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).