Chapter 5 of Recovering the Reformed Confession is the second part of Recovering a Reformed Identity. Here Clark focuses on the need for Confessions of Faith that we might be in agreement about the meaning of Scripture. The Reformed Church has been busy making Confessions of Faith since the 1500’s. There is no lack of them.
Initially there were no exceptions permitted, which makes sense since that contemporary group wrote it. I wouldn’t be taking exceptions to a document I helped create and approved. In the denominations of which I have belonged as a minister exceptions are permitted. We are concerned with the system of doctrine, though any exceptions that depart from the core beliefs would result in exclusion.
In other denominations, we have seen how ministers confess to adhering to the Westminster Confession of Faith yet really do not. Those denominations have slid consistently to the left until there are barely recognizable as Christian, much less Reformed. Clark sees the sideline denominations moving in this same direction with the absence of strict subscriptionism. But the problem was not the absence of strict subscriptionism, but the absence of church discipline against those who departed from the core issues of the Confession regarding Scripture, the Trinity, justification and more.
System of Doctrine was first advocated by Charles Hodge to avoid the loose Irish view of “substance” and the unforgiving “strict confession” of the Scots & American Presbyterians. Views that contradicted the Reformed faith were not permitted as exceptions. He viewed that strict subscriptionism would lead to the same hypocrisy as substance subscriptionism did.
The full or strict subscription view is proposed by such men today as Joseph Pipa, Morton Smith and George W. Knight III. They say that not all doctrines are of equal importance, yet act as if they are. Since the Confession is a summary of Scripture, Pipa argues that if a minister finds that the Confession is out of step with the Scriptures, they should write exegetical papers explaining the difference and advocating the necessary changes. In Pipa’s view, this takes place within the courts of the church, not publicly. In other words, you don’t write a book or teach a class on it.
The “good faith” approach was approved by the PCA in 2003. The candidate’s views are examined and they are required to take exceptions in which they differ from any part of the Confession or Catechisms. The Presbytery decides whether or not to grant the exception. Often, the minister may teach the exception as long as he notes it is not the position of the church.