Presbyterian: Faithfully Presbyterian
When our denomination was founded in December 1973, Jack Williamson’s opening address focused us on our mission as faithful and continuing Presbyterians: that we would be faithful to the Scriptures, true to the Reformed faith, and obedient to the Great Commission. I would suggest that over the past 35 years while we all have agreed with the motto’s first point—faithfulness to the Scriptures as the inerrant word of God—we’ve struggled to know exactly what it means to be true to the Reformed faith and obedient to the Great Commission.
I don’t know if it heartens anyone to realize that this struggle over our Presbyterian identity has gone on from the very beginning of the PCA. Aiken Taylor, writing eleven months after the PCA’s formation in Christianity Today, observed that “ever since the organizing assembly in December in Birmingham, where the original lines had been drawn between hardline followers of latter-day Calvinists and those referred to by the hardliners as ‘evangelical,’ the trenches had been dug and the guns loaded.”
Part of the challenge of our life together is that at the beginning of the denomination’s life, we were fundamentalists learning to be Presbyterians. That may account for why we have appeared to some as “Machen’s warrior children.” It has not simply been that we like to fight with each other; rather, there has been a struggle to define what it means to be Presbyterian in a late modern or postmodern world.
Of course, I’m not a neutral observer in this quest for Presbyterian identity. But if I were to wish two things for the PCA when it comes to the “faithfully Presbyterian” part of our denominational label, it would be that we would be faithfully confessional and faithfully connectional.
Presbyterians’ struggle over what it means to be confessional has gone on all the way back to our founding moments in America. I don’t suppose that we will necessarily come to a consensus about it in our lifetimes, nor do I necessarily expect everyone here to agree with what I mean by being faithfully confessional. With those caveats in place, I’ve been dismayed in our most recent theological conversations to hear the pitting against of Scripture and our confessional standards in ways that seem to undercut our commitment to being faithfully confessional.
For example, several of my friends scored the PCA study committee paper on the FV and NPP for focusing not on the biblical merits of the positions considered, but on whether they pass confessional standards. Without getting into the merits (or demerits) of the study paper or the committee itself, this objection strikes me as missing the point—in my thinking, at least, the relationship between Scripture and confession is a hermeneutical spiral that inevitably leads to confession summarizing scriptural belief and guiding future scriptural interpretation while providing means for confessional revision; and all this spiral occurs while our confessional documents still affirm and preserve scriptural infallibility, sufficiency and ultimate authority.
As a result, to be faithfully confessional is to affirm that our confessional documents are sound summaries of those biblical truths most certainly believed among us; and to pit the Scriptures against the Confession, as we have done in recent days, is not merely a non sequitur, it is actually quite dangerous for our long-term health and even existence as Presbyterians. For as we in good faith “sincerely receive and adopt” the Standards as a statement of our own faith (BCO 21-5, 24-6), we are saying to the world and to each other, these are fixed points of biblical truth that I hold in common with these friends—especially, the vitally important Presbyterian beliefs on election, covenant, effectual calling, justification, sanctification, adoption, faith, repentance, perseverance, church order, judgment. We cannot innovate on such doctrines without recognizing, with historian Carl Trueman, that “tinkering with justification, or indeed tinkering with a host of other doctrines with which justification is connected, will serve to place one’s theology outside the bounds of the Westminster Standards.” My dream is that as a church we would be content to be faithfully confessional Presbyterians.
While our public struggle is over what it means to be confessional, our behind-the-scenes and often unspoken struggle is over what it means to be connectional. Part of this is undoubtedly the result of our history: the distrust that former southern Presbyterian churches felt toward the “denomicrats” who ran the old PCUS ultimately led them to dismantle required per capita giving through presbyteries and synods to denominational causes. Another part of this is the “grassroots” polity which several of the founders that has stressed a more “democratic” (rule of the mass of people) than “republican” (rule through representatives of the people) approach to church power, especially at the General Assembly level.
No doubt, explaining all of this is much easier than fixing it. And yet, unless we figure out a way to be faithfully and practically connectional, to live out genuine Presbyterian polity, our denomination will not have a long shelf life. And, in my opinion, while there are a number of things that could be said here, I believe one significant thing that must happen is an incremental and yet definite move toward a cooperative program of giving and funding denominational concerns coupled together with some requirement of church giving to at least some of those denominational concerns in order to remain in good standing in the PCA. In other words, I tend to think we need to be Presbyterian—just like the Southern Baptists.
There are other things, of course, to demonstrate our connectionalism—listening well to each other when we disagree; working appropriate processes within and across presbyteries, partnering together for church planting in strategic areas of North America and around the world. All of these things take money, of course. But in the end, what I would urge us is to commit ourselves anew to the challenge that James Henley Thornwell laid down so long ago: “We shall, therefore, endeavor to do what has never yet been adequately done—bring out the energies of our Presbyterian system of government.” My dream for us is that we would be the first generation to bring out these full energies in our polity and so be faithfully Presbyterian.