The court may grant an exception to any difference of doctrine only if in the court’s judgment the candidate’s declared difference is not out of accord with any fundamental of our system of doctrine because the difference is neither hostile to the system nor strikes at the vitals of religion. (21-4)Various presbyteries currently define this phrase differently, if at all. For some, denying 24-hour creation strikes at the "vitals of religion." For some, (evidently in the PNWP) paedocommunion does not strike at the "vitals of religion," while other presbyteries would strongly disagree. The subjective nature of this concept of "vitals" is, in our view, the fault line which will eventually be the cause of the PCA's split.
Heresy and schism may be of such a nature as to warrant deposition; but errors ought to be carefully considered, whether they strike at the vitals of religion and are industriously spread, or whether they arise from the weakness of the human understanding and are not likely to do much injury. (34-5)
If one searches the Book of Church Order for a definition of "vitals of religion," they will come up empty-handed. Hence, for many, giving communion to non-communing members is not only contrary to the Westminster Standards, but strikes at the vitals of religion, while others would beg to differ. A solution can be avoided for some time, but what will eventually happen is a denomination where Presbyteries are united denominationally who hold mutually different ideas of what the "vitals of religion" actually are. We are aware that this is already the case. Further, this in essence creates an undefined confession within our confession. This is problematic because our new confession is unstated and undefined.
One solution is strict subscription. In this view, candidates are not permitted exceptions.
Another solution is to continue as we are, watching the split spread from one end of the denomination to the other.
We propose a third way - a series of solutions that might help remedy the current situation:
- Amend the BCO with a definition of "vitals of religion."
- In this section, outline a uniform denomination-wide list of allowable exceptions. Currently, this is at the discretion of each Presbytery.
- When exceptions are taken, these should be "bound exceptions," meaning that the person taking the exceptions is not allowed to teach or in anyway inculcate anything contrary to the our Standards.
- Amending the standards. For example, many people take exception with the WCF in 7.4, which says that, "This covenant of grace is frequently set forth in Scripture by the name of a testament." It seems possible to argue that perhaps a change to the section needs to be made so that exceptions, such as these, are rarer and more meaningful.
If the notion of "vitals of religion" is not dealt with now, then what do we do in 30 years when it might be argued that women being ordained into the ministry of the PCA does not strike at the "vitals of religion"? Without a clear definition of this phrase (or its removal), it is difficult to see how an issue like this can be dealt with. We owe it to future generations of the PCA to deal with these questions now and to make the hard calls before the situation is completely out of our hands.