Monday, May 18, 2015

The PCA: Not My Circus, Not My Monkeys

But I Bought a Ticket

I was baptized, admitted to the Lord's Table, and in 1972 ordained a Presbyterian. In 1973 I cast my lot with the PCA. I am sure I am one of the only ministers, if not the only minister, to have his name on the rolls of two different Presbyteries as a charter member (Gulf Coast and Mississippi Valley). My signature is on the "Address to All the Churches." I was the second RUF Campus Minster, served as minister in four different states, and was a moderator of four Presbyteries. I served on the Creation Study Committee and the Mission to the World Committee. For 40 years the PCA was my circus, and I was one of the monkeys. So, though I am now a Presbyter of the Reformed Episcopal Church, I think I bought a ticket to the circus and the right as a long time monkey to comment once in awhile on the performance of the monkeys in my old circus.  

Recently Dr. Bryan Chapell published The State of the PCA. He posited that there are three groups in the PCA - the Progressives, who hold a slim majority, the Traditionalists, and the Neutrals (who usually vote with the progressives but are sometimes scared into voting with the traditionalists). Dr. Chapell wrote from the perspective of a Progressive. He was soon answered by a Traditionalist, Mr. Rick Phillips. Dr. Benjamin Shaw responded to both.

I was somewhat surprised that Dr. Chapell chose the label progressive" for the progressives in the PCA. The term "progressive" is used by political conservatives as a label for liberals and as a preferred term by liberals who perceive it as having fewer negative connotations than "liberal." (Perhaps peculiarly in Mississippi, very conservative Republicans are fond of labelling conservative Republicans as "progressives" - truly an Alice in Wonderland perspective). It is probably because I am old and conservative, but I have a negative response to the word "progressive." If I were in Dr. Chapell's progressive wing of the PCA,  I would try to stake a claim on being something other than "progressive." 

But perhaps the day has arrived in the PCA when progressives need not worry about any negative connotations of the term "progressive." However, it might still be proper to ask, "Towards what are the progressives asking their church to progress? If we follow the path of progress or get swept along by its tide, what will be left behind and where will we end up?"  (Or, for real traditionalists, "where up will we end?") 

Dr. Chapell places the label "Traditionalists" on those who are "highly committed to Confessional fidelity and are often worried about perceived doctrinal drift." Is there a more pejorative term in America, where you buy your laundry detergent because it is "new and improved," than the term "traditional"? Not even conservatives want to be traditionalists unless they are appealing to "traditional values" (as in "family" or , peculiarly in Mississippi, "traditional Mississippi values" - wink, wink, hint, hint, get it?). Americans fought a great War for Independence so we wouldn't have to be traditional like those stuffy old British.  The last thing a true American wants to be is a stick-in-the-mud old fuddy-duddy traditionalist.

In the churches it's the old and soon to pass from the scene folks who attend the "traditional" service, which may not be traditional at all but a service in which gospel hymns are sung with a song leader rather than praise and worship songs with a praise team. The cool kids flock to the contemporary service, where they will not be turned off by robes, minsters leading worship, and too much Scripture and prayer -  until that comes to feel like it is traditional in which case they may join Rachel Held Evans who likes her doctrine and morals progressive but her liturgy sort of traditional in The Episcopal Church.

That Dr. Chapell strikes a nerve with the label "traditionalists" is evident with Mr. Phillips' response: "We are not traditionalists and never identify ourselves this way." He does qualify his denial with,"Unless, by tradition, you mean the faith of our fathers and the great confessional and ministerial heritage of the Reformed churches."  Then he returns to his protest: "But I travel pretty widely in confessional circles and never hear anything about 'tradition.' This seems to be a way to marginalize us as having a regressive attitude. In fact, we are zealous activists..." Does the traditionalist protest too much?

Mr. Phillips takes Dr. Chapell's labelling of himself and his fellow "confessionalists" as "traditionalists" as inaccurate, unfair, and negative. He is a son of the Reformation, and one of the things protested by Protestants is the traditions of Rome which Trent elevated to a second and authoritative source of doctrine and practice standing beside the Holy Scriptures. 

It is true that Jesus and Paul said  some very negative things about the traditions of men which undermine or contradict the Word of God. But tradition itself is not a negative concept. Tradition is what we received that was handed down to us by others and what in turn we deliver to others who follow. "For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you..." (1 Corinthians 11: 23). Paul writes positively of tradition:

Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you (1 Corinthians 11:2).
So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter (2 Thessalonians 2:15).

Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us (2 Thessalonians 3:6).

Traditions are necessary to the preservation of institutions - even in America where the novel and the new are so highly valued. "Without traditions our lives would be as shaky as a fiddler on the roof." Military institutions would lose their identities, morale, and discipline without their conserved traditions, examples of which are their uniforms and ceremonies. How often do you hear a family say, "Let's stop being traditionalists and have a progressive Christmas this year"? Try reading John Grisham's Skipping Christmas to see how that works. Watch "A Christmas Story" or "Christmas Vacation" to see how important those traditions are even when they are accompanied by irritation and frustration and hindered by circumstances beyond famlies' control.

Frankly, "traditionalist" is something I'm happy to be called.  I might be so traditional as to be an iconoclast. Traditional grammar. Traditional punctuation. Traditional dress. Traditional conservatism. Traditional weddings. Traditional women. Traditional manners. Traditional kids. Traditional food. 

Traditional sports.Whatever game is played in the NBA isn't basketball. Baseball pants should end just below the knee and be worn with stockings. I could be happy if they brought back one platoon football and faceguard grabbing coaches. There should be no soccer played south of Canada or north of Mexico. But I digress... 

Tradition has an acknowledged role among us Anglicans. It is not, as some say, one leg of a three legged stool, the other two of which are Scripture and Reason. Richard Hooker put the relationship this way: “What Scripture doth plainly deliver, to that the first place both of credit and obedience are due; the next whereunto, is what any man can necessarily conclude by force of Reason; after this, the voice of the church succeedeth.” 

The Articles teach that Holy Scripture is primary and supreme:
Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation (VI). is not lawful for the Church to ordain any thing that is contrary to God's Word written... as it ought not to decree any thing against the same, so besides the same ought it not to enforce any thing to be believed for necessity of Salvation (XX).
General Councils.... may err, and sometimes have erred, even in things pertaining unto God. Wherefore things ordained by them as necessary to salvation have neither strength nor authority, unless it may be declared that they be taken out of holy Scripture (XXI).
Tradition is secondary and subordinate: 
The Church hath power to decree Rites or Ceremonies...(XX).
It is not necessary that Traditions and Ceremonies be in all places one, and utterly like; for at all times they have been divers, and may be changed according to the diversities of countries, times, and men's manners, so that nothing be ordained against God's Word (XXIV).

In addition we traditional Anglicans are proud about being "traditionalists." On my parish's websitejust under the church name on the homepage, is this phrase: "Traditional Anglican Faith and Worship." On the church sign are the words: "Traditional Prayer Book." We hold to the traditional catholic faith of the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds and the traditional reformed faith of The (39) Articles of Religion.  Our worship is not charismatic, revivalistic, regulative principle, or Roman, but traditional Prayer Book worship based on the 1662 BCP.

What has this to do with the PCA? Well, I think Traditionalist Presbyterians ought to be happy to be called traditionalists. Traditional Presbyterian doctrine (Warfield and Machen) . Traditional Presbyterian polity (2 1/2 offices, deliberative assemblies) . Traditional Presbyterian worship (bound by a Directory for Worship). But, that would be the OPC, wouldn't it?

The problem with being traditional in the PCA is that, while there are lots of inviolable traditions (check our for instance the Rules for Assembly Operation), there is no substantive historically-rooted theological, ecclesial, and liturgical tradition. Yesterday's revivalists have become today's much more sophisticated progressives. Columbia has become Covenant.  Machen has become Chapell. Warfield has become Frame. "Holy, Holy, Holy" has become "Shine, Jesus Shine." Schaeffer has become Keller. Black robes have become black polos. Assemblies have become conventions.

Yesterday's traditionalists are pretty much yesterday. They might as well say, "Goodnight, Gracie."

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