For a Continuing Church: A Review, Part Two

Note: Part One of this review offers an evaluation of For a Continuing Church and its main thesis concerning the PCA’s identity.

lucas-for-a-continuing-church

Applying Our Identity

As Dr. Sean Lucas convincingly establishes throughout For a Continuing Church, the PCA was formed as a “conservative ‘mainline’ Presbyterian body.” The founders chose to establish broader boundaries for the new denomination, self-consciously preferencing church unity on the essentials of the Reformed faith, rather than narrow doctrinalism or sectarianism, which focused on the purity of the Reformed faith to the detriment of the Church’s outward mission. Yet, they wanted to preserve this unity without compromising the Gospel. With this identity in view, Lucas’ book is a helpful guide for the PCA as we consider the controversies of the recent past and the path forward for future generations. Our identity as a conservative, mainline, Reformed denomination addresses three primary areas of PCA church life.

First, knowing our identity explains the centrist actions of the denomination.[1] The denomination that adopted the Insider Movement report, moved to pray for military and hospital chaplains in the face of cultural pressures, and upheld the traditional view of male-only ordination is the same denomination that allowed for multiple interpretations of the Genesis creation days, adopted “good faith subscription,” and repented for the past sins of slavery and racism. What explains this collection of actions, on the one hand very traditional and on the other, very evangelical? For a Continuing Church explains these impulses: the PCA is, by intention, an evangelical and Reformed denomination; thus it is accurate to say that the PCA embraces “big tent” Reformed orthodoxy. The actions of the GA demonstrate this “big tent” identity, generally moving toward the center on controversial issues, seeking to preserve both the unity of the Church and the integrity of the Gospel. This desire for church unity also explains the “Joining and Receiving” of the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod (RPCES) in 1982. Knowing that the identity markers are intentionally wide in the PCA helps navigate past and future changes in our institutional makeup. As Catholic theologian Ian Ker writes, “There are changes that preserve identity and there are changes that change identity, that is to say, there are changes that are developments and there are changes that are corruptions.”[2] When analyzing the past actions of the GA, one has to conclude that these changes have largely been to preserve and develop our identity as conservative, mainline Presbyterian evangelicals, not corrupt it.

Second, knowing our history helps us to identify trends without resorting to the “slippery slope” fallacy. One cannot read For a Continuing Church without seeing analogues to recent PCA history. There are doctrinal cases that are resolved on procedural grounds rather than theological evaluation. There are theological cases where a biblical theological view is pitted against the systematic theological lens of the Westminster Standards. There are secretive political organizations. There are similarly titled study committees on various issues and centrally organized permanent committees. The more conservative “TRs” in our denomination are right to observe these analogues. However, the fundamental makeup of the PCA is different, and the theological currents have changed, something the TRs seem reluctant to admit. Theological liberalism is no longer the battle we are fighting; as Lucas states, “there are not any true ‘liberals’ in the PCA.”[3] As well, we have passed beyond the modernism of the 1950s and are now in a post-modern and post-Christian environment, requiring a different approach to apologetic language and attitude. Can we learn from the past without being haunted by the past? Or will specters of past battles prevent genuine dialogue between brothers with similar commitments, but different cultural expressions? Knowing our identity enables more informed and genuine dialogue, and it can aid in generating respect between elders of different viewpoints. Those of a more evangelical disposition can understand the concerns of the more conservative, “Old School” disposition.[4] As well, these self-described Old School Presbyterians can appreciate that their more evangelical brothers share the same fundamental commitments to the Scriptures, the Standards, and the Great Commission. Rather than succumbing to the regular smattering of post-GA blog posts opining that the PCA is inevitably on the road to decline, we can see the cautionary tale of the past while also realizing we are in new territory with compatriots, not opponents.

Third, and most importantly, knowing our identity enables denominational renewal. Our denomination seeks to faithfully embody the ideal of semper reformanda; the work of reformation is never complete. This work of reformation requires repentance for our failings as well as celebration of our strengths. As John Frame writes,

The various anniversary celebrations and official histories in the different Reformed denominational bodies have been largely self-congratulatory. In Reformed circles, we often say that there is no perfect church, that churches as well as individuals are guilty of sin and liable to error. But Reformed writers and teachers seem to find it almost impossible to specify particular sins, even weaknesses, in their own traditions or denominations, particularly in their own partisan groups. A spirit of genuine self-criticism (prelude to a spirit of repentance) is an urgent need.[5]

For a Continuing Church heeds Frame’s caution and call, enabling PCA pastors to name our own “particular sins” in this spirit of “genuine self-criticism.” Considering that recent GAs have been largely taken up with the topic of repentance, I cannot think of a more timely aid to our work of denominational repentance and reformation than Lucas’ work.

Concluding Questions

This review has sought to demonstrate the usefulness of For a Continuing Church for the present moment in the PCA. Dr. Lucas, with great precision and charity, has successfully articulated the PCA’s identity as a conservative, mainline, Reformed, and evangelical denomination. Our strengths and our flaws are before our eyes, but in order for it to influence our denominational maturity, we must face two final questions.

First, will this identity be accepted? Lucas has persuasively argued that the founders’ intent was for a “big tent” Reformed and evangelical denomination. However, there are alternative histories with footholds in the hearts and minds of some presbyters. One only needs to reflect on the Original Vision Network controversy to see that there are conflicting narratives of our identity. Will our “big tent” identity finally be embraced, or will we continue to disagree about what the founders envisioned?

Second, will we learn to trust each other? One prevalent theme in our history is betrayal, where actions were taken to marginalize conservative voices and where agreements were broken to achieve a political goal. This story of betrayal bequeaths a lack of trust in our current denomination. Unfortunately, we have not healed from these institutional wounds, and elders of different convictions tend to mistrust each other, undermining each others’ credentials as either unloving or untruthful. If we can accept our identity as a “big tent” Reformed denomination, then we might begin to trust each other as friends. At the same time, our “big tent” identity calls us to prayerfully inspect the way we treat ecclesial power. “Big tent” Reformed evangelicalism implies that there are multiple views accepted at the table, within the boundaries of Reformed orthodoxy and a shared commitment to the Scriptures. However, in spite of this background, different sides tend to covet ecclesial power, which can become hoarded within the camp that represents a particular stripe of Reformed orthodoxy, whether “missional,” “confessional,” or any other representation. This lack of generosity with ecclesial power only perpetuates the narrative of betrayal and marginalization. Can we trust each other enough to not only allow everyone a seat at the table, but even take turns sharing the head of the table? Will our GA debates make space for respecting multiple viewpoints, and will our agencies reflect this diversity in our appointees?

If we can accept our identity and the challenges it presents us – to repent, to share power, and to safeguard our heritage while also growing in hospitality to others – our future is bright, simply because God shines forth as his Church is renewed. For a Continuing Church is a valuable aid in this task. With a full and complicated picture of the work of well-intentioned, but fallen men, we may honor our forefathers without hallowing them or glossing over their real failures. Lucas charitably highlights our strengths; may they never be compromised. He also gently exposes our wounds; may they be cleansed in the light of truth. As we grow more in self-knowledge, may we also grow in the knowledge of God, and so be graced by the wisdom he bestows on those who seek his face.

References

[1] See Lucas, For a Continuing Church, 320-321, for more reflections on deliberate centrism and “big tent” orthodoxy.

[2] Ian Ker, “Is Dignitatis Humanae a Case of Authentic Doctrinal Development?” Logos 11.2, 2008, 150.

[3] Lucas, For a Continuing Church, 325.

[4] “Old School” in this sense refers to the “Old School/New School” debates of the 1800s, where the Old School Presbyterians took more conservative approaches to issues such as revivalist methodology, preferred to avoid non-Presbyterian partnerships, and, in general, maintained an identity as a rigorously confessional Reformed denomination.

[5] John Frame, “Machen’s Warrior Children.” Available at http://frame-poythress.org/machens-warrior-children/.

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.

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