It is no accident that the PCA’s formative meeting was on December 7, 1973, the anniversary of the founding of the Southern Presbyterian denomination in 1861. This letter is as clear a herald as we have of the basic values of the birth of the PCA, often summarized as “True to the Scriptures, the Reformed Faith, and the Great Commission.” Any birthday party that ignores these pillars or that isolates only one or two of those values will insult the past and impoverish the future. A commemoration that refreshes its sturdy heritage, deepening it as is progresses, will be helpful.
This week a young denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America, (PCA) will celebrate its 40th birthday. Reaching 40 years, without more schism than already witnessed, is a nice achievement for an American evangelical denomination as it reaches its generational benchmark.
Here’s an obvious question: Will this church be looking backwards or forwards as it has birthday celebrations? Or should it even celebrate at such a young age? Will the PCA last to have other celebrations? Or as Scott Clark asked this summer, ‘Why is the PCA distinctive?’
Janus was the mythological figure who looked both ways. At whatever level of ecclesiastical partying, if any, that posture is likely the most warranted.
To be sure, some will seize this opportunity to re-vision the denomination away from its founding values in order to be molded more to the wishes of third generation members. I’m pretty sure that we’ll hear some of the following from the primarily forward-looking wing: “The PCA was formed to be missional; she was conceived to be outward-focused . . . The PCA was a break with tradition, favoring ‘new wineskins,’ . . . The PCA was designed to be Gospel-centered, Grace-centered, a truly dangerous and courageous sinner-loving ecosystem.” These attempts to redefine the PCA’s original vision and intent will fail for lack of historical evidence and credibility.
And for those who wish only to look in the rear view mirror, we will hear that the PCA was formed to hold the line. These advocates will claim that the Confession must be held with vigor and that “the only Law-Giver in Zion” was hardly soft on sin or compromise. This warrior-child wing will prioritize the ways of the past, even if the sins of the fathers go unnoticed.
But how many celebrations will look both backwards and forwards? And isn’t that what worthwhile commemorations (call them birthday parties) will do.
Janus would probably advise us to preserve the best of the founding generation and couple that with a forward-looking sentiment. So, why not organize commemorations around THE founding document and extend the values of that document prospectively? To do so promises both renewal and progress if we can benefit from a short review of a key document: “A Message to All Churches of Jesus Christ Throughout the World.”
It is no accident that the PCA’s formative meeting was on December 7, 1973, the anniversary of the founding of the Southern Presbyterian denomination (Presbyterian Church in the United States – PCUS) in 1861. This letter is as clear a herald as we have of the basic values of the birth of the PCA, often summarized as “True to the Scriptures, the Reformed Faith, and the Great Commission.” Any birthday party that ignores these pillars or that isolates only one or two of those values will insult the past and impoverish the future. A commemoration that refreshes its sturdy heritage, deepening it as is progresses, will be helpful.
The three prime values of the PCA, both formally and informally from the most-frequent motto, emphasized Inerrancy, the Westminster standards, and Evangelism. Along the way, descendants could learn something from irenic language. These parents sensed the need for candor in declaring to onlookers why, after much prayer, study, and effort, they were forming a new denomination.
The first clear value was the total truthfulness of Scripture. The PCA founding fathers professed that they would not have formed a new church had the mother church continued to hold to Scripture. They declared that after finding “no human remedy for this situation, and in the absence of evidence that God would intervene, we were compelled to raise a new banner bearing the historic, Scriptural faith of our forefathers.” First and foremost, they affirmed the full authority, truthfulness, and inerrancy (a relatively new term in 1973 but one that was clear) of the Bible. That was to be the foundation of the new church. This new church was not creating a new standard but returning to the earlier, solid foundation. They declared, thus, “that the Bible is the very Word of God, so inspired in the whole and in all its parts, as in the original autographs, to be the inerrant Word of God. It is, therefore, the only infallible and all-sufficient rule of faith and practice.”
As such, this was no different from the 1861 position of the PCUS. At the birth of the PCA, “The Church knows nothing of the intuitions of reason or the deductions of philosophy, except those reproduced in the Sacred Canon. She has a positive constitution in the Holy Scriptures, and has no right to utter a single syllable upon any subject except as the Lord puts words in her mouth. She is founded, in other words, upon express revelation.” Such signature, if continued into the future, will surely make us a strong church, not to mention a distinctive one.
To support the second main value, this founding charter then reviewed how the ecclesial decline had been gradual—surely a timely reminder to us today, unless we are morally or intellectually superior to our parents. Our founders viewed themselves as “continuing Presbyterians”—neither as radicals nor broad innovators. They specifically bemoaned: “a diluted theology, a gospel tending towards humanism, an unbiblical view of marriage and divorce, the ordination of women, financing of abortion on socio-economic grounds, and numerous other non-Biblical positions are all traceable to a different view of Scripture from that we hold and that which was held by the Southern Presbyterian forefathers.” Well, that is certainly clear! Moreover, our parents saw that the failure to exercise church discipline in its courts aided and abetted this contagion. Further, they expressed their hope that their departure might be used of the Lord to call a once-great church back to its moorings; if so, they promised to reassess.
Secondly, they declared unmistakably their adherence to “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. We believe it is our duty to seek fellowship and unity with all who profess this faith. We particularly wish to labor with other Christians committed to this theology.” Again, for birthday celebrants, like it or not, this was not exactly a broadening church at its conception.
They also affirmed the spiritual ethos of the church; it was not a political party or a social-justice unit in other words that was being formed. It was a confessional church, rooted in history. The Westminster standards were seen as the antidote to the liberalism of the past several generations. Can it be imagined that a revival of Westminster spirituality would not be curative for many ills of our coming generations? Perhaps part of our birthday celebrations will be devoted to recovering the reformed confession.
Thirdly, these parents rededicated themselves to a missional church—missional, that is, in the Thornwellian sense. They declared that the “great end” of the church and the “indispensable condition of our Lord’s promised presence” would be found in keeping the Great Commission. Rather than conforming to culture, our parents wished to convert culture, averring that evangelism was “the one great comprehensive objective, a proper conception of whose grandeur and magnitude . . . the only thing which, under the constraining love of Christ, can ever sufficiently arouse our energies and develop our resources so as to cause us to carry on with that vigor and efficiency, which true loyalty to our Lord demands, those other agencies necessary to our internal growth and prosperity at home.”
Then our 1973 parents had the nerve and wisdom to affirm the same faith as held in 1861, specifically, “The only thing that will be at all peculiar to us is the manner in which we shall attempt to discharge our duty. In almost every department of labor, except the pastoral care of congregations, it has been usual for the Church to resort to societies more or less closely connected with itself, and yet logically and really distinct. It is our purpose to rely upon the regular organs of our government, and executive agencies directly and immediately responsible to them.” Then they also affirmed: “We wish to make the Church, not merely a superintendent, but an agent. We wish to develop the idea that the congregation of believers, as visibly organized is the very society or corporation which is divinely called to do the work of the Lord. We shall, therefore, endeavor to do what has never been adequately done— bring out the energies of our Presbyterian system of government. From the session to the Assembly, we shall strive to enlist all our courts, as courts, in every department of Christian effort. We are not ashamed to confess that we are intensely Presbyterian. We embrace all other denominations in the arms of Christian fellowship and love, but our own scheme of government we humbly believe to be according to the pattern shown in the Mount, and, by God’s grace, we propose to put its efficiency to the test.
So as this “new member of the family of Churches” left the neonatal unit, they pledged their sacred honor to these three: Inerrancy, the Westminster Standards, and Evangelism.
True, many may try to re-craft the circumstances of our birth, but it might be better for the grandchildren to look backward in appreciation of the struggles and the values, in hope that in the future we will still hold to these. Shouldn’t some efforts be made, in fact, to ensure that at the PCA’s 80th or 100th anniversary, those would still be our hallmarks? If so, we’ll probably make it to the century mark. If not, maybe we won’t deserve to have more birthday celebrations.
To fail to profit from our own history is also one of the surest paths to demise. Alexander Solzhenitsyn put it very well: “To destroy a people you must first sever their roots.” Lord Acton once stated: “Just as loss of memory in an individual is a psychiatric defect calling for a medical treatment, so too any community which has no social memory is suffering from an illness.” Acton differentiated between being governed by the past as opposed to a liberating knowledge gained from the past. He recommended: “Live both in the future and the past. Who does not live in the past does not live in the future.” Acton, who spoke of progress as “the religion of those who have none,” also noted that history “gives us the line of progress, the condition of progress, the demonstration of error.”
Dr. David W. Hall is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and serves as the Senior Pastor of Midway Presbyterian Church in Powder Springs, Ga.