Coffin on Confessionalism

This is an essay in The Practical Calvinist (festschrift to Clair Davis, detailed info at end). It was written in connection with a discussion in the PCA, in which body Dr. Coffin is a pastor. At issue is how strictly subscription is to be interpreted. Coffin sets out to defend a (relatively) strict view of subscription as a logical deduction from the raison d’être of having a confession:

The heart of what I hope to show is this: that the justification for having a confession ought logically to determine the manner of subscription to that confession. (p. 331)

Rather than first summarizing Coffin’s arguments, then returning to a critique, for the sake of brevity I will jump right in to my criticism under three headings. Explaining the criticism will entail a summary of his positive exposition, and so we can kill two birds with one stone.

1. Which comes first, unity or confession?

Coffin argues that a confession is the basis for unity; I affirm in contrast that unity must precede confession.

Coffin cites American Presbyterian authorities from the nineteenth century to make his case. However, these citations are not as clear-cut as he makes out. The quote from the 1824 GA lists some attributes of its Confession, but does not exactly state that this is the very basis of its constitution (with a small ‘c’) as such. The same is true of the Assembly’s 1805 statement (pp. 334f.) and that of A. A. Hodge quoted on page 334. Samuel Miller’s reference to “the importance of Creeds and Confessions for maintaining the unity and purity of the visible Church” (citation on p. 330, emphasis added by Coffin), is equally supportive of my counter-thesis if the emphasis is instead put on the word maintaining. Alone Miller’s quote on p. 333 comes close to Coffin’s agenda in the phrase “for the purpose of ascertaining how far those who wish to unite in church fellowship are really agreed” (p. 333).

Now if confession is taken in a very broad sense, we can indeed say that confession precedes being incorporated into the church. This happens to each individual at baptism; and undoubtedly baptism was always premised upon a certain confession of the neophyte. Even the founding members and officers of the church — the original twelve apostles — can be said to have been established in that position by confession. I am thinking specifically of Peter’s confession in Matt. 16:16-19. Peter’s spontaneous confession is taken by our Lord as the very thing that constituted him/them as the constitutive foundation of the church, building on Himself as the chief cornerstone.

However, the situation is subtly yet crucially different when defining dogma in the form of a Creed or Confession. Historically, leaving the American situation out of the picture for the moment, creeds and confessions were instruments of an already-established church giving definition of their credo in response to a crisis. This can be seen in the ecumenical creeds, and in the formation of the Augsburg Confession during the Reformation. The Swiss and Dutch churches wrested their independence from Rome in which they continued as a national church prior to articulating their new basis by adoption of symbols. The same is clearly seen in the adoption of the WCF by the Church of Scotland.

It is interesting that the Westminster Assembly was called into existence with an objective similar to Dr. Coffin’s thesis, namely, to serve as the basis of a constitution of the church “new” by virtue of uniting the three branches — English, Irish, and Scottish. This could be seen, perhaps, as the sole historical example that partially would ratify Coffin’s thesis — and it failed. The sought-for unification that was the whole goal of the Assembly failed to materialize.

Only in the American experience can we see some plausibility to Coffin’s model. Even here, however, this process only began some hundred years after the original colonies — which were compact and more in line with the previous experience of Christendom — had been diluted and dispersed by multi-confessional immigration and mingling.

The uniqueness of the post-colonial American situation can be summarized as that which occurs when there is non-cohesive immigration in the absence of a national ecclesiastical settlement. So the discussion in this context needs to be enlarged to ask whether the American situation is to serve as a “scarecrow to the nations” (as Dabney said in another context), or whether it is the stuff of a chapter on ecclesiology where the “exception proves the rule.” But in either case, our understanding of the holy catholic church will be truncated and distorted if we take the idiosyncracies of America as a foundational starting point.

2. The legitimate ways that an officer may depart from strict subscription

Perhaps my rubric is not worded in the best way, for the elbow-room Coffin carves out is intended, I think, more to define than weaken what is entailed by the adjective “strict.” But the devil is in the details, and a couple points need to be made.

Three classes of possibly-acceptable deviation are outlined, and what I want to note first is that Coffin only mentions the need for presbytery examination of the first two. First is the word/proposition distinction. In this case, “he must declare his judgement to the presbytery, so that the body receiving his pledge can confirm or disconfirm his judgement” (p 343). Second is the essential vs possible way to interpret the words. “The court must judge whether that professed sense is in essential agreement with the Standards, or in fact an exception of substance” (p. 344). The third is the original sense vs. current understanding. Notably, Coffin does not repeat his stricture of Presbyterial examination in this case. Perhaps this was just a slip. But it cannot be assumed in such a systematic and thorough thinker as Coffin that such a gap is unintentional. It is a serious issue that should be corrected.

In addition, the examples given in the third category are uneven in a way that could lead to the very subversion Coffin is trying to prevent. We have, on the one hand, whether “light of nature” should be taken qua the scholastic or vantillian understanding, whether “covenant” is “contract,” and whether “bodies” of the resurrection are understood in a “formal, or some other non-material, sense.” But interleaved with these kinds of issue are (i) whether “post-industrial necessities of modern society” qualify the Sabbath prohibitions, and (ii) the interpretion of “days” of Creation. This mingling is quite unfortunate, since the items in the latter category have been controversial and controverted in recent history in the PCA, and will probably continue to be for some time. This almost seems to give license to those taking the modern positions on these issues to skate through without even mentioning them. And this would be a serious mistake. Far better would be to require mention and examination of all departures from the historical sense, with the understanding that some items would be virtually rubber-stamped, while others might lead to more discussion.

3. Uniformity enforced by complaint and appeal only?

This point flies past rather briefly, but it can serve as the occasion to make another important point in connection to confessionalism. He says

Thus by the wholesome procedures of appeal and complaint, used with restraint and modesty, the Church defines and refines the boundaries of the language of her Confession through judgment in particular cases. (p. 348)

As such, this is true enough, but there is an important lacuna as stated. Namely, each wider judicatory should review the minutes of the judicatories in its jurisdiction, offering correction when needed; and this task should be taken very seriously as the ordinary means by which confessional uniformity is enforced. This is positive and regular; complaints and appeals are negative and desultory — and might not even occur when they ought, if the cognizant parties nod.

Coffin’s theory could easily incorporate this aspect, but I submit it is not merely a quibble to bring it up: it goes to the heart of a practical ecclesiology that mirrors the essential features of the holy catholic church.

We should extend this observation also to the matter of exceptions, by urging that all exceptions and quibbles to the standards allowed by Presbytery in the examination of a candidate should be clearly noted in the minutes for review by the wider church.
As an additional application of this principle, I would urge the church to consider this remedy. A book should be published and updated from time to time listing, under the name of every single pastor or teaching elder, all the exceptions allowed to him by his presbytery. Especially in an age when (oxymoronically) exceptions are the rule rather than the exception, it would be useful to the health of the church if we could discover what each man stands for, and not simply rest in the knowledge that at one time in the past some fellow-elders decided they were not fatal.

Coffin, David F., Jr. (2002) The Justification of Confessions and the Logic of Confessional Subscription. In Lillback, Peter A. (Ed.), The Practical Calvinist: An Introduction to the Presbyterian & Reformed Heritage, In Honor Dr. D. Clair Davis on the Occasion of his Seventieth Birthday etc. (pp. 329-355) Fearn, UK: Christian Focus Publications.

2 thoughts on “Coffin on Confessionalism

  1. Elders should be reexamined every three years as to their exceptions and notation made. Those who declare they have no exceptions are likely the same set of people who never studied the WCF. It is incredible that any person suited for the office of elder has no exceptions.

  2. Well some make a distinction between exception and quibble. John Murray I believe claimed to subscribe without exception, but he did quibble with certain expressions.

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