The Missional Church of the Missional God – Coming Into a Fuller Understanding of Christian Missions

Missions.pngletter-fFor many Christians in the church today the term “missions” brings to mind fuzzy images of Caucasian Christians entering into jungles to give the Gospel to the unreached tribal peoples who live therein.

Mission isn’t something that the majority of Christians see themselves as being involved in apart from the occasional donation they might give to their church’s mission fund; instead, they see mission as the vocation of the few specially called individuals who dedicated their lives to taking the Gospel to unreached peoples. This is an unfortunate view to have of missions and a view that the church needs to work to correct.

If the church is to correct this it must first properly define mission and convey an understanding of its relation to the Gospel, afterwhich it can analyze how mission has been approached throughout history whether for good or bad, learning from those lessons and bringing into the church a more holistic missional theology such that all those who locate themselves within the body of Christ will understand their role in the mission of God.

A Biblical, Gospel-Centered Foundation of Mission

Along with the misconception that mission is a “West to the rest” endeavor for the specially called, there is the further misconception that mission – and indeed evangelism as a whole – is something that was started in the New Testament, when in fact “the source of world missionary activity is rooted in God’s call to the nation of Israel in the Old Testament.”

If the church is to gain a Biblically based and Gospel-centered theology and vision of mission, it must first understand what exactly mission is and where it began; this requires the Christian look to the Old Testament.

The concept of mission in the Old Testament goes as far back as Genesis. In Genesis God connects his blessing of Abram and of making Abram into a great nation with the good of the entire world. Abram is blessed by God “so that you will be a blessing” and “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” This theme is made clear again in Exodus 7:5 where it is stated that one goal of God’s actions in the exodus narrative was that “the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord.” A key point of the Exodus then is that “in his mighty acts of salvation for his own people God makes himself known to the other nations.”

God’s actions towards His people are never for His people alone but also for the rest of the world, for “when God graciously saves his people, it is not only for their own sake; it is also for the sake of others.”

This key theme of the Old Testament – that God’s acts of salvation are God’s means of making himself known to the nations – is central for understanding mission because it both provides the Biblical foundation for mission as well as its Gospel center.

Firstly, this theme highlights the fact that mission is primarily God’s doing, that mission is primarily derived from God. As inspired by Karl Barth and articulated by David Bosch, this theme finds its outworking in the idea of the missio Dei, of God the Father sending the Son and the Holy Spirit, and all three sending the church; God is thus recognized as a missionary God, where the church is an instrument for that mission.

Indeed, the church is essentially missional and “mission is essentially ecclesial.” The result of this is a focus on the ecclesial nature of missions and the missional nature of the church, the two go hand in hand, with God’s hand being the one wielding them. They go hand in hand because the church is the visible incarnation of the kingdom of God on earth; He makes himself known not just for its own sake, but to expand His kingdom.

The church in this context is not merely a church building or the group of people that meet in that building, but is the entire body of Christ, the kingdom of God, all professing Christians.

Mission should therefore be seen primarily as the mission of the Triune God working through the instrument of his people – the church – to the end of blessing the nations and making Himself known to them via His acts of salvation to His people for the purpose of expanding his kingdom.

The greatest of these missional acts of salvation came in the form of Christ’s death on the cross, and it is through this that the missio Dei builds upon its Old Testament foundations to incorporate the message of the Gospel.

The Gospel is central to mission and mission is central to the Gospel, with the Gospel being the supreme message and means of God making Himself known to and blessing the world. God works through his people the church to achieve His missional ends and does so in two methods, via centripetal and centrifugal mission; that is, by the church drawing others into the fellowship through the witness of their lives and by actively expanding the church, both which serve to make the church into a “light for the nations,” or as Timothy Tennent puts it: “Missionaries are both bearers of a message and embodiments of that message.” The first of these is the practice of what Francis Schaeffer calls “an observable love” before “a watching world.”

By living a life of love toward God and neighbor, the church draws outsiders towards it. But the church is not merely meant to attract others to it, it is also meant to “go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” In breaking down this command it can be seen that it involves an outward thrust of ‘going’, that this going involves making disciples – a task that necessarily entails the spread of the Gospel message – and baptism in the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit, which is an act that necessarily involves the expansion of the church.

The way this works itself out practically for missions today must be analyzed, but it is helpful to first look at the ways which mission has been approached throughout Christian history and glean what lessons can be learned from those examples.

Mission Throughout History

Christian mission has been approached in a variety of ways by a variety of groups over the history of the faith and these approaches have had positive and negative qualities. In the earliest church mission based on the attractiveness of the local congregation and the individual Christian community. These were a group of people who differed from their culture in attractive ways such that “the exemplary moral lives of ordinary Christians stood out against the rampant immorality of Rome.”

After a few hundred years Christianity found itself accepted by the Roman empire, eventually even becoming the official religion of the empire, thereby ushering the long era known as Christendom.

As the church gained the power which came with being the official religion of the empire its focus shifted from one of missions to one of maintaining power; as the official cultural religion the need of standing out against the culture and of spreading the Gospel was seemingly lost.

In spite of this loss, Christendom did help to shape the cultural life of Europe for the better and when the monastic movements came about they worked to spread the Gospel message to the ‘barbarian’ people and also brought back some of the godly living which had attracted earlier cultures to the faith; their missional function was therefore not entirely intentional, but the way they lived their life made them attractive to those around them.

Around this same time but further to the East the Eastern Orthodox church took a different approach to missions, an approach which focused almost exclusively on the literal expansion of the church.

Because of this strong church-centeredness the Orthodox church came to equate the expansion of the church with the expansion of the kingdom, thus their missions were almost solely ecclesial; missions could not occur outside the established institutional church.

As Europe began to expand around the world Christendom entered into an age of colonialism. During this period “missions flowed along colonial lines.”

The primary focus was the Christianizing of native peoples (even if by force), and following the Reformation this Christianizing took on a highly individualistic aspect of focusing on the individual faith of each believer over and above institution of the church, specifically on the salvation of souls. On the whole, this created the sort of cross-cultural missions which focused on taking Christianity from the West to the rest of the world.

After hundreds of years of being tied to the ruling groups of Europe, Christianity became almost synonymous with European culture and with European political power. The result of this was a missionary endeavor which sought to transplant European culture onto other parts of the world, to “remake the world in their own image.”

As this era continued the Christian attitude toward missions took a number of different turns as more denominations and theological approaches came onto the scene. Missionary agencies came into being that would attempt to spread the Gospel around the world by preaching the word as well as by working to provide poverty relief and aid with other physical needs. This focus on physical needs grew in certain parts of the church and came to be known as the Social Gospel.

Mission Today

There are many lessons that can be learned from the history of Christian mission – some good and some bad – which can be used to craft a better approach towards mission today. These lessons should not be taken on their own, but should be woven into the Biblically grounded and Gospel-centered understanding of the missio Dei of the Triune God.

The missio Dei involves the Triune God using His people – the church – as His instrument for bringing the world into a knowledge of Himself. This is accomplished both through the centripetal and centrifugal action of God through His church, and it is through this lens that mission today must be undertaken.

First, the Triune God accomplishes His mission through the centripetal action of His church as its members live lives that are attractive to those outside.

This was a strong-point of mission in the early church and of mission in the monastic tradition; indeed, this is the mark of the Christian. This centripetal action is not merely passive, of refraining from doing certain things, but it is also active, of living out the love of God and of neighbor. It is this active aspect of mission that gave strength to the Social Gospel movement; part of the attractiveness of the Christian life is that the  work Christians do for societal transformation by helping those who are in need.

This centripetal work therefore consists of living lives in obedience to the will of God, to include both refraining from sin as well as actively working to help the poor and needy.

Second, the Triune God accomplishes His mission through the centrifugal action of His church as its members actively go out and spread the Gospel of the kingdom – and thereby the church – around the world.

Merely avoiding sin and helping the needy is not sufficient for missions, the Gospel and the church should also be present, for it is Gospel that ultimately empowers the Christian to live the life described above and it is within the context of the kingdom – the church – that they are to live it, drawing others into that community.

Christians are called to spread the Gospel of the kingdom, a key part of which is the salvation of souls as highlighted by the Reformation theologians.

This salvation is not an individualistic salvation, but it is salvation into a community, into the kingdom of God, into the church (the body of Christ). With this in mind the Christian cannot focus on getting non-believers to accept Christ without also bringing them into the baptism of the institutional church family, for it is in this family that they are discipled and in which they grow in the faith. The importance of this is twofold.

First, mission is not merely the calling of a handful of exceptional people within the body of Christ, but it is instead the calling of every believer as members of the church. All Christians are called to live missional lives, to live centripetal lives that are are in keeping with God’s commands and which in turn will prove attractive to the outsider.

Second, mission should not be divorced from the church as an institution. It is this ecclesial church-planting focus that the Orthodox so rightly emphasized, for missions and the church are vitally linked. This is not to say that a group such as a missionary agency cannot spread the gospel, but it is not as effective as it could be if it were wedded with the church.

This salvation is furthermore a salvation from one kingdom and into another, which further highlights the reality of the spiritual. While part of missions is working to help the needy materially, this material aspect must be balanced with the spiritual aspect of the kingdom, of the salvation of souls along with the defeat of the kingdom of Satan. One failing of many of the mission endeavors throughout Christian history has been a downplaying of this spiritual reality. Even when they did manage to focus on the salvation of the soul they would often neglect the spiritual warfare.

It is of note here that little has been said of contextualization or of cross-cultural, international mission. The global church has arisen and missions can no longer be seen as a question of how those in post-Christendom Western society can reach the rest of the world. 

The message of Christ is spread throughout the world and in turn mission and evangelism are becoming more synonymous.

Mission is a matter of leading lives representative of the Gospel, of spreading the church of the Triune God, and of teaching the Gospel which empowers those lives, which results in the spread of that church, and which results in the salvation of souls in the eschaton. Each group must decide how to incarnate the Gospel into the culture into which they are speaking regardless of whether they are ministering in China, Egypt, Russia, Mexico, Germany, or the United States.

Each mission field has its own cultural barriers and its own contexts that must be taken into account, and Christians cannot suppose that it is merely a matter of accommodating Western Christianity into some other context; to do so is to engage in ethnocentrism. Rather, each group must analyze their context and discern how best to engage the culture in which they minister. When this results in a Western Christian ministering to another culture, special care must be taken while teaching the doctrines of the Gospel and spreading the institutional aspect of the church that the Christian does not attempt to take the stance of superiority, but that they work as servants to the people they minister to, helping them to apply the truths of the Scripture to their native culture.

Whether interculturally or cross-culturally mission is not a one-size-fits-all endeavor. As Stan Guthrie comments “There is no one way to ‘do’ missions in the local church, though there are many wrong ways.” It is up to each individual and each missional church body to discern how to apply the gospel to their own culture or to the culture of another, and when applying it to the culture of another they must always seek to do so in servant-hood to those they are ministering.

 

“Before a watching world an observable love in the midst of difference will show a difference between Christians’ differences and other men’s differences. The world may not understand what the Christian’s are disagreeing about, but they will very quickly understand the difference of our differences from the world’s differences if they see us having our differences in an open and observable love on a practical level.”–Francis SchaefferThe Mark of the Christian

A Continuing Orthodoxy: A [Fairly Short] PCA History

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Letter Roots 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.2s09lxD.png

The 44th Assembly also instituted a new logo that looks like Boba Fett.

Summary

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.

Book Review: The Mark of the Christian – By Francis Schaeffer

schaefferbookThe question is sometimes raised, “How is one to identify a Christian; what is it that marks them as a Christian?”

In his text The Mark of the Christian, Francis Schaeffer works to answer that question. The mark that Schaeffer lands on is the mark of the Christian’s love for all men, and especially for his fellow Christian brothers, a love which is worked out primarily through the ways in which we express our differences and work for unity. This point is perhaps made most succinctly by Schaeffer when he remarks that “Love – and the unity it attests to – is the mark Christ gave Christians to wear before the world. Only with this mark may the world know that Christians are indeed Christians and that Jesus was sent by the Father.”(p.35)

This unity works itself out in a variety of ways; there are some things that it is, and there are some things that it is not. For instance, it is not refusing to point out errors of doctrine, or to judge those who teach something opposed to Christianity while still trying to keep the name, thus Schaeffer notes “The church has a right to judge, in fact it is commanded to judge, a man on the content of what he believes and teaches.”(p.16) or as it’s stated elsewhere “The church is not to let pass what is wrong; but the Christian should suffer practical, monetary loss to show the oneness true Christians should have rather than to go to court against other true Christians.”(p.29)

Yet, while working for this purity in the church, the Christian must also work for unity and love. They must exhibit both the holiness and the love of God, thus “The Christian is to exhibit that God exists as the infinite-personal God; and then he is to exhibit simultaneously God’s character of holiness and love. Not his holiness without his love: that is only harshness. Not his love without his holiness: that is only compromise.”(p.21)

The church is to strive for unity, but not just any unity. It is not merely an organizational unity (which, amongst other things, is impossible on a global level for merely practical reasons), nor is it merely the unity of the invisible church (which, indeed, needs no more unification). Rather, this unity is a simple concept of visible love. A few key ways that this can be accomplished include things that are quite simple, yet often neglected. Thus, the keys are such things as asking forgiveness and offering forgiveness; other keys include suffering practical loss for the sake of unity and approaching a given problem “with a desire to solve it, rather than with a desire to win” as “the history of theology is all too often a long exhibition of a desire to win.”(p.29)

If this is done correctly, the result will be that “Before a watching world an observable love in the midst of difference will show a difference between Christians’ differences and other men’s differences. The world may not understand what the Christian’s are disagreeing about, but they will very quickly understand the difference of our differences from the world’s differences if they see us having our differences in an open and observable love on a practical level”(p.31)

Towards the end of his text, Schaeffer asks “Whoever heard of sermons or writings which carefully present the practice of two principles which at first seem to work against each other: (1) the principle of the practice of the purity of the visible church in regard to doctrine and life and (2) the principle of the practice of an observable love and oneness among all true Christians. If there is no careful preaching and writing about these things, are we so foolish as to think that there will be anything beautiful in practice when differences between true Christians must be honestly faced?”(p.30)

This little booklet is what one might call a first step in the direction of producing writings on the topic, and it is well worth the short amount of time that it takes to read it.

Memorable Quotes:

“The Bible is a strong and down-to-earth book”-29

“The church is to be a loving church in a dying culture.”-12

“[I]t is not possible to be a Christian without showing the mark, but if we expect non-Christians to know that we are Christians, we must show the mark.”-8

“There is only one kind of man who can fight the Lord’s battles in anywhere near a proper way, and that is the man who is by nature unbelligerent.”-26

“In other words, if people come up to us and cast in our teeth the judgement that we are not Christians because we have not shown love toward other Christians, we must understand that they are only exercising a prerogative which Jesus gave them.”-13

“All men bear the image of God. They have value, not because they are redeemed, but because they are God’s creation in God’s image. Modern man, who has rejected this, has no clue as to who he is, and because of this he can find no real value for himself or for other men. Hence, he downgrades the value of other men and produces the horrible thing we face today – a sick culture in which men treat men as inhuman, as machines. As Christians, however, we know the value of men.”-9

Book Review: Escape from Reason – Francis Schaeffer

schaefferThe caption for this book is “a penetrating analysis of the trends in modern thought.” The goal of the book is to provide an brief overview and outline of the past 800 years of theological/philosophical progress – especially as relates to the development of the modern theological climate (though note that the book was published in 1968) – with the intention of giving the reader an understanding of the current landscape so that they may better communicate the truths of Christianity into the generation in which they’re living. It is an attempt to help a generation of Christians “to speak meaningfully to its own age.”

To start off, the book is very short, and at 94 pages can be read fairly easily without having to dedicate too much time to it. The world which Schaeffer sets up is one in which there is a dualism between man and truth, between the rational and the irrational. The eternal questions of how one may find meaning in the world, how far reason can take the mind, and how we can know anything are the things we have to figure out.

In this attempt create an outline of modern thought Schaeffer begins with Aquinas and attributes the first creation of this duality to him, he then progresses up through Kant, Hegel, Kierkegaard and Barth while taking detours to discuss the trends as they flow through art, literature and film. The over-riding principle that Schaeffer sees as developing is one of an increasing separation of man from rational truth, ending in a complete wall between man and his ability to form a unified field of knowledge; as Schaeffer notes, “Modern man has given up his hope of unity and lives in despair – the despair of no longer thinking that what has always been the aspiration of men is at all possible.” It is the loss of a unified answer for knowledge and life which tries to jump the gap from rationalism to meaning through any way possible, whether a ‘leap of faith’, drugs, nonrational experiences and feelings.

On the whole Schaeffer does have a good point to make. In the most general of ways his outline of philosophical history speaks truth, but it needs to be taken wit a spoonful of salt. His general mood is correct, and his feelings towards various thought trends are also correct, such as the trends towards “faith in faith” and using the terms God and Jesus more for their connotations than for their orthodox meanings. The gap which he describes is one which needs to be addressed and he is right in his position that in order to effectively communicate to a generation one must understand their thought patterns (this is most relevantly posited in the gulf between parents and their children during his time-frame, where the children are being educated in increasingly skeptical worldviews where truth is being forced to give way to relativism and subjectivism). Finally, he’s got some interesting insights into art and literature.

The issue with the text is that while he gets various things correct and the overall message of the book is acceptable, his scholarship is dubious at best. The caption designates it as “a penetrating analysis of the trends in modern thought” when in fact it feels as though Schaeffer simply took what he knew to be true about the theological landscape and patched together a sketchy outline of philosophic history based on the vague impressions he had of each theologian. “Penetrating” is hardly the word I would use – it’s more like a cursory outline that one might formulate after reading a philosophy textbook.

That said, the book is not without merit. If you take everything at face value you’ll come away misinformed, but at least you’ll come away motivated to engage the thought-trends where they are (since I’d say that even if his history is skewed he’s got a good hold on the present), hopefully you’ll even come away motivated to read the source-texts of the authors which Schaeffer condemns as creating the current theological climate – you’ll probably be happy to find that many of them have very valuable things to contribute to the conversation, some are even an orthodox, and few are the heralds of irrationality and mysticism that Schaeffer makes them out to be.

Memorable Quotes:

-“These things are never merely theoretical, because men act the way they think.”

-“The early scientists also shared the outlook of Christianity in believing that there is a reasonable God, who had created a reasonable universe, and thus man, by use of his reason, could find out the universe’s form.”

-“Today there are almost no philosophies in the classic sense of philosophy – there are anti-philosophies.”

-“Once the historic Christian answer is put away, all we can do is to leap upstairs and say that against all reason God is good.”

Specific Criticisms

1) Early on in the book Schaeffer makes Aquinas the foundational starting point for the progress of rationalistic philosophy. He states that “In Aquinas’s view the will of man was fallen, but the intellect was not… Mans’ intellect became autonomous… philosophy also became free, and was separated from revelation.” A few things here, on is that Aquinas had an exceptionally high view of revelation; to assert that man can know things through reason is not to make reason autonomous. Furthermore, if man’s will is fallen then one can’t help but have the intellect affected.

Aquinas did not ‘set philosophy free from revelation’ as Schaeffer posits – indeed, philosophy had been free for quite some time, I’d give it at least 1500 years or more. Afterall, if anything, Aquinas served simply to bring the thought of Aristotle back into play. Note that Aristotle was a philosopher over a thousand years before Aquinas and he had no place for revelation in his philosophy. As Chesterton would argue “St. Thomas did not reconcile Christ to Aristotle; he reconciled Aristotle to Christ” and acknowledge that there is a root in part to wisdom in the real world rather than solely intangible truths of Platonism. What he would point out is that if the unbeliever is to be proved wrong, it should be done so on their own grounds (as proving them wrong on somebody else’s ground does no good). At most in Aquinas we have a subordinate autonomy, which is hardly equal to Schaeffer’s weighty claim – if he allowed his philosophy to step away from his theology it was grounded in an absolute certainty of the truth of God, that since God is true the facts of necessity can lead to nothing other than Him; and yet he still held the place of revelation in the knowledge of God (for otherwise the uneducated masses would have no hope of coming to know God).

2) Another point of poor scholarship on Schaeffer’s part is in his view of thought pre-Aquinas. He tries to point out that the heavenly things were all important for those early thinkers, but then creates a dichotomy in saying that nature was just a backdrop for them. If we’re talking about the superstitious folk here the case is nothing of the sort, nature wasn’t just a backdrop, nature was what was heavenly – filled to the brim with spirits and gods and nymphs. If we’re talking about the philosophers we can look to Maurice de Wulf (author of ‘A History of Medieval Philosophy’) noting that “The earliest Grecian philosophers confined themselves to the study of the external world.” Again, Schaeffer simply seems to have not done his research, but is rather relying on the feel he gets from a few pictures to make a generalization about over a thousand years worth of philosophy.

The closest he might have to a valid point here would be that much western thought in Europe pre-Aquinas was dominated by Plato, which gives priority to the realm of ideas (what Schaeffer might interpret as ‘heavenly things) over the physical world (which Plato asserts as being modelled on the world of thought).

3) Schaeffer states that modern man has given up hope for a unified system of knowledge. While it is true that modern [secular] man has acknowledge the lack of a unified system, they haven’t given up hope; a point which can be made by referencing Hawkings ‘A Brief History of Time’. Science is still searching for this unified system, specifically in reconciling the general theory of relativity with quantum mechanics (that is, the way normal to really big things operate in terms of gravity versus the way very tiny things operate).

4) Schaeffer posits that, in regards to the middle class who are generally unaffected by philosophical and theological shifts “they still think in the right way – to them truth is truth, right is right – but they no longer know why.” I’d simply disagree. If anybody knows why truth is truth it is the down-to-earth middle class, those unaffected by the rampant skepticism of the past century. They know why truth is truth, the fact that they can’t express it in philosophical form isn’t an argument against them (and to use it as such is to near begging the question).