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.