Wednesday, October 31, 2007

My dream for the PCA, no. 2

Part one

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.

Faithfully confessional
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.

Faithfully connectional
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.


Jeff Hutchinson said...

As you know, I have the honor of pastoring the church Aiken Taylor planted here in Asheville on the very first Sunday of the PCA's existance. As you also might know by now, we are big time Sean Lucas fans here at Trinity. Your book continues to bless our people here greatly, including the one still-living member of the original core group who had Dr. Taylor for her pastor, and his six relatives who are members here. Remember how one of them had you sign their copy of your book?

So, by the commutative property (do I remember my algebra correctly?), Aiken Taylor would be very thankful for your book(s)--in particular On Being Presbyterian-- and would share your dreams for the PCA.

Whether that is good logic, I'm not sure, but at any rate the current pastor and Session of Trinity share your dreams. Thanks so much for all you do.

Anonymous said...

When I began attending a PCA Church about 14 years ago from a non-denominational church and before that a Methodist background, it was the reformed "doctrines of grace" that amazed me (and still do).

Our denomination was committed to Scripture first, then to the Reformed Theology and evangelized mostly through a discipleship based approach.

Our distinctives, based on Scripture, are summarized mostly in the Westminster Standards. The denomination is differentiated from "broad evangelicalism" by the 5 points of Calvinism, Covenant Theology, a higher view of the sacraments, church discipline, and a slight tilt toward transforming culture through engagement (apologetics) as opposed to withdrawing from it. Above all, it honors a commitment to all of Scripture interpreting all of Scripture for all of life. These make us different from what are popularly referred to as "fundamentalists" or "evangelicals," even though we are both.

Maybe I don't these "shoot out" differences amongst our ranks. Is any significant block really trying to change these distinctives?

It seems as we have gotten our "sea legs" as a denomination through General Assemblys and changing the Book of Church Order and have improved the process for peaceable resolution of disputes
without denying access to any significant groups out.

There are always threats to the sound doctrine of the Westminster Standards such as Federal Vision theology but it does not seem that there are differences based on our distinctives.

It seems the dream has mostly arrived as we as sin prone human beings try to get along day-by-day by God's grace. It will never be otherwise, but we must always contend for our distinctives because they come from a deeper understanding of Scripture. In this age, there will also be contention about that.


Josh Anderson said...

Dr. Lucas,

I may be misreading you, but my sense is that if the confession summarizes scripture and also guides our future scriptural interpretation, I don't see how the confession is also revisable according to scripture. If the confession forms the only acceptable lens for examining scripture, how can we also be critical of that lens? While I agree that we must come to scripture with some kind of presuppositions or theological grid, if PCA pastors, professors and students are restricted to always using the summary of scripture contained in the WCF as their theological grid, then this will functionally make reform of that grid unlikely and even impossible, even though we may claim that it is theoretically possible.

In my opinion, your vision of the hermeneutical spiral can work only if we give PCA men and women freedom to sometimes come to scripture as objectively as possible (i.e. trying not to self-consciously use the WCF as their grid) and explore ways in which the WCF may be deficient or not as complete as we would like. In this way we affirm that the confession is a not an infallible document and truly open it up to revision. I know that you do not believe that the WCF is an infallible document either, but my fear is that in your spiral it ends up functioning as one.

Please don't hear what I'm not saying--I love the WCF and truly believe that it is the best summary of Christian doctrine the Church has produced. But I also believe that as Christ matures his church, we would be remiss to fail to try and improve upon the theological summaries of scripture produced by our forefathers. In other words, yes we must approach scripture through tradition (there is no other way to approach it) but we must also seek at times to step outside of our tradition as much as possible (and give others the freedom to do so) so we may be self-critical of it. Otherwise, over time, the categories of the WCF will condition how we read everything in Scripture, and if someone says something that conflicts with those categories we end up condemning them without really considering their scriptural argument, because of accepted theological lens prevents us from thinking outside those categories. And thus revision is impossible, because revision of a theological system always requires, at least to some extent, stepping outside of it and examining it through new eyes.


Josh Anderson
CTS student

Anonymous said...

It seems curious to me how, when some lament the evident "pitting of Scripture against the confessions" afoot today, don't also see that the sort of biblicistic seeds were perhaps sown in opening addresses in which the primary mission was "faithfulness to the Scriptures, then to the Reformed [expression of] faith."

Reformed and Presbyterian are nothing if not efficient: the Reformed expression *is* faithful to the Scriptures; why the need to parse out these two things? What if we switched out "faithfulness to the Scriptures" with "faithfulness to God"? Wouldn't this be equally redundant, odd or awkward?

I wonder if it is really any wonder that the pitting is happening in a denomination that seems a bit self-satisfied with the fact that it champions "faithfulness to the Scriptures as the inerrant word of God" instead of dogged committment to the forms that do that work for us. Fundamentalists learning to be Presbyterian, indeed.


Sean Michael Lucas said...

Hi, Josh: It might help to read some of the work on hermeneutics that I'm clearly playing off here in order to understand what I am talking about. To that end you may want to read: Grant Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral; Mosies Silva et al, Foundations of Contemporary Interpretation; Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, and John Skilton, ed. Scripture and Confession.

Your comments seem to suggest that we can somehow come to the biblical text "objectively" and derive theological understanding. I do not believe such "objectivity" is truly possible; we inevitably come with a set of "glasses" (a hermeneutical paradigm, if you will) that enables us to make sense of the text. The real question is whether we will be self-conscious in developing our paradigm and self-critical and honest enough to recognize that our paradigm doesn't account and "shift" it.

All that to say, that my main point here is that Presbyterian ministers claim to "subscribe" in good faith to the Standards; that has to mean something when we approach scripture. However, we must also allow scripture to judge all our confessing.

Hope that helps, sml

Josh Anderson said...

Dr. Lucas,

I think we're talking past each other a bit. I've read and largely agree with Silva and Kuhn, and hear what you're saying. I'm deeply committed to Polanyi's view of epistemology and affirm the necessity and importance of tradition in all of our knowing. But just because tradition is an inescapable part of our approach to the biblical text (or any text) does not mean we cannot self-intentionally "step" outside our tradition at times in order to examine the validity of that tradition.

I actually did not say we can or should come to the text objectively. I know that this is impossible, and indeed, unnatural and unhuman. I am not affirming scientific objectivity as an ideal in the interpretation of Scripture.

What I am saying is that in order for us to be able to be self-critical of our own tradition, we must occasionally be able to step outside of that tradition as much as we are able. Otherwise our scriptural interpretation will only affirm the theological grid we use to study it. I am not saying either that this stepping outside of tradition is the normative way of studying scripture. However, it must be allowed sometimes if our tradition/grid can ever truly be revised by scripture.

My fear is that if the only interpretive grid ever allowed for pastors and theologians in the PCA is the WCF, then we will develop blind spots in our theology because the only questions we will bring to the text are the questions our tradition allows--the questions our forefathers have asked.

In my mind, the PCA should be characterized by men who use the WCF as their normative guide for scriptural interpretation. I agree with this. But there also needs to be room for some men at some time who do their best to step outside of our tradition and examine the Scriptures with different questions--both to further our understanding of scripture as well as to consider the validity of our own tradition and our own questions. We also need to listen to godly men outside of the PCA who ask different questions of the text than we do, weighing their words not simply against our summary of scripture in the WCF, but also against scripture itself.

In my mind, this is what it means to be always reforming. Maintaining this tension between coming to scripture with our tradition and also doing our best at times to step outside of our tradition and consider the scriptures and our tradition in light of the scriptures through new eyes is what it means, in my mind, to be faithfully confessional.

Thanks for the discussion, it's helpful for me. I hope that I'm not coming across as too critical or obnoxious. That's really not my intention. I'm just trying to understand how the confession can serve as our summary of scripture and guide our future interpretation of scripture, and also be revisable by scripture. Forgive if I'm overstepping my bounds.



Jeff Hutchinson said...


You raise good questions and I trust the Lord will continue to shape and prepare you for His service. The main place, of course, to get your good questions worked through is face to face with your own elders and Presbytery (I'm making the assumption that you are a member of a PCA church and under care of a Presbytery). But I'll butt in for just a moment to make a simple point perhaps far too simplisticly (don't hold me to it too woodenly)!

All the "stepping outside of the tradition" that you envision needs to be done now, BEFORE you take ordination vows before a Holy God. So it is exactly right that you possess the "open mind" that you do now, at this stage of the discerning of your potential call to gospel ministry in the PCA. But, in the words of John Stott, the purpose of an open mind--like an open mouth--is to find something solid upon which to SHUT IT. If you cannot "shut your mind" upon the Standards as THE standard (hence the name) interpretation of the Scriptures, you are not yet ready for ordination in the PCA. When you are ready, you will know, and be glad. Then, after ordination, if "fresh readings" of the Scriptures cause you to question the received tradition, there are good and constitutional and avowed processes for you to follow.

Grace to you!

Josh Anderson said...


Thanks for your comment. Not holding to your statement too woodenly, I hear and understand your sentiment and I will be happy to affirm the WCF as the standard interpretation of Scripture when I receive a pastoral call.



Anonymous said...

I applaud your 5-fold vision for the PCA, Dr. Lucas. It's hard for me to see how anyone could have problems with the wonderful contours you've outlined in these posts. Of course, in light of the many current tensions in our denomination it would seem that much discussion of how these visions might be lived-out and implemented is still necessary. One such area that immediately suggest itself to me has to do with that it might mean to be "faithfully Presbyterian", and more specifically, "faithfully confessional". If I might put it humorously: the proof of our commitment to "evangelically catholic" and "biblically missional" will be in the pudding of our rendering of "faithfully Presbyterian". Let me try to get at what I mean.

I am glad to see the specific sources you are presuming in your understanding of hermeneutics. We can move forward with those mutual understandings in place. The problem that these brief posts do not address is that our Presbyterian confessional documents are themselves interpreted by individuals in given traditions. Various interpretations of the WCF are not given or objective. So it is not the case that we simply interpret the Bible through the lens of the WCF; we also interpret the Bible through the lens of the WCF as we interpret it. And this is precisely where the test of catholicity comes in to play. Are we as a denomination willing to allow that we will and must live together as cruciform friends when we have sometimes very different interpretations of the same standards? Furthermore, when mission requires faithful PCA pastors to ask questions of the Scriptures that are not directly addressed in our standards, are we willing to proceed with charity and the cruciform work of patience and dialogue when it seems that some of the answers they provide go beyond or sound different than the WCF--provided they do not necessarily contradict those standards?

Let me provide one particularly pointed example as an illustration. It seems a historical fact that the PCA was born out of the Southern (U.S.) Presbyterian tradition of WCF interpretation. This tradition of interpretation is the one that has been most widely assumed since our denomination began. By God's wonderful blessing, the PCA in its mission has been a rapidly growing denomination throughout its existence. This growth has occurred within the situated Southern Presbyterian tradition as well as beyond and outside of it. So what happens when new or different traditions and interpretive communities within the PCA begin to read the WCF apart from the lens of Southern Presbyterianism (whether those readings be newer ones or re-appropriations of older readings)? Take baptism, for example. Southern Presbyterians will read our standards one way on baptism, and they can find plenty of evidence to support their reading. But others may read the WCF on baptism in quite a different manner, and they can arguably find plenty of evidence to support the claim that their position is just as faithfully confessional as the Southern Presbyterian one, even if radically different.

So, are we willing to put catholicity and mission to the test in these scenarios? Are we willing to proceed with a hermeneutic of humility when it comes to our interpretation of our standards? Can a positive answer to these queries be integral to the meaning of "Being Presbyterian" in the PCA? I hope and pray so. At this point, I would say the jury is still out.

Jamison Galt
Brooklyn, NY

Sean Michael Lucas said...

Hi, Jamison:

I appreciate your thoughtful response here. I wish I had time to engage thoroughly, but I did have one thought: it is undoubtedly true that interpretation happens, if you will, in communities of discourse; and it is also true that even within the PCA there are various communities of discourse/interpretation. What is not clear to me from what you said is how the differences among discursive communities are adjudicated. It seems that you seem want tolerance; but what happens when the differences of interpretation occur on core doctrines (like justification)? How then?

I think this is what has happened recently and the only way in our polity to adjudicate differences is through a "judicial" process. However, for many this process has so many negatives attended to it, that we typically avoid it until the last resort. One could make the argument that judicial process could actually help to mediate differences on interpretative issues (in a similar fashion to the gradated system of the US judicial system). Still, the problem of adjudication will be continue to be the problem we face when it comes to being confessional.

Anyways, thanks for the thoughtful response, Jamison. Blessings, sml

Clay Johnson said...

BOQ . . . the only way in our polity to adjudicate differences is through a "judicial" process. However, for many this process has so many negatives attended to it, that we typically avoid it until the last resort. One could make the argument that judicial process could actually help to mediate differences on interpretative issues (in a similar fashion to the gradated system of the US judicial system). Still, the problem of adjudication will be continue to be the problem we face when it comes to being confessional.EOQ

This is great, Dr. Lucas. ISTM that it is more than merely an argument that one could make, but one of the core functions of the judicial process to mediate such interpretive differences. I am sad that the process itself is generally viewed so negatively. It preserves and protects so many good things -- facilitates meticulous attention to factual reality (as opposed to hypothetical reality), moderates the pace of institutional change, expands the core of tradition available to address new questions incrementally as they arise, etc. Would that we would embrace the process with more hopeful expectation that its potential would be realized!

What do you mean by your last sentence? Thanks.

Clay Johnson

Sean Michael Lucas said...

Hi, Clay: What I meant was that how confessional differences are adjudicated (i.e. readings by various communities of discouse) will continue to be an issue. Notice--even though there have been five parts to "my dream," only this one has received much in the way of comment. sml

Will K said...

Dr. Lucas,

Something you wrote, which I include below, raises a question for me. As I begin, even now, to prepare for ordination exams, I am wondering about how I and others are to go about taking exceptions/qualifications to the WS (if such is ever done). In light of a key paragraph you wrote, I am curious about the legitimacy of such exception/qualification taking. Let me here quote you; please take note of my bracketed identifications of how “is” and “are” are used by you. You wrote:

“As a result, to be faithfully confessional is [equative use of the copula] to affirm that our confessional documents are [predicative use of the copula] sound summaries of those biblical truths most certainly believed among us [. . .]”

I’ll start at the beginning. It seems inescapable that you equate being “faithfully confessional” with the action of affirming something. You go on to mention what needs to be so affirmed by attributing the attribute of “sound summar[y]” to “our confessional documents.”

This is a logical flow and, if I may, I would like to summarize that flow. You argue (and I welcome your input/correction here) that being faithfully confessional is the same as affirming that the documents are sound summaries. This is where my concerned curiosity is pricked. I sincerely apologize if I am splitting hairs and making mountains from mole hills (which may or may not even exist), but I want to be careful and honest before any committee examining me.

You qualify “confessional” with the helpful word “faithfully.” Thus, you may be here suggesting that there are those who are confessional and those who are faithfully confessional. I appreciate that qualification. Without a qualifier to restrict or modify “to affirm,” however, you (though possibly inadvertently) suggest to me that to be so faithfully confessional requires the unqualified affirmation of which you speak. What type of affirmation is that? Is it wholesale? Is it one which can sustain exceptions and qualifications? Your grammar and syntax suggest that a qualified (“faithfully”) confessionalism requires an unqualified affirmation. This problem is compounded by your next words which are also practically unqualified.

Some ambiguity exists in your words telling us what is to be affirmed: “that our confessional documents are sound summaries [emphasis mine].” One might expect to see a limiting descriptor similar to what you use to describe “confessional” above. There is none, however. We are left to wonder if you mean that the documents are perfectly “sound summaries,” very good but not perfectly “sound summaries,” or mostly imperfectly “sound summaries.” All my italicized qualifiers, you see, modify how or to what extent the summaries are sound (i.e. they modify “sound”). Without that modification, it is all too natural (yes, for me) to read that the affirmation is of perfectly “sound summaries.”

Thus, you seem to suggest that a faithful confessionalism requires a categorical affirmation that the documents are absolutely sound. If this is so, then ought we to be taking any exceptions or any sort of qualification or explanation? With all humility and appreciation, I must ask that you would please help me understand this issue more clearly. Thank you for bearing with your tedious student.

Will K.