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September 24, 2008

Comments

Peter Green: don't be scared. For starters, comments like mine only torment the OPC, and even there we have lots of grains of salt for such points. Second, if the PCA is such a restrictive, narrow communion, how did the "Denominational Renewal" conference ever happen, or its presenters ever keep their credentials? I know it's a frightening world out there -- will Brett Myers ever throw another scoreless inning? -- but the world of conservative Presbyterianism is not it. Too many fans of Edwards and Piper for us to turn ugly.

Peter,

I may not be properly understanding what you said. Are the seminarians to which you refer prepared to accept the Westminster Standards as "containing the system of doctrine taught in Holy Scripture"? If so, then why would they fear the ordination examination, or deposition in the case of those already ordained? As one who sits on our presbytery's credentials committee and has examined a good number of young men, I haven't seen an overall trend towards heterodoxy. We filter very carefully for a host of errors, including Federal Vision and NPP, and have found few who hold views that cross our Standards' well-defined lines.

On the other hand, if they are unwilling or unable to accept the Standards as such, one has to wonder why they are even considering the PCA. There are many denominations in the US with different standards that may suit them better. Sometimes peace and purity involve seeking ordination or ministry elsewhere. I say this with no rancor, but with a spirit of love for their own peace. No one wants to see a brother serving under a denominational Standard that his conscience cannot freely accept. That's not sectarianism, but rather intellectual honesty.

You offered, "Perhaps it also means producing a place where constructive dialog about theology is safe and not something ministers and seminarians do behind closed doors with people whom they know are "safe"." Again I refer to my first question above. I believe that questions, including probing ones, are welcomed as part of a constructive dialog. On the other hand, a "dialog" looking for some scrap of basis to support a tightly held error points to a heart that may be happier elsewhere. I've seen both of these situations, and have yet to find a remedy for the former within the context of the PCA or any other denomination with standards that they take seriously. One who cannot honestly accept the Standards of the PCA, including its accepted doctrinal positions based thereupon, and the decisions of its courts, should not expect to be ordained or to minister therein. BCO Preliminary Principle 2 covers this nicely.

You also said, "It is true that much of the problem is with individual sin, but perhaps "denominational renewal" means developing the means for censuring ministers for violating the first half of the "peace and purity" clause and not just the second half." No renewal necessary for this objective. If you review the SJC case summaries in each year's General Assembly minutes, you will find that this is, tragically, regularly the case.

Again, I may be misunderstanding yours and others similar comments in the matter of degree. I am most willing to have such a misunderstanding corrected. I also reemphasize that I offer these thoughts with a heart towards the peace of the brothers you mentioned as well as the peace and purity of the PCA.

By His grace,
Bob Mattes

Giorgio,

Thanks for a well articulated reply to my question. I thought it was an excellent answer. Blessings in Christ.

Bob, you said:

"I haven't seen an overall trend towards heterodoxy. We filter very carefully for a host of errors, including Federal Vision and NPP, and have found few who hold views that cross our Standards' well-defined lines."

But this is a great example of the difficulty. There is not broad agreement on what the NPP or FV are. Further, it is not as if one must simply accept or reject the NPP. Which part? Which representatives? Which things they've said? These are complex issues and it is very possible to agree with things that certain advocates of the NPP say and yet not everything they say. Further, it is possible to appreciate one proponent who holds to an orthodox reformational perspective and be completely nonplussed about another operating from a historical critical or even unbelieving perspective. As it stands though, it can be very disconcerting as a seminarian to even appreciate an author. For instance, to say in informal conversation with a PCA elder that you don't know very well, "Yeah, I think N.T. Wright is a brilliant guy and I've learned a lot from him" can cause all kinds of suspicion and possible problems. Never mind the fact that besides the controversial aspects of the NPP Wright is a very capable historian, has done loads of great work on Jesus and the gospels that is far less controversial than some of his Pauline exegesis, and is the author of dozens of lay level books that have articulated the faith winsomely and well or provided basic commentary on NT books. This is in part what I think of when I think of the culture of suspicion. We read books at the denominational seminary that, if I were to mention my appreciation of, or my appreciation of the authors of in some circles would put me under some serious scrutiny. That's just not healthy.

Another thought: I agree in a sense that our Standards have well-defined lines, but at the same time there's more to say. Those lines may be well defined, but they are still 350 years removed from us in their expression and cultural context. Thus there remains a need to exegete the Confessional Standards. For instance, what may look like a clear affirmation of X given the history of theological thought and debate since the Reformation may turn out, upon examination of the views of those who drafted the document to be not quite what we thought. There is a very real potential, without clear and intentional study of not only the documents themselves but their authors and the theological milieu of the era in which they were produced, to read them anachronistically and equate an issue of our day with an issue that the Confession was attempting to address and simply overlay our view of the current issue as well as the response that should be given.

Further, some of the more particular theological debates of our day are not covered in the Confession at all. It may be a wonderful document, but it's authors were not seers. There are emphasis and articulations floating around today that simply weren't part of their theological realm. This isn't a bad thing, it's just the nature of history. But what do we do with those things? Do we assume that they are unconfessional prima facie? Do we insist on a "logical ends" argument that at times is nothing more than a sophisticated slippery slope tack? My point, to head off a criticism, is not that relativism in the end wins the day, it is simply that we cannot take a historically situated document that was influenced by the culture and theology of the day and assume that it easily and obviously answers all questions as to the validity of certain beliefs or perspectives. We have to exegete the creeds. We have to be willing to say that the creeds don't answer or rule on everything. We have to let the creeds serve us rather than us serving the creeds. So I am all for confessional orthodoxy, I'm simply concerned when we act as if the creeds are so clear and so timeless that anything that comes down the pike can be answered by paragraph and section. It reminds me of when someone asks why I believe in infant baptism and then I answer only to hear that they need chapter and verse or the view is still suspect or unbiblical.

Sorry, I've gone on too long. BTW - I want to apologize if my post the other day came across as harsh or disrespectful. I meant it in the sense of "come on man" like you would say to a friend over a beer if they had just articulated a political point that you thought just didn't convince you. I didn't mean it to sound condescending or snide but realized after I had posted it that, given the electronic medium with its lack of tone, it may have come across too chatty at best or even worse, sarcastic.

Bob, thanks for your thoughts. In answer to your question, these are people that are not at all out of accord with the WCF. Their beliefs and exceptions are well within the bounds of the WCF and have a history of being accepted in the Reformed world as well as the PCA. So they should not be afraid at all.

This is of course the point.

Why are they afraid? Because the PCA is full of political factions with their own interpretation of the WCF and who are not ashamed to bar someone from ordination who holds to a belief which, while still within bounds, is different from theirs.

There is this preception (whether right or wrong) that being on the wrong side of an issue will only mean a difficult ordination and/or a difficult ministry. The PCA needs to do some serious self-examination to see why it is producing fear and apprehension among some of its best and brightest seminarians over beliefs that have been ruled within bounds.

Bob, thanks again for your interaction. I hope this clears up what I meant to say.

Peace in Christ,
Peter

Justin,

Thanks for your thoughts. I didn't take your other post to be anything other than a friendly conversation. No need to apologize. In fact, I didn't even explicitly notice the phrase until you pointed it out. But I appreciate your courtesy.

A few points of clarification. First, when I said that we filter for Federal Vision, I meant through questions on the Standards, not on FV itself. I don't know if you've ever been through an ordination exam, but it involves a series of long, written tests and a substantial oral exam. Transfers just go through an oral exam. In the course of the exams, if done properly, it is fairly easy to filter out a variety of errors, including Federal Vision. It is not necessary to label every error, but it is easy to pick out when a candidate departs the Standards.

It would be beyond the scope of this discussion to get into the individual errors in FV, but the PCA study report covers it nicely and 95-98% of the 35th GA accepted it. The SJC indictment of Louisiana Presbytery also does a nice job. Please don't fall for the line that no one understands it or any of that other stuff--seven denominations and a number of seminaries have all analyzed Federal Vision in detail and rejected it as a violation of their standards, both Westminster and 3FU. If you want to get specific, some on over to GreenBaggins.

As to the Standards themselves, I can only repeat myself. The issues of today aren't so different as to render the Standards any less useful than they've been for 350 years. After all, they contain "the system of doctrine taught in Holy Scripture," and those are timeless. But they are not and never have been a checklist to cure every ill in the church. That said, I believe that our constitution (Westminsters + BCO) together with the superior standard of Scripture can handle whatever is thrown their way. I never said that it would be easy to work through these on every individual issue, but that's our call as officers in the church.

If anyone thinks that our constitution needs improvement, then let them propose changes through the BCO procedures. That's why those procedures exist. I've heard some variation of the argument you and others here posed about the Standards for years, yet I've seen no overtures at General Assembly suggesting changes to them. If by "denominational renewal" anyone means to change our Standards, I respectfully offer that they should get out their pen and work within our polity as they have sworn to do.

Lastly, so much communication is hampered by lack of specificity. May I suggest that someone end your proposed sentence, "Yeah, I think N.T. Wright is a brilliant guy and I've learned a lot from him" with the further clarification "on the historicity of Christ and His resurrection," then there'd be no misunderstanding. I think that's certainly one thing that we could all learn from our forebearers. Specificity in thought and speech would resolve a host of misunderstandings, in the home as well as in the church.

I hope that this clarifies my earlier points, when I failed to be specific. :-) Thank you again for your kind interaction.

By His grace,
Bob Mattes

Peter,

Thank you for your clarification. I am grieved that there are those truly within the Confessional bounds (note that I do not include adherents to NPP, FV, or paedocommunion in this category) who fear for ordination. If they can pass the fact-based exams and have no significant exceptions to the Standards, this should not be the case.

The sad fact is that ordination standards do differ across presbyteries as we discussed earlier. I know that some have welcomed TEs clearly teaching serious errors, while from what you are telling me, others apparently reject the orthodox for trivial reasons. Given the distributed nature of our polity, I'm not sure that there's any real cure for it outside of continued prayer.

Thank you again for the discussion. Looks like we've reached equilibrium yet again.

By His grace,
Bob

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