Book Review: God’s Rivals – By Gerald R. McDermott

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letter-eEver since the world began to be truly globalized the question of other religions has been brought to the forefront of modern thought. The question is not new by any means but whereas in previous ages other religions could be dismissed as things only existing in some faraway land, today we meet and interact with those of other religions every day.

For Christians – who ascribe to the sovereignty and exclusivity of God as the creator and sustainer of the world and history – this question can be particularly pressing. McDermott‘s book God’s Rivals is an attempt to explain the phenomena of other religions from a Christian perspective with special focus on insights gained from the Bible and from early church fathers.

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Book Review: Destroyer of the gods – By Larry Hurtado

Hurtado Destroyer of the Gods
Letter TTwo-thousand years after the birth of Christ, the missionary work of Paul, and a small movement within Judaism spreading throughout the Roman Empire, it can be easy to forget that during the years of its inception Christianity was a radically new and unheard of approach to religion, to ethics, and to the question of gods and God in general.

In his book Destroyer of the gods Larry Hurtado highlights some of the features that made early Christianity so distinctive, unprecedented, and indeed, nearly inconceivable for many at the time. These are features that are widely assumed as part and parcel to religion by many today, yet which at the time caused Christians to be viewed by outsiders as impious, irreligious, and a threat to social order. As Hurtado says, “This book addresses our cultural amnesia.”

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Book Review: Hitler’s Theology – By Rainer Bucher

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Letter TThere aren’t many individuals in modern history more studied – or at least referenced – that Adolf Hitler. As we know from Godwin’s Law, “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Hitler approaches 1.”

One of the areas which has received less attention in all of this discussion is the topic of Hitler’s theology. Many assume that Hitler was an atheist, others that he was a Christian, and others believe that it is irrelevant what his thoughts about the theological were. A sea’s worth of ink has spilled trying to discern what happened in Germany during the early part of the 20th century, but very little on the topic of Hitler’s theological system. Enter Rainer Bucher.

Mr. Bucher’s goal in this is not to argue against or disprove Hitler’s theological views, but merely to study what they were, and to furthermore study why many theologians (and philosophers and scientists in actuality) welcomed his views so enthusiastically.

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Book Review: Galatians For You – Tim Keller

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letter-gGalatians For You, as might be suspected, is a commentary on the book of Galatians. Timothy Keller’s aim with the book is to offer a bible centered, Christ glorifying, relevantly applicable, and easily readable look at the book in question.

The key point of Galatians for Keller is the fact that “the gospel is the A to Z of the Christian life. It is not only the way to enter the kingdom; it is the way to live as part of the kingdom. It is the way Christ transforms people, churches and communities” (p9). Paul is in essence calling his readers to live out the implications of the gospel, and Keller’s utmost goal is to point out to his readers how “It is not simply non-Christians but also believers who need continually to learn the gospel and apply it to their lives” (p11).

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FATQ: Can Science Disprove Free Will?

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Letter TThere is no shortage of speculation today as to whether sciencemost often, neuroscience or quantum physics – has successfully disproven the idea of free will. “Free will might be an illusion created by our brains, scientists might have proved,” or so the commentary would have us believe.

Philosophers and theologians have said much on the topic, it is said, but what is needed is something more concrete, something that can prove the issue one way or the other. In short, something more scientifically testable. The assumption of free will is said to be eroding as “the sciences have grown steadily bolder in their claim that all human behavior can be explained through the clockwork laws of cause and effect.”

As we are better able to analyze the networks of neurons in our brains – networks shaped by our genes and environment – there is widespread agreement that “the firing of neurons determines not just some or most but all of our thoughts, hopes, memories, and dreams.” If these neurons are not subject to our will, we must not be free – or so the argument goes.

The issue here is primarily one of methodology.

The methods of science necessarily work in the direction of determinism because science is concerned with the question of causes. If you can only ask about causes, you will without fail end in determinism. Thus, to say that science comes down on the side of determinism is to do little more than utter a truism.

As F.H. Jacobi put it: “Every avenue of demonstration ends up in fatalism.” 

Or Paul Roubiczek: “[Determinism] is the natural outcome of the scientific method; it is bound to work in the direction of establishing causality… As the method is designed to disclose necessity, freedom can never be proved in this way.” 

Roubiczek’s final point is the clutch of this discussion.

A method designed to disclose necessity cannot prove something defined as being without necessity.

Science – and to a similar extent, rationalism – are focused almost exclusively on the question of causality. When one of the only questions that can be asked is “what caused this?” it should come as no surprise when the process can point only to various causes. Even if science were to discover something which seemed uncaused, the good scientist would proceed on the assumption that the cause was simply unknown or undetectable via the current equipment or processes.

Science has a necessary bias towards causality; this is not a weakness or a fault, but merely a limitation. In the end, science can neither prove nor disprove free will, simply because it is a question which falls outside the bounds of what science can determine.

[This question ends up being less of a theology question and more of a philosophy question. It’s relevance to theology comes in the way that questions about God or ethics similarly simply fall outside the bounds of what science can determine. Those who think otherwise – as Richard P. Feynman put it – don’t “understand science correctly, that science cannot disprove God, and that a belief in science and religion is consistent.”]

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Eugene Lilley (MDiv, MA) is a member of the Society of Christian Philosophers and the American Chesterton Society.

He may or may not be a Time Lord.

Book Review: The Future of An Illusion – By Sigmund Freud

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Letter WWell known for his work in the fields of psychology and particularly his founding of the field of psychoanalysis, The Future of An Illusion is Freud‘s tackling of the foundations and future of religion, especially as it relates to civilization.

Religion, as Freud see is, arose out of the “necessity of defending oneself against the crushing superior force of nature” where “the primal father was the original image of God,” or rather a model on which he was shaped. Freud sees religion as a sort of neurosis which, with the advancements of science and proper education, the human race will eventually overcome.

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The Puritans: Church and State

puritansLetter DDuring the early seventeenth century the group known as the Puritans left England and settled the area of New England, there setting up their colony. They would do this due to a combination of wishing to escape religious persecution in England and the desire to create for themselves a sanctuary where they could develop their ideas and prove to the world that their form of religion could work.

In the creation of their colony the Puritans wished to be sure that the same sort of situation were the church was dominated by the government would not occur in their colony as it had in England, however at the same time they wished to create a “city upon a hill.” In organizing and making their colony a reality the Puritans would need to have a working relation between the church and the state to give liberty to their citizens but also to ensure discipline and deter depravity.

Three authors that discuss this dynamic in various ways are Jack P. Greene in his book Pursuits of Happiness, Thomas J. Wertenbaker in The Puritan Oligarchy, and David D. Hall in his book The Faithful Shepard.

Each work discusses the topic and for the most part, each work agrees fluidly on the way that the Puritans organized their colonies and dealt with the issue of the relationship between the church and the state.

The State’s Duty to Maintain the Church

In his book Pursuits of Happiness, Jack Greene delves into the formation of the British colonies in North America and their social, cultural and economic development. In his discussions Greene spends some time addressing the creation of the Puritan colonies and the relationship they had between church and state.

Greene is quick to note the desire of the Puritans to become a model for the Christian world to form itself after and that in this desire for such a Christian model the Puritans would need a powerful church and clergy.

Furthermore, in order to create such a model the relationship between the religious and civil leaders would need to be a close knit, supportive one. The Puritan colonists desired a community of Christian love and of people of the same mind as themselves.

They desired to keep order, hierarchy, and subordination and in doing so to exercise control over the economic, moral and social conduct of the citizens; all imperative for maintaining their model Christian colony.

This was coupled with a desire to exclude and isolate those who opposed their beliefs, a justification for being highly intolerant of other religions.

In the course of reaching these ends the magistrates passed laws mandating that communities establish schools for the purpose of creating in children the right religious and social principles desired. The state thus required religious schools.

Furthermore, Puritan voting rights were based upon the classification of freemen, a classification which was given only to those with church membership. Greene even goes so far as to note that in the duties of the magistrates apart from “establishing political institutions, allocating land, making laws” and “dispensing justice” included “reinforcing the position of the clergy and churches.” It is this relationship and debates over the organization of church government, focusing much on voting rights, which would cause the Puritans much trouble later.

Not only does Greene discuss the way in which the civil aspects cooperated with the religious, but the religious also worked towards helping the civil government. The Puritans accepted a social hierarchy as well as the authority of their magistrates, authority which was enhanced by the cooperation of the clerical leaders.

The religious leaders believed that it was their responsibility to create and maintain a “political society which would have as its primary emphasis the protection of the rights of the churches.”

The Puritans believed the community was bound in a covenant with God. This visible group of secular and clerical leaders, which they often brought with them from England, gave authority to the government as well as the church through their cooperation.

Finally Greene notes the strong power of family in the Puritan community. According to Green these strong, extended, patriarchal families played a part in helping to keep the social control and in guaranteeing peace. This power was so much that it leaned towards oligarchy as a few wealthy families dominated office, families that had previously grown from the older powers.

All in all Greene views the Puritan relations between church and state as a cooperative one. The church helped the state and in turn the state helped the church, thus giving the ministers considerable political power. To top it off the community as a whole was dominated by powerful, near oligarchic, families.

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Church & State – Mutually Supportive Enforcers

In his book The Puritan Oligarchy Thomas Wertenbaker approaches the relationship between the church and the state from multiple angles and for the most part, Wertenbaker and Greene agree on how this relationship was conducted. He notes the close relationship between the civil and the religious and expounds upon the degree to which they worked as one.

Beginning with the founding, Wertenbaker notes that the Puritans intentionally tied the government with the church in the colonies due to their failure to gain support in England before their migration.

In this the ministers had a powerful influence in the community; a power that was not only religious, moral or intellectual, but also political.

The amount of power that the minister held is made apparent in the voting laws. As Greene had also pointed out, in order to vote a person had to be a freeholder, or freeman, and in order to be a freeholder a person had to be a member of the church.

The rationale for this was that only people of God could elect godly leaders.

The minister’s power came in that he had the ability to excommunicate the members of the church. This ability would thereby indirectly give the minister the power to decide who voted and who didn’t, a considerable political tool.

To further tie the state and the church Wertenbaker describes how it was the congregation that elected the minister but it was the town as a whole that paid the minister’s salary. This meant that even those not a member of the church still paid for the minister (although at least for the first generation there were few inhabitants who weren’t members of the church).

Wertenbaker describes the Puritans as a whole creating a mutual ruling relationship between the church and the state. In support of this he quotes the Puritan Urian Oakes as declaring “the commonwealth and holiness in the churches inseparable” and that “to divide what God hath conjoined… is folly in its exaltation;” that God’s interests are set in both the institutions.

The church government was there to strengthen the civil government rather than to oppose it and the civil government was there to support the faith and suppress all others.

Both church law and civil law where to be based upon the Bible, thus it was also the duty of the magistrates to punish such things as blasphemy, heresy and idolatry. The magistrates were thereby in effect responsible for punishing sins.

Finally, Wertenbaker makes it apparent that for all intents and purposes, most of the people who ran the state also ran the church and vise-versa.

Since in the beginning almost everybody was in the church it was not unusual for the congregation and the political body to be one and the same, even though on paper the two where separate institutions. The freemen assembled in a meeting-house that the community was built around and as Wertenbaker notes they discussed both religious and civil affairs; as Wertenbaker puts it “it (the council) could at one moment be considering the matter for the common fence around a grain field and the next, if it so chose, convert itself into the congregation without leaving the meeting room.”

Wertenbaker builds a picture of the Puritan community as one were the church and state enter mutually supportive roles. Each was there to strengthen the other and to serve God. They were meant to work together and as Wertenbaker points out this was quite easy as the same people that made up the civil government also made up the congregation.

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Church & State in Conflict

As with Greene and Wertenbaker, David Hall in his book The Faithful Shepard also describes the close relationship between the Church and State in Puritan New England.

Unlike Greene and Wertenbaker, Hall focuses more on the struggles concerning the minister’s role in the society and the changes in that role throughout the Puritan period, primarily changes concerning the appointing of the minister and voting rights. Hall’s goal is to follow the evolution of the minister’s status, power and conflicts from the founding through the declension.

He takes a slightly different stance on the church and state relations.

winthrop.jpegHall begins his chapter on Church and State by describing John Winthrop telling his shipmates that “a covenanted people must build their form of civil government upon the basis of the word.”

This is quite similar to Wertenbaker’s statement that the Puritans believed both civil and church law were to be based upon the Bible. However, unlike Greene or Wertenbaker, Hall goes on to note that with the creation of a godly state in mind, a “’Theocracy’ in which the civil government served the will of God” was the plan for the Puritans.

The Puritan ministers at a point began to speak in terms of “soldiers” and how these soldiers should act in Christ’s stead to rule the kingdom.

The magistrates, according Puritan Thomas Cartwright, were there to defend the church.

According to Cartwright “the civil magistrates must remember to subject themselves unto the Church, to submit their scepters, to throw down their crowns before the Church, yea, as the prophet teacheth, to lick the dust off the feet of the Church.”

Despite this goal of a sort of theocracy and the harsh subjection of state to church that Cartwright promotes, Hall describes a relationship between church and state that is quite adversarial.

Hall points out the church membership requirement in voting and how the Puritans believed this was vital in order for the state to be a tool for enforcing moral law. The state and church were also close in that the ministers had power and used it such as in cases of warfare where the minister had to be consulted beforehand. Even further the colonies extended the protection of the state to ministers.

Hall describes them as believing that the church and state should help and strengthen one another, allowing the ministers to intervene in state affairs, have direct consultations with the government and to attend sessions of the General Court, even when it met as a judicial body. This meeting of the ministers with the court went so far as to even allow the ministers in at least one case to listen to debate, give advice and make motions on the court floor. The meeting days would even be scheduled on lecture days so that the most ministers available could attend.

This shows great cooperation between the church and state, yet even with all of these factors to create a close relationship between the Church and State they were still often at odds with each other.

Puritan John Cotton insisted that the two institutions be separate but equal, both seeking to promote the good of men and God’s glory. He believed that both religious power in state hands and civil power in church hands were wrong.

Ministers turned to politics when attempting to turn theory into practice and found politicking useful for maintaining social order, the state fought against this.

In cases where this happened the social authority of the minister could be degraded. Furthermore, offices could not be held in both institutions such as in the case of Increase Nowell, an elder of the church who was told that he could not be both an elder and the secretary of the Massachusetts government. To make this matter more fragile there was the conflict over voting rights, and furthermore over whom it was that could ordain pastors, God or the people. The Puritans believed the post to be an “ordinance of God” but also needed to elect the individual, thus they sought ways around this.

With these complicated relations between the church and the state in New England a sort of compromise was reached in the time of the declension, though not to the original desire of either side. Hall notes how around the 1640s, the ministers joined with John Winthrop and his magistrates in order to fight against the “purists to their left and the worldly to their right” during the declension.

This alliance between church and state is still apparent, though it wasn’t the norm but rather a reaction to troubled times.

Hall shows just how complicated the relationship between the church and the state were in Puritan New England.

He shows them as being two institutions that weren’t meant to be crossed but that often worked together. He also shows them as being adversarial and working against one another at times despite their closeness, fighting to keep themselves separate and from becoming as they had in England, one institution dominating the other.

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Putting It All Together

On the whole the three texts discussed all work together to create an agreeable theory. The three all recognize the requirement of church membership for the allowance of voting rights and the power of the ministers in regard to this, but also the strife that it caused between the church and the state. All three also agree on the close relationship between the church and the state and the power that both the ministers and the magistrates held.

They all note that the two worked together, or at least that the ministers had a strong hand in the affairs of the civil government and they also all recognize the state carrying out the lack of toleration of those not of the faith, persecuting for the church and its religious mandates such as those against blasphemy.

Whether the church and state are described as “separate but equal” or as a group of people fulfilling two roles, the mutually supportive relationship is the same.

Finally they all also agree on the power of the family, Wertenbaker even to the point of calling the colonies a “Puritan Oligarchy.” In these ways the three texts complement each other, each offering a good picture of the Puritan life. Each offers a slightly different point of view, whether the slight overview offered in Pursuits of Happiness, the focus on the founding, family, and decay in The Puritan Oligarchy, or the analysis of the minister’s changing duties and roles throughout the Puritan period in The Faithful Shepard.

Though there are no major contradictions there are some grievances between the conclusions reached by the authors.

Where Greene points to a hierarchy Wertenbaker argues against one, especially within the church government of the colony. Greene states that the Puritans wished to maintain a hierarchy and to subordinate those that disagreed with them. Contrary to this Wertenbaker notes that, especially in the church, the Puritans believed that there should be no hierarchy as it “had no sanction in the Bible.”

Hall also differs from both Greene and Wertenbaker in his depiction of the negative relations between the civil and the religious aspects of the Puritan society.

While all three describe the closeness that the church and state felt and the openness of the civil government and magistrates to the opinions and desires of the ministers, Hall more-so than Greene or Wertenbaker describes the disdain of the magistrates for the ministers meddling in civil affairs, especially towards holding office in both church and civil government. Hall also more than the others describes a subordinate position of the state to the church through the eyes of Thomas Cartwright.

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The differing conclusions reached by each author show us one primary fact about the Puritans, the Puritans were not monolithic. If we read the writings of individual Puritans we find that some desired a more hierarchical system while others believed this unbiblical. We’ll find that many desired a close relationship between the church and the state while others saw this as problematic.

We will also find that the views of the Puritans as a group changed over time. During the first generation the Puritans as a group – while they still had their differences – were fairly homogenous. This is why it can be noted that early on to only allow church members to vote still resulted in most everybody being able to vote.

Yet as time passed the first generation gave birth to a second generation and a third. These latter generations were tied less to the ideals of their parents and grandparents. This resulted in an inevitable tension between those who were ostracized by the Puritan system, with tensions growing between the groups on the matter of how closely the church should identify with the state (and vis versa).

The Puritans had a close relationship between church and state, one that could be at times interpreted as a theocracy but was in fact much more complicated and filled with much more tension. It was a system in which the church attempted to guide the formation of the society through its influence in the state, but which ultimately could not be sustained as the society grew and became more diverse.

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Eugene Lilley (MDiv, MA) is a member of the Society of Christian Philosophers and the American Chesterton Society.

He may or may not be a Time Lord.

Rereading the Faith for Today – Gnostic Tendencies and Defending Against Them

 

Princeton.pngLetter IIn his book The Everlasting Man G.K. Chesterton asserts that “the whole world once very nearly died of broadmindedness and the brotherhood of all religions.”

Chesterton is here referencing the way the early church had to deal with their contemporary culture attempting to bring all religions into one accord; the solution as Chesterton presents it was to formulate a creed, to define the Christian faith against those who pushed for mere assimilation.

One of the groups which Chesterton has in mind here are the early Gnostics. Although early Christianity was able to overcome the threat of Gnosticism in its day there is a perpetual tendency to re-interpret the faith, a perpetual tendency for sinful man to read the faith in a way congenial to his own culture. The failure of one attempt, such as the rationalistic Christianity of the Enlightenment, is followed by another, the Gnosticizing relativism of our present day.

When the the stars of cultural tendencies in which people re-read the faith align -as they have done today – the result in something akin to ancient Gnosticism.

This perpetual tendency to re-interpret the faith thus gives the appearance of an ongoing gnostic tendency plaguing the church throughout its history. As Nicholas Perrin puts it “The battle between orthodoxy and Gnosticism isn’t over yet and probably won’t be any time soon.”

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Book Review: On Guard – By William Lane Craig

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Letter IIn the world of Christian apologetics, William Lane Craig is one of the contemporary giants, and is also one of the philosophers primarily responsible for the resurgence of classical Christian apologetics (as opposed to presuppositional).

On Guard is what is described as a “one-stop, how-to-defend-your-faith manual,” and aims at providing a basic overview of the classic arguments for the Christian faith. Craig begins his text by presenting a defense of apologetics itself, and a justification for it, to demonstrate of what great difference question such as “Does God exist?” and “Why does anything exist?” are of such importance. Following this Craig goes through some of the classical arguments for the existence of God, such as the cosmological argument, the argument of fine-tuning, the argument from morality, and also deals with the question of suffering. After this more philosophical approach to apologetics Craig turns to the more historical/evidentialist/Biblical approach, discussing such questions as the historicity of Jesus, the resurrection, dispelling the mistaken belief that Jesus being a ‘legend’ is a valid option, and the exclusivity of the Christian faith.

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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.