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I am a 1967 graduate of The Citadel (Distinguished Military Student, member of the Economic Honor Society, Dean's List), a 1975 graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (M.Div., magna cum laude, member of the Phi Alpha Chi academic honor society); I attended the Free University of Amsterdam and completed my History of Dogma there and then received a full scholarship from the Dutch government to transfer to the sister school in Kampen, Holland. In 1979 I graduated from the Theological Seminary of the Reformed Churches of Holland (Drs. with honors in Ethics). My New Testament minor was completed with Herman Ridderbos. I am also a 2001 Ph.D. graduate of Westminster Theological Seminary (Systematic Theology) in Philly with a dissertation on the "unio mystica" in the theology of Dr. Herman Bavinck (1854-1921). I am a former tank commander, and instructor in the US Army Armor School at Ft. Knox, KY. I have been happily married to my childhood sweetheart and best friend, Sally, for 43 years. We have 6 children, one of whom is with the Lord, and 14 wonderful grandchildren.

Friday, April 16, 2010

The New Evangelical Left (XXIV)

Gradually Slouching Towards Ecclesiastical Change

History is fascinating, and, as the philosopher Santayana warned us, not knowing it means you’re destined to repeat it. This is true in all realms of life. Politically, Americans did not learn much from the progressivism of Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Lyndon B. Johnson, or Bill Clinton. Today, when our politicians announce that they are “progressives” (Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama being recent cases in point), we hardly bat an eye. Yet, if we were acquainted with history and what progressivism stood and still stands for, we would have good reason to be upset.[1] But since few read anymore, let alone read history, they remain ignorant of trends and ideologies.

I’m transcribing the words in this installment that I wrote on a recent flight from John Wayne Airport in Orange County, California to Houston. The man sitting beside me in the center seat was about forty years old and he played with an electronic device for the entire three hour flight, thumbs moving at a mind-boggling rate, and generally making a nuisance of himself, bumping my arm repeatedly. We play, we are enamored of electronica, and we watch TV and movies endlessly.

On part of the flight to Houston, I occupied some of my time reading an account of the proceedings leading up to the Synod of Dort (1618-1619). Sounds exciting, doesn’t it? Actually it was, and since I have to lecture on the subject at the Talbot School of Theology at the end of this month, it was also a necessary read. The author of the book was Thomas Scott, but the work contained a preface by Samuel Miller (1769-1850). Miller opined that once the “Remonstrants” issued their five points, there were those who believed that those points were aberrant, heterodox, and deserving of a thorough response.

What complicated matters substantially, however, were the subterfuges and obstacles thrown up by the supporters of the five points of the Remonstrance. Jacob Arminius, then professor at Leiden University in Holland, was one of the main players in the mix, along with Episcopius, who was a friend and an avid defender of Arminius’s theology. Unfortunately for history, Arminius died prior to the Synod of Dort. In the question of what he actually held as far as his views on predestination, election, and God’s foreknowledge, just to mention a few, Arminius had been disingenuous from the outset, teaching orthodoxy from his professorial chair in the lecture halls, but speaking his private opinions to his students. It is important to keep in mind that during this entire controversy the Reformed view was considered orthodoxy and what Arminius was teaching as unorthodox. Although Arminius found some supporters, it cannot be denied that the Christian world was, by and large, a proponent of God’s absolute sovereignty.

It’s next to impossible to keep quiet in ecclesiastical circles if you’re in disagreement with the going theology. It was true of Arminius, it is true today, and it is true of every heretic and theologian that was in serious error that has come down the pike. Views held either heretically or in stubborn error manifest an urgency to be out in the open, as if no one had every heard them before. The amazing thing about heresy and error is that people act as if it’s new. It isn’t and shouldn’t be treated as if it is. If we had an historical consciousness, we’d know that it isn’t new.

A dead giveaway regarding stubborn error and heterodoxy is a sentence or statement punctuated this way: “Of course, I hold to orthodoxy as far as (fill in the doctrinal blank here), but…” Increasingly, that sort of statement is heard in my church affiliation: The PCA. We’ve done that drill with the Federal Vision crowd and we’re starting to hear it with those who want “unordained” deaconesses. This amounts to the “big tent” mantra. The question is posed whether the PCA is a big enough tent to allow for differences. There’s a short and long answer to this. I’ll begin with the short answer.

The short answer is simply Yes. We can allow for differences, but it does matter what those differences are, doesn’t it? Hughes Oliphant Old reminds us that “Reformed is not the same thing as Lutheran, Zwinglian, or Calvinist.”[2] We also know that differences were allowed in the manner in which the Lord’s Supper was celebrated among the Reformers.[3] Thankfully, the Reformers gave us the dictum, “Reformed and always reforming.” There is, however, a negative way to understand this truth. Positively, the Reformers and those who wish to follow in their footsteps, understand that what is aimed at here is “always reforming” according to Scripture. In a negative sense, this same saying can be used as a blunt object to promote a sort of theological Trotskyism. As Old puts it, “It can mean submitting the worship of the church to perpetual revolution.”[4]

The long answer involves a little more. In many ecclesiastical circles today the words “tradition” or “traditional” are dirty words. But are they really? Old contends that “A tradition that gets radically changed every generation is not really a tradition. For tradition to be tradition, it must have a considerable amount of permanence and changelessness. Tradition can become tradition only when it is passed from one generation to another. That is what the Latin verb tradere means, ‘to hand over,’ from one hand to another, from one generation to another. Tradition cannot be invented. It can be discovered or recovered, but it must be received from someone else.”[5]

Within the context of the two great dissents the PCA has faced recently, we find the Federal Vision and the renewed efforts to argue that deaconesses were a fixture in the early church. The latter is simply not the case. Certainly, within the Eastern Orthodox Church we find a fairly refined office of widow and deaconess early on, but with very different functions and duties than those being advocated in the PCA today. I have written rather extensively on this development within both the Western and Eastern churches and they can be found archived on this blog.

Yet another phenomenon that is being observed with a disturbing degree of regularity in the PCA is that of candidates taking a litany of exceptions to the Westminster Standards. Hearing or reading some of these exceptions really does make one ask oneself why someone with so many exceptions would want to remain in the PCA. Wouldn’t it be simpler and easier merely to look elsewhere, especially when one’s views are so out of line with Reformed beliefs and Presbyterian polity? I ask myself from time to time why someone who desires to commission unordained male and female deacons wouldn’t simply seek ordination or transfer of membership into the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, the Christian Reformed Church, or the Reformed Church of America? Some have, but others, who are totally out of line with the Constitution of the PCA insist on bringing up the same old hackneyed material General Assembly after General Assembly. It seems to bother these brothers little that unless they took exceptions to ordaining only male deacons in their ordination vows, they are in violation of those vows and the PCA Book of Church Order.

PCA pastors know going in what the BCO requires regarding elders and deacons, and yet they act in blatant disobedience to their vows and decide to have unordained male and female deacons anyway, because it “works for them and their congregations.” I dub this the pragmatist, pomo (post-modern) non-argument argument. While most PCA pastors would not permit this type of vow breaking in, say, a marriage in their congregation, they are more than willing to practice it themselves. Why is this? I’m just askin’.

[1] See Michael Allen & Larry Schweikart, A Patriot’s History of the United States, (NY: Sentinel, 2007), pp. 457-588.

[2] Hughes Oliphant Old, Worship, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 20022), p. 162.

[3] W.F. Dankbaar, Communiegebruiken in de eeuw der Reformatie, (Groningen: Het Instituut voor Liturgiewetenschap, 19872).

[4] Old, Worship, 165.

[5] Ibid.



Blogger Solameanie said...

teaching orthodoxy from his professorial chair in the lecture halls, but speaking his private opinions to his students.

Oh, my. That line said a mouthful. If only heretics could get nipped in the bud at that stage. But then you'd hear howls of "academic freedom."

I also had to chuckle at the nudge-nudge wink-wink aspect of these guys. I actually had the occasion to observe it firsthand at an Arminian-owned radio station where I worked years ago. An Assemblies of God pastor was on the air, and he kept sounding rather Calvinist. But to be ordained in the A/G, Calvinism is anathema.

I approached him after I got off air (the subject had been eternal security (perseverance of the saints). I told him that what he was saying didn't sound very Arminian. He winked at me and replied, "I'm not strongly Arminian."

I really liked the guy personally. But I would have a very hard time signing a renewal form for my ordination or license when I really didn't believe the doctrinal statement of the church I was serving. Isn't that basic integrity?

3:14 PM  
Blogger netjock said...

Pastor Gleason,

I fully agree with you about gentlemen coming in who take exceptions to those things that are accepted elsewhere, but I'm curious about the men already ordained.

If a minister finds himself suddenly out of agreement with the BCO, or at least unsure of it, he is to notify his session. Upon doing so, at what point should he try to bring the issue before GA to (in his mind) correct an error of the church? And is there a point that he should then simply submit to his brothers in the faith?

8:56 PM  
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12:24 PM  
Blogger West Coast PCA said...

Great post, Ron. I have also noticed that some PCA churches refuse to have an ordained or commissioned diaconate at all, even though they've been established for quite some time. It's as if these churches believe that women should be ordained to the diaconate, and since the BCO prohibits it, they simply refuse to develop a diaconate. Others may believe that the diaconate is not an actual office of the church. Either view seems to be out of accord with the BCO and fundamentally divisive.

This is why I'm concerned that even if our BCO is amended to make the language about deacons more clear than it already is, that there will be no real change in practice. Those who commission women to the diaconate can simply do away with that office or terminology all together and develop a "mercy ministry team" composed of men and women to replace it.

Is it not true that if the office of deacon is an office of the church and qualified and called men are to hold that office, that churches who refuse to ordain men as deacons are withholding an office that God may be calling them to?

There are a number of PCA churches that have been particularized for ten or fifteen years and have a sufficiently large membership role that have refused to ordain men to the diaconate. There must be some way to call them to bring their non-practice in line with what they have vowed to submit themselves to. And if they are unwilling to be Presbyterians and submit to the PCA's position on this issue, perhaps they would consider another denomination that will accommodate their convictions for the sake of "the peace and purity of the church."

9:43 PM  

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