Friday, March 2, 2012

Warfield, Machen, and the PCA: In or Out?

Where Is the Mixed Multitude Headed?

B. B. Warfield

J. Gresham Machen

There is no doubt the PCA is a mixed multitude. What is unclear is whether we have left Egypt, or are bound for the Promised Land, or are wandering around in the wilderness.

Yesterday I wrote in a humorous vein about a presbytery exam in which a transfer candidate was asked his view of the use of alcohol and tobacco and replied he favored both. I noted that he said that and no more, and that no one asked a follow up question. Of course, everyone knew the brother did not practice or teach immoderation. And, as I suggested, it does represent perhaps progress or at least change with regard to acceptable views and practice having to do with the “noble weed” (Thornwell) and the “mercies” (Murray).

But on the same day, all who were examined declared belief in 6 24 hour days of creation, rejection of John Frame’s view of the regulative principle, exclusion of women from any role in the leading of public worship, cessation of extraordinary gifts, the Westminster Sabbath doctrine, and acceptance of everything in the Confession and Catechisms without exception or statement of clarification.

One could take this as an altogether healthy state of affairs. It not only could be said but is said that in the presbytery to which I refer Christian liberty is not a live issue, for it is settled that one may use tobacco or alcohol and not be excluded from membership. It also could be taken to mean that all the other issues are dead, too, in that it appears that the doctrine and practice of nearly everyone received falls within some pretty conservative parameters. Such differences as may be acceptable are constrained by the presbytery’s direction that, while one may admit to holding such differences, one may not teach them or commend them.

Some observations and comments:

(1)   I am tempted, when men to say they have not a single thing to say by way of scruple with regard to acceptance of the doctrinal standards, to ask, as one brother did in another presbytery, “Have you read them?” I have a high view of the Standards. I voted against good faith subscription because I thought it potentially too lax (as I think it has proved be in some places). Yet it is hard for me to believe that, with a Confession and Catechisms of as many words as ours contain, a person has not one single thing to say by way of exception, scruple, clarification, or question when one accepts the system of doctrine contained therein. While I have usually given three clarificatory statements in exams I have undergone, I was a member of a presbytery where John Gerstner entered with a long list as did later one of his students.

(2)   While I question no one’s good faith declarations before the presbytery, I wonder what would be revealed with regard to the practice of the regulative principle, the role of women, and Sabbath observance by visits to the congregations. I wonder what would be revealed if anonymous interviews were conducted seeking among our ministers  their “operating theology” that forms the content of preaching, the conduct of ministry, and the culture of congregational life.

(3)   I am genuinely perplexed, and, depending on my mood, amused or angered, when I think about what would happen if some of our most stalwart fathers were to be examined. Who in the whole history of the church has done more to defend Biblical authority and inerrancy than B.B. Warfield? Who did more in the last century to stand up for Presbyterian orthodoxy than J. Gresham Machen? But could they be received? Would any of their writings be denounced? What restrictions would be imposed on them? Would there be suspicions of their undermining of Biblical authority?

(4)   My own experience may be illustrative. I have been a member of my present presbytery three times, and of seven other presbyteries (two memberships are the result of presbyteries being divided by the GA). And, until my most recent presbytery exam I was never found to hold an exception and never bound with regard to my teaching. It took about 35 years to attain that finding about views and imposition regarding teaching. What does this say about me? the PCA? the presbyteries?

(5)   I am pretty well convinced that some out there will find I am describing a world which they can hardly imagine existing. And, I am likewise fairly confident that some of my friends and brothers today would experience ecclesiastical culture shock were they to labor in some of the presbyteries where I have held membership, to say nothing of, say, Metro New York. Can we live with these disconnects indefinitely?

As a TR who was there when the term was invented, and as one who has been so described both admiringly and disparagingly, I believe our bigger issues in the PCA are on the left. But perhaps we have some on the right as well. Confident that Warfield and Machen are among the Church Triumphant, I’d like to know that two of my heroes could be in my branch of the Church Militant were they seeking membership today. I can’t think of many who would be worthy to unlatch their theological sandals today.


Anonymous said...

Wow! I wish I could see Gerstner's list.

The Christian Curmudgeon said...

If I had a worship team I would like for it to be lead by B.B. King one Sunday, Willie Nelson another, Alison Kraus another, and Frank Sinatra another. Fifth Sundays I would take myself.

Wayne Sparkman said...

Would love to have you review and comment on my blog post about the term "TR":

Any corrections would be particularly appreciated.

The Christian Curmudgeon said...

Thanks, Wayne. There is another document you might want to try to find, if you do not have it. It is a paper presented at RTS to a gathering of alumni by Guy Oliver. It's title is "TR: the Anatomy of a Slogan." I had a copy, but I gave away my books and most of my papers. I did not intend to get rid of that, but I have not been able to locate it.


Wayne Sparkman said...

Gave away your papers?

You strike me to the heart, sir!

I'll be on the lookout for that paper.