Thursday, September 25, 2008

PCA Denominational Renewal

I have to say there is some amazing stuff going on over in the Presbyterian Church of America. Now I am not a member of the PCA, and I don’t want to appear to be throwing stones for the RCUS has troubles of its own, we are just too small for them to become internet fodder. No one has sights dedicated to the troubles of the RCUS. That being said, I would like to lovingly point a few things out to my friends in the PCA.

There is a discussion now that follows up on a conference held a few months ago called Denominational Renewal. Of course the goal is to renew the PCA. Fair enough so far. The discussion includes negative voices and friendly voices and is supposed to be a denominational wide discussion. The latest talk was on Renewing Theology and is positively reviewed by John Frame. It is opposed by Sean Michael, a professor at Covenant Seminary. I believe the talk by Jeremy Jones and the response by Dr. Frame are fundamentally very dangerous, and I fear that it is being missed in the PCA.

Note one of Frame’s points.

3. The PCA is a “confessional church,” as we are often told. We should, however, forthrightly ask the question whether this is a good thing. If it is, what role should a 350 year old confession have in a contemporary church? Is it plausible to suggest that we should treat the confession in effect as an infallible presentation of biblical doctrine? How then can we do justice to the immense amount of quality biblical scholarship and theological reflection that has taken place since that time? Does confessionalism itself lead to sectarianism? If not, how can a confessional church guard against sectarians who appeal to the confession as a “golden age” document? On these matters I am, for now, content to ask questions, rather than presuming to provide answers.

This is little other than John Williamson Nevin, who is back in vogue even among Presbyterians. Confessionalism leading to sectarianism is pure Nevin speaking of creeds as a "necessary evil". The problem with the Confession for Frame is that it is old. It is not contemporary. And more importantly as he points out people will "appeal to it". That is the real problem for Frame. It is out of date and people want to use it anyway. Renewing Theology then becomes a modernization of theology or at least the bringing to bear scholarly developments to it. Implicitly then Frame is saying the Confession is flawed and thus wrong. He would probably want to couch it in terms of the WCF being a ‘second grade text book that is not enough for our 12th grade understanding of these subjects.’ At least that is the analogy used by Doug Wilson in his works not to mention Philip Schaff in his. What concerns me even more is that the opposing reviewer cannot quite put his finger on it. Michael states:

first, it strikes me that his proposal for renewing theology holds out great hope for “creative theological thinking.” And yet, if we pay attention to those witnesses of the past, like Irenaeus and Tertullian, they stressed not their creativity, but their unoriginality. . . . the unspoken tension in Jeremy’s paper is actually between “theology” and “history.” That is to ask, how does this rich confessional tradition (or, to maintain the stream of thought, collection of witnesses) called “the Reformed tradition” speak to contemporary theological reflection? Should “the Reformed tradition” be a privileged witness among other witnesses for those who subscription to a Reformed confessional standard? If so, how does such privileging work?

The tension is identified, but not exposed. Michael sees the "creative theological thinking" as a potential problem, but does not denounce it at all. He sees tension between theology in history in the talk, but does not seem to see that Renewing Theology means making sure theology keeps up with history.

Over at Green Baggins elder Bob Mattes goes into a review of these talks and Rev. Frame’s particularly. He quotes from Frame and then comments (the Frame quote is from above and is the first two lines).

How then can we do justice to the immense amount of quality biblical scholarship and theological reflection that has taken place since that time?
I’m not sure that I understand what Dr. Frame means by this question. Given my response to his last question, does he wish to say that someone has found an error in the Standards in the intervening period? I’m just not sure where he’s going here.

Elder Mattes is being too nice in my opinion here. Dr. Frame in context (as can be seen above) is putting scholarship in contraposition to the confession as an accurate summary of God’s Word although he uses the word infallible in order to make his case look better. Frame is essentially saying if you continue to appeal and use the WCF then you have rejected all the better learning and theological advancements we have made. That is Frame’s position. The goal obviously is the alteration of the WCF or its removal. Why else ask the question in such a fashion. This is the discussion that is going on under the noses of many in the PCA.

My loving brotherly encouragement to men like brother Mattes and Michael is to dig deeper into what they mean. Have the debate of whether history and modern scholarship really has advanced theology to the point of changing it substantially so that it needs to be renewed. Do not be distracted by the talk of theology is application to modern life because it is not. Theology is the study of God, words about God. I have no problem with applying theology to life, and I admit that as history and technology move forward we will apply our theology to new situations. But the talk of changing the way we apply theology or updating or contextualizing applications of theology is really a back door way to change the theology itself. Has man’s sinful condition changed so much that we need a new way of applying ‘justification by faith alone’? What about Scripture? Is allowing people to understand creation as either 6-day creation or Framework or Day-Age really just contextualizing the doctrine of creation for modern man or updating it considering all the great ‘science’ or is it altering the theology fundamentally?

Normally, I would keep my mouth shut about such things, or at least I might have. But, I fear that the PCA is letting its guard down. I have spoken to several who believe the threat of challenges to justification by faith and other fundamental doctrines are basically over since the Federal Vision has been “defeated”. Many have said it but Bob Mattes again gives it the best expression in a comment on Professor Michael’s essay.

Al - May I offer that our current constitution (Westminsters + BCO) handled everything thrown at it so far? To address your specific examples,the Standards handled Federal Vision nicely. Yes, it took a study committee to ferret out the details, but there's nothing wrong with a careful effort. Feminism in the church context is nicely covered in the BCO backed up by Scripture.

While I have no doubt the Westminster rejects Federal Vision the problem is far from handled. Rev. Wilkins left as a minister in good standing and is now a part of another denomination. We could all list several other ministers still in good standing in the denomination who follow the Federal Vision and contributed to a book by that title. The fight is not over, it is simply in a new phase. The direct attack failed. Now the back door approach comes. Read Dr. Frame again. He complains of appealing to a 350 year old document and how it hampers new scholarship. I hope you can all see how accepting this Denominational Renewal would allow the NEW perspectives on Paul and the Federal Vision in the driver seat.


Reformed said...


Thank you for your kind assessment of my post. Your essay is most illuminating. I had made a connection in my mind to ecumenicism, of course, but had not thought to link all this to Nevin and Mercersburg. I must ponder this some...

I do find it interesting that if one Googles on Nevin, many of the sites that come up are Federal Vision blogs. I hadn't made that connection before. I've mainly approached FV from the Norm Shepherd side of the equation.


Reformed Veritas said...

Excellent comment/insight. Frame's real problem with the WCF is that it is true, not old, but as a experienced theological shapeshifter and dialectical wordblender, he switches the two out and nobody has called him on it yet.
Bob S.

Andrew said...

At some point in the history of Anglicanism, it was decided that we were not a confessional church. I think it is safe to say that the results have not been very impressive.

It seems to me that if someone thinks a certain confessional standard is outdated, then they should try to change it through the proper ecclesiastical means. If the effort fails, one would have to submit or leave the fellowship. Throwing it out altogether leaves a theological void that will be filled by chaos. I cannot think of any historical example where this was not the case.