Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Why Bother with Southern Presbyterianism? No. 2

Recently, I re-read a friend's overview of southern Presbyterianism in which he attempted to rehabilitate this tradition around three key ideas:
  • The spirituality of the church
  • The missionary enterprise
  • The Old School doctrinal message

And while I would quibble with some of the details of how he fleshed out these three ideas, one can't help but believe that a church committed to these ideas would be greatly strengthened for ministry in the 21st century. A church that proclaims the spiritual nature and mission of the Church will not allow itself to be coopted by the cultural, political, or social principles of either the right- or left-wings of the contemporary generation. Instead, it seeks the spiritual good of all those whom it comes across, declaring to them the Gospel of Jesus, whether in the United States or around the world. And this Gospel which it declares is summarized in the grand truths of the Reformed faith as found in the Westminster Standards.

Further, studying southern Presbyterianism can give one a renewed appreciation for how some believers articulated these commitments in a rapidly changing world. Whether in its earliest days in the South, in the golden age of Presbyterian theology in the 19th century, or in the battle for the Reformed faith in the 20th century, we can gain great profit from studying Presbyterianism in the South.

It is important to say that this profit comes not by way of inspiration from "heroes" of the past. Rather, profit comes as one understands how theology operates within cultural systems, as prophetic words on the cultural captivity of the left or right. We learn, as we study this story, how difficult it is to hold on to the spiritual nature of the church when politics seems a better way; how challenging it is to continue to move forward in mission; and how easy it is to forsake Old School doctrinal commitments in order to be broad-minded or relevant.

But in thinking about these things, two things occured to me. First, these three commitments are not unique to southern Presbyterianism. For example, 19th century northern Presbyterians also represented these three commitments. In the vision of Charles Hodge, one can find these three principles well-articulated for nothern Presbyterians. Likewise, one could make the argument that these ideas were found in 16th century Geneva. Far from requiring some mythical "southern Zion," I'd suggest that these three commitments are at the heart of biblical Presbyterianism, regardless of generation or region.

Furthermore, I want to make the claim that the Presbyterian Church in America exemplifies these commitments to a high degree. Typically, these three principles are trotted out in order to judge how far Presbyterianism has fallen from a perceived golden age; usually there is a political claim being made (i.e., we [whoever we are] are the true exemplars of Presbyterianism). And while I recognize that a good part of the history of the PCA can be viewed as the struggle to understand what it means to be Presbyterian in a postmodern age, still it is the case, IMO, that the PCA stands well for the spiritual nature of the church, the missionary enterprise and Old School doctrinal integrity. In fact, compared with the 19th century "golden age," the PCA is the largest Presbyterian denomination in history holding to those three distinctives.

In fact, the way forward for the PCA is for us to continue to be reminded of these things as we seek to be "faithful to the Scriptures, true to the Reformed faith, and obedient to the Great Commission." By stressing our Presbyterian distinctives--in common with the best of Presbyterianism throughout space and time--we not only pay homage to southern Presbyterians of an age gone by; we also demonstrate biblical faithfulness in our generation and for generations yet unborn.

1 comment:

Andrew said...

Thanks Sean - I don't suppose you have your friends overview handy (from 5 years ago!!!) do you? I'd be interested in it... or your recommendation on something else.

Andrew Allen
Covenant Seminary Student