Friday, June 5, 2015

The PCA In the Horns of a Dilemma OR Why Does the PCA Have a Confession At All?

North Texas Presbytery and Tennessee Valley Presbytery have put forth overtures to the PCA General Assembly this year suggesting the creation of a study committee regarding the recreation clause of the Westminster Standards. Others have already pointed out that there is probably a hugely widespread misunderstanding among those coming into the PCA about what was meant by these clauses, and addressing that isn’t my purpose here today. Rather, I want to suggest that the PCA needs to be reminded of why it has a confession to begin with.

What is a confession? And why do we have them? R.L. Dabney defines a confession as “a summary statement of what some religious teacher or teachers believe concerning the Christian system, stated in their own uninspired words.” The case for the use of such confessions is two-pronged: a) It has biblical precedent, and b) it makes practical sense.

There are examples of creeds (albeit inspired creeds) in Scripture (Phil. 2:6-11; 2 Tim. 2:11-13). Joseph Pipa, Jr., in his article “The Confessing Church,” argues that confessions are not only biblical, but that they are commanded. He does so on the basis of 2 Tim. 1:13-14. While it is hard to see a specific command for confessions in this passage, it is easy to see how confessions might nevertheless be a means to keeping this particular command of Paul. In this regard there is something to be said for pragmatic arguments in favor of confessions. [1]

Samuel Miller makes his case for the use of creeds in his booklet “On the Utility and Importance of Creeds.” Miller makes multiple arguments in favor of creeds, but among his strongest is his argument that creeds play a practical role in the life of the church: namely, they make unity possible.  “Without a creed explicitly adopted, it is not easy to see how the ministers and members of any particular church, and more especially a large denomination of Christians, can maintain unity among themselves.” And so creeds are a means of keeping unity among the people of God. Because the practical purpose of the creed is to promote the unity of those who hold to it, Miller says that creeds “always ought to contain a number of articles besides those which are fundamental.” The result of this process is a creed that is not merely composed of the bare essentials of the faith, but also of those things that the creed’s adherents cannot live in harmony without clarifying.

The PCA currently finds itself in the horns of two problems: (I) the problem of “good faith subscription” and (II) the problem of common exceptions. As Overtures 2 and 9 before the 2015 General Assembly point out, exceptions regarding the “no recreation” clause are so commonplace as to barely register a reaction in most presbyteries.

With regard to the first problem (I), the PCA requires subscription to the Westminster Confession and Catechisms, but it does so on the basis of “good faith” (BCO 19-2). This phrase “good faith,” of course, introduces a slippery element of subjectivity. The problem being that what one person might be able to affirm in good faith may be different than what another might be able to affirm in good faith. The result of this form of subscription is that doctrinal standards will actually have an unspoken, unofficial confession within the Westminster Standards, and that unspoken “good faith” confession, at the practical level, will effectively become the new de facto standard of the denomination.

The second problem (II) is the common-ness of exceptions in the PCA. Because the confession is held by its adherents to accurately reflect the teachings of Scripture, “An exception to the Confession, from the point of view of the Church confessing, is an exception to the teaching of Scripture.” [2] This implies that any exception with the standards ought to be regarded by the ruling body as a very serious and troubling issue. From the position of the confession’s adherents, the person who takes exception with the confession is taking exception with the teaching of Scripture and must now decide if the disagreement with Scripture is serious enough for them not to form a ministerial relationship. Currently exceptions are both expected (some men go so far as to question your honesty if you say you don’t have exceptions) and are seen as no big deal to many. This, of course misses the seriousness of an exception.

For some, the question of confessional subscription is one of looseness of subscription — of how closely a man may or may not hold to the written document. David Coffin, however, argues that this gets the dilemma all wrong: “the debate about subscription is really a conflict about which articles ought to be subscribed to, not the strictness, or looseness, of the subscription.” [3]

In light of this helpful point, perhaps the best and most practical thing to do in the PCA is to take steps that will make allowable exceptions to the Confession and Catechisms exceedingly rare or else difficult to get past the Presbytery. This can either be done by (A) moving to a form of strict subscription (instead of “good faith” subscription) while removing the parts of the confession that are the most common sources of exceptions. Or this can also be done by (B) moving to strict subscription while keeping the Confession and Catechisms just as rigid as they already are. The practical result of (A) would be a less robust confessional environment that makes room for a broader coalition of men (“A Big Tent”) who will presumably be required to take less exceptions and presumably will encourage greater unity in terms of confessional adherence. The practical result of (B) would be a smaller denomination that is more tightly bound together in terms of Confessional adherence but also, perhaps, with a greater claim to historic Reformed pedigree.

The answer as to what to do about the two problems mentioned above [(I) and (2)] will require soul searching on the part of the leadership of the PCA, and answering what to do is certainly above this writer’s pay grade. Many would argue that none of these options are viable and that the status quo should probably end up ruling the day. Whatever the case may be, the current environment is not conducive to the unity in truth that a creed is intended to promote.

[1] Carl Trueman argues that Paul, in 2 Tim. 1, is referring to something resembling a confession of his own here, though he doesn’t go so far as Pipa in arguing that confessions are here commanded. See Carl R. Trueman. The Creedal Imperative (Kindle Locations 1121-1122). Crossway. Kindle Edition.
[2] David F. Coffin Jr., “The Justification of Confessions and the Logic of Confessional Subscription,” in The Practical Calvinist: An Introduction to the Presbyterian and Reformed Heritage, ed. Peter A. Lillback (Fearn, Ross-shire, UK: Christian Focus Publications, 2002), 340.
[3] Coffin, 337.

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