path for peace on the subscription question if we will have ears to hear. The lesson for contemporary Presbyterians is the necessity of vigilant care for the sacred middle ground of the historic practice of confessional subscription in American Presbyterianism committed to both the purity and the peace of the church. The key to maintaining that via media is a charitable spirit between brethren who fellowship with integrity around the essential Calvinistic doctrines of the Westminster Standards and mutually respect each other in differences over non-essential points of doctrine. And that charitable spirit must be united with a firm commitment to exercise church discipline when it is genuinely warranted. This means that on occasion ministerial candidates will not be acceptable, and errant ministers must be disciplined, because guarding the historic boundaries of confessional subscription is imperative for the honor of Christ and the health of the church.