Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Another Thought on the Federal Vision and the PCA: Despising a Confessional Birthright

The Presbyterian Church in America is a confessional church. This does not mean that it has created a document it places on par with Scripture, which can never be improved upon or amended, nor does it mean that every minister and elder must submit to every particular of its creed.

It does, however, mean that every minister and elder agrees that the sum and substance of that confession is a faithful and accurate statement of the faith delivered to us in the Word of God.

In the history of the Reformed world, many ministers have found adherence to a confession to be a theological straightjacket. The history of denominations seems to indicate that, with time, confessions themselves become mere relics, without any sort of binding authority.

I can appreciate that some men would not want to be bound by our confession, particularly in the way we have chosen to make it binding. Our denomination is a voluntary association, and such men probably would rightly find a more amenable home in a less conservative denomination, of which there are many.

As it is, ministers in our denomination vow to uphold the Westminster Confession of Faith and its two Catechisms. One might hope that we do this because we love it, and esteem it, not because we deem it perfect in the way Scripture is perfect. I don't think a man has to own every aspect fleshed out in the Westminster Standards, but we do have to subscribe to them as containing the system of doctrine.

In my last post, I highlighted the case of a man who, in the estimation of myself, and at least 28 other PCA pastors, members, and elders, does not do that. The presbytery of which he is a member found differently --they have exonerated the man, and we await the full report. In the meanwhile, the same court, without any sort of process whatsoever, determined that we who signed the letter are all liars. I ask you to judge for yourself.

The aforementioned man, in 2008, publicly stated this:

When will modern Presbyterians admit that this 500-year-old document is no longer sufficient? Man, everybody in conservative Presbyterian circles talks as if Westminster was the high-point, and therefore the end-point of Reformation era creed-writing. But it often strikes me to be exactly the opposite—a sterile document that signaled the end of creative theological reflection in the Reformed churches. And what do we think? This 17th-century scholastic document will be enough for the next 100 years? 500 years? Silly. Just silly.

Notice the language: Not only does he think that our confession is sterile, and signaling the end of creative theological reflection in the Reformed churches.

Now, it did nothing of the kind, of course. There has been all sorts of creative theological expression in Reformed churches, much of it unfaithful to Scripture, but much of it within the bounds of orthodoxy. It is hard to see how any scholar of the history of the Reformed faith could read such a statement without laughing, if he considers for a moment names like Edwards, Warfield, Bavinck and Kuyper.

Yet, that is not the main issue. Let us grant that the Confession is as he says it is: sterile. Let us grant that the document will not be "enough" (enough for what is left unsaid) for the next 100 or 500 years. Let us grant that it is silly of us to think so.

How, then, could this man, in good faith, own this confession? Why, then, does he not find another voluntary association which is more open to theological development than he perceives his own to be? Why, instead, does he continue to say to certain groups of people that he loves the confession and is quite happy laboring under its dictates, and then, in open forums, goes on to deride not only the confession to which he has subscribed, but all who hold it dear?

I have been instructed by his court to treat his words charitably. That is, of course, a judgment call, and an implicit judgment that, in the past, I have not done so. Judge for yourselves. Put the most charitable interpretation on these words that you can. What is your thought?


  1. Perhaps he is arguing that the Federal Vision Joint Profession is part of the evolution of Reformation creeds. He is entitled to think that.

    The church under whose discipline he has submitted himself has considered that possibility and found that rather than improving upon Westminster, the Federal Vision is an entirely different, parallel, and hostile system.

    Integrity on his part would be to leave.

    What would integrity on that church's part be? Certainly it would not be to say "there is room for all of us here."

    In God's providence, I was preaching Romans 16:17-20 (finishing 3 years in Romans this week) the day after the Presbytery handled the case.

    Startlingly, it says that the divisive person is the one who says that his contrary doctrine can coexist with the gospel in the church. It commands the church to turn away from him. This implies that he is trying to stay a part of the church.

    Have we obeyed Romans 16:17-18 in this case? Not yet. May Christ give us courage through His Spirit to be covenantally faithful and turn away from the contrarian teacher.

  2. I think these FV/NPP folks are about to make me mad. I'm going to take a stand on historically proven doctrine that has stood strong since the time of Augustine rather than join a fad of the last 20 minutes (historically speaking) that is nothing more than Galatianism in fanciful garments.

    These people need to go. There are places for them to go. May the Lord help them if they are ever in a presbytery with men of conviction. It's heresy and I'll tell 'em.

  3. Ken,

    I think the reason he stays could be from a number of factors, which incidentally makes the issue harder to nail down so as to clarify.

    (1) 'System of doctrine'

    If he's like Leithart, Myers is probably perfectly candid in stating what he disagrees with the Confession. I've never seen his list of scruples, but I have seen Leithart's. And the point is this -- Leithart sincerely doesn't see his scruples as placing him beyond the 'big tent' of the PCA.

    IOW, (from their perspective) "OK, fine...I'm guilty of disagreeing with all the formulations as written in the Standards. My 'broader theology' is still within the bounds of the Confessional Standards and Reformed theology."

    Now *you* might look at that as dishonest, if not delusional. But, when you look at it from their shoes, I think it explains (in part) why *they* don't just up and leave.

    (2) Are GA reports binding?

    But doesn't the GA report "condemn" the FV? Well, sure....but then there's the question of to what degree was the report binding?

    Speaking for myself, I agree with the report. Had I been present in '07, I would have even voted for the report! But I don't think such reports are *binding* to the degree that men like Myers are required to immediately vacate their PCA ordination! A report as such is more like a 'view of the landscape', where we get an opportunity to see that the majority of PCA elders in 2007 appear to be against the FV/NPP.

    If anything, I think the Report provoked the *right* kind of response out of Peter Leithart. Leithart correctly perceived that the report stood against his views, so he immediately went to his Presbytery to ask for clarification on what they were going to do to him. Whether Myers did something correspondingly similar in his Presby, I don't know. I think that would have been the right course of action.

    (3) A Sterile Confession?

    As much as I disagree with the FV, his comment about 'old confessions' raises a point that I can mildly sympathize with. I think there are people in our midst that really think the original WCF is 'the best' confession possible, so much so that one can somehow freeze pristine Reformed orthodox somewhere around 1646. And thus, any subsequent 'theological development' must by definition be a step down!

    I read Myers' 'sterile' statement as a response to that kind sentiment. Of course, that's not the universal anti-FV position; it might only be a minority. But it's there, and even this FV opponent is troubled when I hear people act like the FV issue is as simple as declaring it 'unconfessional.' The fact of the matter is that the FV or NPP weren't on the table in the 1700's. It's our problem, not our forefathers! And if we can't fight their bad exegesis with better exegesis, then we dishonor Christ's Word as well as demonstrate that we really aren't as Reformed as our forefathers.

    The problem with Myers comes in building a mountain out of a molehill, calling them 'sterile.' Because if he really thought that, then he should have sought a different denomination that actually made good on writing a new "less sterile" confession that made explicit on all of these new insights.

    But to come back to it, I think you guys did the right thing by contacting his Presby and, in a sense, forcing their hand. How that is or could be interpreted as a violation of the 9th Commandment, I have no idea. That's just ludicrous. Frankly, I'm tired of people throwing out 9th commandment responses every time we raise *any* sort of objections about someone we disagree with.

  4. First, all, thanks for your responses.

    Matt, thanks for your thoughts.

    In principle, I would agree that there is nothing that inherently binds us to an ancient confession. I can resonate with the thought expressed by Jason Spellman (wherever it originated) that we need to say less more emphatically. Some denominations do this by owning the 3 Forms of Unity from the German / Dutch tradition which, though ancient, is less punctiliar particularly in the realm of application. Others do it by owning just the Confession and not the Catechisms. A new creed could be written.

    Yet, the real issue is not which creed but how it is held.

    I agree that the exegetical and theological work must always be done. I would argue that, though I have my issues with Kline, he would seem to be the antidote to much of this.

    I don't sense anyone arguing that the theological debate can be won on the ground of creeds and confessions, but rather only the ecclesiastical debate. Those are not unrelated, but the difficulty is this --we are not bound by oath to particular exegesis, whereas we, as presbyters, have bound ourselves by oath to a particular creedal formula. The real issue, then, is one of our word, and the integrity with which we hold our confession.

    I am fairly latitudinarian on a host of issues. I will contend for what I think is right, but, if I lose those debates, I am content simply to engage them in the realm of ideas. This is not one of those areas.

  5. The full and legitimate Missouri Presbytery report is here:

    I have only skim read it, as it is just released, but it contains some very troubling and problematic elements.

  6. I was quite specific in that quotation. I don't "despise" our confession or catechisms.

    But I do reject the notion that the Westminster Standards are sufficient for all times and places. Where I am required to confess the “sufficiency” of the Westminster Standards? My ordination vows? The Confession of Faith? The Catechisms? The Westminster Confession warns us against elevating human documents to the level of infallibility. WCF 31.3 says, “All synods or councils, since the apostles’ times, whether general or particular, may err; and many have erred. Therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith, or practice; but to be used as a help in both.”

    Why then is the WCF thought to be the infallible, unchangeable rule of faith for all time by some men? My point in this comment you quoted has to do with the undue veneration that has been paid to this 17th-century document. Decrying its misuse does not imply that I have no place for its proper use. To say that it is not “sufficient” to provide answers to all of our questions in the 21st century is not to suggest that it has no value “to help” (as 31.3 makes clear). But the Bible alone is sufficient. I know of no Reformed doctrine of the “sufficiency of Westminster” or the “sufficiency of Dort,” for that matter. I’ll stand by that. To say that it is rather “sterile” for modern times is to critique its scholastic FORM not the truth of the Scriptures that are embodied in its 17th-century language and thought forms.

    To continue to use a 500-year-old document as the final arbiter of all “controversies of religion” goes against the core principles of the WCF itself. The divines themselves did not determine what was true and biblical by some strict subscription to some earlier creedal document. They went to the Scriptures. And in their opening chapter on the Holy Scripture they warned us about the temptation to do otherwise. Twice we are told that “in all controversies of religion” the church is always to finally appeal to the Scriptures (1:8; 1:9).

    Finally, it is rather provincial, un-historical, and, yes, silly to think that the Westminster Standards will “be enough” to guide the church in the next 100-500 years. I’ll stand by that. No human creed or confession or catechism is sufficient for its own time, let alone for ages to come. Why is this document the last confessional document needed till the end of time? I see this as just another way of confessing the absolute sufficiency of Holy Scripture and warning against idolizing human confessional documents. What’s so un-Reformed about that?

  7. As for the "sterile" comment, perhaps that was not the right choice of words. Remember, you are lifting a quotation from an ad hoc comment I made on someone else's blog posts. I think you have to extend some charity when you are analyzing quotations from informal comments on blogs. Nevertheless, I did say it. What did I mean?

    But see if this works. Something is "sterile" it lacks the power to produce fruit. So the language and categories of these 17th-century documents are simply not capable of capturing the interest and imagination of people in the 21st century. That's all I meant. I've seen this over and over as a pastor for the past 25 years. It lacks the power and usefulness that it once had. That's all.

    Remember, Westminster comes at the END of a very fruitful time of confession and catechism writing in the post-Reformation era. Lot's of confessions and catechism written with a view to instructing and guiding nations, regions, and cities. No one felt the need to impose one confession on everyone. This was healthy and good. After Westminster (not because of Westminster) that all ended, for whatever reason. The documents are "sterile" because we don't live in the 17th-century any more. The language and thought forms are somewhat alien. We need to apply the Bible to our own locations and times in fresh, compelling ways.

  8. Jeff,

    Thanks for explaining yourself further. I still find your reasoning highly problematic and worrisome.

    I do think that all of us need to be careful to be precise, whatever the forum. As preachers, we know how people hear our words can be very different from how we intend them.

    The judgment of charity should be extended to persons, but not to their words, I think. If my words are wrong, I want to be called on them, and given a chance to qualify, clarify, or retract. I've retracted often!

    One question, though. Who, exactly, is treating the Standards as infallible? As it is, we have all vowed to labor under them. The standard for changing them is, quite understandably, high.

    As hollow as this might seem in the aftermath of everything, Jeff, I want to commit to pray for you and your congregation --not that God will "straighten you out," (though I do think there are some substantial issues here), but I know this could not have been an easy time for you or them.

  9. I agree. Why bind yourself with an association that you do not agree with. That's like a presbyterian associating with a baptist church and disagreeing with the way they do baptism.

  10. Intolerance is the great sin of our age or so say those 'churchmen' who desire catholicity in the PCA. Thus, being charitable means to call heretics brothers. If you cannot call them brothers then these stalwart churchmen would have you leave the denomination as 'bad pastors'. Because if the theology of F/V is okay then you are deficient as elders. What a disgrace to the gospel of Christ Jesus.