The point of having confessions is to establish boundaries of what is acceptable teaching and preaching within a communion…the Standards are the Reformed theological framework within which the denomination and her ministers are to carry their service.
The largest NAPARC denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) is in the throes of an identity crisis. Founded by Southern Presbyterians and emerging out of the old PCUS (the Southern version of the Presbyterian mainline) it has always been more more broadly evangelical than the other members of NAPARC. It became even more broadly evangelical when it merged with the Reformed Presbyterian Church Evangelical Synod (RPCES). It is in crisis just now because in part because of the relatively decentralized character of the PCA and a relatively lax approach to confessional subscription, which has developed over the last twenty years. In that time an influential and organized progressive movement has developed in the PCA. It has allowed them to adapt and adopt pragmatic church-growth principles, to take significant exceptions to confessional standards, turn a blind eye to the Federal Vision movement in the church courts, create functionally female deacons and elders, and to promote the so-called Side-B approach to homosexuality. When the progressive or perhaps better, latitudinarian wing of the PCA is challenged on these things the response has been consistent. See the PCA resource page below for the evidence. The rhetoric is remarkably consistent. It is, in effect, “when I joined the PCA it was predominantly influenced (insert list of good guys and heroes) but now the PCA is threatened by (anonymous) fundamentalists. We must resist this movement and return to the good old days.” David Cassidy’s essay of September 21, 2021 is the latest example in this genre.
The Contested History of the PCA
One of the difficulties in analyzing the PCA is that there is no agreed historical narrative. The wing of the PCA represented by Cassidy’s essay tells one story about the identity of the PCA and other wings have their own narratives.
The sociological reality of the PCA is that it is probably actually multiple denominations formally connected by presbyteries and general assembly but actually divided from one another by their varying approaches to the Westminster Standards, to worship, and to polity at the congregational level. The PCA in urban cities (e.g., New York and St Louis) is starkly different from the PCA in Greenville, SC and Jackson, MS.
In a confessional Presbyterian denomination, the churches would be united around the theology, piety, and practice confessed in an envisioned by the Westminster Standards. As much as I have been able to tell, the PCA has probably never been a confessional Presbyterian denomination thus defined. Parts of the PCA have always been socially and theologically conservative. It is probably the case that the PCA was more socially and theologically conservative and cohesive at its founding but the joining with and receiving of the Reformed Presbyterian Church Evangelical Synod moved the PCA in a more broadly evangelical direction theologically and practically. The adoption of “Good Faith Subscription” around the turn of the century was another watershed moment further pushing the PCA away from confessional Presbyterianism. There are as many ways to subscribe the Standards in the PCA as there are presbyteries. In some presbyteries. The adoption of the strategic plan (2010) was another watershed moment. The vote at General Assembly (2007) against the Federal Vision has turned out to be a largely symbolic but hollow victory. In practice, at presbytery, the PCA has been quite reluctant to discipline actual living and breathing Federal Visionists.
Since the adoption of the Strategic Plan, those who favor a more progressive and latitudinarian presbyterianism have carried the day in the PCA. In that light the Sturm und Drang communicated in the the laments by the reigning latitudinarians is puzzling. They have largely dominated the more conservative elements in the PCA. The confessionalist wing is a minority party in the PCA with some outstanding voices but probably relatively little actual influence.
The Missing Category
The bête noir of the latitudinarian party are the alleged “fundamentalists.” This passage in Cassidy’s essay is striking:
Looking back, men like Kennedy Smartt, Frank Barker, Francis Schaeffer, James Kennedy, David Nicholas, Cortez Cooper, RC Sproul, Steve Brown, and many others were not only deeply Reformed but also broadly evangelical, and resistant to fundamentalist impulses. They showed the way ahead on many critical issues while embracing authentic confessional integrity.
These are his good guys, those of the “majority…who favored a Good Faith approach [to confessional subscription]” as opposed the fundamentalists, whom he seems to regard as equivalent to those who favor “a more strict approach to the Confession…”. Francis Schaeffer certainly had deep roots in American fundamentalism. His early career was arguably fundamentalist as was his later career, when he returned to form to became something of a right-wing culture warrior. D. James Kennedy was hardly a model of progressive tolerance. In the same building that housed the seminary was a floor dedicated to taking back America for Christ. Coming out of the old PCUS, Kennedy was perhaps a little latitudinarian doctrinally but he did not agree with the National Partnership ethos regarding the Federal Vision, which he attacked from the pulpit quite forcefully. R. C. Sproul was hardly a doctrinal latitudinarian. Again, during the General Assembly of 2007, when the latitudinarians were calling for toleration of the Federal Vision, Sproul stood up and called the denomination to reject the FV categorically. So, this list would not seem to serve Cassidy’s argument very well.