Posted by: reformedmusings | June 28, 2007

The 35th PCA General Assembly Debate

One of the complaints of a few Federal Vision advocates is that they didn’t get a fair shake at the General Assembly. On the docket, the presentation of, and debate on, the Ad Interim Study Committee on Federal Vision, NPP, and Auburn Avenue Theology was scheduled for an hour, but actually ran an hour and 48 minutes. I watched the entire debate video stream on the GA website, and came up with the following chronology with some key milestones:

2:00 PM: Moderator opens the “main event” (his words). He stating that the debate would take place in accordance with the Rules of Assembly Operation (RAO) Chapter 19 and Robert’s Rules of Order. His stated goal was to ensure that “all people have a say.” He calls Dr. Paul Fowler, chairman of the Ad Interim committee, to speak in accordance with RAO 19.4.b.

2:01 PM: Dr. Paul Fowler opened with a brief prayer, then introduced the report by page number in the Commissioners’ Handbook, introduced the Ad Interim Committee members, then briefly outlined the structure of the report. He showed in detail how the committee had faithfully executed the tasks given by the 34th General Assembly, quoting the 34th GA’s overture and pointing out its emphasis on soteriology. Dr. Fowler also answered a number of common objections to the report in advance.

2:17 PM: Dr. Ligon Duncan described the body of the report. He emphasized the committee’s commitment to accuracy and clarity, and that the report was about issues, not persons. He exhorted the Assembly to concentrate on the theological and pastoral issues.

2:21 PM: Dr. Sean Lucas drew the commissioners’ attention to the report’s declarations by page number. He emphasized that the committee was tasked by the 34th General Assembly to determine the conformity of the views assigned to the Standards concerning soteriology, noting that sola fide and union with Christ were essential to our system of doctrine. He then went through every declaration, tying each to specific parts of the Westminster Standards.

2:34 PM: RE John White brought the recommendations to the attention of the commissioners by page number. He explained the place of the recommendations in the Assembly process, going through each one. RE White then explained the place that the report would hold as an in thesi deliverance by the Assembly if approved, concluding that they were to be given “due and serious consideration” by the courts of the PCA, but did not change the PCA constitution in any way.

RE White concluded his remarks by moving that the Assembly approve the report’s five recommendations.

Note that the committee’s presentation in every aspect was in conformity with RAO 19.4.b. They presented enough detail so that if any commissioner had not read the entire report, they would know exactly that on which they would vote.

2:46 PM: The moderator opens the floor for debate on the motion. In accordance with RAO 19-4.e., the moderator alternates between those for and against the motion.

Note: Only a few of the many commissioners who spoke are covered here. I didn’t count, but a continuous flow of commissioners spoke during the entire debate. In the end, an equal number of officers spoke on each side.

2:52 PM: TE Joe Novenson offers a motion for postponement of the report until the 36th General Assembly with the following additions: 1) Include Biblical exegesis in addition to the Westminster Standards; 2) Include the positive lessons to be learned from the Federal Vision; and 3) Add two Federal Vision advocates to the committee.

3:00 PM: Dr. Paul Gilchrist supports the motion for postponement while stating that he is no fan of the Federal Vision. However, he thinks that different views would strengthen the report. He uses an analogy saying that the report without overt Scriptural exegesis was like an emporer going out without clothes. This draws some laughter and a small amount of applause. The moderator admonishes the Assembly that applause is not in order.

3:03 PM: Time runs out on the initial 10 minute debate period (RAO 19-4.d.) The moderator suggests that, given the importance of the matter on the floor, the Assembly may wish to extend debate by 30 minutes vice the customary five minutes. The Assembly approves the 30 minute extension.

3:08 PM: A commissioner offers a substitute amendment to add Scripture proofs to the report during this GA rather than postponing. The amendment is ruled procedurally out of order.

3:18 PM: A commissioner speaking against the postponement notes that the Westminster Divines did the necessary exegesis in detail 400 years ago.

3:20 PM: Dr. R. C. Sproul speaks against the postponement. He reminds the commissioners that Luther said that sola fide is that on which the Church stands or falls, and that Calvin said that sola fide is the hinge on which everything turns. Dr. Sproul says that he cannot fathom the hesitation to approve the committee’s recommendations, as the Confession itself summarizes the gospel. The Assembly breaks out in loud applause, upon which Dr. Sproul admonishes the commissioners for their inappropriate but righteous applause.

3:27 PM: A commissioner offers a motion to approve recommendations one through four, but retain the committee to do the exegesis. The chair advises that the motion is better made after the motion for postponement resolves.

3:31 PM: A commissioner objects that the moderator is not taking the speakers in the strict order that they appear at the microphones. The moderator replies that in an effort to provide equal time, he will continue to alternate between those for and against the motions (RAO 19-4.e.).

3:34 PM: Dr. David Coffin speaks against the motion to postpone and for the main motion. He indicates that his library is full of books in which a full exegesis of the subject had been done. Given those examples, he said that a report with full exegesis could run 400-500 pages. TE Coffin indicated that he voted against forming the committee in the 34th GA and is a confirmed study committee skeptic. He also said that Federal Vision advocates have been heard plenty. They should have taken their theological challenges before the church courts for consideration, not to the Internet.

3:38 PM: The 30 minute extension expires. The moderator asks if the Assembly would extend the debate. The commissioners vote overwhelmingly against an extension.

3:39 PM: Dr. Fowler closes by saying that the committee did what the 34th General Assembly asked and requested that the commissioners vote down the postponement and approve the recommendations.

3:40 PM: The moderator advised the Assembly that only those votes from the main area of the floor would be counted. Commissioners in the visitor section move forward to the main floor. This takes a couple of minutes.

3:42 PM: The moderator offered a short prayer, then held the vote on the motion to postpone. The motion failed by about a 85-90% majority.

3:43 PM: Debate returns to the main motion.

3:43 PM: A commissioner speaks in favor of approving the committee’s recommendations. He states that there was a consensus document presented at the 34th General Assembly from Missouri Presbytery. After considering that, the Assembly went ahead and appointed the Ad Interim committee, which has done the job assigned.

3:45 PM: A commissioner asks a question of the chairman through the moderator. He asks if the men quoted in the report were contacted. The chairman replies that they were not, but would have been had been if the committee needed clarification on anything. The chairman said that their extensive writings were used because written documents are verifiable records whereas conversations are not, and that there are lots of documents out there.

3:47:30 Moderator: “We are to microphone number one. For what purpose do you rise, sir?”
“I want to speak in favor of adopting the committee … so you may need to go …”
“I need an against. Microphone number three.”
“In favor, Mr. Moderator.”
While scanning from his right to his left, from his left to his right, from his right to his left: “Is there someone who wants to speak against.”
tick, tick, tick, tick.

3:48 PM: “OK, our time expired. Do you want to extend debate for five more minutes?” The General Assembly votes against extending the debate for 5 mintues (RAO 19-4.d.) by about 90%.

3:48:30 PM: The General Assembly votes to accept the Ad Interim committee’s recommendations by 95-98% majority. By most estimates and upon reviewing the video, only an estimated 30-50 commissioners vote in the negative.

3:49 PM: The Assembly sings a hymn.

A few closing comments. Most of those who spoke in favor of the motion to postpone specifically said that they weren’t fans of the Federal Vision. Obviously, virtually all (if not all) of them voted for the report recommendations.

In just over an hour (2:46 PM – 3:48 PM) of open debate, Federal Vision advocates had every opportunity to speak but apparently chose not to do so. The few who rose to speak against the report did so on the basis of procedure, not theology. No one spoke against the actual contents of the report or the declarations. After the plethora of blog discussion, the “30 Reasons” not to vote for the report that was apparently mailed to every PCA session, the “12 Reason” summary, the letter of concern from the 10 pastors, and the Louisiana lawyer’s “procedural brief” against the report, it seemed very odd that no one rose to speak one word about these things.

What is obvious to me from listening to the entire debate again is that Federal Vision advocates, especially the major players who were at the Assembly, had every opportunity to speak but none chose to do so. It could have been that debate might have been extended if the commissioners thought that a discussion of substance was taking place. We’ll never know. Certainly no one who wanted to be heard has room to complain that they didn’t have the opportunity.

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