Revising a revision

2013/12/23

Whereas my original proposed revision wasn’t up to date with the internet age, and

Whereas so many dynamic proposals for retooling and recasting Reformed theology are posted on the internet, and

Whereas many of said dynamic proposals for retooling and recasting Reformed theology are first enunciated at pastors conferences, along with critiques of conventional Reformed theology as hopelessly captive to Enlightenment Rationalism and other “isms” that Doug Wilson doesn’t like.

Therefore, be it resolved that my proposed revision be revised as follows (additions in italics):

Do you mostly receive and reservedly adopt the Confession of Faith and the Catechisms of this Church, as sort of containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures; and do you promise that if at any time you find this system of doctrine out of accord with any of the fundamentals of your own system of doctrine, you will, on your own initiative, make known to your flock, pastors conferences and the internet the changes which need to take place in the Confession of Faith and the Catechisms due to changes in your own views since the assumption of your ordination vow?

One rebuttal to the call for confessional integrity in Presbyterianism runs something like this: “Insistence on confessional conformity makes the confessions supreme, even over the Bible.” The confessionalist straw man may not appear more blinged out than in Peter Leithart’s response to Jason Stellman’s defection to Rome (you can read my reductio of Leithart’s post here). The caricature of confessionalism stems from a number of misunderstandings. The confessions are held as an agreed upon interpretation of Scripture, not as an addition to Scripture. The confessions are subordinate standards, subject to revision and there are channels for such revision (if only Presbyterians who complain about the confessions would make use of these channels). This is all good, but those within the Reformed churches who believe that the confessions are passé too quickly put the burden of proof on those who hold to the confessions without a thousand qualifications. It’s as though the confessions appeared out of nowhere, swooping down and closing shop on a happy latitudinarianism.*

Oh, how to describe those who desire plenty of wiggle room in confessional subscription? Post-confessionalists or post-confessional confessionalists? Frankly, it’s hard to describe people who freely demur from confessions to which they vowed agreement. Whatever they are, they have their own issues. Men are content to subscribe to documents to which they are not meaningfully agreed. Then they ask the church to tolerate their confused state. I don’t think that’s a good model for ministry.

I want to say that the confessions are living documents. I don’t mean in the sense that relativism reigns and that they can receive free reinterpretation because time has passed at certain intervals. I call the confessions living documents because they are held as the summary of our faith today, no matter how old they are. They are also living in the sense that our long dead Christian brothers who composed the confessions are yet alive in Christ. God is the God of the living. I wonder what would happen if we really thought about this confessional catholicity. Maybe it would prevent so many discontented elders giving only a superficial nod to their confessional standards.


* Latitudinarianism originally described Church of England leaders who emphasized reason over divine authority. I use it in the modern sense of freedom of thought in religious matters; it’s relevant in describing those in Reformed churches who want to think outside the “confessional box.”

Someone seeking a statement of what Presbyterians believe in our time can’t be blamed for running into some confusion. Looking at a spectrum, one side will have the Presbyterian Church(USA) with their Book of Confessions. Not only is the large number of confessions from different times and places in itself daunting, the mainline Presbyterian Church of today really has little regard for the older confessions. Let’s face it, even the Confession of 1967 grows old in PCUSA years.

The opposite side of Presbyterian definition shows up in smaller, staunchly conservative Presbyterian churches. These bodies are likely to see the Westminster Standards as a singular achievement in the history of the church. Even so, some small Presbyterian bodies will readily admit that confessional revision is necessary. Those churches that consider themselves American Presbyterian will have a revised Westminster, especially on the relation of church and state.

The Presbyterian Church in America is somewhere in between. The church contains men who cherish the Westminster Standards as an excellent summary of the Bible’s teaching. It also contains men who, while not theological liberals in the classic sense, declare the Westminster Standards passé. Dr. Robert Rayburn of Tacoma, WA is an example of this latter type. I don’t think it is a coincidence that Rayburn has taken such an active role in defending Federal Vision thinkers in the PCA and that he openly expresses deep dissatisfaction with the Westminster Standards. He has, in his defense testimony in the Meyers case, said the following:

So there’s all of that, but gentlemen,
we’re in a period of transition. Our 350-year run
with the Westminster Standards is coming to an end.
Nothing wrong with that. It’s inevitable. You got to
take — you got to accumulate the learning of the last
long period of time to get you incorporated into the
way in which you’re thinking about. That. [sic]

Meyer’s Trial Transcript, Part 2, pp. 103-104.

Dr. Rayburn isn’t content to wistfully foresee the eventual retirement of Westminster. Readers of his church’s newsletter “Words of Faith” would have recently received a series of articles by Dr. Rayburn thoroughly criticizing the Westminster Standards. It is important to look at the incoherence faced by a person desiring to know what Dr. Rayburn’s congregation believes. On the one hand one will find the Westminster Confession under “Doctrine” on the church website. On the other, you’ll have the pastor deprecating the Westminster Standards in the pulpit, in the newsletter and elsewhere.

Many PCAers adhere to “system subscription:” the idea that there is a “Confession” within the Westminster Confession; that office bearers are welcome to eclectically take or leave statements in their doctrinal standards; that office bearers can teach their congregations that the so-called Confession of Faith is the confession of a distant time and not our own. Such ideas are bound to have consequences. Of all the theories as to why the PCA is divided, the theory that makes sense to me is that its doctrinal standards are increasingly inoperative. This results naturally in doctrinal provincialism, litigiousness, and even anarchy. We’re talking more than an exception here and there, a scruple with this or that formulation; we’re talking a fundamental rejection. Is the best many PCA office holders can say for their confessional identity, “I was for Westminster before I was against it?”

There are some good comments over at Green Baggins. The post and entire thread are worth a read but comments #15, 20, and 21 have got me thinking. The whole controversy between so called confessionalists on one side (who elevate the Westminster Confession over the Word of God according to their critics) and so called progressives (who self-describe as jolly fellows who are just trying to believe what the Bible teaches and are therefore more Reformed than the Reformation Confessions) has gotten off on a terribly mangled foot because, at some point, a concern for confessional integrity has been knocked down and trampled.

Presbyterianism has methods for holding our Confessions to the standard of the Bible but they are specific. We ought to have enough respect for Biblical tradition, for good churchmanship, and for the Ten Commandments (especially #1, 2, 3, 5, and 9) to have a submissive attitude as members of a Reformed church and not make confessional revisions by coup d’état. But that is exactly the way we’ll be handling it if is simply decided that unconfessional views are acceptable teaching and practice while the Confessions remain unchanged. Friends, your intentions may be admirable from one perspective but they resemble the tactics of pioneering theological liberals from another if you want your denomination’s constitutional provisions simply set aside without the careful process of revision.

Yes, it sounds arduous, with debates in presbytery, overtures from presbytery to GA, GA committees, debates at GA, passage by GA, and ratification by the presbyteries (and that’s not a complete list of steps). Nor are there guarantees of success. But it is the right way. And, as one of the comments mentioned above states, one can propose revisions and maintain good standing in a denomination. That is, of course, if one has the patience. Regrettably, the path taken by some is to just start teaching their congregations, friends, and the internet that the Westminster Confession and Catechisms aren’t cutting it. Somehow that honorable but self-effacing path of resigning in protest never occurs to some folks. Even so, it seems like the right call for those who respect confessionalism but know that they’re not in for a long, personal time of wilderness wandering.