Oscar, G.I., Sean
Because I have been trying to figure out who I am for 66+ years, I took four of those tests that show up on Facebook and promise to help determine your identity by finding out which character you would be on various television shows. For Seinfeld, I turned out to be Jerry. That has to be wrong, because, though I may be that cynical, I am not that cool. For Downton Abbey, I was Matthew Crawley. I really wanted to be Carson, so that one really threw me until I figured out that the commonality is our devilish good looks. For Big Bang Theory, I was Bernadette, which at first distressed me till I remembered I would not want to be any of the guys.
However, I really found myself when I took the Sesame Street quiz. Now, while I do like cookies and while I don’t find it easy being me, I felt fully at ease with my identity as Oscar the Grouch. That garnered a number of “likes” and several concurring comments, so I am confident that I am Oscar.
In the spirit of Oscar, I’ll grouch a little.
G.I. Test. On Sunday, February 16, The Aquila Report carried a piece by G.I. Williamson in which he agrees with those who believe there is a need for a new Reformation (speaking especially to the Presbyterian and Reformed churches), particularly as a revolt of regular folks against the “experts.” The thing that most exercises Dr. Williamson is the matter of the age of the earth and the days of creation, specifically the creation of the earth in 6 “calendar days” about 6,000 years ago.
Dr. Williamson says:
It is time, as I see it, for the non-expert people of God to rise up against this kind of abuse. In the better days of our history this abuse would not have been tolerated. Teachings that contradicted the official creed of the church would have resulted in immediate deposition. Everybody had the right in those better times (and rightly had the right) to prove the creeds to be wrong if they were able to do so. But until that happened they were not allowed to teach this, that and the other thing (like day-age, framework and analogical views of creation). What many today consider a wonderful thing (tolerating these contradictory views of creation) our fathers would have considered a deadly evil. We know this because churches then required faithful adherence “to all the articles and points of doctrine” set forth in the Confessions and Catechisms. That is why they required all office-bearers in the church to promise that they would remain within confessional boundaries “without either directly or indirectly contradicting the same, by…public teaching or writing” (not even through anything like an internet blog)!
We have two questions: (1) When were these better times when those who held views about creation different from Dr. Williamson’s would have been immediately (!) deposed? Would this have been the case in either the northern or southern branches of Presbyterianism from the mid-nineteenth century up until the formation of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church or the other separatist groups? Was it ever the case in the OPC? The RPCES? The PCA? (2) Who were these fathers who held to a young earth and six 24-hour days? The Hodges? Warfield? Machen? Buswell? Harris? It is fine for Dr. Williamson to hold his view (of course!) and to work to have his view made the required view of the churches. But, Dr. Williamson is wrong to think that his view was once held by conservative Presbyterians as the only allowable one.
Toward the end of his essay Dr. Williamson points out that the “expert” James Barr took issue with J.I. Packer’s defense of Biblical inerrancy. This is both striking and ironic in that, as B.B. Warfield was the greatest defender of inerrancy in his day yet did not hold to Dr. Williamson’s views on creation, so Dr. Packer, its greatest popular apologist of our day, counsels tolerance with regard to to the issues about which Dr. Williamson calls for a policy of zero tolerance.
Sean the Prophet? Last week Dr. Sean Lucas of First Presbyterian Church in Hattiesburg, MS, and Reformed Theological Seminary called attention to the Spring 2009 issue of the Nicotine Theological Journal and three authors who wrote on the theme Whither the PCA. As he observed he, like Jerry Lee Lewis, is the last man standing (in the PCA), the other two having swum rivers. Jason Stellman swam the Tiber to the great consternation of professors and friends and I swam the Thames (sort of) to no one’s great interest save Frank Smith’s . Ironically Jason is now just Mr. Stellman while I am Father Bill!
The Stellman thesis was that within the PCA there is a tension between “tranformationists and confessionalists” that makes for rocky marriage with a questionable future. My thesis was that the PCA is a majority New Side/New School denomination with a minority that is New Side/Old School and a tiny minority that is Old Side/Old School with the soul of the church at stake for all.
Dr. Lucas’ thesis was that the PCA is a continuation of mainline Presbyterianism (hence a mainline church) that hoped to see itself as a catalyst for denominational realignment. He also suggests that that, if statistical trends hold (and this assumes the PCUSA does not fall apart and congregations scurry to the EPC), the PCA will be the largest Presbyterian denomination in North America by 2025. (As our final salvation is now 5 years closer, so is that year of PCA hegemony.)
I do not disagree with Dr. Lucas’ view of how the PCA saw itself or what it hoped for itself at its inception. I do have two comments:
(1) Having recently completed Allen Guelzo’s history of the Reformed Episcopal Church, I am struck by how similar the PCA and the REC were in their beginnings. The REC saw itself (or at least Bishop Cummins did) as the continuation of Reformation era mainline Anglicanism and had high hopes that it would prove the catalyst for an historic realignment not just of American Episcopalianism but of American evangelicalism. I think if fair to say that, however we judge the claims of both to “mainlinism”, neither realized its hopes of realignment.
(2) I think the prediction that the PCA will be the largest Presbyterian denomination on the North American Continent by 2025 is likely not to come to pass whether or not the PCUSA disintegrates. While the PCA remains the largest by far of the separatist Presbyterian denominations, it would be wise to take Satchel Paige’s advice, “Don’t look back. Something may be gaining on you.” The PCA is very unlikely to pick up more than a few, if that many, of the congregations looking for refuge from the PCUSA. The Evangelical Presbyterian Church and the new Evangelical Covenant Order (ECO) of Presbyterians will. ECO could have the “big mo” because it may soon gain two of the largest Presbyterian churches in Texas, Highland Park in Dallas and First in Houston.
What gives the EPC and ECO the advantage? To put it in two words - confession and women. Neither wants the PCA relationship the the Westminster Standards. The EPC wants “unity in the essentials, liberty in the non-essentials, and charity in all.” ECO wants considerably less, to be “Reformed” only in the broadest and loosest of ways. Both have women’s ordination (ECO promotes it; EPC allows it) as ruling elders and ministers. The PCA has a closer and stricter view of the Standards and does not allow women’s ordination to any of its 2, 2 ½, or 3 offices. This means it has got to do two things: (a) hold onto the congregations it has now, some of which favor a broader view of doctrinal standards and of the role of women and (b) grow its present congregations and plant a great many more congregations where the Standards and subscription are taken seriously and and the offices of teaching, leading, and serving are confined to men.
I no longer belong the the PCA and am happy to be an Anglican. But, as a former PCA minister and now a presbyter in a denomination that does not ordain women to the preaching and sacramental office, my heart is with but my money is not on the PCA.
Call me Oscar, but I think if you had a better grip on reality you’d climb into the can with me.