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Thursday, May 15, 2014

I Don't Have a Dog in This Fight

But That Doesn't Keep Me 
from Having an Opinion

Don Patterson
Frank Barker
Morton Smith










I'm not a Presbyterian anymore. I transferred my ministerial credentials from the Presbyterian Church in America to the Reformed Episcopal Church last November. Some may think that I jumped from one frying pan, if not into the fire, at least into another frying pan. I would not disagree. But I am used to being in the minority. I remain content with my decision. Moreover, thanks to the graciousness of the interim rector and a small REC congregation I am getting opportunities for ministry on Sundays, assisting in the liturgy and sometimes preaching.

Gratuitous Picture of Me
So, in one sense I do not have a dog in the PCA fight. However, there are two factors that lead me to say something anyway: (1) I had a dog in this fight for 40 years (1973 - 2013), and, (2) I seldom am lacking an opinion.

The Aquila Report has recently carried two pieces addressing the state of the PCA. One was A Tale of Two Letters by Bob Mattes which appeared at Green Baggins. The other is Five Reasons It Might Be Time to Leave the PCA, a resolution adopted by the Session of Providence Presbyterian Church where Andy Webb is pastor. (Who are we kidding here? Might?) The concerns of both The Tale and Five Reasons largely overlap.

A Tale of Two Letters contrasts the Address to All the Churches (for what it’s worth, I was a signatory), which was adopted by the first General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America as a declaration regarding the decision to leave the Presbyterian Church U.S. (the Southern Presbyterian Church) and to form the PCA, and an open letter dated January 28, 2014, calling for unity in the PCA and signed by 18 men who were involved in the founding of the denomination. Bob Mattes finds a fundamental contradiction between the two letters.

The Address declared “we are committed without reservation to the Reformed faith as set forth in the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms.” The January 2014 letter endorses good faith subscription as a way members can respect, love, and accept one another’s orthodoxy without becoming too broad or too narrow with regard to holding to the Westminster Standards. It notes that repeatedly the PCA has taken decisions that show that there is a “broad middle” that resists tugs to go too far to the left or to the right.

Here is the reality. The Address cannot be read literally as descriptive of the PCA at its founding. The more recent letter reflects the PCA as it was and is. If one goes only by the words of the Address, then the PCA intended to be a thoroughly Reformed denomination holding strictly to the Westminster Standards. But the words of the Address and the reality of the views and practices of both the majority of the founders and the majority of the original minsters are two different things.

My guess as to how we got the Address: (1) The only real theologian among the founders was Dr. Morton H. Smith, who was fully committed to the Standards and the Southern Presbyterian tradition. The Address was modelled after and drew language from the Address adopted by the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America (later PCUS) to give its rationale for forming a separate church in 1861. (2) The founders of the PCA had been pointing out how the PCUS had departed from its roots and original commitments and calling for a return to the old church’s commitments. This was groundwork for the formation of the new denomination which was now forming. But what to say and how to say it? (3) The necessity to say something to explain the reasons for the PCA, the need for a historic standard to contrast the PCUS with the new denomination, and Dr. Smith’s status as a theologian, theological commitments, and influence in the area of theological foundations led to the proposal that the Assembly adopt the the Address.

But the address did not reflect the real operating (as distinct from formal) theology of the majority of the founders of the PCA. Your operating theology is what you believe that makes a difference in what you preach and how you go about your ministry. The PCA was formed by conservative men most of whom were educated at Columbia Theological Seminary and who were part of the broadly evangelical coalition on the right of the PCUS. That broadly evangelical group had a “mix” of theological views that included such theological influences as dispensationalism, Finneyism, higher life pietism, and Westminster Calvinism. The majority of those who were Reformed and who were part of that coalition were not the fire-eating TR types. Nor were they the Puritan applicatory preaching sort. Rather they were Southern Presbyterian teaching ministers. 

The main things that these men with diverse views and practices agreed on were that the PCUS had gone too far in the direction of theological liberalism, that the Bible is inerrant and infallible, and that people are lost and need a Savior (hence the commitment to evangelism and missions). From the beginning the PCA was mission not theologically driven. It was never a strict subscription denomination. Those who formed the minority on the hard right of the PCA were almost entirely young men who had been educated at Reformed Theological Seminary (those who sat together in one of the wings at old Briarwood and voted together at the first General Assembly). They held to Westminster Calvinism, Southern Presbyterian polity, Puritan experiential piety, and Kuyperian cultural engagement.

If you think the PCA was from the beginning committed to the Reformed faith without reservations, consider: (1) Two of the PCA’s founding organizations were the Presbyterian Evangelistic Fellowship and The Presbyterian Journal, neither of which was representative of the views of those who are unreservedly committed to the Reformed faith and the Westminster Standards. (2) Early decisions of the PCA included: (a) not to have a full Directory for Worship which shows the PCA was not at its founding a regulative principle denomination, and (b) to enter cooperative agreements with non-Reformed and para-church agencies for the purpose of overseas mission work which shows the the PCA did not hold to either strict Reformed theology or to the church as the divinely ordained agency for evangelization. (3) Very soon after the PCA was formed the founders of Reformed Theological Seminary and its ministerial advisers made efforts to reign in their TRs and not to produce such graduates in the future. Bill Hill and others were deeply disturbed that TRs did not give "invitations." The TRs were perceived as "anti-women" by some. (4) I was baptized by a dispensationalist PCUS minister. I grew up under (a) a Westminster Seminary educated minister who loved Machen and Murray but never liked PCA TRs and (b) a Columbia Seminary educated evangelistic pietist who came to like some TRs  - sorta. They were followed by (a) a Lloyd-Jones wannabe who didn't like TRs, (b) a foreign politician who didn't like TRs, and (c) a one time TR who became a sonship minister. This church was the home of the Pensacola Theological Institute and influential in the formation of the PCA. (4) Consider some of the most influential of the founders of the PCA: Don Patterson, Jack Williamson, Frank Barker, Bill Hill, Bob Cannada, Kennedy Smart, Jim Baird. These were one and all good and courageous men whose zeal for God and the Gospel are unquestioned. But it is absurd to believe they intended the PCA to be literally what is called for in the Address.

This brings us to the resolution adopted by
Andy Webb
the Providence Presbyterian Church Session which gives five reasons it may be time to leave the PCA: (1) A Failure to Exercise Discipline, (2) Anarchy in Worship, (3) A Failure to Safeguard the Sacraments, (4) A Failure to to Maintain the Teaching of Scripture Regarding Six-Day Creation, and (5) A Failure to Stand Against Moral Compromise. 


A Tale of Two Letters and Five Reasons, as would be expected, share many of the same specific concerns. A Tale lists: “So, since our 1973 founding, the PCA has ‘progressed’ from ‘committed without reservation’ to our Standards, to a ‘good faith subscription’ approach that has opened the PCA’s door to paedocommunion, intinction, female pseudo-officers, Federal Vision, theistic evolution (e.g., Biologos), et al, all of which depart from the Scriptures and the Standards.” To these Five Reasons adds the diversity of worship practices, disregard for the Sabbath, the failure to convict FVers Peter Leithart and Jeff Meyers, the failure to address the views on
Tim Keller
creation apparently held by Tim Keller, and the compliance of RUM with the Vanderbilt requirement that leadership in student organizations must be open to all regardless of religious beliefs or sexual orientation.


Specific issues have changed. Some things which were issues 40+ years ago have receded while new ones have risen. But the fundamental reality of the PCA remains. It never was, is not, and very likely never will be a denomination that holds to the Reformed faith without reservation and strictly subscribes to the Westminster Standards.

The questions for those who look to the past that never was and those who wonder if the time to leave has come are, Where are you going to go? Which of the options is really acceptable? Which would allow you to live in peace and not have to fight? How tightly can the wagons be circled? How long till the conviction, "Everybody's crazy save me and thee" must be qualified to "But sometimes I'm not so sure about thee"?

No answers here. But one caution: Some dogs bite.

O Gracious Father, we humbly beseech thee for thy Holy Catholic Church; that thou wouldest be pleased to fill it with all truth, in all peace. Where it is corrupt, purify it; where it is in error, direct it; where in anything it is amiss, reform it. Where it is right, establish it; where it is in want, provide for it; where it is divided, reunite it; for the sake of him who died and rose again, and ever liveth to make intercession for us, Jesus Christ, thy Son, our Lord. Amen. Book of Common Prayer




13 comments:

Ray Call said...

Interesting article, thanks for your input on the issue. Would you be able to explain for me how Southern Presbyterian polity is distinctive? How would it differ from say the OPC (Northern) or perhaps the ARP (historically Scottish)?

What was it about the TR's that people didn't like early on?

Thanks!

Ray Call said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Emily said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
D.J. Cimino said...

My pastor recently explained it to me... Has to do with the TE and how much "authority" he welds on the Session (if I'm not mistaken). Hopefully The Curmudgeon can clarify.

The Christian Curmudgeon said...

The polity of the PCA is derived from Thornwell and Southern Presbyterianism while the polity of the OPC is derived from the Northern Presbyterian Church. Historically two of the major differences are: (1) Two not thrre offices, the eldership having within itself two classe - the RE and TE. (2) The parity (equality) of REs and TEs. Originally this was a question of whether or not REs could lay hands on TEs in ordination. The Southern answer was "yes" as they hold the same office. In the PCA this has evolved from equality in office to an ideal of equality in numbers. (3) The work of the church being carried out by Committees (which consider and propose) rather than Boards (which consider and act). In the PCA, when it comes to permanent committees of the GA this has become mostly "non-operative" - there as principle, but not there as practice.

The Christian Curmudgeon said...

Issues about the TRs had to do mostly with our youth, lack of wisdom, and boldness. The underlying matter, however, was that the TRs had learned and come to believe historic Reformed theology, naively thought everyone would see and believe the same, and tried to teach and practice their views. It was shock to the churches, REs, and TEs who had been educated at Columbia and were part of the broad evangelical consensus - which had within it Armininianism, dispensationalism, and not a little Finneyism. There were clashes in church courts where the TRs were seen as both reactionary and radical. The view of the older and more seasoned men was that the TRS needed to sit down and shut up and follow the older leaders.

Curt Day said...

There are things worth honoring about the Reformed traditions and faith, but it is a serious mistake to require too strict an adherence to standards like the Westminster standards. The reason for saying that is because when we do hold standards too high, they take on a kind of Scriptural authority. In addition, we fail to appreciate that people like the Westminster divines were just as prone to cultural compromises and other errors as we are. Whereas elevating our own culture above others is a form of idolatry, specifically narcissism, so elevating designated cultures from the past is also a form of idolatry.

Finally, it seems that Conservative Christians act as the mathematical reciprocal of rabbits. Whereas rabbits know how to multiply, we know how to divide. Before we get too selective, we should ask if we are contributing to the division of Christ's body or its union.

Stephen Welch said...

Thank you for your article, Bill. I appreciate the points you make. Most people in the PCA do not understand its history. The PCA was never founded to be a distinctly Reformed denomination, but only a reaction to the liberalism of the old PCUS. This is the reason why there is such divergent views within our ranks. I am glad to see someone finally point out the history of the PCA as you have done. Nelson Belle, who was active in the formation of the PCA, was conservative but not Reformed. This may explain why the some of the early Fathers did not hold to a regulative principle of Worship. Thanks for your insight. May the Lord bless you in your new ministry. I have always appreciated the REC and its committement to the 39 Articles (although I do have some issues with the REC), so I trust that this will be a wonderful place of ministry for you.

Stephen Welch said...

Thank you for your article, Bill. I appreciate the points you make. Most people in the PCA do not understand its history. The PCA was never founded to be a distinctly Reformed denomination, but only a reaction to the liberalism of the old PCUS. This is the reason why there is such divergent views within our ranks. I am glad to see someone finally point out the history of the PCA as you have done. Nelson Belle, who was active in the formation of the PCA, was conservative but not Reformed. This may explain why the some of the early Fathers did not hold to a regulative principle of Worship. Thanks for your insight. May the Lord bless you in your new ministry. I have always appreciated the REC and its committement to the 39 Articles (although I do have some issues with the REC), so I trust that this will be a wonderful place of ministry for you.

Rod Culbertson said...

Bill: This is right on target and should be read by more of the younger generation of PCA pastors. I think the denomination has become more Reformed over the years but not too Reformed (which I think is good). Of course, I don't like the heresy creeping in. As you know, when we were with RUF/RUM in the early years, most of us were accused of being TR just because we believed the Westminster Confession of Faith as campus ministers. Further proof that the PCA wasn't all that Reformed in the early days: 1) Probably 60%+ of the ministers in the PCA at that time didn't want to support RUF initially because "we were TR!" 2) I raised funds in Florida from churches in which one pastor had been United Methodist (with present sympathies for the UMC at that time and I'll tell you, I loved the guy!) as well as one who was explicitly Dispensational and one who was still a Baptist (he would do infant baptisms when necessary). 3) I got involved early in denominational General Assembly committees (MTW especially) and discovered quickly that although I wasn't a TR (I'm pretty sure I wasn't), I was seen as one by some of the men who started the PCA. Soon, I realized "the PCA isn't what I thought it was." Eventually, however, I discovered that I liked the breath of the PCA even though I wasn't comfortable with the far right or the far left (I leaned to the right). Now that I've explained my position, my friends will see this post and I might have to join that Reformed Episcopal thingy you joined. Got any room....?

Hawkeye said...

I read yours on Aquila, exactly what the PCA needs to hear right now, before a hot GA. I was on MTW GA Committee for many years and deeply appreciate PaulKooistra and Living in Grace, apparently not popular elsewhere. Clair Davis

The Christian Curmudgeon said...

Thanks for the kind words, Stepehen, Rod, and Claire. Claire, we were no MTW together for several years. I remember when we gather around you and prayed for you.

The Christian Curmudgeon said...

Clair, please forgive my trying to turn you into a girl. Sorry to have written "Claire" 2x. Bill