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.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

My dream for the PCA, no. 1

[Note: two weeks ago, several folks gathered in Atlanta to discuss the future direction of the PCA. Each of the speakers were asked to address the topic, "What would be my dream for the PCA?" I was the last of the five speakers; this is what I hope for.]

My best friend growing up in northern Virginia was a guy named Tucker Darby. Tucker was larger than life in so many ways: at six foot-four inches, he played offensive guard for Oakton High School’s football team. Everywhere Tucker went, people followed him—old ladies cackled over him; young boys looked up to him; girls secretly admired him. But he was my best friend.

And I needed him as my friend—because by nature I am pretty quiet, a little introverted. In ways that I can’t or don’t understand, there were parts of me that Tucker filled out—his fun-loving, devil-may-care attitude contrasted with my cautious, but-my-dad-may-care feelings; his confidence supplied my insecurity; and his caring (as much as a football player can care) overcame my fearfulness. I needed him as a friend.

But the truth was that he needed me as his friend as well—because even though the girls secretly admired him, they actually went out with me and so I would supply him with dates. Even though the old ladies like him, they fed me and so they would feed him too. And even though he was athletic, he was still an offensive lineman; I was a quarterback (on a bad team) at a different high school—further up the intellectual totem pole, if you know what I mean. And so, even though I needed him, he needed me as well—and that is why throughout high school, our friendship worked so well: we recognized that we were friends who supplied what the other lacked.

There is something similar here to what I think about our denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America. I genuinely believe that I need each of you here—that each of you supplies something out of your divine giftedness that I lack and desperately need. Perhaps there are things that I bring to this conversation that will strengthen you as well. Yet, at the end of the day, I truly believe that we need each other, that God has called us together to be friends, the church in and for this world.

As you look around this room and you think about the broad contributions these and other friends have made to God’s vision for us as his church, I think we could say at least three things, all of which can be drawn from our denominational name. First, you friends remind me that God has called this denomination to be Presbyterian, faithfully so—living out our unique beliefs, practices, and stories before a watching and wanting world.

As my friends, you also remind me about the larger Church: that God calls us to be evangelically catholic in our orientation.

Finally, you my friends remind me that our denomination as a part of Christ’s church catholic must see ourselves as God’s agents of gospel mission in America and the world. And so, you remind me that God calls us to be appropriately, winsomely, and biblically missional, joining with God in his mission to this world in which he is making all things new.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

When you want a university president... apparently hire a historian. And not just any historian, but a historian of the American South. Everyone knows that Drew Gilpin Faust was just inaugurated as president of Harvard University; what you may not know is that she was a former president of the Southern Historical Association (she won the Parkman Prize for her Mothers of Invention and has a new book on death and the Civil War coming out next year). Her Fleming Lectures, published as The Creation of Confederate Nationalism: Ideology and Identity in the Civil War South, were hugely important to my own thinking, especially issues related to cultural systems, ideology, and identity-formation.

What I did not know until I was surfing around the Internet was that University of Richmond has just hired Ed Ayers as their new president, effective July 1, 2007. Ayers is a very influential historian: his two most important books are The Promise of the New South and In the Presence of Mine Enemies. And of course, Nathan Hatch--prominent religious historian--became the president of Wake Forest University in 2005.

When you think about it, there does seem to be an unusual preponderance of historians in academic administration. While it is fairly unusual for someone from the hard sciences or engineering to lead a university (Lee Todd as president of the University of Kentucky being an notable exception), historians get placed into these spots frequently. I've often wondered why that is: do trustees think that historians do not have enough to do?

I think part of the reason must be that historians, by the very nature of the task, are conservators of traditions (even revisionist historians care for the past, albeit for the value it has for the present). As a result, they tend to value institutions (which are tradition-bounded organisms), desire to care for them, and long for them to be healthy and successful. Such passions often mean that they are led into academic administration, which can have the ironic effect of curtailing historical scholarship (Nathan Hatch, for example, has not published a major book since 1989, which was about the time he became provost at Notre Dame). And yet, these passions also mean that these men and women care enough to participate in conserving institutions and play an important function of public leadership.

Perhaps some day when a later historian (perhaps my great-great grandchild) chronicles the history of Harvard, he or she will make a note that the president of the school while their great-great grandfather was alive was also a historian of the American South and was willing to participate in academic administration--just like him.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Two weeks...gone like a snap of the fingers

Ugh. I just realized that it has been two weeks since I've posted anything here. I'm sorry to those of you who still check this regularly. Covenant Seminary, where I work, is coming down to the last preparations before our joint comprehensive visit by our two accrediting bodies, the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association and the Association of Theological Schools. The team arrives Sunday afternoon, meets with us for full days of meetings on Monday and Tuesday, and then gives a preliminary report of their findings on Wednesday morning. It culminates an 18-month process with which I've been involved.

I do have things to post and I hope that I can some of those things up in the next couple of days. Until then, thanks for your patience and keep checking back (and for those of you who email me offline, I will email you back--if not soon, then by November 1!).

Tuesday, October 02, 2007


I'm a huge Springsteen fan. When The Rising came out, I was at a MNA conference in Atlanta. I skipped a session in the morning on the day it came out and bought the album. I went back to my room and listened to it on my CD player...and wept. It was the title track especially that moved me--the imagery of resurrection tied with the poignancy of the dead firefighter (who died during 9/11) longing to be reunited with his wife--was more than I could handle.

There are new tears of joy today because the new E Street band album, Magic, came out today. Unlike The Rising, which only had a few outstanding tracks ("Lonesome Day," "Mary's Place," "The Rising," and "My City of Ruins" were the keepers), this album evokes so many of the best Springsteen and E Street Band moments--from "Long Walk Home" (which has the feel of "This Hard Land") to "I'll Work for Your Love" (the Roy Bittian beginning echos "Thunder Road") and "Livin' in the Future" (which has hints of early complex rhymes that Bruce used to do on Greetings from Asbury Park and ties to "Tenth Street Freeze-Out"). There are also nods to Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys ("Your Own Worst Enemy") and Dylan ("I'll Work for Your Love").

In the end, it will be interesting how this album wears over time. I listened to The Rising hard for three years or so; now many of the songs feel hackneyed (which is the same feeling I have for most of Born in the USA, especially the songs that had the most radio airplay). The two classic Springsteen and E Street Band albums--Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town--never feel old even though I've listened to them over and over (especially "Thunder Road," "Born to Run," and "Candy's Room" each of which I've probably heard 500 times [no exaggeration]). Will songs from Magic have that staying power? If so, then the Boss will have truly been magical.

Monday, October 01, 2007

The Manning Meter

The best thing about the Internet? All the joy it brings to fantasy football players and stat-geeks around the world. See, for example, the Manning Meter.