In 2010, Tim Keller wrote an essay titled, “What’s So Great about the PCA,” in which he identifies three branches of the PCA.1 These branches—which share a common DNA in the Reformed tradition—don’t have to be mutually exclusive, and often they differ more in emphasis than in substance. However, I think they are appropriate categorizations for understanding the current landscape of our denomination, and anyone seeking ministry in the PCA should be familiar with them.
In brief, they are the doctrinalists, the pietists, and the culturalists.2 Doctrinalists—also known as TRs (truly/totally Reformed), confessionalists, or strict subscriptionists—are most concerned with preserving our distinctive Reformed heritage, as expressed in the Westminster Standards and the Three Forms of Unity. Pietists are known for their concern with individual spirituality and revival (this probably comprises the majority camp in the PCA). By contrast, culturalists—also known as transformationalists or neo-Calvinists—are the most “outward-looking” of the three. They see cultural engagement and transformation as the task of every Christian, and they are the most open to innovation and adaptation.
My goal here is to give a defense for the branch with which I identify most—the culturalists. I do this not to minimize the importance of the other branches (I readily admit that we need them to shore up our own weaknesses), but rather to demonstrate the unique and valuable ways in which we culturalists can contribute to both the PCA and the evangelical world as a whole. I propose the following list as descriptive (but not necessarily exhaustive) of what makes a culturalist Presbyterian (hereafter “CP”):
A CP emphasizes common grace. We see God’s grace in all that is good, even outside the walls of the church. We call it “common,” not because it is somehow cheap or base, but because God is lavish in bestowing it upon everyone, both the righteous and the wicked (Ps. 145:8-9; Matt. 5:45). Now technically, the doctrine of common grace isn’t unique to CPs. It is well established in the Reformed tradition, and very few have denied it (such as Herman Hoeksema). However, CPs are unique in ascribing to common grace such a central role in their thinking. Whereas doctrinalists may view the world with suspicion, and pietists may rather turn inward in favor of personal spiritual growth, CPs will often sound much more “world-affirming.” The basis for this affirmation is the neo-Calvinist distinction between structure and direction—we can still see the goodness of creational structures (such as science, the arts, etc.), even when such structures are directed toward ungodly ends.3
A CP seeks the redemption of every sphere of life for Christ. A common complaint among culturalists is that evangelicals often reduce the biblical story to two chapters: fall and redemption. In reality, the biblical story begins with creation and ends with new creation. Just as the whole created order manifests God’s grace, so it cries out for redemption from the corrupting effects of sin (Rom. 8:19-21). In contrast to the doctrine of the “two kingdoms” or “spirituality of the church,” CPs desire to faithfully serve in God’s mission to bring all of creation under the redemptive lordship of Christ. We see no division between sacred and secular. We build upon the work of Abraham Kuyper, who famously said, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, ‘Mine!’” We value social justice and creation care, and seek to continue the mission of the Servant of Isaiah: “He will not grow faint or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his law” (Isa. 42:4).4
A CP is cautiously open to modern scholarship. We recognize that the church doesn’t have a monopoly on the truth. Rather, all truth is God’s truth (again, this is common grace). Therefore, when modern scholars speak, our instinct is first to listen sympathetically, then to re-examine our biblical interpretations, and finally to critique with biblical convictions. We are critical realists, and we recognize that our presuppositions aren’t always right. One key example of this would be on the doctrine of creation. More than either doctrinalists or pietists, CPs are often willing to adopt old-earth creationism. We recognize that God’s Word is entirely true, but we also believe that science—when used properly—can be used to advance our understanding of Scripture’s true meaning. In essence, we are following in the Augustinian tradition of “plundering the Egyptians.” To be sure, this can also be a fault, and CPs need the doctrinalists and pietists to keep in check our instinctive desire to find common ground with unbelievers.
A CP is willing to reform the Reformed tradition. We believe in the Protestant doctrine of semper reformanda (“always being reformed”), and we believe in subordinating our confessions to Scripture. We hold to the system of doctrine as set forth in the Westminster Standards, but we recognize that it is not the final word on matters of doctrine. Rather, we should always be striving to perfect our theology, even as we build upon our tradition. As a fellow culturalist minister once said, “The Westminster Confession is like an old wooden sailing ship. It will get you where you need to go, but it might not be the most efficient way to get there.”
A CP values cross-denominational unity. We are proud of our Reformed heritage. In fact, many of us have come from non-Reformed backgrounds and have consciously chosen Presbyterianism because of its theological merits. However, our vision of the church is much broader. We see ourselves in connection with Lutherans, Baptists, Methodists—even Catholics and Eastern Orthodox. We are willing to point out theological errors in other denominations, but we are very judicious in our use of the word “heresy.” The reason is not because of some ill-defined desire for inclusivity at all costs. It is rather because of our recognition that God has always preserved a remnant of his people throughout the ages (not merely since the 16th century). Therefore, we tend to draw the broad limits of orthodoxy at Nicea-Chalcedon rather than Westminster.5
A CP is politically eclectic. Now first let me be clear: within the PCA, there is no debate over abortion or gay marriage. We are in unanimous agreement that human life begins at conception, and that God created sex to be enjoyed within the bounds of marriage between one man and one woman. But aside from those two issues, we are wary of the knee-jerk political conservatism that is so widespread among evangelicals today.6 We desire to have our political views informed more by Scripture than by temperament. For example, when it comes to the matter of immigration, should our priority be protecting our borders and keeping jobs for our own citizens, or should it be “loving the sojourner among us” (Deut. 10:18-19)?7 These are complex issues, but in general CPs desire a more nuanced approach that doesn’t always conform to any particular partisan platform.
1. This essay elaborates upon a previous essay of his in 2003, titled “The Cultures of the Presbyterian Church in America.” His categorizations are borrowed from an even earlier essay by George Marsden in Reformed Theology in America (1997). Some have suggested that Keller’s trichotomy might better be simplified as a dichotomy between young and old—the former being more concerned with “credibility,” and the latter with “control.” Or, for that matter, it might simply be reduced to the familiar distinction between progressives and conservatives. There is some truth in all of these categorizations, but Keller’s trichotomy seems to do best justice to the complexity and nuance of our denominational landscape.
2. For readers familiar with John Frame’s multi-perspectivalism, doctrinalist is “normative,” pietist is “existential,” and culturalist is “situational.”
3. Al Wolters, Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformational Worldview (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005), 87ff.
4. [Update:] At the same time, we recognize that there is only one Redeemer, and we are not him. God may choose to work cosmic redemption by means of his elect, but we must be wary of turning our cultural efforts into an over-zealous triumphalism. Redemption is not a check box that we can put on our daily to-do list. We may plant the seeds, but God causes them to grow (1 Cor. 3:7).
5. Readers of church history may be familiar with the Old School/New School controversy in 19th-century Presbyterianism. Culturalists generally follow in the tradition of the New School. See Sean Michael Lucas, On Being Presbyterian (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2006), 185-205.
6. This point applies more specifically to those CPs influenced by the Dutch tradition. There is a culturalist wing of Southern Presbyterianism that would take a more uniformly conservative political position.
7. On the topic of immigration, see my post here.