A Shot across the PCA’s Bow
When a Prayer Turns into an Accusation
On April 3, 2006, John Armstrong fired a shot across the bow of the PCA in the form of a “prayer.” He informs us in this article that he has a growing concern for the PCA and, at the same time, warns us that the PCA is a “conflicted denomination.” To Armstrong’s mind the conflict is not caused by the Left, whatever that is and whoever that might be, but rather comes from the “far Right,” whatever that is and whoever that might be. Of course, any denomination that entertains both a Left and a far Right would be conflicted, wouldn’t it? In fact, to one degree or another, this is an apt description of many denominations.
But why target the PCA in this regard? Surely other denominations such as the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, the Christian Reformed Church, the Episcopal Church, and a host of other denominations would fall under the same accusation. For whatever reason, Armstrong chose to put the PCA under the microscope in this article. It is instructive therefore to begin with the language that Armstrong employs. According to him, the PCA seems to have a Left-wing constituency, but this is counter-balanced not merely by a Right-wing element, but rather by a “far” Right-wing element. Here the language becomes clear. The Left is not at fault; the far Right is. Unfortunately—and this will plague Armstrong’s article throughout,—he assumes that everyone understands what the far Right in the PCA is and who the culprits are. In other words, Armstrong is vague, non-specific.
The Far Right Vocal Minority
Moreover, Armstrong doesn’t give us any effective guidelines as to what precisely constitutes walking left of center or what would be not merely right of center, but far right of it. Rather than explanation, Armstrong resorts to declaration: “You see, the PCA has a very vocal minority of folks who just can’t stop arguing. They seem to thrive on polemics.” Since I am PCA, my interest is piqued. How large or small is this vocal minority? Who did the survey and accumulated the statistics? How was the gauge set to determine what was slightly right of center and what exceeded the boundaries of propriety? What are the specific issues about which this vocal minority is arguing? Answers to all of these questions would be quite helpful in allowing us to get a realistic handle on the precise nature of the spiritual malady in the PCA. As helpful as this would be, we are not told much of anything helpful in Armstrong’s article. To state that the article is superficial is to pay it a compliment.
What we are told, however, is that “Every controversy known to conservative Christianity seems to eventually find its way into the PCA.” Well, that certainly narrows down the field, doesn’t it? But notice the tendentious language Armstrong employs. Once again, we are at somewhat of a loss to differentiate between the garden-variety, vanilla Christianity and what constitutes conservative Christianity. Does Armstrong mean that the PCA is embroiled in controversy surrounding the infallibility and inerrancy of Scripture? Is there a debate among the members and leaders—the vocal minority—of the PCA about the doctrine of the Trinity? The two natures of Christ? The nature and extent of the atonement? The doctrine of justification by faith? The union of the believer with Christ? Eschatology? Ecclesiology? The immutability of God? Armstrong doesn’t say. Yet, all of these qualify—fully—as debates orthodox Christianity has had.
Even though the spiritual post-mortem has yet to be pronounced on the PCA, according to Armstrong it is suffering from a kind of “poisoning.” Armstrong explains, “One theological overture after another keeps surfacing and making its way into the bloodstream of the PCA, poisoning the missional good of this fellowship over and over again. I do not know how long this group can sustain this kind of hostility.” Well, I certainly don’t know either! I only wish I knew more precisely what Armstrong is talking about.
Fortunately, he doesn’t leave us in the dark much longer. On page 2, he cuts right to the chase, but not before leaving us with this profound thought of the day: “But the PCA seems conflicted about which conflicts truly matter.” I see. More and more I find myself wishing that I had some inkling into what Armstrong is aiming at. But Aufklärung is on the way. Prepare yourself. We’re getting ready to be exposed to some far Right poison that is in the bloodstream—a kind of spiritual staphylococcus infection—of the PCA. Ready? Here it is: “Just a few days ago a brother told me of an interview he had with a PCA search committee. The very first question they asked him was: ‘What is your position on the six literal days of Genesis?’”
Now I’ll bet you are just as incensed as I am about such an unfair question! That is totally—totally—unfair and uncalled for! Well, you have to start somewhere with your questioning of a candidate I suppose, but if this were a gentler, kinder sort of PCA they could have at least eased into the exam and asked the candidate how his self-esteem was or if he liked their track lighting. Or, they might have asked him about the formal and material aspects of his missional and ecclesial notions. Seriously, I don’t see what the problem here is. When I was a candidate in the Dutch-speaking churches in Holland—which is very close to The Netherlands—I had six calls to churches. They asked me a lot of questions; all kinds of questions and I had quite a few for them as well. It is simply part of the process. For Armstrong to use the above-cited example is, to my mind, a clear case of some candidate in the PCA whining about a legitimate question. The calling and ordination of a pastor is a very serious matter. Whenever a congregation considers calling a candidate, they should be very certain—as certain as is humanly possible—that the man they are calling is biblically qualified. Asking pertinent questions is one way to find that out. Reciprocally, if the candidate believes that foreign and home missions are also very important and the committee doesn’t ask him any questions about either, he has the opportunity to ask them what their position is on missions.
What is disconcerting in this all is the subtle and less subtle manner in which Armstrong presents this example. He juxtaposes missions and Creation by the Lord God Almighty, which is an unfortunate thing to do. Both are important and both need to be discussed openly. At another level, it would have enhanced Armstrong’s article to have told those outside the PCA that even though the Bible and the Westminster Standards appeal to six day creation—and this is a viable option—the PCA allows some leeway with regard to other views such as the “Framework Hypothesis.” Why doesn’t he?
When a congregation is searching for a pastor whether the question about the days of Genesis comes at the front-end of the questioning or the back-end is really quite irrelevant. It is a legitimate question that each congregation seeking a pastor may and should ask. The Dutch, Canadian, and American churches all wanted to know what my theology was from front to back, which is quite understandable. In order to discern what my theology was, I was asked numerous questions. I didn’t call, “Foul!” It was part of the process. Calling a pastor is a big step and each calling committee is free to explore what the candidate’s theology is. What is the problem? You simply answer the questions as biblically as you can and let the chips fall where they may.
Questions of the Floor of Presbytery
But Armstrong is not finished yet. Not only was someone so insensitive to the missional good of the PCA that they dared asked about the biblical creation account, but yet another brother told Armstrong “of a Presbytery that took ninety minutes to cross-examine a new pastor because it would not accept their own committee’s report on the pastor’s fitness for PCA standing.” Why is this a problem? Each Presbytery must accept responsibility for determining whether or not a candidate is truly ready, qualified to receive licensure or ordination. Again, this is a big, crucial step. There is something to be said for erring on the side of taking too much time rather than not taking enough, thereby allowing something essential to the exam to fall between the proverbial cracks. Well, if we’re just trading stories—, and it seems like according to Armstrong’s article that all we’re doing is swapping generalities—a Baptist friend of mine was questioned for ninety minutes at his ordination exam because he did not espouse a particular eschatological position. The actual exam was longer, but ninety minutes was consumed talking about eschatology. He was not merely questioned but grilled, accused, and had to come back a second time simply because of his particular eschatology. He was eventually ordained, but not without serious objections because he was an amillennarian. My friend had a choice: either go through the process or opt out. He chose to go through the process. He lived.
Nit-Pickers Picking Nits
Yet another person “related the story of false and improperly advanced accusations that proceeded along lines that were completely inconsistent with Scripture.” I don’t want to be a nit-picker picking nits, but it would seem that as serious as these matters are Armstrong would provide us with substantially more than a mere, bare sketch of what he’s talking about. As serious as these allegations are, you would think that he would not merely provide us with some facts, but also, for the sake of fairness, would present the other side—for there is another side you know. At the end of the day, we might line up on Armstrong’s side. With the scant evidence he’s providing it would seem imprudent to align one’s self with what sounds more like hearsay than anything else although I’m sure his sources are “reliable.” They always are, aren’t they?
What Armstrong offers next took me somewhat aback. He writes, “The line of questions most often advanced by polemicists in the PCA these days are of a fairly standard variety; e.g., justification and the New Perspective on Paul, the Federal Vision (with related debates about baptism and the Lord’s Supper), Norman Shepherd’s misunderstood views on justification and sanctification, the place of liturgy (including weekly communion, forms of worship expression, ministerial robes and clerical collars), the role of women (including women serving as ordained deacons and women serving in the military), paedo-communion, Bible translations, etc.” (By the way, Mr. Armstrong, the PCA is not opposed to women serving in the military per se, but in them serving in combat. That’s a pretty significant difference.)
But what a relief to finally see why Armstrong is so upset! Why anyone would be upset if the far Right polemicists in the PCA truly are quibbling about such insignificant matters as justification by faith, election, perseverance, and paedo-communion. Does it truly matter what N.T. Wright is teaching about justification when there is missional work to be done? Yes, it does. Both are important. The last time I looked, there is no official pronouncement on the frequency of communion in the PCA. Each Session can decide the frequency. I have colleagues who celebrate weekly while my home church celebrates monthly; still others celebrate quarterly.
But why waste your time on small matters such as baptism, baptismal regeneration, the infusion of grace in baptism or not and the efficacy of the Lord’s Supper when there are substantially more important matters to discuss? Armstrong seems to be asking. One can only wonder that if it is true that these matters are so insignificant, whether or not Armstrong would baptize an infant of believing parents. I wonder.
Armstrong matter-of-factly states (read: declares without any justification) that Norm Shepherd’s views are misunderstood, but that hardly does justice to the protracted debate that raged and still rages about Shepherd’s views on a wide range of biblical subjects. Scholars such as O. Palmer Robertson, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, William Hendriksen, Roger Nicole, Meredith G. Kline, Iain Murray, Philip E. Hughes, Morton Smith, Stanford Reid, R.C. Sproul, Bob Godfrey, and a host of others begged and still beg to differ in the course of the early discussions and the above-mentioned and a number of others still do differ with Norm Shepherd. Shepherd’s notions of the place of works in justification, “covenant, election,” perseverance, and the relationship between Paul and James—just to mention a few—continue to be discussed. Given the tone of Armstrong’s criticism of a certain group in the PCA one rather doubts that he will be swayed away from what he wrote.
Armstrong also laments that a Presbytery in the PCA will make an appeal that “calls for an ad interim committee to determine if various positions related to present scholarly developments in the area of Pauline theology are consistent with the Westminster Confession of Faith.” For the life of me I cannot understand why someone outside the PCA would be so concerned about this proposal. One can only surmise that Armstrong is once again alluding to N.T. Wright’s notions of Pauline theology. If that is the case then what is the problem with investigating the matter thoroughly since Wright truly does deviate from Reformed explanations of justification by faith? Moreover, in a recent blog Al Mohler points out that Wright has recently stated that he has friends who he’s sure are Christians, but who do not believe in the resurrection. If Luther’s dictum that justification by faith is the doctrine upon which the Church stands or falls, it would seem that some close scrutiny of Wright’s works would be in order, especially in light of the fact that—as Armstrong mentioned—the PCA holds to the Westminster Standards.
What many of us theologians see as necessary theological discussion Armstrong sees as “bickering.” Without identifying who the “far Right” is, Armstrong is convinced that they will abominate him for saying that “real revival” may be the only immediate answer in the near term. It would seem that in the history of “real revival” it followed closely on the heels of “real Reformation.” Since the first part of Armstrong’s article has dealt primarily with vagaries, he doesn’t seem intent on changing his pattern in order to give us a clear definition of “real revival” so that the vocal minority in the PCA will cease and desist from bickering about unimportant matters like justification by faith.
In fact, Armstrong is convinced that “only the overflowing love of Jesus will stop this nonsense completely.” He writes, “In a time when a healthy dose of orthodoxy is truly needed, the PCA could be a great means for spreading reformation all across the American church scene, but too much time is presently being wasted on these intramural debates that target only a small handful of pastors.” It is more than a touch of irony that Armstrong points out that what America needs is a healthy dose of orthodoxy and then complains because the PCA is trying to be orthodox on, say, justification by faith. As far as the “small handful of pastors” is concerned, I’m sure—historically—that people thought the same thing about Jacob Arminius and Charles Finney.
The upshot of all this for Armstrong is summarized in this manner: “The real danger in the PCA is sectarianism, a sectarianism which threatens to destroy this great fellowship before it begins to reach its fullest missional potential, which I think is still great.” Sectarianism is a very serious accusation—very serious. Granted that the words “sect” and “sectarian” can have a variety of meanings given the tone of Armstrong’s article not to inform the reader precisely what he means by this word is simply irresponsible. If you are going to issue a warning about sectarianism, then you need to be substantially clearer than Armstrong has been in this article.
In short, until Armstrong can come up with something more substantive in nature he needs to cease firing salvos across the bow of a denomination like the PCA. Those of us who are active members of the PCA are aware that discussions are occurring that are of a serious nature. We intend to participate in such discussions and look to Scripture to provide the answers and to show us the way. Rather than being positive in his prayer, Armstrong makes the PCA sound like a police state when he says, “I pray for my numerous friends who are ministers in the PCA. I listen to them with growing concern. I can speak my mind on these several matters without any fear of reprisal from a presbytery that wants to bring me up on charges. Sadly, some of my friends can’t do the same. Some take a real risk by inviting me to speak in their churches for fear of reaction. Some friends can’t speak plainly about this controversy without personal ramifications that threaten them and their families.”
Allow me a short rebuttal. I have been a pastor in the PCA for more than ten years. I made a rather circuitous route from the Reformed churches in Holland and Canada to the Presbyterian Church in America. My choice to join the PCA was quite conscious and deliberate. I have served in a PCA congregation joyfully for more than ten years. I have never—never—feared what might happened if I spoke my mind. At the same time, I understand that if my views change on what I said I believed on day one of my entrance into the PCA, it is my responsibility to make those changes known to my Session and my Presbytery. I gave my word on that and my word should be kept. What Armstrong means by “this controversy” is, like the remainder of his accusations, anybody’s guess. What types of “personal ramifications” is he referring to? What types of threats to PCA pastors and their families? Personally, as a PCA pastor, I have no idea what Armstrong is talking about.
I have been an active member of my Presbytery as the chairman of the Christian Education Committee, Candidates and Credentials Committee chair for two years, Recording Clerk, and Stated Clerk and I have never heard anything like Armstrong is describing. I certainly have never heard of a pastor’s family being threatened! This does not mean, however, that it has never occurred, but I consider myself abreast of what transpires in the PCA and have never received a group email from the consortium of Stated Clerks of which I’m a part addressing this type of thing.
I was encouraged when I first began reading Armstrong’s article that was, ostensibly, a prayer for my denomination. The initial encouragement dissipated after the first paragraph. Rapidly, the “prayer” morphed into a kind of name calling and finger pointing. To complicate matters, Armstrong spoke—from first to last—in unhelpful vagaries. Rather than helping, his generalizations ended up being…well, generalizations.Moreover, many of the theological subjects he designated and discounted as only the work of polemicists would be considered integral loci by virtually any theologian on the Left or far Right. I have never read or heard a prayer that left me so empty.
 See John Armstrong, “A Prayer for the PCA with Hope That It Will Thrive in the Next Generation,” located on his web site ACT 3 and available at the following address: https://www.reformationrevival.com/ArticlesDetail.asp?id=143.
 Ibid., 1.
 Ibid., 2.
 For an excellent and fair overview of the entire controversy, see O. Palmer Robertson, The Current Justification Controversy, (Unicoi, TN: The Trinity Foundation, 2003).
 Armstrong, PCA, 2.
 See Mohler’s Sunday, April 16th blog.
 Armstrong, PCA, 2.
 Ibid. Italics mine.
 Ibid., Italics his.