Pastor (Teaching Elder) Brian Carpenter has an update about the FV controversy in the Siouxlands Presbytery (PCA). In two PCA presbyteries men are doing the hard work that needs to be done for the sake of the peace and purity of the church. As I keep saying, orthodox committee reports and passing statements at GA and Synod are important first steps but the work does not and cannot end there. The work of protecting the sheep from clever and disingenuous wolves (e.g., the FV movement) must be worked out in presbyteries, classes, sessions, and consistories. It is not something that “someone else” has to do it is the work that you, pastor, and you elder (i.e., ruling elder) swore to do when you took your ordination vows. Church discipline isn’t just about dealing with wayward laity, it means speaking to your brothers at presbytery and classis and it means putting the truth ahead of friendship and influence.
There are stages to a controversy. When the FV controversy began it didn’t have a name. I called it “Shepherdism” after Norman Shepherd (see the “Tuning In” post below) or “covenantal moralism.” These were two aspects of the error. One aspect was their direct corruption of the doctrine of justification (Shepherd) by teaching acceptance with God through “faithfulness” (trusting and obeying) and the other aspect was their indirect corruption of the doctrine of justification via a moralistic covenant theology (in by grace, stay in through grace and cooperation with grace). The leading proponents gave their views the title, “Federal Vision Movement.” Now the movement/error had a name and now there were faces to a hitherto amorphous, vague movement. As it seemed to spread and gain influence and begin to show up in sermons and sunday school lessons more of the orthodox began to take notice. Arguments which began online moved into print and into committee meetings and into reports and then finally into ecclesiastical action in broader (synodical) or higher (GA) assemblies.
There are perhaps three reasons some in the Reformed churches (NAPARC) don’t want the churches to do or say anything about the FV movement.Obviously, the Federal Visionists themselves have no interest in seeing the FV theology and practice (e.g., paedocommunion) rejected by the Reformed churches. The second is party is composed of those who simply want more latitude in the churches, i.e., they want the churches to tolerate a broad range of teaching regardless whether or not that teaching is confessional. These latitudinarians may (or may not) be orthodox themselves but they don’t think that everyone should have to agree with the confession on covenant theology and justification. Some of them think that the pressing cultural (or culture war) issues are such that it is foolish to spend time discussing the niceties of covenant and justification. Other latitudinarians realize that if the FV movement is excluded from the churches they themselves may be next so they defend the FV in order to protect their own interests.
These tensions have been present in American Reformed and Presbyterian churches for a long time. They were certainly present during Machen’s struggle for the soul of American Presbyterianism. In Machen’s day, there were who professed a great passion for what today is called “mission,” but who thought that the doctrine of Scripture wasn’t worth a fight. Others professed orthodoxy but were tolerant of error in the PCUSA and thought Machen too strident in his defense of the confession and Scripture. As much or more than the liberals it was the latitudinarians who did in orthodoxy in the PCUSA and enabled the liberals to drive Machen out into the wilderness.
The other connection between that controversy and the present is the tendency by those who want to shelve some aspect of our confession and by their latitudinarian accomplices is to charge the critics (e.g., Machen and the confessionalists) with being immoral or bad people. What many may not realize today is the degree to which the “liberals” in the early 20th century were actually quite “moralistic.” They were deeply concerned about public morality. Today, when we say “liberal,” one might think of a social or political point of view associated with the tolerance of public vice (e.g., sexual immorality) or the promotion of policies and laws at odds with traditional Christian morality (e.g., abortion). In the early 20th century, however, many of the theological liberals were, ironically, what today some might call social “conservatives.” They favored using the coercive power of the state to force abstinence from alcohol. The liberals and the fundamentalists largely agreed the prohibition was a social good and both parties were deeply suspicious of Machen’s libertarianism on that question and on others. Thus, his opponents, both fundamentalists and liberals, accused him of being a drunkard or of making his money from the sale of booze.
Today, the alignment of the parties and the issues have changed but the tactics have not. In this case, the confessionalists are the “conservatives,” insofar as they are trying to conserve the teaching of Scripture and the confession (and not incidentally, the Reformed tradition) on covenant and justification. Even though they are typically staunchly conservative on social issues, the Federal Visionists are relatively liberal (tolerant or even progressive) on theological issues such as covenant and justification. They think the churches should permit a broader range of teaching and practice. From a confessional perspective they may be said to be strict (on social questions) where they should be tolerant and tolerant or liberal where they should be conservative of the church’s confession.
Like the liberals and latitudinarians on the early 20th century the Federal Visionists of our times use similar tactics against the confessionalists. They have tried to silence the confessionalist critics through shame or through implied or express suggestions of ecclesiastical or professional pressure. When that doesn’t work, the other tactic is to suggest that the confessionalist critics are immoral or somehow disreputable. Just as in the case of Machen, the liberals and latitudinarians would rather have the churches focus on the ostensible bad behavior (or incorrect social views) of the confessionalists rather than upon the deviant doctrine or ecclesiastical practice of the theological revisionists.
When J. Gresham Machen was driven out of the PCUSA, the liberals and their latitudinarian accomplices did not “get him” on a doctrinal charge but on a charge of not playing nice with others. He refused to abandon his support for the Independent Board of Foreign Missions (confessionalists do care about the lost AND getting our theology right) so they charged and convicted him in a sham ecclesiastical trial of being disobedient to the church. In light of the developments, in the PCUSA, in the decades that followed the idea of trying and disciplining a minister for supporting an independent (non-denominational) missions agency is amusing but they were able to get away with it then because they had control of the levers of power and because they had the cooperation of the latitudinarians.
In the present controversy, so far the confessionalists and orthodox have won the day in the courts and assemblies of the churches but the controversy isn’t over. The FV movement persists and it is still being taught in NAPARC congregations. It is one thing to say “aye” for orthodoxy in a voice vote at Synod or GA but it’s quite another when one’s FV friend or colleague has to be charged and tried for teaching contrary to the confession. The latter is considerably more difficult and painful than the former.
So the question comes back to vocation. Consider one of the most important biblical metaphors for the minister’s office: pastor. It’s Latin for “shepherd,” i.e., one who cares for and protects the flock. Consider another Latin title “minister,” i.e., one who serves someone else. Do not both these titles themselves tell us what our duty is? When we gather at classis and presbytery we may wish only to hear good news and to discuss building, bodies, and budgets but we have a higher and harder vocation: to protect the church and even to lay down our reputations (what others say about us) for the sake of the well being of the flock. If you doubt the value of such self-sacrifice consider our Lord who gave himself up for us. What did the latitudinarians and fundamentalists say about him? Consider also the PCUSA. Only a handful took the difficult confessionalist route and look what became of the mainline. Today, the question in the PCUSA is not the doctrine of justification but whether or to what degree the Bible is God’s Word and whether or to what degree it can norm personal experience or behavior. In the PCUSA a Barthian, who denies the historicity of Adam and the confessional doctrine of Scripture, is regarded as a “hard right” conservative! Does anyone, could anyone, think that, if ministers in NAPARC churches act like latitudinarians, that the NAPARC churches can avoid the same fate as the PCUSA?
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