A tale of two letters

Posted by Bob Mattes

The Founding

On 7 Dec 1973, a new denomination sent A Message to All Churches of Jesus Christ Througout the World from the General Assembly of the National Presbyterian Church. The NPC changed names to the Presbyterian Church in America shortly thereafter. The PCA had split from the liberal-and-becoming-worse PCUS. The Message to All Churches laid out the reasons for the split (similar to the U.S. Declaration of Independence) and served as a notice of the new denomination’s beliefs. At the top of the list stood the inerrancy of the Scriptures, and their role as “the only infallible and all-sufficient rule for faith and practice.”

Against the big-tent liberalism of the PCUS, our founders wrote:

We declare also that we believe the system of doctrine found in God’s Word to be the system known as the Reformed Faith. We are committed without reservation to the Reformed Faith as set forth in the Westminster Confession and Catechisms. It is our conviction that the Reformed faith is not sectarian, but an authentic and valid expression of Biblical Christianity. [my bold]

Note the “without reservation” adherence to the Westminster Standards. There was no “good-faith” subscription in view there. The PCA has already headed down the PCUS road on this issue. More on that later.

On the subject of theological error and church discipline, our founders wrote:

Views and practices that undermine and supplant the system of doctrine or polity of a confessional Church ought never to be tolerated. A Church that will not exercise discipline will not long be able to maintain pure doctrine or godly practice.

When a denomination will not exercise discipline and its courts have become heterodox or disposed to tolerate error, the minority finds itself in the anomalous position of being submissive to a tolerant and erring majority.

Anyone watching the two most recent cases against blatant teachers of the Federal Vision errors (pdf file), both of whom are now fellows at the latest incarnation of an attempted Federal Vision seminary, knows that the PCA has already started down the PCUS road in that regard. The PCA has become a tribal congregationalist denomination where particular errors find toleration in specific presbyteries that remain unaccountable to the denomination as a whole.

Please read that open message as it provides an anchor for the PCA as it considers its future. As the philosopher Santayana wisely observed: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The PCA is showing that it is not immune from that wisdom.

The Revision

A small group of 18 teaching elders who were around during the founding of the PCA in 1973 recently signed a letter (pdf file) to the new generation. I want to be clear up front that I respect these 18 elders for their sacrifices for, and contributions to, the church of Jesus Christ over many years. Nothing that follows is meant to reflect negatively on that respect. Nonetheless, my respect for them does not negate my critical thinking on the matters that they publicly present.

Early in the letter, the 18 signers endorse “good-faith subscription”:

Several years ago, after lengthy discussion, we affirmed “good faith” subscription which was a declaration of our commitment to love and respect each other and affirm doctrinal orthodoxy without becoming too broad or too narrow in the way we embrace our confessional standards.

So, since our 1973 founding, the PCA has “progressed” from “committed without reservation” to our Standards, to a “good faith subscription” approach that has opened the PCA’s door to paedocommunion, intinction, female pseudo-officers, Federal Vision, theistic evolution (e.g., Biologos), et al, all of which depart from the Scriptures and the Standards.

After observing that some think that the PCA is too strict and narrow while others think that the PCA is too broad, the 18 opine that:

…these differences of opinion reflect a healthy breadth of views and perspectives that produces an ever present need for love and mutual respect. It does, however, present the PCA with the need for our leadership to always be searching for the center so that unity might be maintained and our mission might be accomplished.

With all due respect to the 18 signers of this letter, that argument represents a significant departure from the vision laid out by the bulk of our founders in the Message to all Churches in 1973.

Keep in mind that only 18 men who were present at our founding signed this letter. Although many founders have gone to be with the Lord, many remain and did not sign the letter. Dr. Morton Smith comes immediately to mind for one. As our first Stated Clerk he had his finger on the pulse of the initial direction of the PCA. Dr. Smith’s How Thy Gold Has Become Din provided a PCA manifesto in the months leading up to the separation. Please read Dr. Morton’s address at the link.

Connections

While I do not believe that the positions from the new letter accurately reflect the consensus of the bulk of elders who founded the PCA in 1973, and hope that I have demonstrated this from original documents, I do believe that the letter agrees well with the more recent Original Vision Network started by TEs Paul Kooistra and Larry Hoop. While I appreciate the contributions that these men have made to PCA missions, their network steers us back to the PCUS “big tent.” For instance, they revised our founders’ words in the Message to All Churches to a vision that would now have us believe that our founders wanted:

a denomination committed to a broadly Reformed theological position, steering clear of both a formless evangelicalism with sketchy theological commitments and a narrow sectarianism that could consume our energies building a theological fortress;

Please go back and read the Message to All Churches and see if you can find a vision for a “broadly Reformed theological position.” Go ahead, I’ll wait. Back? Couldn’t find it? That’s because “committed without reservation to the Reformed Faith as set forth in the Westminster Confession and Catechisms” doesn’t describe a “broadly Reformed theological position.” The latter represents a slide back to towards the old PCUS “big tent.” If the founders had really wanted a big tent, they would have stayed in the PCUS committed “to love and respect each other.” Instead, our founders left an apostate denomination that trampled on both the Scriptures and the Standards.

Conclusion

The Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics – the chief weapons buyer for the U.S. Department of Defense – has a great sign on his door. It reads: “In God we trust, all others bring data.” The point being that opinions are nice, but we need to see the data on which one based those opinions.

So, when I read the letter by the 18 elders, the first thing that I did was hunt up the original Message to All Churches and read it to see if the two documents were consistent. That’s what everyone should do whenever any assertion is made from history. History is best learned from original sources, not commentators decades or centuries later.

In this case, the recent letter by the 18 elders seems more in line with the revisionist and euphemistically-named Original Vision Network than the bulk of the PCA founders’ intent in 1973. The original vision is readily available for all to read in the Message to All Churches and Dr. Smith’s How Thy Gold Has Become Din. Please take the time to acquaint yourselves with these documents if you have not already done so.

In closing, I again want to be clear that I respect these 18 elders for their contributions to the church of Jesus Christ over many years. That said, I am not prone to hero worship, so although their work and sacrifices earn them a hearing by other elders like myself and the denomination at large, it does not earn them automatic agreement without the original historical context being considered. In this case, I find that the original documentation does not support their thesis.

Posted by Bob Mattes

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25 Comments

  1. May 3, 2014 at 5:16 pm

    Reblogged this on A Sidekick's Blog and commented:
    Though no longer in the PCA, I do not cease to pray for my old church and denomination. This post should help explain why. Those of you reading this who still worship in the PCA – or any other Reformed body – take prayerful note and do not fail to pray for your pastors, elders, courts, and committees.

  2. May 3, 2014 at 6:05 pm

    […]   —Bob Mattes, “A Tale Of Two Letters“ […]

  3. tominaz said,

    May 3, 2014 at 6:07 pm

    Bob,
    Thanks for your thoughtful response to the letter.

  4. Cris Dickason said,

    May 4, 2014 at 8:16 am

    Someone needs to prove – document with case histories – that this accusation from The 18 Signers:

    a narrow sectarianism that could consume our energies building a theological fortress

    is a result of the original commitment.

    We declare also that we believe the system of doctrine found in God’s Word to be the system known as the Reformed Faith. We are committed without reservation to the Reformed Faith as set forth in the Westminster Confession and Catechisms. It is our conviction that the Reformed faith is not sectarian, but an authentic and valid expression of Biblical Christianity.

    Views and practices that undermine and supplant the system of doctrine or polity of a confessional Church ought never to be tolerated. A Church that will not exercise discipline will not long be able to maintain pure doctrine or godly practice.

    When a denomination will not exercise discipline and its courts have become heterodox or disposed to tolerate error, the minority finds itself in the anomalous position of being submissive to a tolerant and erring majority.

    -=Cris=-

  5. Alan D. Strange said,

    May 5, 2014 at 7:15 am

    Cris:

    As a matter of accuracy, the statement “narrow sectarianism…building a theological fortress” is not from the letter of the 18.

    And in its context, it’s not specifically an accusation but set forth as something which those authors wish to avoid. Undoubtedly, they have certain sorts of things in mind, but to call it an accusation as such (demanding documentation) is probably not the best way to go.

    I do think it legitimate to ask those who adduce such to cite the sorts of things that they have in mind, i.e., to produce examples of such theological fortress building.

    Thanks, Bob, for calling us to think about the original founding statement in light of these more recent statements.

  6. Mark said,

    May 5, 2014 at 8:41 am

    Thank you for a very well written response. By the way, is this Founder’s Letter the preview for “The Assembly-wide Gathering on the PCA past, present, and future” that is listed on the on the GA Docket for Wednesday morning for 90 minutes?

  7. May 5, 2014 at 8:49 am

    Hi Mark – Thank you for your kind assessment. No idea about the agenda.

  8. May 5, 2014 at 8:50 am

    Thank you, Dr. Strange.

  9. greenbaggins said,

    May 5, 2014 at 9:40 am

    Bob, excellent analysis. Thanks for bringing us back to the original sources.

  10. Logan Almy said,

    May 5, 2014 at 11:21 am

    Minor correction: Smith’s message is entitled, “How Is The Gold Become Dim”

  11. rfwhite said,

    May 6, 2014 at 12:57 pm

    Bob Mattes: I’m always grateful for efforts to put things into historical perspective, and I write this as someone sympathetic to your concerns. Your post prompts me to ask this: do we know (can we know) the extent to which the particulars of the PCA founders’ commitment were determined by the tenets of the PCUS’s big-tent liberalism? Let me put it another way: to what extent was “commitment without reservation” in 1973 historically conditioned, and, if so, must “commitment without reservation” necessarily be the same in the historical conditions of 2014? In still other words, do you mean to say that the specific entailments of a man’s 2014 “commitment without reservation” should be the same as the specific entailments of his 1973 commitment? What, if any, allowances should we make for historical conditions of a man’s commitment (e.g., the tenets of one’s opponents)? Again, I write as someone sympathetic to your concerns, and I’m trying to assist in discussing possible objections to your argument.

  12. MichaelColvard said,

    May 6, 2014 at 1:57 pm

    Long time reader, first time poster. I have a question that I hope doesn’t open a can of worms, but I really would love to know y’all’s opinions. Does it make a difference that the original letter states, “We are committed without reservation to the Reformed Faith AS SET FORTH in the Westminster Confession and Catechisms.” vs. what Bob said which was they held “without reservation to the Westminster Confession” (Emphasis here on they idea of a Reformed Faith that exists independently of WCF, but that which the WCF summarizes most excellently…it seems like he misses a key phrase in the original). If true I would read this as the founders were not automatically promoting strict subscription as Mr. Mattes understands it to mean. Am I mincing words?
    Just to be clear, I have great sympathies for Mr. Mattes position and I myself have been dismayed at 1) the lack of enthusiasm some of my generation have for understanding and valuing WCF and 2) the manner in which some grievous errors (paedocommunion, etc) have been pushed under the rug. I guess I wanted to get clarity on how to read the original letter.

  13. Andrew B said,

    May 6, 2014 at 5:06 pm

    Bob, I know how you would answer this, but my question pertains to the original letter more…Why are we trying to figure out or base where we go from here on what the “founder’s” vision was (founder’s is in parentheses because Jesus is the founder of the Church)? Thus the question includes, why are we trying to have a right and a left and a center? Why are we not aiming at theological and moral perfection in one unified Church in which we pursue Jesus’ vision and mission of the Church, not man’s?

  14. greenbaggins said,

    May 6, 2014 at 6:34 pm

    Michael, welcome to the blog, and thanks for your comment. I guess I would put it this way: the founders meant to express their commitment to the Reformed faith as it is set forth in the standards. While it is true, as you suggest, to regard the Reformed faith as existing outside the boundaries of the WS (the WS are, after all, relative latecomers to the Reformed expressions as found in the various confessions and catechisms of the 15th and 16th centuries), the founders were also expressing a particular form of their commitment. The commitment expressed by the founders is not just to a nebulous, undefined Reformed faith, but to one particular version of it. Therefore, I do not think that this point impacts Bob’s reading of the document much. Bob was not intending to suggest that no Reformed faith exists outside of commitment to the WS. One only has to think of the 3FU as a good example of the Reformed faith outside the WS. Instead, he was thinking of a confessional commitment to Reformed orthodoxy versus a non-confessional “commitment” to a broad, undefined, Reformed faith.

    Dr. White, you certainly raise an important point. I think that Bob’s OP is itself historically conditioned by the recent letter expressing a commitment to an imaginary form of “broad Reformed faith” that didn’t actually exist in the original documents. That is the point I think Bob means to make here. The different historical situations between the 1970’s and today actually serve to underline Bob’s point in that the denomination itself has changed in its commitments. Of course, one could say that the enemy was outside in the 1970’s, but now the enemy is within.

    I was dismayed personally to find people in the recent letter describing the current situation as one of healthy debate and a healthy breadth of views. There hasn’t been healthy debate on anything in years. The minute the whistle is blown on any view that is unconfessional, the ones who blow the whistle are immediately labelled as the unhealthy ones, the acrimonious ones, and the ones that are unhealthily narrow. And since when are unconfessional views to be regarded as a healthy part of a Reformed denomination? How can two people walk together unless they are agreed? There has to be some basis of agreement if a denomination is to stay together. The only basis that makes sense for us is a visible, biblically based confession of faith (every heretic claims to hold to Scripture, so it’s not an issue of clinging to Scripture, but rather one of how we shall read and interpret that Scripture).

  15. rfwhite said,

    May 6, 2014 at 7:07 pm

    greenbaggins: I think you are right about Bob’s point in his OP. Let me give an example: if the debate is between theological liberalism and theological conservatism, then “commitment without reservation to the Reformed faith of the Westminster Standards” is plausibly broader than if the debate is over tolerance for various interpretations of the days of creation or of God’s covenant with Adam.

  16. Mark Kim said,

    May 6, 2014 at 7:07 pm

    I have a question for the regular Green Bagginites here: is it possible for an ordained officer within a confessional Reformed denomination to say that the New Perspective on Paul MIGHT be the correct interpretation on the law and justification without expecting some time of discipline from the denomination? I ask this because in a recent article by Peter J. Leithart he states that the NPP view might be the correct view and that Protestants may have to revise their understanding of justification. Here is the article: http://www.firstthings.com/blogs/leithart/2014/05/convergence-and-classical-protestantism

  17. Mark B said,

    May 6, 2014 at 9:31 pm

    @16 He’s been pushing a reunification of the church thing for a while, with the basic theme that it will happen when protestant churches look more catholic, and Catholics and everybody else agree that his theology is right (the Pope is considering it ;) ;) ;) ). I found this rather more disturbing (considering he thinks one of the crucial steps is for all churches everywhere to celebrate weekly communion):

    “Concretely, Reformation liturgies revised, rather than renounced, the Roman Mass………..the Mass itself was revised in accord with biblical norms. The Reformers rejected the veneration of the host……..”

    This seems to minimize the rather sharp disagreements that the reformers had with the mass; which, of course, serves his purpose of trying to get all Christians of the world to be part of his “Reformational Catholic Church”.

  18. tominaz said,

    May 8, 2014 at 10:32 am

    #14 – Lane’s 3rd paragraph is correct. One only has to reflect on the full weight of parliamentary procedures used to silence several minority reports at last year’s PCA General Assembly. Principled Confessionalists are being marginalized.

  19. May 9, 2014 at 12:53 am

    Dr. White – Sorry for the delayed response, but I am traveling at the moment. Lane’s response covered my intent well. We have the National Partnership and Original Vision Network actively working to liberalize the views permitted for PCA officers. There’s no conversation or discussion, but only secret back-door email lists and parliamentary maneuvering. The general argument is that the aberrant views like FV, paedocommunion, etc., fall within the bounds of “the broader Reformed faith.” I dare say that some of my Reformed Baptist friends who hold to the Baptist Confession of 1689 are more confessional that the FV, NP, and OVN folks in the PCA, yet none of my Baptist friends would claim the right to be a PCA officer. To me it is an issue of personal integrity as well as confessional integrity.

    FWIW, I once worshiped with a wonderful RCUS congregation when I was stationed in a remote area without a PCA church. The theological acumen and confessional commitment of those congregation members in the pews exceeded that of too many PCA teaching elders. Better to be small and faithful to our Standards as containing the system of doctrine taught in the holy Scriptures, than a big tent that treats both the Standards and the Scriptures as wax noses. IMHO, “broadly Reformed” means cafeteria Reformed (pick and choose the stuff I like from the buffet and leave the rest), which isn’t Reformed at all.

  20. May 9, 2014 at 1:06 am

    RE #12,

    Hi Michael! Glad to see you commenting. I believe that the two phrases are roughly equivalent for the purposes of my OP, but I used a shorter version. I agree that they and we believe that there are other expressions of the Reformed faith, most prominently the 3FU adherents. The bottom line isn’t who’s in and who’s out of the Reformed faith, which is a common red herring, but rather what views are acceptable for PCA officers. As much as I love my 3FU brothers, I don’t know a single one claiming a right to be a PCA officer. Yet we have FVists, paedocommunionists, theistic evolutionists, etc., claiming just such a right. We need to be mindful of BCO Preliminary Principles #2 and #3.

  21. May 9, 2014 at 1:37 am

    Mark, RE #16,

    Leithart is either woefully ignorant of RCC theology, or something worse. The Reformers openly rejected the foundational claims underlying the heretical mass: the mythical real, physical presence of Christ in the communion host in opposition to the Formula of Chalcedon (i.e., Christ is fully human and fully divine without mixture or confusion, separation or division of His being), and the continued “bloodless resacrifice” of Christ every week in every RC church in direct violation of Hebrews 10. From the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

    In the liturgy of the Mass we express our faith in the real presence of Christ under the species of bread and wine by, among other ways, genuflecting or bowing deeply as a sign of adoration of the Lord. “The Catholic Church has always offered and still offers to the sacrament of the Eucharist the cult of adoration, not only during Mass, but also outside of it, reserving the consecrated hosts with the utmost care, exposing them to the solemn veneration of the faithful, and carrying them in procession.” – Para 1378

    And since in this divine sacrifice which is celebrated in the Mass, the same Christ who offered himself once in a bloody manner on the altar of the cross is contained and offered in an unbloody manner… this sacrifice is truly propitiatory. – Para 1367

    The above official RCC statements of doctrine clearly contradict Scripture and the Formula of Chalcedon. The Reformation wasn’t about what was sung or the order of service, but the underlying heresy of the mass itself. Is it any wonder why Leithart’s exoneration by his buddies in PNWP is so egregious to the truly confessional who love the Scriptures first and then the Westminster Standards as containing the system of doctrine taught in the holy Scriptures?

  22. tominaz said,

    May 9, 2014 at 10:49 am

    Dr. Al Mohler poster this very appropriate comment on Facebook this morning:
    “It may be set down as a rule. . . that the absence of accurate definitions is the very life of religious controversy.” — J. C. Ryle

    That’s the problem in the PCA – squishy theology.

  23. tominaz said,

    May 9, 2014 at 10:51 am

    *posted*

  24. May 9, 2014 at 11:03 am

    Ryle nailed that one. Dr. R. C. Sproul, Sr., likes to say that theology is the making of many fine distinctions. That necessarily makes clear definitions absolutely critical to theological discussions.

  25. Davis said,

    May 13, 2014 at 11:41 am

    GreenBaggins & Co, I’m enjoying this discussion.
    Concerning the beginning of the PCA, it is clear that those men knew each other, through the Journal and Journal Day and planning of new churches. I believe they were actively working at knowing each other better. They knew OPC history, with the Bible Presbyterian split and the Clark case, when many became very sad about the way things had gone. They sought to pro-actively love each other. How they would have voted about women deacons and intinction I have no idea—but I believe they would have wanted to hear each other out.
    PCA General Assemblies are not good places for that, too much business in too short a time. Presbyteries tend to be lazy, not wanting to work on things themselves but instead refer to a GA when since 2008 we all know that GA is not eager to ‘study’ anything. That leaves informal discussion with friends, that many may see as subversive.
    At a minimum we should be praying for and encouraging the new EPC and Covenant bunch. They are not joining us (yet?) for reasons similar to the old PCA founders concerned about the OPC, but of course ‘role of women’ issues are prominent.
    In my opinion more vigorous presbytery discussion and resolution is the answer. GA is not the place. That may demonstrate ‘red presbyteries’ and ‘blue’ ones but that’s normal for Presbyterians: some issues are more obvious in some places.
    D. Clair Davis


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