“Holding the view of beginnings expressed in ‘theistic evolution’ is contrary to the fundamentals of our system of doctrine taught in the Word of God and our standards. Such a view destroys the basis of such doctrines as the doctrines of sin, of marriage, of salvation, of covenants, and others. Therefore such a view cannot be allowed as an exception. Anyone holding such a view must be disqualified from teaching and/or ordination in the church.” –Decision of New River Presbytery upheld by the SJC.
With a growing tension in the PCA over the position of those who hold to views of Theistic Evolution (as evidenced by the multiple stories in the press in recent weeks), it seems appropriate to remind the readers of The Aquila Report of a case that was resolved over twenty years ago which involved a Sunday School teacher.
The issue was not whether a man could be ordained to office if he held to these views, but could an individual teach Sunday School in a PCA church who held to these views. The answer of the Standing Judicial Commission was, clearly and decisively, No, they may not teach. Even if they agreed not to teach their views. They cannot teach at all.
Here is a summary of the story.
In 1989 a case came to New River Presbytery concerning a Sunday School teacher in a church in Blacksburg, Virginia. (Full Disclosure: the author of this article was the Pastor of that church, a member of the Session, and served as the representative of the complainants taking the case to the General Assembly’s Standing Judicial Commission. In other words, he lost!)
The central factor in the case was that the teacher in question, a professor who held an BA from Wheaton College and a PhD from the University of Chicago in Zoology and taught in the Biology Department at Virginia Tech, held to a view of creation which would fall within the parameters of Theistic Evolution (rather than the more acceptable Old Earth position of Progressive Creation). The teacher voluntarily agreed to bind his conscience and not teach his views to his students. The Session, following a strict set of guidelines for examining all teachers, approved him based on that agreement.
A member of the congregation complained against the decision and the case was sent to New River Presbytery for adjudication. The Presbytery ruled against the Session, as follows:
Actions of New River Presbytery in the case of Alder vs. Session of Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church
The Presbytery’s Judicial Commission found that the views held by the teacher, in particular, his views on creation and theistic evolution were outside the fundamentals of our system of doctrine. The Presbytery concurred with this judgment and referred the case back to the Session for reconsideration with the following instruction:
“Holding the view of beginnings expressed in ‘theistic evolution’ is contrary to the fundamentals of our system of doctrine taught in the Word of God and our standards. Such a view destroys the basis of such doctrines as the doctrines of sin, of marriage, of salvation, of covenants, and others.
“Therefore such a view cannot be allowed as an exception. Anyone holding such a view must be disqualified from teaching and/or ordination in the church.” (see page 20 and also pages 19 to 23 of the Record of the Case).
The Session then complained against the action of the Presbytery and submitted the case to the PCA’s Standing Judicial Commission, which ruled as follows:
Actions of the SJC in Case 90-3, approved at the 1991 General Assembly (See Minutes, page 480ff) dealing with a complaint against the actions of New River Presbytery
Judgment: That Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church be advised that the teacher who is the subject of the original complaint should not be granted the authority to teach in the Church while he holds exceptions to our doctrinal standards which could reasonably be expected to result in him having to teach in a manner which would be out of accord with the fundamentals of our system of doctrine
Reasoning and Opinion: It is clear to the Panel that the teacher who was the subject of the original complaint holds exceptions to a number of the fundamentals of our system of doctrine and that when all these exceptions are taken together it does appear reasonable for the Presbytery to have taken the view that these exceptions would necessarily result in the teacher teaching views which were out of accord with the fundamentals of our standards.
So – since 1991 – it has been the judicial rule in the PCA that not only may an officer not hold to Theistic Evolution, one holding that view may not even serve as a Sunday School teacher. It is difficult for me to fathom why the Alder case has not received wider attention and application.
Remember, that while approved study reports and deliverances of the General Assembly must be given serious consideration by lower courts, they are not binding on them. However, decisions of the SJC are binding on the parties of the case and are also to be given due and serious consideration by the lower courts of the church. Judicial decisions do set precedence for courts to consider as they adjudicate cases.
For instance, PCA courts have given due and serious consideration to cases like Bowen vs Eastern Carolina Presbytery (1990-8), in which the SJC ruled that one must hold to both the doctrines of Limited Atonement and Infant Baptism in order to serve as an officer in the PCA. This judicial case has been cited and used as precedence in a vast number of subsequent cases throughout the PCA.
The PCA has on record the SJC decision in the Alder case. This means that any Presbytery in examining candidates and/or transfers, and any Session in examining candidates for Elder or Deacon – or Sunday School teacher – may ask questions in the area of Theistic Evolution and, should they choose to do so, decline to approve the candidate/officer who holds those views and use this decision as a precedence.
So, help me out here – should not other courts of the PCA apply that precedence and say – clearly – that Theistic Evolution is not to be allowed. Where are the Sessions, where are the Presbyteries, who would be willing to apply the precedence of the Alder decision? Or are we, by our silence, saying we are open to Theistic Evolution in our midst?
Perhaps those who continue to promote ‘conversations’ and ‘celebrations of theology’ and General Assembly ‘seminars’ are working toward overturning the Alder decision. Perhaps not. But – and this is just my simple country logic working – can’t someone just bring a case to process and determine where the PCA stands on Theistic Evolution in 2012? Does the PCA allow people to hold and teach views of Theistic Evolution? Yes or no? It is the ONLY way we can be sure where we stand.
Don K. Clements is holds a MDiv from Covenant Seminary (cum laude) and holds a DMin from Gordon Conwell Seminary. He is a retired Navy Chaplain, and after pastoring churches in Georgia and Virginia, is now serving as an Affiliate Evangelist with PEF and is the director of Metokos Ministries. He also serves as the volunteer News Editor of the Aquila Report.