Making Some Sense of the PCA
What is below is with some revisions a piece I wrote just after the 2002 “Good Faith Subscription General Assembly’ of the Presbyterian Church in America. One revision is a more modest title. It was originally titled Making Sense of the PCA. I am no longer confident I can do that.
One note regarding the subscription matter itself: I voted against the “Good Faith approach.” But I am just as troubled as candidate after candidate and minister after minister is examined in my Presbytery avowing that he has absolutely no exceptions to or clarificatory statements to make regarding the Confessions and Catechisms. Every time I wonder, “How can this be?” I am tempted when this avowal is made to rise, as did an old friend in another Presbytery and to ask, “Have you read them?”
In the past ten years the Presbyterian Church in America has experienced tensions about such things the nature of subscription to its Confession, the nature of its mission, the parameters of its worship, the role of women in relation to offices and ordination, and the limits of its doctrinal tolerance with regard such things as the Federal Vision. Is there any way to understand where we are and how we got here? One way of making sense of the denomination is by looking at the present in the light of American Presbyterianism’s past.
Here is a working hypothesis: The PCA is a majority New Side/New School Presbyterian Church, with a substantial minority that is either New Side/Old School or Old Side/Old School.
I need to define my terms in order to allow others to consider my hypothesis. I paint with a broad brush: The New Side/Old Side differences among Presbyterians focused primarily on their differing views of revivals in general and the Great Awakening in particular. The New Side (coming from a more Congregationalist than strict Presbyterian background) viewed the revivals as a blessing. They feared “the danger of an unconverted ministry” and were concerned about unconverted church members. They believed the revivals, which first disturbed and then converted sinners within and without the church and awakened and stirred to holiness and action true believers, had Biblical precedents.
Itinerant ordained and non-ordained speakers were often the instruments of revival. Religious experience was intensely personal and greatly concerned with whether or not one had been genuinely converted.
The Old-Side Presbyterians (coming from a predominantly Scots-Irish Presbyterian background) had a higher view of the church as an institution, more confidence in the work of settled, ordained ministers carrying out the ordinary ministry of Word and sacrament, and a greater emphasis on corporate religious life.
There were tensions about confessional subscription in this controversy with the New Side tending toward a broader view and the Old Side tending toward a stricter. But theNew Side was by no means monolithic in its confessional moderatism. The Tennent brothers, for instance, defended both the revivals and the rather strict subscription called for by the Adopting Act of 1729. For a while there was a division between the Old-Side and New Side (1740s), but eventually the Old Side minority and the New Side majority reunited (1758). However, tensions remained between those who emphasized confessional orthodoxy and corporate religion and those who emphasized revivals and personal piety.
If the occasion of the Old Side/New Side controversy was the First Great Awakening, the occasion of the Old School/New School s controversy was the Second Great Awakening. If the Old Side/New Side controversy centered on revivalism, the Old School/New School controversy centered on confessionalism.
The Old School Presbyterians had differing appraisals of the First Great Awakening, but they shared a growing unease about the Second Great Awakening with its Arminian theology and its new measures (“the anxious bench” that was the beginning of the Invitation System) in evangelism. The Old School men were appalled by what they saw as the emotional and behavioral excesses of the Second Great Awakening. (It’s one thing to weep under the conviction of sin and another to bark like a dog!)
The New School, in order to defend the theology of the Second Awakening, had to argue for a much broader view of the essentials of the Westminster theology and for a much weaker view of what commitments an officer made to the Standards when he took his vows. The New School strongly favored mission over theology while the Old School held that theology defines and directs mission.
Because of its emphasis mission the New School favored working with para-church societies to accomplish evangelism and missions, while the Old School believed it was the Church herself that was to spread the gospel and build up the Church. A part of the mission-orientation of the New School was its commitment to engage social issues, such as slavery and temperance, and so to move ever closer to Christianizing America, while the Old School held to the “spirituality” of the church’s mission.
The New School had a relatively low view of the Church as an institution and of its authority, while the Old School held to a relatively “high” Presbyterianism. (Of course, the Old Schoolers could differ among themselves on polity. In debate Charles Hodge accused James Henley Thornwell of promoting “a hyper-hyper-Hyper-High Presbyterianism” while Thornwell retorted that Hodge held to “no, no, No Presbyterianism.”)
The majority Old School (roughly equivalent to the Princeton theology in the North and virtually the whole of the South) removed the predominantly New School Synods in 1837. However, the two groups reunited in the South during the War between the States and in the North shortly after the War. In both cases the Old School believed itself firmly in control of the Church, but in time the Old School lost its grip, and, first in the North, then in the South, the New School grew in influence till it came to dominate both Assemblies.
How does this explain the PCA? There are at least three groups within the PCA which share a New Side/New School orientation: the Columbia Seminary founding generation now passing away, the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod (RPCES) influx, and the new leadership consisting primarily of large urban/metropolitan church pastors and denominational executives.
Most of the founders of the PCA had been educated at the most conservative of the PCUS (Southern Presbyterian) seminaries in the 1950s and 1960s. While Columbia could trace her heritage all the way back to Thornwell, the most eloquent voice for Southern Old Schoolism, there was little of Thornwell’s influence remaining (William Childs Robinson being the exception) by the time our founding leaders were educated at Columbia.
The students were considerably more conservative than the faculty at Columbia, but they were never much exposed to the old Confessional orthodoxy of the Southern Church. They believed in the Bible, in “the fundamentals,” in the gospel, and in evangelism and missions. They took their ordination vows with sincerity, but they did not understand their subscription vow to bind them to the whole Westminster Confession.
Many of these brothers (who were energetic and courageous and to whom we owe our gratitude and give our respect) were influenced by movements that were not consistent with the Confession. I think of Finneyism (not just Edwardsian revivalism but semi-Pelagian, Invitation System revivalism), of dispensationalism (in both North and South dispensationalism gained a strong foothold among conservative Presbyterianism becoming sometimes identified as a sign of commitment to the Bible), and of perfectionism (in the sense that one might attain a “higher life” by a crisis experience termed as a “full surrender” or “total consecration” or “being filled by the Spirit”).
In addition, they were suspicious of church institutions and authority (having witnessed and experienced the corruption and abuse) and were ready to cooperate with any evangelicals in order to win the world for Christ with the time remaining. While a few of these had drunk more deeply at Dr. Robbie’s well than Dr. Manford George Gutzke’s, the majority were representative of the conservative evangelicalism (think Billy Graham) which was then emerging as a major influence in American Christianity.
It was not clear at the time of Joining and Receiving (J&R) in 1982 what the impact of the influx of the RPCES would be, but time has proved that it broadened and strengthened the New Side/New School segment of the PCA. The RPCES was the result of the union of the dwindling Reformed Presbyterian Church in North America, General Synod (a “new light” break-off from the older Covenanter denomination), and the larger Evangelical Presbyterian Church (formerly the Bible Presbyterian Church).
It is the dominant Evangelical Presbyterian Church that concerns us in trying to understand the PCA. In 1936 the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) was formed by those, both Old School and New School, who left the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) during the Modernist controversy. However, the unity of this new denomination was not to last for long. In 1937 a group left the OPC and formed the Bible Presbyterian Church. The Bible Presbyterian Church itself split in 1955, with a minority following Carl McIntire. The result was that there were two BPCs: the Columbus Synod (the majority) and the Collingswood Synod (the McIntire group). Eventually, the Columbus Synod renamed itself the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, merged with the New Light Covenanters to form the RPCES in 1964, and was received into the PCA in 1982.
To understand the RPCES and its impact on the PCA we have to ask why the OPC split in 1937. D.G. Hart has demonstrated, in Defending the Faith: J. Gresham Machen and the Crisis of Conservative Protestantism in Modern America, that the “split paralleled almost exactly the division earlier between Old School and New School Presbyterians” (p.165). The need to stand against modernism and unbelief had papered over the differences among conservative Presbyterians, but these were soon revealed.
Machen stood for Old School strict confessionalism. He heartily adopted strong Westminster Confession Calvinism. Though he had led the formation of the Independent Board for Foreign Missions, he was a Presbyterian by conviction and practice and wanted the Board to support only missionaries who accepted Reformed theology and Presbyterian polity (which led to his ouster from the Board even before the split). Machen believed in the spirituality of the Church and in the liberty of the Christian conscience; hence, for instance, he did not endorse Prohibition.
These things proved too much for those who desired a milder confessionalism (tolerant of not only pre-millennialism but of dispensationalism), a minimizing of Presbyterian distinctives and denominational differences, and a Christian life characterized by separation from “worldly practices.” Even though the side of the BPC which became the EPC then the RPCES, was more Reformed and Presbyterian and less combative than the McIntire group, the roots remained New School; and, though there was some indication the RPCES might move toward Princeton Old School positions, this did not materialize. The RPCES that joined the PCA was and is predominantly New Side/New School and has infused another stream of New Side/New Schoolism into the PCA.
What then of the new leadership? It seems to me that the one word, which best catches the outlook and agenda of this group, consisting primarily of large urban/metropolitan church pastors and denominational executives, is “missional.” In the New Side/New School tradition, mission is looked upon as the main thing that can provide for the Church’s definition, unity, and vitality.
One of the primary reasons for the 2002 adoption of the “good faith” subscription amendment (with its introductory material arguing that “good faith” was the position of the founders and the historic practice of the PCA) was to try to put an end to “doctrinal wrangling” so that the church can concentrate on mission. One of the major reasons for “streamlining” General Assembly operations was to keep the church focused on mission. Concern for doctrine, or polity, or procedures must not be allowed to distract from mission.
Mission requires us to rethink what it means to be church and to do church. In my view, all this requires us to sit loose on doctrinal formulations, on polity issues, on how we worship, and on what the nature of the mission of the church is, so that, as we understand more of this “post-everything” culture and figure out how to respond, we can make the necessary adjustments to further the emerging sense of mission. This is decidedly the New Side/New School outlook, dressed in new clothes, but with the substance of the body unchanged.
My argument is that this represents the majority of the PCA. If we take the 2002 Assembly vote on “Good Faith” Subscription as an indicator, 60% of our church holds to the New Side/New School type of Presbyterianism. At the same time a substantial minority in our church holds to Old School Presbyterianism, which is not on the fringes, but at the historic center of Presbyterianism, both North (especially at Princeton) and the South.
This Old School Presbyterianism is at the same time ambivalent about New Side Presbyterianism. Some embrace the revival movement and its emphases. This has been true from the beginning among those whose Calvinism is of the “experimental” sort. Commissioners may recall Dr. Morton H. Smith, an Old School Moderator warning in his moderatorial sermon of the danger of ministers being unconverted, a classic melding of New Side revivalism with Old School confessionalism. More recently concerns about the covenantal and sacramental views of the Federal Vision have pushed some to a more decidedly New Side stance.
Others, who are Old School are also Old Side (the author takes a moderate Old Side/Old School position), wonder if the attempt to combine the New Side with the Old School will not always make the Old School vulnerable to the New School that emerged historically from the New Side. What is clear at present is that the men of both New Side and Old Side convictions are united in their Old School convictions and commitments when it comes to confessionalism.
The PCA today can at least in part be made sense of in this way: She is majority New Side/New School church. But she has within her a strong minority of Old Schoolers of both New and Old Side views. The issues of doctrine, polity, subscription, worship, and mission remain live ones that are sure to stir lively discussion and debate for the foreseeable future. The soul of the church has been and yet is at stake for both the majority and minority.