For a Continuing Church: A Review, Part One


Introduction: Identity and Reformation

“Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.”[1]

Wisdom, according to John Calvin, requires an accurate self-assessment. That Calvin sets this assertion at the very head of his magisterial Institutes shows that the calling to have accurate self-knowledge is integral to the task of reformation. This self-assessment – about our past condition, our present temptations, and our aspirations for spiritual health – ultimately hinges on the question of Christian identity: who are we in Christ? Failure to grasp this foundation of Christian identity eventually belies a distorted knowledge of God, which unravels all hopes for true wisdom. This is true of individuals and of institutions. Any institution worth its salt will regularly reflect on its fidelity to its identity. History is replete with anecdotes of failed institutions, from companies to governments, whose downfall stemmed from an unwillingness to engage in such frank evaluation. For Christian institutions, as for Christians themselves, this mandate takes on a heightened importance, because the clarity of such knowledge impacts the ability to communicate God’s wisdom. Dr. Sean Lucas gives an excellent resource for such self-examination in For a Continuing Church: The Roots of the Presbyterian Church in America. [2] This powerful recounting of the historical roots of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), portraying our strengths and our failings with truth and charity, enables the PCA to continue the work of maturation and reformation.

Lucas’ work is timely, as much of our doctrinal discussion hinges on this very question of identity: who are we? Whether considering race, creation days, the women of the church, or the language of God in missionary contexts, the question of identity has loomed large in recent General Assemblies. Are we a big-tent Presbyterian denomination, embracing the best of Reformed evangelicalism and making room for various nuances in Reformed orthodoxy? Or does this big-tent theology simply give into the worst of ecclesial quietism, where a few “progressives” posit ideas that are then accommodated by the larger “mushy middle”? The debate about present identity has its sights on historical interpretation – who did we start out to be? At this crucial junction in our denomination’s history, as the older generation of the founders passes the torch, different camps are vying to control the PCA’s “origin story.” Lucas offers an authoritative answer: the PCA, from its inception, sought to be a conservative, Reformed, evangelical, and mainline church. As a conservative church, they would seek to defend the orthodox interpretation of the Scriptures, not embracing the latest fads of theological liberalism. As a solidly Reformed church, they would hold to the teachings of the Westminster Standards as a faithful articulation of the Reformed faith. And, as an evangelical and mainline denomination, they would obey the Great Commission as their main mission, linking arms with like-minded evangelical organizations and seeking both to win souls and to preserve the best of American civilization for future generations.

The Roots of the PCA’s Identity

Starting from the early 1900’s, Lucas explores the degeneration of the theology in the Presbyterian Church in the United States (the PCUS or the “Southern Church”), leading to the eventual split in 1973. Over the course of these seven decades, the PCUS increasingly compromised the three key areas that, to conservatives, signaled their slide from orthodoxy: the Word of God, the Reformed tradition, and the Great Commission. The story of this slide into theological liberalism is tragically sorrowful, as the conservative struggle to preserve faithfulness in these areas often ended in grief and disunity. At the same time, this story is peppered with examples where conservatives failed to live up to their ideals, at their best being simply inconsistent and at their worst baptizing the status quo of a segregationist and fearful culture. Lucas tells this story with both compassion and openness, recounting the tale of controversy, marginalization, and debate, as brothers argued with brothers for the future of the church they all loved.

For the conservatives within the PCUS, the Word of God was the foundation of the Church, and any attempt to undermine its integrity also struck at the heart of Christian religion. Thus, while there were many flashpoints of theological controversy, including the mission of the church, the nature of church leadership, the purity of worship, and the usefulness of the Westminster standards, the “problem beneath the problem” was misuse of God’s Word. Lucas charts the rise of liberal theology, from Walter Lingle’s teaching on the Kingdom of God in the early 1900’s, Hay Watson Smith’s attack on inerrancy in the 1920’s, to the attempts to merge with the theologically liberal Northern Church in the 1940’s-50’s, and the proliferation of liberalized theology through the Church’s publishing agencies in the 1960’s. At each turn, the conservatives attempted to preserve the inerrancy of the Scriptures through the courts of the Church; at each attempt, their efforts were thwarted. Small gains were offset by larger losses, as the Church exonerated theologians who held to divergent views and the conservative voice became increasingly marginalized in the actions of the General Assembly.

As the PCUS became more accepting of liberal theology in biblical interpretation, their adherence to the Reformed tradition and the Great Commission became correspondingly more lax. As early as 1934, the GA entertained motions from presbyteries that would alter the scope of the Westminster Standards, either by limiting the extent to which ministers were required to embrace them or by adding to or editing the chapters of the Confession. Though these actions would not be fully settled until 1942, the doorway had been opened for the revision and diminution of the Standards. In the decades before their departure, the conservatives would continue to demonstrate that, once untethered from the anchor of Scripture, the winds of modernism would blow the Church far from the shores of Reformed orthodoxy.

This drift from orthodoxy also impacted the Church’s mission. In the minds of conservatives, the mission of the Church was to evangelize and preach the Gospel, not speak into social problems. They shared with the progressives a desire to see America redeemed for Christ; however, they felt that the Church’s role in such national reformation was exclusively the preaching of the Gospel in worship and evangelism. Though they applied this principle inconsistently, for these pastors, using the pulpit to reform politics was simply embracing the social gospel, which itself was a product of theological liberalism. As with the other issues, the seeds for division were sown early, as influential Presbyterians supported social issues like the temperance movement at the turn of the century. This impulse only grew, though conservatives cried foul, as the recently-established Committee on Social and Moral Welfare became a permanent fixture in the landscape of the PCUS in the late 1930’s. In subsequent decades, this committee would advocate many politically liberal policies, encouraging the Church to become more activist leaning. In addition to this watering down the mission of the Church, the PCUS’s conservative pastors seethed because their parishioners’ tithes were being misused, supporting liberal politics rather than the spread of the Gospel. To counter this, alternative structures were eventually developed to channel conservatives’ funding toward conservatives’ values.

Thus, the pathway to disunion was actively laid: decades of frustration combined with a budding infrastructure of conservative organizations committed to communicating a cohesive vision for church reform and advancing missions and evangelism. In 1973, the movement to establish a Continuing Church formed the National Presbyterian Church, to be renamed the Presbyterian Church in America the following year. They adopted the Westminster Standards as the articulation of the Reformed faith and a faithful interpretation of the inerrant Word of God, and the conservative parachurch agencies as vehicles for the faithful propagation of the Gospel. However, while maintaining the full Reformed system of doctrine, the new church also sought to maintain a “mainline” identity; that is, they wanted to be an active, even leading, participant in the evangelical movement fighting to preserve American civilization from secularization and crumbling morality. This vision – Reformed and mainline – required consensus. The founders made room at the table for “Old school” Presbyterians as well as “Presbyterian evangelicals”. They hoped for a truly national church. And, though they often fell short of this goal, the new denomination was explicitly racially inclusive.

Evaluating Our Identity

In twelve chapters covering the larger portion of a century, Lucas faithfully unearths “the roots of the Presbyterian Church in America.” He offers exacting research and an unswerving commitment to honestly assess the motivations of Southern conservatives. At the same time, he does so as one who loves the PCA; his motivation is not to simply expose our dirty laundry, but to shine the light of truth into the fetid corners of our history in order to bring healing. With a growing number of books that uncover the thread of racism in the story of the PCA, Lucas’ commitment to the denomination makes For a Continuing Church a particularly valuable tool for the PCA’s continual process of reformation.

In documenting the fight against ecclesial liberalization, Lucas consistently draws readers’ attention to what these conservatives were fighting for: their idea of a Continuing Church, a Reformed, mainline, evangelical Church. They saw themselves as the standard-bearers of the best of the Southern Church, which stood in distinction from the Northern Church as one committed to biblical and Reformed orthodoxy. Their mainline inclinations undergirded their willingness to engage in the broader evangelical movement and their aspiration to have the Gospel preserve not only the Church, but also American civilization. Thus, the PCA was not formed as the continuation of “Old School Southern Presbyterianism,” but of Southern mainline Reformed evangelicalism. In this fight to preserve this Continuing Church, these conservatives demonstrated courage in their commitment to the Church’s purity. They also demonstrated a commitment to unity, seeing ecclesial separation as the last measure, to be undertaken with tears not gloating. As such, they are a model of sacrifice and faithfulness.

At the same time, Lucas gives an uncompromising portrait of denominational blind spots. The new Southern denomination inherited the baggage of a century’s worth of Southern conservatism, where previous generations of Presbyterians had inconsistently applied their own stated values. The “spiritual mission of the Church” was applied largely in a selective manner that ultimately served to preserve the Southern way of life. The same pastors who stood for the inerrant Word, the pure Reformed faith, and the evangelizing mandate of the Great Commission also defended Southern conservatism and racism. Those who decried the GA’s left-leaning political policies as a breach of the “spirituality of the Church” also felt free to speak about states’ rights, opposing school integration and encouraging the development of private, church-sponsored academies that would ultimately serve to resist the Supreme Court’s ruling on Brown v. Board of Education. Although some took a more pragmatic approach to the question of race, and although many were becoming more racially-inclusive by the time of the conservative separation of 1973, Lucas takes seriously the need to catalog failures as well as strengths and does not shy away from publishing the statements of our forefathers that make us wince at both latent and overt racism. Therefore, the roots of the PCA include both the good and the bad, and any statement of our identity that includes only those areas we are proud of ultimately falls short.

This review will be continued in Part Two, which addresses the application of the PCA’s identity to denominational tensions.


[1] John Calvin, The Institutes of Christian Religion, 1.1.1

[2] I’m grateful to P&R Publishing for a review copy of this book.

About Billy Boyce

Billy is a pastor in Arlington, Virginia. His work and life aim to see Christ's Gospel embodied in the community of the Church for the sake of the world and the glory of God.

2 Responses to “For a Continuing Church: A Review, Part One”


  1. For a Continuing Church: A Review, Part Two | Allkirk Network - December 13, 2016

    […] Part One of this review offers an evaluation of For a Continuing Church and its main thesis concerning the […]

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