Thornwell On the Subject of Subscription
From: The Collected Writings of James Henley Thornwell, D.D., LL.D.
Richmond, .VA: Presbyterian Committee of Publication, 1871-75
But it seems [some say] that our Standards are only inferences from
the Word of God. This, we confess, is news to us. When we assented to them
upon our admission to the ministry, we verily thought within ourselves
that we were assenting to the very doctrines and precepts of the Word,
and not to the ratiocinations of men. We should like to know what are the
original doctrines and precepts, if these are only inferences at second
hand. If these are not the identical things which the Scriptures teach,
but only conclusions which our fathers deduced from them, we would like
to have the premises in their native integrity . . . The Constitution
is, with Presbyterians, the accredited interpretation of the Word of God.
It is not an inference from it, nor an addition to it, but the very system
of the Bible . . . That Word has to be interpreted. If the Constitution
is what we profess to believe, we have the interpretation to our hand -
we have already wrought out for us the only result we could reach, if we
made the interpretation anew in every instance. . .
[T]he very reason why the Church exacts an assent from Ministers and
Elders to these formularies of faith, was that she might have a reasonable
guarantee, that in their public instructions they would teach nothing inconsistent
with the Word of God. We have always heretofore regarded subscription as
a security for the sound dispensation of the Word of God. It is for the
sake of the people, whom the Church wishes trained to wholesome words,
even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and not simply for the sake of
the officers, that she inquires so particularly into their life and doctrine.
The things which they profess to believe she requires them to impress upon
the faithful. Hence, our Standards are obviously a guide, a rule, a measure
of their teaching. They contain exactly what the Church wants all her children
trained to understand and to practice. Hence, she reduces them to a form
in which they can be most conveniently used in the offices of instruction.
We do not require young Christians, upon their admission to the Church,
to adopt them, for we regard them as pupils to be taught, and pupils are
not ordinarily supposed to be familiar with the science which they are
appointed to learn. But we do require, and peremptorily require, that all
the teachers shall teach only according to this summary, and we do expect
that the knowledge in which their hearers are to grow will be precisely
the knowledge embraced in these symbols....