Gentle readers – My good friend and fellow laborer-in-the-gospel TE Billy Boyce called me with some thoughts on my original post. We had an amicable discussion in which Billy differed with me in some areas. I offered Billy the chance to publish his thoughts on my blog if he so desired. By way of introduction, let me observe that Billy is solidly and confessionally Reformed, very intelligent, and does his homework. Below is Billy’s thoughtful response:
Recently, a friend and fellow elder, RE Bob Mattes, penned an article responding to a recent letter to the PCA from eighteen of her founders concerning the identity of the church. I always appreciate Bob’s research, yet disagreed with his analysis here. I consider Bob a friend and an “elder’s elder.” I value his experience and commitment to the Reformed tradition and our denomination. Though we disagree on certain things, we agree on far more, and when our opinions diverge, we still hold to our greater unity in Christ. We gladly labor together as elders at the same church in Northern Virginia, meeting frequently for conversation. This response is offered in that spirit, allowing us to continue conversation in the public forum as we normally would in person.
In his post, Bob suggests that the founders’ letter represents mission creep in the PCA, with the desire to be “broadly Reformed” representing a change from the PCA’s founding mission. While Bob offers insight into some of our denominational weaknesses, I believe that his article presents a truncated view of our history and identity. This discussion demonstrates the continued struggle to define the identity of the PCA as a Reformed church in the 21st century.
Interpreting the Past
Bob’s main contention is that the 18 elders have chosen to rewrite the original vision of the PCA, from “total commitment to the Reformed tradition” to, in his words, “big tent PCA”, i.e., “broadly Reformed.” Bob helpfully exhorts readers of the letter to remember the original vision of the PCA (hereafter OV) set forth in the 1973 “Message to All Churches”. However, he rejects the letter from the 18 as an adequate interpretation of the OV, advocating an interpretation closer to that of Dr. Morton Smith.
Much can be said regarding the history of the PCA and the OV. First, we must acknowledge that there are different interpretations of the original material. In re-reading the founding document, I noted a particular emphasis on uniting commitment to Reformed heritage with evangelistic zeal. Dr. Smith’s work retains these commitments, but casts them in the form of rigorous Southern Presbyterianism. While Dr. Smith’s view is an interpretation of the original vision, it is not the only one. Dr. Tim Keller, drawing on research by Dr. Sean Lucas, observes that the PCA was, from its founding, intentionally integrationist, with representatives from a number of different strands of the American Reformed tradition comprising her identity. Put simply, the OV alone does not necessitate Dr. Smith’s view or the view of the 18, but is broad enough to encompass both.
Second, when seeking to apply the OV to the present day, we must consider another major event in our history: the 1982 Joining and Receiving with the RPCES. The church that emerged from the 1973 OV retained much of its heritage, with many maintaining the emphasis on “the spirituality of the Church” and other characteristics of the older Southern Church. Meanwhile, the RPCES signified a primarily Northern church with a heavy emphasis on cultural engagement and a desire for unity against the background of divisive fundamentalism. Given the merging of these different strands, Dr. Francis Schaeffer exhorted the new church to practice great patience in order to more fully realize the Gospel in the world. Now, to some, the J&R represents a shift away from the OV, but to others, a logical and necessary realization of the OV (i.e., “We greet all believers in an affirmation of the bonds of Christian brotherhood. We invite into ecclesiastical fellowship all who maintain our principles of faith and order.”). If this is the case, we must continue to let these various strands inform our Reformed identity.
What then of our commitment to the Standards? Bob sees strict subscription to the Standards as the only way of preserving “total commitment to the Reformed tradition”. Therefore, in the move to “good faith subscription” (GFS), the PCA jumped onto the slippery slope that led the PCUS astray. However, there are many who view GFS as the best way to realize our commitment to the tradition. The Westminster Divines purposely worded the Confession to be inclusive of a plurality of viewpoints on many issues; as Robert Letham demonstrates, the Westminster Standards are conciliatory documents. Additionally, mandating strict subscription alone does not guarantee true fidelity to the Standards. Too often in our history, “strict subscription” equals “subscription to one particular interpretation.” To be healthy, both strict subscription and GFS must actually be done in good faith. Thus, GFS can strengthen our commitment to the tradition, both in word and in intention. GFS at its best requires pastors to publically wrestle with the text and seek to understand its structure, nuance, and emphases, allowing the Confession to remain a vibrant document, speaking to every generation of presbyters. If Bob is right that GFS has divided us into tribalist camps, then we must take this as a call to do GFS better, striving to more strongly embody our commitment to our Reformed heritage.
Engaging the Present
In the quest to solidify the PCA’s identity in the coming generation, rehearsing history is not enough; we need to faithfully engage the present state of the church. In order to do this well, we must strive for more accurate categories and definitions. For instance, Bob describes the move towards good faith subscription as going “down the PCUS” road. Similarly, he opines that the term “broadly Reformed” “represents a slide back to towards the old PCUS ‘big tent.’ If the founders had really wanted a big tent, they would have stayed in the PCUS committed ‘to love and respect each other.’” Here, we must state emphatically that Big Tent PCUS and Big Tent PCA are completely different, and it is unfair to conflate them or say that one necessarily leads to the other.
Let’s go back to the OV. Here, the founders lay out the theological reasons for breaking camp with the PCUS, specifically the church’s “accepting other sources of authority, and from making them coordinate or superior to the divine Word.” This resulted in “a diluted theology, a gospel tending towards humanism, an unbiblical view of marriage and divorce, the ordination of women, financing of abortion on socio-economic grounds, and numerous other non-Biblical positions.” To claim that the theological battles facing the PCA now are on par with these ignores the evidence. While the issues of “paedocommunion, intinction, female pseudo-officers, Federal Vision, theistic evolution” are indeed contentious, and to many are deviations from the Scriptures, they 1) are not all held by a single camp in the PCA (i.e., some pastors may and do hold one and not the others), 2) emerge from different concerns and motivations (e.g. the motivation behind intinction is vastly different than theistic evolution), and 3) come from men deeply committed to the inerrant Scriptures. To paint these brothers with the same brushstroke as the pastors in the PCUS is simply inaccurate. As well, to suggest, as some do, that these views are all held by one camp of pastors (the liberals), and aided by the centrists (who are concerned about love and not truth), infelicitously divides the PCA into three camps, easily compartmentalized regardless of individual convictions.
As well, when discussing these matters, we need to jettison unspecified talk of left and right, and more carefully define conservative and liberal, for these too often carry around the baggage from either our political views or our church forefathers. Let’s be honest, the Federal Vision, whatever you think of it, is not to the “left” (nor “liberal” with respect to real theological liberalism – i.e., embracing of higher criticism, abandoning of the tenants of the Apostle’s Creed, etc.). When we label controversies and positions (of all sorts) as such, it draws unhelpful boundaries that work against honest, robust debate and allows brothers to be easily dismissed through caricatures and assumptions.
With a commitment to more accurate definitions, we see that being “broadly Reformed” is not simply a catchy phrase coming from some mushy middle, nor a slide into liberalism. We are not dealing with the same categories as former battles, and to label them as such prevents us from seeing what is really at stake. Given our history, we need to recognize that the PCA has always been “broadly Reformed” in that we have always had a diversity of views on certain issues matched with great unity on others. Thus, in the present, we need to continue nurturing this identity through a staunch commitment to forming study committees, and through robust and honest dialogue. To be “broadly Reformed” in the present is to engage a positive part of our identity, as we seek to embody the strengths of semper reformanda.
Entering the Future
The question remains, as Bob summarizes, what does it mean to be specifically PCA? From the OV to the present, we have worked to find a unifying identity, which recognizes the varying strands of Southern, Northern, Scottish, Puritan, Covenanter, and Dutch Reformed traditions in our midst. We are “broadly Reformed” with respect to this rich heritage, and yet conservative with respect to the character of the Scriptures and the application of GFS compared to other American Reformed denominations.
For us to better achieve unity in the coming years, we must restate our commitments. First, we are founded on the inerrant Word of God. Compared to other denominations, we honor this well; and to respect this foundation, we need to continue seeking humility, charity, and truth when we encounter those in our church with different opinions. Second, our theology and polity are given form in the Westminster Standards. It is lamentable that some of our elders tell of others’ lack of care for the Standards; especially in my (younger) generation, we need to renew our appreciation for and study of these documents with a robust commitment to public discussion in the spirit of GFS. Finally, we should engage our varied histories with integrity. Too often, cultural differences are misinterpreted as theological; frequently, brothers who, in reality, agree on many points can talk past each other because of personality or contextual differences, or simply because they are asking different questions of a common text. We must appreciate how our histories and contexts shape our theological expressions. The OV was born from the culture of the Southern Church, and we must understand how this cultural form impacts other theological commitments (e.g. how the “spirituality of the Church” impacts missiology). We need to wrestle with the cultural forms of the past and our current contexts to grow in maturity, truth, and righteousness. The answer is not getting back to the past, but embracing, nurturing, and maturing our combination of diverse strands of Reformed Presbyterianism that God has brought together in the body of the PCA. This will enable us to continue to navigate the issues we will face in the future. Thus, we can be broadly Reformed in the best sense: united in our commitment to the inerrant Word of God, given form by the Westminster Standards as our constitution, and embracing the rich, complex diversity of Reformed tradition within our walls. In this way, may we be a grace to the world, as the world experiences the Gospel in and through our church.