How Conservative Presbyterianism Lost Its Mojo

Thoughts on why some of the NAPARC denominations are plateaued or in decline

A while back my friend Anthony Bradley posted an insightful and provocative blog piece asking why the popular influence of conservative Presbyterians prominent a few decades back (e.g., Jim Boice, R. C. Sproul, Sinclair Ferguson, and John Frame) seems to have waned in comparison to Baptists of a broadly Reformed soteriological persuasion. I posted an extended comment at the time, and thought I would expand on it here. There are at least two big issues in play—the Baptistic Reformed success as driven by institutions (e.g., Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, the Founders’ Movement) and gifted individuals (e.g., Don Carson, Al Mohler, Mark Dever, Mark Driscoll) on the one hand, and the apparent Presbyterian decline on the other. As a Presbyterian I’m not particularly well equipped to comment on the first, but I think I have something to offer about the second.

Of course, the Presbyterian and Reformed tradition has been declining as a percentage of the American population since the nineteenth century. But statistics available in resources like ARDA and the Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches indicate that some of the NAPARC denominations are plateaued or in decline. This is worrisome, and the reasons are doubtless complex, having to do with social as well as theological factors. Below are five general observations from the “for what it’s worth department.”

1. There has been a decline in the prominence of conservative Presbyterian scholarship. Yes, Jim Boice and R. C. Sproul were (or are, in the case of RCS) popularizers, but they built on a formidable theological foundation (Boice’s doctorate in New Testament was from Basel, and Sproul studied with Berkouwer at the Free University of Amsterdam). Forty years ago Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia was generally acknowledged as at or near the top of the evangelical academic heap in the USA. Though it operated on a shoestring its institutional impact in the broader Evangelical context was huge. But that has changed. In short, other schools (Gordon-Conwell, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, etc.) have caught up.

Concurrent with this we see the rise of the “scholar-pastor” model in Presbyterian circles (i.e., a well-known and popular pastor who happens to have a Ph.D. from somewhere). A problem here is that first-rate scholarship is a full-time job, and some of these (there are, to be sure, some blessed exceptions) are not really equipped to drive the theological discussion forward. And where are such people publishing? I see lots of popular-level books but fewer and fewer volumes coming from university presses, or from traditional Evangelical academic publishers like Eerdmans, Baker, IVP, Paternoster, etc.

Furthermore, I’m increasingly convinced that a major problem in the conservative Presbyterian community is a persistent conflation of apologetics and historical scholarship. The altogether proper recognition of the role of presuppositions seems sometimes to serve as an excuse for reading one’s own ideas back in time. For example, I continue to be astonished by some recent attempts to present Calvin as in full and complete continuity with later Reformed federal orthodoxy despite the clear record of opposition to Calvin at some key points (e.g., union with Christ and the sacraments) by nineteenth-century federalists like Cunningham and Hodge. Of course there are both continuities and discontinuities; how could it be otherwise? Or consider current efforts to portray the authentic Calvinist on issues of church/state/culture as a Lutheran with an antebellum-southern drawl!

2. There has been a decided turn to intramural theological squabbles in conservative Presbyterian circles since the 1970s—the Shepherd controversy, theonomy, Federal Vision, the Pete Enns controversy, literal six-day young-earth creationism, 2K. The list goes on and on. Some of these issues reflect historic fissures in the tradition, while others are evidence of the breakdown of earlier theological consensus and the loss of a sense of proportionality. Not every issue requires that one go to the mat. John Frame chronicled some of this in a controversial internet article “Machen’s Warrior Children.” I don’t quite agree with Frame that a penchant for theological controversy is hardwired into the conservative American Presbyterian consciousness, and I’m certainly not saying that such issues don’t need to be addressed. In fact, I’ve been personally involved in some of these discussions. Rather, when such issues consume us it is both a distraction to those inside and off-putting to those outside. Complicating the situation is the fact that some of these theological conflicts have clear connections to institutional agendas (see #4 below).

3. There is unfinished theological business. What we have said above suggests that the prevailing theological impulse in conservative Presbyterian circles is, well, “conservative”; it is oriented toward the conserving of a tradition, and theological discussions sometimes seem like exercises in historic preservation. To be sure, we have a goodly heritage and one that I embrace, but are there areas where further work is needed? This is a touchy subject almost sure to raise the hackles of those who think they are in possession of the whole truth in its pristine purity, but I think there are, and let me mention three of them.

Presbyterians across the theological spectrum are known for their emphasis on the theme of covenant. We talk about covenant all the time, and authors know that the inclusion of the word in a book title will enhance sales. But all the ongoing to-do about covenant fails to mask fundamental disagreements within the tradition about the nature of covenant solidarity. There is no real agreement about the basic definition and implications of covenant (cf., e.g., Murray, Robertson, Schilder, etc.), and this is not surprising in that the biblical materials contain a dialectic of conditionality and unconditionality difficult to reduce to a single definition or approach, much less to a dominant theological motif. For example, much recent Reformed soteriological discussion (e.g., Shepherd, Federal Vision, Sonship) finds itself on the either/or horns of this conditionality/unconditionality dilemma. In addition, a formidable and compelling argument has been made by Old Testament scholar John Stek that the later Reformed tradition has in fact overemphasized the theme, that it suffers from a case of “covenant overload,” and that the theme of covenant in Scripture is rather a subsidiary, culturally conditioned ANE theme used to express relationships that already exist. Here Calvin’s more modest and careful deployment of the covenant theme can serve as a useful corrective.

A related problem has to do with the fact that the tradition’s school-text account of salvation is pretty abstract and it has had considerable difficulty offering a coherent account of how the ongoing life of Christian nurture, faith, and obedience in the church are relevant to one’s eternal destiny. As the issue is often framed, justification involves one sort of relationship with Christ (a “legal” or “forensic” union) while sanctification involves something else (a “vital” or “spiritual” union), and the problem of the unity of salvation in Christ emerges with vigor. Moreover, it’s not at all surprising that the tradition has tended to oscillate between legalism and antinomianism, and yet many keep repeating the same old scholastic formulas hoping they will somehow work better now than they have in the past.

I’ve been calling attention to this problem of soteriological dualism for quite some time and, interestingly, Michael Horton seems to concur with me on this point (he calls it a “schizophrenic soteriology”). While I don’t agree with his solution to this dualism of extracting sanctification from forensic justification via a Barthian theological ontology, it’s nice to see increasing recognition of the problem. There is also a consummate irony here—upon close examination there doesn’t seem to be much distance at all on this issue between Mike Horton and the Federal Vision theologian Peter Leithart. Both deal with the soteriological dualism of traditional federal theology by viewing the forensic act of justification as implicitly transformatory and both appeal to the theological ontology of contemporary Barthian Bruce McCormack!

Finally, there is a budding crisis of religious authority evident in at least two areas—views of Scripture and the confessions. First, there is the problem of biblical authority and competing understandings of the inerrancy of Scripture. Until recently in conservative Presbyterian circles one could assume the nuanced historic view of inerrancy taught by the Old Princetonians B. B. Warfield and A. A. Hodge and reflected in the Chicago Statement of 1978. But that has now changed as more fundamentalistic views of inerrancy, with their overt suspicion of both the interpretive dimension and the concern for the human aspect of Scripture, have gained considerable influence (I’ve dealt with this issue here and here).

While on this larger topic of religious authority, there are also the problems of how the confessions of the church are to be utilized and what can reasonably be expected of them. Some in the conservative Presbyterian orbit have responded to differences within the Reformed community and to the doctrinal diversity of broader evangelicalism by trumpeting the Reformed confessions of the sixteenth and seventeenth century as the solution to what ails us. But the problems here are significant. First, such a strategy of confessional positivism is, at the end of the day, little more than a bald appeal to external authority, and to a fallible one at that. This is an odd move for people ostensibly committed to sola scriptura! Second, the Reformed confessions themselves need to be interpreted. The assumption that the confessions give us some sort of trans-historical Archimedean point of reference from which to understand Scripture simply does not obtain—the Reformed confessions are human documents and products of their time. While these documents are splendid and wonderful resources for the church (and I’ve spent a good deal of time in recent years trying to acquaint Reformed believers with the richness of this tradition), wooden “confessionalism” is not the answer to anything.

In short, there are some real and persistent theological problems within the conservative Presbyterian tradition having to do with issues of central thematics, soteriology, and religious authority, and pretending they don’t exist will only lead to more problems. Moreover, these are precisely the sorts of problems that undercut the broader influence of the tradition and make it appear narrow and sectarian.

4. There is the tenuous situation of Presbyterian seminaries, some of which are quite small, and most of which are tuition-driven and undercapitalized. The last forty years have seen a significant expansion of seminary capacity, and this has meant that more schools are competing for a relatively small group of students. Thus it has been difficult for many such such schools to develop the critical mass and program resources necessary for broader influence.

Not surprisingly, some institutions have looked for something distinctive—a particular view of confessionalism, or grace, or ministry, or being “missional,” or biblical theology, or whatever—to give them a leg up in the market. But this has, in turn, contributed to the theological “Balkanization” of the conservative Reformed community and it has also, on occasion, led to unseemly and snarky internet squabbles.

In addition, the prevailing model of Presbyterian theological education is increasingly one of catechetical, professional education for pastors designed to equip men to perpetuate a particular tradition rather than to critically interact with that tradition and the broader culture. That is a needful role, but not one that is going to maximize broader influence.

There is, however, a profound irony here. For all the conservative Presbyterian talk about a high ecclesiology, the prevailing model of theological education in conservative Presbyterian circles is now a parachurch one, while the Southern Baptist schools have benefited enormously from a stable denominational constituency and economies of scale. Another irony is that the Southern Baptists have often demonstrated a higher ecclesiology in their dealings with denominational educational institutions than have conservative Presbyterians!

5. Finally, the conservative Presbyterian and Reformed presence is splintered into a variety of denominational locations (PCA, EPC, OPC, ARP, URC, the micro-Presbyterians, etc.) with competing institutional interests while the Baptistic Reformed presence is often found either in flexible independency or in the institutional colossus known as the Southern Baptist Convention. Many of these Presbyterian and Reformed groups are of relatively recent origin and still trying to figure out their identity after sometimes painful exits from larger and more liberal churches. Things are in flux and the outlines of the Presbyterian “grand realignment” are only slowly becoming more clear. In other words, it is harder to be influential in the broader context when you are trying to get your own institutional house in order.

Of course, recognizing the problems is one thing; solutions are something else again. Stay tuned.

William B. Evans is a minister in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church and serves as the Younts Prof. of Bible and Religion at Erskine College in Due West, South Carolina, where he teaches courses in theology, American religion, and religion and culture. This article first appeared on his blog, The Ecclesial Calvinist, and is used with permission.