Monday, May 21, 2018

The PCA and Confessional Integrity

In 2002, the PCA adopted what is usually called “good-faith subscription” to the denomination’s doctrinal standards—the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) and the Larger (WLC) and Shorter Catechisms (WSC). This required changes in the Book of Church Order (BCO) and thus in the practices of presbyteries when examining a candidate for ordination. The amended section of the BCO now reads as follows: The presbytery “shall require the candidate to state the specific instances in which he may differ with the Confession of Faith and Catechisms in any of their statements and/or propositions.  The court may grant an exception to any difference of doctrine only if in the court’s judgment the candidate’s declared difference is not out of accord with any fundamental of our system of doctrine because the difference is neither hostile to the system nor strikes at the vitals of religion.” (BCO 21-4.f). If such an exception is granted, it is to be noted in the minutes of the presbytery using language prescribed by the Rules of Assembly Operations (RAO) as follows: “Each presbytery shall also record whether:  a) the candidate stated that he had no differences; or  b) the court judged the stated difference(s) to be merely semantic; or  c) the court judged the stated difference(s) to be more than semantic, but “not out of accord with any fundamental of our system of doctrine” (BCO 21-4); or  d) the court judged the stated difference(s) to be “out of accord,” that is, “hostile to the system” or “strik[ing] at the vitals of religion” (BCO 21-4).” (RAO 16.3.e.5).

Since that time, it has become common for candidates to express differences from the standards in three areas: creation, Sabbath observance, and visible representations of Christ. These stated differences have become so common that it seems it is almost expected for candidates to express those differences. (Whether candidates have actually studied the issues involved or have consulted any works defending the confessional statements is another matter.) Those differences are also commonly allowed as exceptions by presbyteries under category (c) above: The difference is “more than semantic, but not out of accord with any fundamental of our system of doctrine.”

As stated, the matter sounds innocuous. But the denomination has reached the point where a sizeable minority (at least) of the denomination’s ministers believe the confessional standards of the church to be wrong in at least three specific areas. Put another way, these men believe that the confessional standards of the church misrepresent the teaching of the Bible in these areas.

The Westminster standards are not inerrant. The version of the standards used in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and in the Presbyterian Church in America differs significantly from the original formulation regarding the relationship of church and state. Those changes were introduced in the late eighteenth century when the Presbyterian Church in the USA was first formed. There are provisions in the BCO for emending the confessional standards. Yet there has been no move on the part of the minority to propose changes to the standards. Perhaps they believe that the approval of the presbytery for their exceptions is sufficient. But over time, as more and more men take these exceptions, and have them approved, there is a de facto change of the confessional standards. When these kinds of de facto changes take place, there is a muddying of the doctrinal waters.

Now it is likely the case that at the time the PCA was formed (1973), and again when the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod joined the PCA (1982), there were men who held these same differences. The matter of confessional change was not brought up at either of those times, though it probably should have been. But another generation or so has passed and there has still been no action. Perhaps, for the sake of our confessional integrity, it is time to begin.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Burning the Bones of the Dead

John Wycliffe was a fourteenth century reformer who is largely credited with one of the first translations of the Bible into English. This activity, and many of the theological views he espoused, were contrary to the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. His influence, however, was so widespread that forty-three years after his death, his bones were dug up by church authorities, burned, and the ashes scattered in the river Swift. In his day, that made sense. Heretics were burned at the stake. Wycliffe’s death prevented that. A space of forty-three years between his death and his burning does seem excessive. Luther, born almost exactly a century after Wycliffe’s death, shared many of Wycliffe’s theological views. One supposes that if the Roman Catholic Church had been able to get hold of Luther, he would have met the same end as Wycliffe’s bones.

The church in the West no longer burns heretics. In fact, given the plethora of Protestant denominations, the disagreements among various Catholic orders, and the vast numbers of non-Protestant, non-Catholic sects, and non-denominations, it seems impossible any longer even to identify a heretic, let alone burn one. Yet we have, perhaps, a more effective way of dealing with those whose views do not fit the spirit of the age. If not more effective, it is at least more satisfying to the heresy-hunters of our day. We burn those with theological failings on social media. We denounce them. We denounce their views. We point out, with a fair measure of glee, their shortcomings and their foibles. We hold them up to mockery and ridicule. Like the French Revolution, we lead them to the guillotine and lop off their heads.

But perhaps we ought to rethink our approach. After all, those who began the Reign of Terror in France ended up as its victims. Times had changed. Views had changed. The former revolutionaries were now considered oppressors, rightly to be beheaded. It may well be that, as times and cultural commitments change, those who are now leading the pack in decrying the failures of their forefathers will become the victims of a new social media purge. They, too, may be hanged, drawn-and-quartered, beheaded, burned at the social media stake.

True heresy is rightly opposed. But who defines the heretic? The non-denominations, and most of the non-Protestant, non-Catholic sects have no way of defining heresy, because they have no confessions that define the limits of orthodoxy. It is only those churches that have theological confessions that are able to define heresy. Thus heresy, since it to be opposed, ought rightly to be opposed and condemned, not by individuals with their differing individual standards, but by the church courts, properly called. When the shortcomings of our forefathers are examined in light of our confessions, it may be that their views are properly called heresy, and that heresy is to be condemned. But let it be done decently and in order, not by the rabid pack of social-media hounds who madly tear to shreds that which they often do not even comprehend.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Presbyterians and Order

One of the regular frustrations of teaching is trying to teach students how to do a paper properly. We give them instruction in a class on rhetoric and writing. We tell them to use Turabian for instructions on proper formatting of subheadings, footnotes, and bibliography. We have a seminary style sheet that gives them footnote and bibliography examples for some of the (very few) kinds of things not covered in Turabian. Yet consistently students will write papers in their final year of seminary in which they still will not footnote or do a bibliography in proper form. They seem to make up the format as they go along, because they are often not even consistent with themselves. The reason is that they don’t consult the style sheet or Turabian. They just wing it. From what I’ve heard, this problem is not unique to my school. The sources are available, but unused.

Presbyterian churches are very concerned with order. It is sometimes joked that the “life verse” for Presbyterians is 1 Corinthians 14:40, “Let all things be done decently and in order.” Presbyterian denominations have a book, usually titled something like Book of Church Order. It explains the principles and structures of the church and lays out guidance for how things are to be done. For example, the PCA’s Book of Church Order (BCO) has chapters on how candidates for gospel ministry are to be licensed, how they are to be ordained and installed, how congregational meetings are to be conducted, and how church discipline is to be carried out. There are sixty-three chapters in the book, covering just about anything that might be involved in keeping order in the church. Men coming to be licensed are even tested on their knowledge of the BCO.

However, the testing is not usually taken very seriously. I heard of one examination (perhaps apocryphal) in which the examiner asked the candidate if he had a copy of the BCO. The answer was yes. The examiner then asked if the man knew how to use the index. Again, the answer was yes. At that point the examination was concluded. Clearly, the assumption was that if the man ever met with a situation, he would look it up in the index and read the appropriate chapter(s). Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, many ministers do not do that. There are Facebook pages for PCA ministers, and sometimes questions are asked that cause me to ask myself, “Did this man bother to read the BCO?” It seems from the ensuing discussion that he had not. (I serve on the Committee on the Review of Presbytery Records for the PCA General Assembly. The review of these records also demonstrates every year that things are often done “indecently and out of order.”) The minister simply “goes with his gut” on how to do things. The result is that he often acts in a manner contrary to the BCO.  The issue gets much more complicated than it should have. This is especially damaging in cases involving church discipline.

Students who don’t consult the recommended style guide for writing papers get marked down, and, in some sense, no real damage is done. But when the BCO (or similar guides in other denominations) is ignored, real damage and real hurt can be the result. Perhaps it is time for ministers to take their vows more seriously and realize that keeping the peace and purity of the church requires them to understand not only the Bible, and whatever confession of faith the church uses. They also need to understand and apply the agreed-upon principles and processes for governing the church to maintain both its peace and its purity.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

On Moving Fences

I grew up in what I thought of as a very traditional Presbyterian church. The ministers wore robes. The choir wore robes. There was an organ. There was a split pulpit (lectern on the left of the congregation, pulpit on the right). There were stained-glass pictures of Jesus around the church, especially the large one up behind the choir loft. We had Sunday school and youth fellowship. There was no Sunday evening service. There was no Wednesday evening prayer meeting.

When I got to seminary, I began to discover that my home church was not a very traditional Presbyterian church. Or it was a very recently developed tradition. I did not make that discovery based on the assigned readings in my classes. For the most part, nothing I was assigned to read had been published before 1950. (I was in seminary from 1977-1980, so that would be the equivalent today of being assigned nothing written before 1988.) But, driven by my own curiosity and the encouragement of fellow students, I read well beyond what was assigned. I learned about traditional Presbyterian practices, such as the singing of psalms exclusively without instrumental accompaniment; the eschewing of any visible representations of any of the persons of the Trinity. I learned about the history of Sunday school (initially developed as an evangelistic outreach to unchurched children). I learned about midweek prayer meetings. I learned about, and even attended, a church that had a Sunday evening service (though sparsely attended) as well as the Sunday morning service. I read, and read about, the Reformed confessions of faith (I was never required to read any of them in my seminary classes). I read about the history of Reformed liturgies. I developed a very different idea of what “traditional Presbyterian” meant. Some of the changes to the tradition that had occurred in the four centuries between the mid-fifteenth century and the mid-twentieth century I thought were good and valuable. Others I thought (and still think) unsound and unhelpful, and actually damaging to what being Presbyterian means. But I was able to evaluate those changes because I had made a study of them.

G. K. Chesterton once wrote: “In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.” (The Thing, “The Drift From Domesticity,” 1929)

I once sat in a presbytery meeting and heard a young recent seminary graduate express a scruple about the prohibition of images of Jesus that is found in the Westminster Larger Catechism, answer 109. He said that he didn’t believe it was correct. When asked if he had ever read anything defending the Catechism’s view, he said that he didn’t need to. He further said that he wouldn’t read anything defending it unless the presbytery required him to, because the view expressed by the Catechism was so obviously wrong. The presbytery declined to require him to read anything and granted him an exception on the matter. He struck me as the type of “modern reformer” referred to by Chesterton. He didn’t see the use of the fence and wanted it removed. Perhaps it is uncharitable of me, but it appears to me that many of the debates in the PCA are between the two types of reformers mentioned by Chesterton. Some want to do away with the fences without having any idea why the fences are there. Would that all of us would be the second type of reformer, knowing not only why the fences were put there in the first place, but also why now it makes good sense to move them (or not).

Sunday, April 01, 2018

Knowing Your Ignorance

Some people think I know a lot. Perhaps I do in some comparative sense, but in an absolute sense, I am an ignoramus. I am only too aware of the vast gaps in my knowledge, even in the areas in which I am supposed to be an expert. We are all condemned to ignorance by the mere fact of our finitude. If you read a book a week for eighty years, you would read a little over four thousand books. If you read a book a day for those same eighty years, you would read about 29,000 books. Most people don’t come close to the first number, let alone the second. But even if someone managed to read 29,000 books in their lifetime, it would still be a minute fraction of the number of books in print. According to Wikipedia, about 300,000 books (new books and re-editions) were published in the US (in English) in 2013. If only half of those were new books, there were still over 150,000 new books published in that year alone. It is simply impossible for someone to keep up with the flood of information available to us. Granted, not all of these books are useful or significant, but the number that are useful and significant, even in a limited area such as Old Testament studies, is far beyond the capability of any one person to keep track of, let alone master. These facts, however, should not deter us from seeking to increase our knowledge, particularly in the things of God.

As I read discussions and comments on Facebook, it quickly becomes apparent that most of us pretend to a level of knowledge that we simply don’t have. This pretense stems from pride and arrogance, and a desire to win whatever argument we have entered into, which itself speaks of pride. Ministers in particular seem to be guilty of this, though that may be no more than my observation based on the self-selection of my friends on Facebook. Or perhaps it is due to the fact that ministers are supposed to be knowledgeable about the Bible and theology. But ministers of the gospel are supposed to be concerned about the truth. It is not helpful to the cause of truth when we pontificate out of our ignorance, rather than comment carefully out of our knowledge. This applies to all of life, and not just to the limited sphere of social media.

It is often more helpful for a minister to say, “I don’t know, but if you need me to I will find out.” This admission accomplishes three things. First, it rebukes us for our pride. Second, it strengthens our humility. Third, it drives us to a more diligent study of those things that we, as ministers of the gospel, ought to know. These are all good things in themselves. Further, it serves to encourage those in our churches to remember that their ministers are not infallible, and to pray for us in the burden that we bear to hold forth the truth in righteousness.

May we resolve to be more humble about our knowledge, to be more self-aware regarding our ignorance, and to strive for a more thorough knowledge of the truths of which God has made us stewards.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Preparing Young Men for the Ministry

Someone in a Facebook group posted last week that their pastor had his eighteen-year-old son preach for the congregation, and they asked whether that was right or not. It provoked quite a bit of discussion. I realize that some ecclesiastical traditions try to get young men into the pulpit as soon as possible, arguing that they need experience in the pulpit if they are going to be effective preachers. I think it’s a bad idea, for several reasons.

First, young men put in positions of authority tend to become living, breathing examples of “knowledge puffs up.” Second, unless a man has some physical limitation, almost anyone can be taught to speak effectively in public. Certainly, preachers need practice, but I’m not sure it helps the congregation to put teenagers in the pulpit. Practice can be provided in other ways and in other contexts. Third, I’m sure that most young men do not meet the qualifications for elder set out in 1 Timothy and Titus.

What do I look for in a young man who thinks that he might be called to the ministry? First, the qualifications set out in the Pastoral Epistles. But in addition to those, I think four other qualifications are necessary. First, does the young man have a servant’s heart? I read often about teenagers doing community service to pad their applications for college. But, does this young man look for opportunities to serve? Does he serve when no one is watching? Does he work as hard at service when he is not being watched as when he is? The work of the pastor is a work of service. Someone without a servant’s heart may preach well, but he will never be a pastor.

Second, is he teachable? It is unfortunately the case that many young men, especially in Reformed circles, go through “cage-stage” Calvinism, in which they think themselves to be the one appointed to cure all the ills of the church. But young men need to learn. They need to learn that a good grasp of the Five Points is not enough. They need to learn that others, particularly older folks, often know more than the young man does, due to life experience and faithful participation in the life of the church. Is the young man willing to be corrected? It he receptive to the sometime painful rebuke?

Third, is he faithful? I have occasionally heard younger people referred t as “possibility junkies.” That is, they won’t commit to anything because something better might come along. Or, having committed to something, will renege on it because something better has come along. So, is this young man faithful, making commitments and staying with them even if “something better” comes along? Is he a regular and faithful participant in the life of the church? Is he in attendance week in and week out, or is he frequently absent?

Fourth, is he patient? Often, young men are in a hurry to get into the pulpit. He has a real zeal for Christ. He has a true desire to proclaim the gospel. This combination of zeal and desire tends to produce an urgency on his part to enter the work of the ministry. But God is rarely in a hurry. In fact, God often puts a man in the wilderness for a while before he puts him in the ministry. Is this young man ready to wait for God’s timing?

God does occasionally call young men into early and evident pulpit ministry. Jonathan Edwards and Charles Spurgeon are often cited as examples. But these men are the exception, not the rule. Is a young man willing to be part of the rule, rather than the exception? Then, if he is also a teachable, patient, faithful servant, maybe he is ready to begin training for the ministry.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Basic Readings in Church History: Suggestions for the Beginner

Many Christians are poorly versed in Bible content and in theology, and last week I gave some suggestions for changing that. But compared with their knowledge of church history, those same Christians are virtual scholars in Bible and theology. For many, it seems that the history of Christianity began with their birth, or perhaps their rebirth. There is little to no sense of where they currently live in relation to the broader scope of the entire history of the church. Yet there is a vast library of accessible books that can correct that problem. For the person looking to begin an exploration of church history, I would recommend the following books.

First is S. M. Houghton’s Sketches from Church History. This is not a continuous history, but rather, as the title suggests, glimpses into episodes and persons from the past. About a quarter of the book is devoted to the first 1,400 years of church history, with the remainder focusing on the Reformation and, after the Reformation, focusing on the Protestant Church, especially in the West. While the selection of material doesn’t give the reader much on the Eastern Church or on the development of Roman Catholicism after the Reformation, it is a good introduction for a modern American evangelical. It has plenty of illustrations, which is also helpful.

Second would be Bruce Shelley’s Church History in Plain Language. This book is now in its fourth edition. It is also light on the Eastern church but gives more information on Roman Catholic developments in the post-Reformation period. It is divided into forty-eight chapters, most of them in the ten to fifteen-page range. Thus, over the course of about a month and a half, at the rate of one chapter a day, the reader can get a decent introduction to the history of the church.

A third recommendation is Church History: The Basics from Concordia Publishing House. I am less familiar with this work, but it appears to be a good alternative to Shelley. It is an abbreviated form of the book The Church from Age to Age: A History from Galilee to Global Christianity, also from Concordia. This is a substantial church history in one volume. One advantage of it is that it includes readings from primary sources in each of the ages. A similar work would be Justo Gonzales’s The Story of Christianity, a popular choice for use in seminary church history survey courses

A little more advanced treatment can be found in the Pelican History of the Church series. This is a seven-volume collection consisting of the following: Henry Chadwick, The Early Church; R. W. Southern, Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages; Owen Chadwick, The Reformation; Gerald R. Cragg, The Church and the Age of Reason, 1648-1789; Alec R. Vidler, The Church in an Age of Revolution; Stephen Neill, A History of Christian Missions; and (a relatively new addition to the series) Owen Chadwick, The Christian Church in the Cold War. As indicated, this is more demanding reading, but it gives a more thorough treatment of many of the doctrinal disputes that characterize the history of the church.

Finally, I would recommend Paul Johnson’s A History of Christianity. Johnson is not a church historian, but this is a readable account. I found it to be thoroughly enjoyable. From Kirkus Review: “Though the narrative is fast-paced and the style vigorously economic, the account brims with telling details and reasoned judgments and never seems superficial, Johnson eschews all special theological pleading and abides by professional canons of evidence and objectivity. Drawing on a wealth of primary and secondary sources, he maintains a healthy balance between the internal and external dimensions of Christianity's development; events and ideas mesh into a coherent story.