The Aftermath of the PCA’s 38th General Assembly (IV)
Defining the Terms
Clarity and precision of language is rapidly becoming a lost art. Modern culture revels in the destruction of the English language and it’s not uncommon to hear a younger person say to an older person, “Sup, dude.” It’s even worse when an older person says it to a younger person. I recently read a sermon by a younger theological who told his audience at least five times that God is “big.” Granted that he is, aren’t their many more biblical terms to explain God’s awesomeness, holiness, righteousness, infinity, eternity, and unchangeableness than “big”?
I say this because the language of the Strategic Plan suffers enormously from imprecision, and this is not something I expect from a committee of educated theologians. While we don’t want to engage in Reformed casuistry, it is substantially more helpful to fill in as many blanks and gaps as we can, especially if we are expected to pass a long-range strategic plan. Nobody wants to pass a proposal and then be told what it actually means, or entails. I call that the Nancy Pelosi approach: “We’re going to have to pass the bill first before we can find out what’s actually in it.” While not verbatim, that is a reasonable paraphrase of Madam Speaker. Is there any wonder the country is in trouble?
Currently, we are examining and trying to unpack the intent of Theme # 1 of the Strategic Plan (Civil Conversation). I noted in a previous issue that this theme is tantamount to breaking down an open door. Civil conversation and discourse must be inherent among those who are true and truly Christians. In other words, civil conversation is not an option, but rather part of the biblical ethos, lifestyle, and worldview. We’ve also investigated the Goal of Theme 1 (Establish places to enter into civil conversations about the best ways to advance the PCA’s faithfulness to biblical belief, ministry, and mission), but I want to make just a few more comments before we speak to the Means under Theme 1.
This Goal cannot possibly be as “open-ended” as it sounds. Let me tell you why. The first word in the Goal poses a problem. To “establish” something, anything can mean quite a few different concepts in a person’s mind. Since the committee did not take the time to define the term, let’s simply have recourse to a garden-variety dictionary to help us. The Oxford Dictionary of Current English (you know, like, ‘sup)—note that I’m “big” into current English—defines “establish” in this manner: “set up (a business, system, etc.) on a permanent basis,” “settle (a person or oneself) in some capacity,” “achieve permanent acceptance for (a custom, belief, etc.),” and “place (fact etc.) beyond dispute.” If any or all of these accepted definitions are what the Administrative Committee has in mind, then several questions come to mind rather immediately. First, who will be the person or persons who will “establish” the venues of civil conversation? One might think that what is meant here is something along the lines of the two discussions (certainly neither of these could qualify as debates by any reasonable stretch of the imagination) that were held between Tim Keller and Ligon Duncan. Both discussions were “civil,” but they were also rather like watching curling on TV. (I do like the yelling and broom work in curling. Exciting. Very exciting.)
Question: As “civil” as those conversations were, would there be any possibility of suggestions from other delegates about discussions or debates? Would the AC respond favorably, or does it have absolute authority to set the agenda and define the grounds upon which discussions/debates are to be conducted? I’m just askin’. In part because it has been my experience that the AC, as helpful as it is in other areas, and it is helpful, ignored every one of my emails requesting them to consider taping and putting the proceedings of what they taught stated clerks to do on CD of when I was stated clerk of South Coast Presbytery. It was an impossible turn-around for me, even taking a redeye out of LAX, but I was ignored.
I say this not to “diss” the AC. I’m sure they’re busy, but because it is part and parcel of what might be called a “bureaucracy mentality.” Naturally, those in favor of civil conversations want to avoid such a mentality at all costs—at least, I would think they would. In summary, the word “establish” needs to be tweaked or clarified to elucidate precisely who will establish the places.
This brings me to my next point: The word “places.” I take that word in the sense of venues. I have attended General Assemblies since becoming PCA back in 1995. In that time, quite a few issues have been debated, sometimes vigorously. While each side pressed its respective points, decorum was maintained. Brothers in the Lord may disagree and sometimes disagree sharply, but nothing has ever come to fisticuffs, name-calling, or foul language. It was all quite, well, civil. That being the case, it does make one wonder what is “behind” Goal 1. If we’re already holding civil conversations and have in the past, where is the AC going with this? Is there “more” they want to do? Possibly, yes there is more. In that case, it is incumbent upon those who ostensibly represent us (in some sense) and who represent the PCA to spell out what their ultimate aim is. Doesn’t that seem reasonable, civil, and Christian? If nothing more is meant than what we’ve already been doing, then this is a waste of time; if “more” is intended then the AC needs to give us a list—not a comprehensive list, but certainly a representative list—of what this will look like.
Now let’s focus in on an important phrase in Goal 1: “the best ways.” The AC desires to establish conversations about “the best ways” to the PCA’s faithfulness to biblical belief, ministry, and mission. Well, who could object to that? But have we not been aiming at “the best ways” of doing these things in the history of the PCA? If our history in that regard was a bust, then we obviously and clearly need to retool what we’ve been doing. The question, of course, is who gets to participate in the retooling process? Will this be a “top down” here it is, like it or lump it approach or will individual churches and Presbyteries be able to participate? What if some object that what is presented does not constitute “the best ways,” but rather smack of moving left-of-center ways, dubious ways, or pragmatic, non-biblical ways? Will there be representation to allow participation is what these “best ways” are? Or, will the determination be made with a view to
In other words, what are the ground rules that will guide the PCA into “the best ways” to advance the PCA’s desires? M. Stanton Evans once quipped, “The secret of winning a debate is to define the grounds on which it is conducted.” With the necessary changes being made, I’m asking the question who will define the grounds concerning “the best ways”? In order to make a good decision, all the churches and Presbyteries need to have this explained to them.
On the other hand, a rather succinct answer to the definitive grounds of “the best ways” question is merely to answer by say, “The Bible and the Westminster Standards.” Do they not provide us with the grounds for the PCA’s faithfulness to biblical belief, ministry, and mission? Am I missing something here? It is both astounding and astonishing that not a word was mentioned about what we already have at our disposal in the Word of God and our creeds. I know, both of those are assumed. Okay, but we certainly don’t find either one mentioned in the Themes, Goals, and Means. If we want to declare that we have always held to Scripture and the Westminster Standards, then what precisely is the origin of our problem? Have we missed the mark so horribly that now we must seek other “ways”? How has leadership missed this for these many years?
Is that an accusation? You bet it is! When I served in the military, the leadership was responsible and the proverbial buck stopped with them. (And those of us who served remember that “it” all ran downhill.) This first Goal is, therefore, a tacit admission that the leadership in the PCA has not done its job or was incapable of doing its job. This combined with the AC’s admission that it has not been able to fix the deplorable financial situation for 36 years gives both pause for reflection and cause for deep concern.In our next installment, we’ll begin to investigate the three Means in the first Theme. I’ll give you a little insight into what I’ll be discussing under Means # 3, when it speaks about “culture-changing” ideas. We’re going to ask some serious questions about the essential nature of culture and see if we can get a workable and working definition of what that is and what it is not. In certain quarters of the PCA, we are reminded that we are to be “engaging the culture.” What does that mean concretely and specifically? I have an upcoming article in the Festschrift that I am privileged to co-edit with Gary Johnson for David Wells. The article is on Herman Bavinck’s views on God’s revelation and culture. I will use excerpts from that article to firm up what culture is. I will also ask a number of pastors in the PCA precisely how they are training their congregations to engage the culture. It’s one thing to tell them to do it; it’s quite another thing to equip them to do it. If your pastor hasn’t told you clearly what culture is and how you’re supposed to transform it or engage it, invite him to teach a Sunday School class to explain to you what culture is.
 See John McWhorter, Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care, (NY:
 M. Stanton Evans, Clear and Present Dangers, (NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanich, Inc., 1975), p. 203.
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