Friday, June 11, 2010

Why "in so far as" goes too far and not far enough

There are two Latin words that are essential when defining how a confession. The first is "quia" (Latin for "because") the second is "quatenus" (Latin for "insofar as"). Quia subscription (a Confession is adhered to because it fully agrees with Scripture is an entirely accurate summary of the Scriptures) implies that the subscriber believes that there is no contradiction between the Confession and the Scriptures. Quatenus subscription (the Confession is adhered to insofar as it agrees with the Scriptures) implies that the subscriber leaves room for the possibility that there might be a contradiction of the Scriptures in the Confession, implies suspicion that there are areas identified by the subscriber as unfaithful to Scripture and that on these points the subscriber must abandon the Confession and adhere only to the Scriptures. "Quia" subscription does not make the Confession inerrant it simply acknowledges that it is an accurate summary of Scripture. Samuel Rutherford said that a Confession is rather like a translation of the Bible into a language. The content is the same as the original but it does not have the exact verbal inspired, infallible authority of the original. The precise wording of a Confession is not infallible but the truth it contains is.

The historic view of the Reformed (and Lutheran) Churches has been "quia" subscription. This has, however, been consistently attacked by those who oppose the truth. The orthodox at the Synod of Dort maintained quia subscription while the Remonstrants (Arminians) supported "in so far as" (quatenus). Rather than plead for an overthrow of the Confessional standard and a new standard to be prepared from scratch, they plead for a loose subscription to the Confession that will allow them room to deny whatever they wish both now and in the future. If, after subscription, someone comes to the view that there is something in the Confession that they cannot agree to as biblical then they must resign their office. "In so far as" subscription subverts the very purpose of subscription because subscription is meant to make it absolutely clear what a Church and its office-bearers confess and believe. To say that one subscribes 'quatenus' (in so far as) is to say that one does not really subscribe to anything at all. It could mean that nothing is seen as scriptural in the document and therfore nothing subscribed and confessed. We must agree with the Lutheran C.F.W. Walther who said that Christians could subscribe even the Mohammedans’ Koran “insofar as” it agrees with the Word of God. A quatenus subscription allows the individual to maintain the appearance of agreement in doctrine while also reserving the right to disagree wherever it may suit him. A Confession should be made not in so far as (quatenus) it agrees with the Word of God, but because (quia) it agrees fully with the word of God, the unchanging standard.

Those who defend "in so far as" subscription try to argue that the danger of quia subscription is that it seems to place the Confession above Scripture. It is evident from quia subscription itself that Scripture is the norm and the sole authority, the Confession only derives its authority "because" it adheres to Scripture. Scripture itself demands confession of its truth, the deposit entrusted to the Church which is "the pillar and ground of truth" “to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints”. Acts 20:27 “For I have not shunned to declare to you the whole counsel of God.” 1 Tim 1:13 "Hold fast the form of sound words, which thou hast heard of me, in faith and love which is in Christ Jesus." 2 Tim 2:2 "And the things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also".

Others try to say that "in so far as" really means the same as "according to the Scriptures" and it really has an orthodox sense. There is an obvious difference between “according to the Word of God” and “in so far as…consistent with the Holy Scriptures”. “According” means 'in full harmony, agreement, conformity and accord with' while “in so far as” bears the sense of ‘to the extent that’ and that what is referred to is not always the case or always possible. A mathematical way of expressing this difference would be that according is like = (equals/direct equivalent whereas in so far as is like >= (less than or equal to). We can use phrases such as "agreeable to the Word of God" "founded on God's Word" etc. but these never have the same in meaning as "in so far as". They are entirely different semantically. One expressing full harmony, agreement and accordance and the other expressing the conviction or at least possibility that the documents fall short of full consistency with Scripture.

Dutch example

The danger of the "in so far as" wording is best illustrated by the Dutch alteration of 1816. Until this point subscription was total but then there was a change to "we accept in good faith and heartily believe the doctrine, which according to God's holy word, is contained in the accepted forms of unity of the Netherlands reformed church". The difficulty with this change is that while it is basically orthodox and it was received by the orthodox in good faith that it was so- some were apt to take the phrase "which according to God's holy word" to mean that the doctrine was qualified and modified by their personal interpretation of the Scriptures. Rev. Molenaar, a contemporary wrote "Everyone who carefully considers this declaration, will see clearly that it does not say, that the Articles of our Church are according to God's Word, but with reservation, that one believes that doctrine which according to God's Word, is contained in the Articles of our Church. The subscription is therefore not made, because the articles are recognised as agreeable with God's word, but in so far as they are agreeable with God's word. Such a subscription can be made by every Christian faction, the papists can subscribe it, yes even the Jews can do it. If they had used the words in so far as, then every person would have noticed it and every one would have been on their guard" (Documenta Reformatoria Vol 2 p.114 letter of Rev. Molenaar in 1827).

'This, as well as others of the Protestant Churches on the Continent, once sound in the faith, may be reckoned on the side of Rationalism and Socinianism. This was effected not by any change in the standards, but by an alteration in the formula. The Dutch Reformed Church, by the alteration of a single word in the formula, completely altered the standard. The office bearers formerly adhered to the Confession because (quia) it was in accordance with the Word of God; now the formula runs, in so far as (quatenus) it is in accordance with the Word of God. By such a change their Confession became a totally different standard to them. 'The Government of the Kingdom of Christ, Part III. by James Moir Porteous chap VII.

Scottish Examples
Scottish Presbyterian history affords similar examples of the dangerous intrusion of quatenus subscription. In 1789 the Relief Church of Scotland Synod objected to the views of Rev. James Smith, Dunfermline. He had an erroneous view of the atonement but also belived that "systems of theology and creeds were too highly revered". Smith further declared that he was willing to subscribe the WCF only "in so far as it agreed with Scripture". The Synod opposed this as an obvious loophole for heretics to find refuge. They proceeded to pass the following resolution:
"That the minister who presides over the work of ordination or admission of any minister (not formerly ordained by any of the Presbyteries subject to the Synod) shall, in the Questions to be put to the person to be ordained or thus admitted, keep precisely to the Act of Assembly relative to that affair, and in particular shall not ask "Do you agree to the Confession of Faith in so far as it is agreeable to the Word of God", but put the Question in the identical words enjoined by the Assembly"

Similar examples can be found in the Victorian apostasising Free Church of Scotland. Take an instance at a service of ordination at Newton-on-Ayr in 1885. Some of the elders ‘although accepting the Confession of Faith substantially, stated privately that they accepted it (as it was accepted in the U.P. Church) only in so far as it agreed with the Word of God’ (Signal, May 1885, pp.129-32). The United Presbyterian questions at ordination of course required an acknowledgement of the WCF as "an exhibition of the sense in which you understand the Holy Scripture".

In the Established Church of Scotland James Stuart, author of "The Principles of Christianity", when brought before the Presbytery of Edinburgh in January 1889 is reported as saying: “He could not see how the subordinate standard and the ultimate standard were on an equality. He regarded the sub-ordinate one as valid only in so far as it was based on the ultimate one.”

Moving on a century from Stuart we come to the Deed of Separation for the Associated Presbyterian Churches. This Deed states that the documents said to form their constitution, including the WCF are accepted only "insofar as each and every one of the documents is consistent with the Holy Scripture". This is a patent qualification and modifying clause pemitting individuals a declaratory Act to decide how far or to what extent each and every one of the documents is consistent with the Holy Scripture. On this basis any minister in the country could subscribe the subordinate standards - it opens things up wider than the Free Church Declaratory Act of 1892. An "in so far as" clause would ratifies any sort of cherrypicking at the Confession that the individual in their subjective judgement prefers. It is not only inconsistent with the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland's Resolution on Creed Subscription but also the declaration in the formula to be subscribed by Probationers, Ministers, Elders and Deacons "that I do sincerely own and believe the whole doctrine contained in the Confession of Faith, approven by former General Assemblies of this Church to be the truths of God; and I do own the same as the confession of my faith". Either the whole of the standards are biblical or the Church should determine which parts are not and eliminate them accordingly.

Given the history of the words, the APC "in so far as" clause is in the camp of the loosest confessional subscription and not total subscription. Any 21st century equivalent of Rev. James Smith, Dunfermline in the APC can say to himself, ”I want to subscribe to the Confession only in so far as it is consistent with Scripture. I look at the vows and they don't seem to allow for this but when I look at the Church's constitution I see that it explicitly receives the WCF only in so far as it is consistent with Scripture. I think to myself – the Church is making generous allowance for me and using the words I would use myself”. Thus he proceeds to subscribe in good faith. He does not need to declare it publicly or make any reference to any scruples he has with the Confession.

Note that he does not need to express anything publicly because he has a Declaratory Act in the Constitution of the Church which he may avail of. In the case of the Free Church Declaratory Act, men could appeal to the Act mentally in subscribing the constitution but did not need to make any public declaration of this. Noone was allowed to record the fact that they were not appealing to the Declaratory Act. Any APC ordinand or minister need only to make mental appeal to the “in so far as” clause. This would be dishonesty on the part of the individual but the Church has provided an opportunity that was not there before. The only way to prevent this from happening would be to return to the previous wording of full commitment to the doctrinal constitution as entirely Scriptural.

One tends to act carefully in preparing constitutional documents and select words carefully. For instance, the 1893 Deed of Separation is based upon the 1843 documents. The APC founders have been careful enough in the Deed of Separation of 1989 to specify "each and every one" of the documents. The question is, where was the need to depart from the existing wording of the constitution and adopt the "in so far as" clause? There has been enough controversy over such matters in the presbyterian history of Scotland that anyone with some degree of acquaintance with that would recognise the danger of revision.

When a Church says that it receives the subordinate standards "in so far as each and every one of the documents is consistent with Holy Scripture", it is not just providing a potential refuge for heretics but altering its own relation to its fixed doctrinal constitution. It is not saying what the individual is at liberty to do - it is saying how the Church receives the subordinate standards. It cannot change the Confession as agreed in 1647 but it can alter its relationship to it (as was done by the Free Church in 1892) - but it then becomes a different Church with a different constitution. The APC cannot claim to be constitutionally or morally the true Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland.

There is all the difference in the world between saying that I "sincerely own and believe the whole doctrine contained in the Confession of be the truths of God; and I do own the same as the confession of my faith" and saying that I agree with them only "in so far as" or to the extent that they are consistent with the Scriptures. In the one I am saying that there is nothing inconsistent with the Scriptures it is simply Scriptural truth gathered together, in the other I would be saying that I agree with them but there may be aspects that I do not consider to be consistent with Scripture or will not in the future consider to be consistent with Scripture and therefore I acknowledge only the parts that I consider to be consistent with Scripture.

But the APC also stands in the position of not making that full subscription itself and therefore backsliding from a full unequivocal profession of that body of truth in the WCF. It is the Church's duty to make its confession boldly and clearly and not to give an uncertain sound. It must be made clear that the Church holds to these documents because they do agree with Scripture entirely. To say that these are received only to the extent that they are consistent with Scripture is to cast a shadow on what is a true and faithful exposition of the Word of God. The APC founders in preparing this wording failed to maintain their vows in relation to the Confession which are to "firmly and constantly adhere thereto, and to the utmost of your power assert, maintain and defend the same".

When one approaches this issue from an historical perspective it is clear that an “in so far as etc.” clause for a Church's constitution is worse than unwise it is suicidal.