oots of the PCA
In telling the story of the Presbyterian Church in America there are a number of different places one can start. One could begin with the Reformation. Presbyterianism places itself in the Reformed tradition and thereby traces its roots back to the Reformation in the 16th Century, where the Reformers broke off from the Catholic church in order to work towards a purer theology.
Two of the main groups that would eventually come out of the reforms are the Lutherans and the Anglicans. Some distinctly Presbyterian groups would form in Scots-Irish lands and make the journey to the Americas; meanwhile in England, again seeking doctrinal purity, groups would once again work to reform the church. These groups from England – the Congregational Puritans, Presbyterian Puritans, and Separatists – joined together to form the Congregationalists in the 17th Century America, then divided into Presbyterians and Baptists in the 18th Century.
Once in America the first presbytery was established in 1706. The history of American Presbyterianism is marked by a series of splits and reunions, again with many of them being theological. Colonial era Presbyterianism would split over issues such as what qualified as ‘subscription’ to the confessional standards and over whether the church’s emphasis should be on confessional adherence or the more pietistic Awakening. The more revivalistic group who supported the Awakening were referred to as the New Side, the more strictly orthodox were referred to as the Old Side. These two groups would have many quarrels but would eventually reunite. The church as it was known at this time was the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America.
Though they had worked through many of their differences in order to achieve union, the denomination would stay united for less than a century. Another split would come between what were referred to as the New School and the Old School. Revivalism was once again a part of the issue, as well as a more general battle of adherence to conservative reformed orthodoxy that would serve as a precursor to the later schisms that would occur in the wake of modern liberalism. The New School was of a more revivalistic stance whereas the Old School stood for confessional orthodoxy. The Old School and the New School would further split over the issue of slavery, with the Old School emphasizing the spirituality of the church and attempting to the keep the church out of the issue of slavery by focusing on its political aspects over its moral aspects. The Old School and the New School would eventually reunite in 1869, but before this reunion could come about the southern section of the Old School broke off in 1965 to form what would become The Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS).
It is from this denomination that the PCA was finally formed.
Breaking from the PCUS
The break of the PCA from the PCUS is the defining moment of PCA history. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries a way of approaching the Scriptures called ‘theological liberalism’ had been making its way from Germany into the Christian churches of America. By the early 1930’s it had began making its way into the PCUS. Those who aligned themselves with theological liberalism sought to apply the rigid standards of science and rationalism to the Scriptures.
The result of this was often a denial of such key doctrines as the the inerrancy and authority of Scripture and the deity of Christ. These men sought to get their views accepted into the churches by first getting their views accepted into the seminaries and the colleges. Once they had taken the seminaries then they would be the ones educating the ministers, who would then take their teachings into the churches. This agenda didn’t only affect theology, but also replaced what had previously been a focus on evangelism and missions with a focus on the social agenda.
The problem was not with the social reforms in and of themselves, but with the unhinging of the social reforms from the evangelical and missional focus.
As theological liberalism worked its way into the churches, by the time of the 1960’s and 70’s many ministers in the PCUS felt that they could not remain in the denomination. Kennedy Smart noted that “I knew I was denying my Lord and lending my name to actions which denied the Word of God.” He would go on to say that “The Bible was not our authority, but rather, our authority was the humanistic agenda of men whose view of Scripture allowed them to choose for themselves what they wanted to accept as the Word of God.”
They felt that it was no longer possible to remedy the problem through the practice of church discipline in the courts, and so they took the advice of Francis Schaeffer who said that when this happens “you must practice discipline in reverse and leave, but your leaving must be with tears, not with flags flying and bands playing.”
With this reverse discipline in mind many ministers began to meet and discuss how to go about breaking off from the PCUS (with a focus on how to keep their church property in the process).
On December 4, 1973, delegates from 260 churches met in Birmingham, Alabama, to form the National Presbyterian Church, which was soon renamed to the Presbyterian Church in America. Although it had broken off from the PCUS, the PCA saw itself as a “continuing church” of the PCUS. That is to say, the PCA saw itself as the true successor – or at the very least, the spiritual successor – to the PCUS.
The PCUS had wandered from its conservative reformed heritage by way of theological liberalism and those who formed the PCA saw themselves as carrying on that heritage, the heritage that stretched back through the Old School, through the Old Side and the New Side, back to Scotland and England and back to the Reformation. This heritage is pivotal for understanding the theological foci of the PCA.
Thus the Old Side/New Side debates gave the church a dedication to unity in the essentials of the faith and liberty in the non-essentials, noting the need for both experience and orthodoxy in the Christian life. The later split between the New School and the Old School – with the PCA tracing its roots through the Old School – would give it a significant emphasis on the spirituality of the church. These issues come to manifest themselves perennially in the life of the church.
Once the PCA had been formed it continued to grow and it continued to draw in other churches. The initial growth of the denomination was largely through this sort of expansion, of other churches joining the denomination. Thus many conservative presbyterian churches in the south left the PCUS to join the PCA up until 1992 (the PCUS allowed churches to leave with their property up until 1990). Churches didn’t only join from the PCUS. In 1982 the the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod (RPCES) merged with the PCA. This merger brought with it Covenant College and Covenant Theological Seminary. This provided the PCA with a denominational college and seminary, whereas they had previously utilized more independent schools such as Reformed Theological Seminary and Westminster Theological Seminary.
The PCA also invited the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) and the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (RPCNA) to join them in merger, and while the OPC voted to accept the invitation to join the PCA the PCA voted against receiving them. By the time the PCA renewed the offer the OPC as a whole no longer desired to join, though some individual congregations left to OPC to join the PCA. These congregations – often called the called “New Life Churches” – brought with them a focus on Sonship Theology. After this initial period of growth through churches joining the PCA from other denominations PCA growth shifted to being largely accomplished through church planting and outreach rather than by transfers of whole churches.
Contemporary PCA History
Since its founding the PCA has been one of the faster-growing denominations in the United States. While it has been steadily growing since its founding the PCA there has been some disunity over the years. Many of the debates which littered the early presbyterian history would make their way into the PCA, along with the some new debates.
Early on the denomination had to deal with the perennially recurring question of subscription. Some wanted a strict subscription, thereby placing the Standards almost above amendment. The alternate view of the Good-Faith subscription was also advocated. The issue was not resolved during the 1st Assembly, and would come up again during the 19th and 26th-29th Assemblies. The first year of the PCA also marked the first conference held by Reformed University Fellowship (RUF). Though the RUF had been founded by Mark Lowrey two years prior it eventually became a full-fledged arm of the PCA.
Many of the other issues facing the PCA during its early years were logistic, along with the aforementioned matters of bringing the RPCES and the attempt to bring the OPC into the denomination. During the 8th General Assembly one of the more significant theological issues came onto the scene, that being the issue of theonomy. Theonomy suggested that all of the Old Testament laws should be applied today. The issue ended up being postponed till the following year and the theonomist eventually left the PCA.
During the same period of time Reformed Theological Seminary had hired Greg Bahnsen as apologetics professor, who also turned out to be a theonomist and who after a fair amount of controversy ended up being forced to leave the school. The issue of theonomy came before the Assembly once again in 1983 at the 11th General Assembly when a presbytery asked for guidance on how far they could question a theonomist and a small number at the Assembly gave indication that they were in favor of the view.
During the 13th General Assembly questions were raised regarding both the Free Masonry and whether or not women should be ordained as deacons. The former was passed on for further consideration and the latter was ruled against. The 14th General Assembly approved the PCA’s entering into full membership of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), through which the PCA came into relations with the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA). The PCA would thereby came to participate in the formation of the World Fellowship of Reformed Churches in 1992 (later World Reformed Fellowship), a group mainly made up of conservative Presbyterian denominations in the Americas.
While the question of the ministry of the Holy Spirit had been present earlier on in the PCA, it came further into view during the 14th Assembly. The issue at stake was primarily a desire to confirm that those speaking in tongues or a prayer language did not identify those with revelation. The issue would come up again in the 16th Assembly, which would finally conclude that a candidate may hold to the gifts of prophecy and tongues provided that he does not believe they provide any binding special revelation.
With one issue settled another would come up, and during the 17th and 20th Assemblies the question of theonomy was once again brought forward, namely as theonomic elders worked to keep members of their congregations from transferring their membership to other churches; when members would try and transfer the theonomic elders would place them under discipline and refuse to allow them the transfer.
Despite the many disputes that were present in the PCA it continued to grow during this time. During 1992 forty new churches joined the PCA from the PCUSA due to the liberalizing influences in that denomination. While the PCA did have its fair share of disputes these disputes were still disputes within the conservative camp and thus the PCA was still able to draw in those who were seeking refuge from the liberalizing tendencies of the PCUSA.
The issue of subscription which was central to the Old Side/New Side debates and which presented itself at varying points throughout presbyterian came up once again in the early 2000’s. This was first during the 26th and 27th Assemblies, which attempted to settle the question of whether to allow diversity of views on the length of creations days and whether those who held to other-than-24-hour Creation Days would be required to declare exceptions to the Westminster Confession.
The Assembly refrained from making a solid judgement, instead leaving it up to the lower courts to determine if a man’s views are in accord with the constitution. The resulting Report of the Creation Study Committee demonstrated that there have been a plurality of approaches taken by respected reformed and presbyterian theologians over the years. They stated that while they “recognize that a naturalistic worldview and true Christian faith are impossible to reconcile, and gladly take our stand with Biblical supernaturalism” that they were “unable to come to unanimity over the nature and duration of the creation days.” This question of creation would come up again in the 40th and 41st Assemblies, specifically on the question of the historicity of Adam.
While the 26th and 27th Assemblies had discussed how views on creation related to subscription, the 29th General Assembly of 2002 attempted to address the question of subscription as a whole, echoing back more directly to the Old Side/New Side debates. In this discussion four different views of subscription were taken: Dr. Tim Keller presented the System-Subscription View; Dr. Bryan Chapell presented the Good-Faith (or “Vital-to-the System”) Subscription View; TE David Coffin presented the Articles-of-Unity (or “Logically Consistent”) Subscription View; Dr. Joseph Pipa presented the Full Subscription (or “Strict Subscription”) View. Dr. Chapell’s position won out, and the following year the 30th Assembly subsequently approved and enacted a “Good-Faith Subscription” amendment to the Book of Church Order.
This system means that a prospective minister must declare every difference he has and the Presbytery rules on each as to whether it is allowable; it is assumed that the candidate agrees with everything he does not explicitly take exception to. This differs from strict subscription which allows no exceptions on the one hand and the system subscription which doesn’t require exceptions to be stated on the other. The result of this was that a presbytery would be allowed to use their discretion and approve candidates whose stated differences they deemed as not out of accord with any fundamental of the Confession and not striking “at the vitals of religion.”
It was also in the early 2000’s that the denomination saw movements towards racial reconciliation. The 30th Assembly adopted a statement urging racial reconciliation. This statement included a confession of past actions, of the denomination’s “covenantal involvement in these national sins” such that they “publicly repent of our pride, our complacency, and our complicity” and “seek the forgiveness of our brothers and sisters for the reticence of our hearts.” This issue would come up again in the 43rd Assembly and was the central topic of discussion at the 44th Assembly.
In tandem with discussions of racial reconciliation were questions of homosexuality, of the homosexual lifestyle and homosexual marriage. These discussions were spawned in response to laws that had been passed by the U.S. government as well as the military repealing its “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Thus the Assembly sent down a statement prohibiting legal recognition of homosexual marriages by presbyteries as well as an overture encouraging PCA members, pastors, churches, and institutions to support adoption of the Marriage Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
The 30th Assembly also saw the launch of byFaith magazine. byFaith would serve as the PCA’s denominational magazine. The mission of the magazine was to draw readers into the life of the Church by “informing, edifying, and encouraging them with news of God’s Kingdom.”
In the mid-2000’s the denomination would begin to wrestle with the New Perspective on Paul and the incursion of Federal Vision theology into the PCA. In 2006 the Mississippi Valley Presbytery had pushed to distribute its own “Report on the New Perspectives on Paul, the Theology of N. T. Wright, the Theology of Norman Shepherd, and the Theology of the so-called ‘Federal Vision’ in the PCA.” The General Assembly refrained from distributing this report but the following year (2007) the 34th General Assembly approved the creation of an ad interim committee to study “Federal Vision, New Perspective on Paul, and Auburn Avenue Theologies.”
The goal of this committee was to determine whether these views conformed with the system of doctrine taught in the Westminster Standards. Those in favor of Federal Vision (Jeff Meyers and Peter Leithart, specifically) saw their system as a way to rid the church of the influences of American revivalism and individualism and return it to the theology of the Reformers, and in 2007 some of the prominent members of PCA – Jeff Meyers and Peter Leithart– had signed the Joint Federal Vision Profession. Those opposed to Federal Vision felt that those such as Meyers and Leithart had gone too far and that their revisions resulted in a heterodox position, if not outright heresy. Critics argued that the Federal Vision system in essence taught baptismal regeneration, denied the dual imputation of Christ’s work, and thereby made sanctification a works-based endeavor.
The investigation found Leithart not guilty of being out of accord with the Standards in his teachings. This was not the end of the matter, however, as an elder of that Presbytery appealed the case to the PCA’s Standing Judicial Committee (SJC), which concluded that the Presbytery had erred and sent the case back to the Presbytery for action. The Presbytery then chose to file charges against Leithart on the grounds that he held views contrary to the Standards.
At the same time the New Perspective on Paul was an attempt to reinterpret the doctrine of justification in the light of Second Temple Judaism. Those opposed to the New Perspective argued that Paul should be interpreted in light of the Old Testament rather than rabbinic writings. They saw the the New Perspective as rejecting the historic Protestant understanding of justification, specifically the forensic and legal aspects of it. All of these developments: the allowance of a multiplicity of views on creation, the allowance of Federal Vision, requiring merely a “good faith” subscription were and are seen by many as evidence of a liberalizing trend in the PCA that is growing in strength.
In 2008 at the 36th Assembly approved the admission of Canadian and American Reformed Churches and the Presbyterian and Reformed Church into the North America Presbyterian and Reformed Council (NAPARC). The other major issue at the Assembly was the role of women in local church ministries of mercy, a revisiting of the issue as it had been addressed during the 13th Assembly. This issue continued on into the 2009 Assembly, with the basic question being whether women involved in mercy ministry should be designated as “deaconesses” and officially commissioned; Ligon Duncan argued against this proposal while Tim Keller argued in favor of it. The Assembly chose not to allow women the title of deaconess.
During the 39th General Assembly in 2011 another major controversy came before the PCA, this time in the form of the Insider Movement. The Assembly approved the formation of a committee to study the Insider Movements in Islam and Bible translation. The basic issue was and is one where missiologists have suggested Christian converts in circumstances where public baptism and joining a Christian church may subject them to persecution should remain in their non-Christian religions. They further suggested that standard translations of the Bible might confuse non-Christians (for instance, implying that the Father engaged in sexual intercourse with Mary to produce Jesus) and that the notion of God having a son may offend and repel many Muslims from converting to the faith. The PCA’s denominational mission agency – Mission to the World (MTW) – took the position that Christian converts should not continue to practice non-Christian religions but should become part of the Church. They further took the position that Bible translations which remove references to God as “Father” or Jesus as “Son” alter key Christian doctrines (such as that of the Trinity, the person and work of Christ, and the doctrine of Scripture) and are generally out of accord with God’s revealed Word.
Continuing the controversy from 2007, in 2011 the PCA’s Pacific Northwest Presbytery found Peter Leithart not guilty of charges of being out of accord with the Standards in his views associated with Federal Vision. In 2012 a complaint was once again taken to the SJC, which in 2013 denied the complaint thereby affirming the ruling of the Presbytery. The SJC argued that Leithart’s differences with the Standards were largely semantic and a matter of injudicious use of language and insufficient explanation. The SJC did not endorse Leithart’s views, but simply concluded “that neither the prosecution nor the Complainant proved that TE Leithart’s views, as articulated at the trial or otherwise contained in the Record of the Case, violate the system of doctrine contained in the Westminster Standards.”
This was again not the end of the controversy.
Three Presbyteries unanimously voted to overture the General Assembly to take original jurisdiction over the case. Their key claim was that there should be a mistrial because prosecutor TE Jason Stellman – whom the SJC had noted failed prove that Leithart’s views violated the Standards – had actually converted to Roman Catholicism shortly after a negative verdict. They argued that there should be a mistrial due to the conflict of interest present therein. A request for a rehearing was denied, and the Assembly sent the case back to the SJC.
The 41st Assembly in 2013 also saw the questions of the historicity of Adam and Eve and the Insider Movement come up once again, as well as that of paedocommunion in connection with the Federal Vision movement sections of the Pacific Northwest and Central Florida Presbyteries. The central question before the Assembly related to the Insider Movement was the question of “Are Allah of Muslims and Yahweh the same God?” No conclusion was found during that meeting and the topic was referred to further study.
The 43rd Assembly revisited the topic of race relations from 2002, though this time with the goal of achieving some sort of personal repentance and restitution. This resolution was referred to the 44th General Assembly. A key reason for referring the resolution to the 44th Assembly was to give time for lower courts to study and discuss the issues involved. During these discussions the older matter of the spirituality of the church has once again come to the forefront, with many arguing that it is not the place of the church to take action on such matters.
The 44th Assembly also instituted a new logo that looks like Boba Fett.
The PCA has always had a view of itself as the spiritual successor to the conservative Presbyterians of the PCUS, to the Scots-Irish Presbyterians and those seeking to purify the Church of England two centuries prior, and to the reformers who had sought to reform the Catholic church a century prior to that.
In this the PCA has taken special pride in its theological heritage. It has sought to continually uphold the reformed confessional truths found in the Westminster Standards against the ever encroaching tide of liberalism, of heterodoxy, and of heresy. It is for this reason that the PCA can view itself as a continuing church of the PCUS, and it is for this reason that those who hold the Standards and the heritage of the PCA in high regard continue to fight against such aberrations as Federal Vision, the New Perspective on Paul, or creation accounts that cede ground to secularism.
The denomination continues to grow, and as it grows it continues to face new challenges. The denomination began in 1973 with 260 churches, as of 2014 it has 1,831 churches with a total of 358,516 members, 4,556 ministers, and $766,520,059 in disbursements. Although the history of the PCA has been marked by controversy this controversy has largely been controversy within the conservative church as opposed to drifts towards liberalism, which has allowed the PCA to continue to be a denomination which those who flee from liberalism may find a home in. Further, though the PCA has continual debates it has also continued to uphold its dedication to unity in the essentials of the faith and liberty in the non-essentials.
It is this dedication that allows for those with such divergent views to find a home under the same roof, and it is the hope that we can continue to address our concerns with both a Christian love for God’s truth and a Christian charity.
A member of the Society of Christian Philosophers and the American Chesterton Society.
He may or may not be a Time Lord.