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?

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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 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?”

D.G. Hart has written a fine, succinct piece on fellows who won’t be constrained by the “traditions of men.” We’re thinking particularly of Peter Leithart and the Westminster Standards which he supposedly holds “as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures.” You can read Hart’s post here.

One of the many things that disgusts me about getting along in Reformed churches and denominations is the constant insinuation that a person is some kind of annoying, backward jerk if he takes the church’s official doctrines seriously. I think Hart’s piece makes the point better than I could that if you find yourself frequently asking why there are all these rigid, cold-hearted Puritans in your Reformed denomination demanding conformity to the church’s historic position, the problem is with you. Yes, you. Why it’s a sin to seek some doctrinal integrity and unity in a Reformed church is beyond me. Some intrepid, budding theologians simply prefer to take their inherently combative quest for “Reformed” latitudinarianism into the denominations where it is most likely to be poorly received (but, maybe that’s part of the point). Again, it’s bizarre that more imaginative fellows don’t take advantage of the array of doctrinally ambiguous denominations afforded by Protestantism. There’s just something attractive about those denominations that already have a distinctly Reformed position to those who are absolutely convinced that said position isn’t cutting it. The controversies currently plaguing the Presbyterian Church in America provide more than enough evidence of such a problem.