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.


c. blair said...

Ben, I am not a denominational partisan; that is, while I am happily in the OPC I have no default animosity for other Reformed/Presbyterian denominations. Particularly, I have no instinctual opposition to all things PCA. There is only one point where I feel a strong frustration on denominational lines. The PCA (which dwarfs the other R&P denominations) is, in my judgment, hollowing out the doctrine of the Lord's Day for the rising generation(s) without altering a single line of our common standards. They are doing so in two ways: the one you name — making an exception to the standards the de facto standard — and the loss of the evening service in many PCA churches. [For the record: I have no statistics just a strong anecdotal sense]. I do not believe the Bible requires two services in an absolute sense, but I do believe that the average Christian in our culture has very little chance of preserving a meaningful Lord's Day (doctrine or practice) without it. I fear that in a generation or so the standards will read the same but the practice of the Lord's Day will be extinct. Any thoughts from within the ship?

DavidABooth said...

Hi Ben,

While I am concerned about doctrinal muddiness in the PCA, it is hard for me to blame the problem on "good-faith subscription." Isn't the problem with how freely Presbyteries are granting the exceptions and the lack of willingness of Presbyteries to discipline those who drift theologically after they have been ordained?

If the Presbyteries are going to be indifferent on this matter, we will hardly make things better by requiring some sort of "strict" subscription. The history of Presbyterianism suggests that such a move would just lead individuals to subscribe with "crossed fingers" and the hypocrisy would be evident to everyone.

p.s. I'm a minister in the OPC

Anonymous said...

Dr. Shaw - I've appreciated working with you on the PCA's Review of Presbytery Records Committee. And I also hate to see the Standards amended indirectly. But I think it's worth suggesting a correction to one sentence from your post: "There has been no move on the part of the minority to propose changes to the Standards."

In 2015, N. Texas Pby filed Overture 2 proposing the Assembly form an Ad Interim Committee to prepare proposed revisions to WCF 21-8, WLC 117 & 119, and WSC 60 & 61. The Chattanooga GA voted 662-248 to answer the Overture in the negative, declining to adopt the recommendation from N. TX by a 72% majority. (M43GA, pp. 66, 78, 94 and 599).

The following year, by a vote of 8-42, the 2016 GA Committee on Review of Pby Records declined to cite Philadelphia Metro Pby for allowing a man's particular difference with the Standards on the Sabbath. As you know, the eight-man RPR minority filed a minority report asking the GA to cite Philly Metro with an exception of substance. The GA declined to adopt the minority report, and instead, adopted the RPR committee's recommendation that no citation was warranted. The Mobile GA voted 628-251 to adopt the RPR recommendation instead, which was a 71% majority. (M44GA, p. 44).
Thus, I'm not sure it's accurate to say it's only a minority that now regards differences with certain statements Sabbath to be allowable as not contrary to a fundamental of our system of doctrine.

Bob S said...

Dr. Shaw,
Appreciated your comments in the past on the New Cambridge Paragraph Bible and the church being responsible for the sins of the world.
As re. the PCA,
1. it came out of the PCUSA on fundamentalist issues in the first place, no?
2. Good faith subscription is pretty weak sauce IMO. It smacks of the evangelical ethos. Can't be too sure what the infallible and perspicuous Word actually teaches or bind anybody's conscience. It's quatenus vs. quia all over again.
3. If to whom much is granted, much is required, and the church of Jesus Christ can't figure out what the creation ordinance of the sabbath is all about, why should we expect the world to be able to figure out the creation ordinance of marriage?

Anonymous said...

Professor Shaw, I think if you check with some older RPCES pastors (maybe Bryan Chapell) that you would find out that the RPCES had already or was in the process of changing the standards regarding images of Christ. This change to the standards was not allowed when the RPCES joined the PCA. That was the early 80's and so this is not something all that recent. To reaffirm a previous comment, the PCA seems to have made clear that it does not want to change the standards, but certain exceptions are acceptable even if held by a majority of TE's. The requirement is to be open and honest about it.