"Informed" or Reformed? A Sub-Text of the PCA Strategic Report?

Of course Reformed Christians want to be well informed but PCA church planter Martin Hedman has been writing some of the most thoughtful and incisive commentaries about the PCA strategic plan. Recently he commented,

…it seems more and more that I am hearing Presbyterian and Reformed pastors talk about being “informed” by the Reformed faith. Personally I don’t want to be “informed” by it, I want to believe and practice the Reformed faith. Because I believe it is biblically sound and accurate.

Like Martin I’ve seen this language. What some might not understand or remember is that the expression “informed by the Reformed faith” was the language of the mainline Presbyterians (PCUSA). As Martin suggests, the choice is between confessing the Reformed theology, piety, and practice or being “informed” by it. The latter expression implies one stance and the former denotes another. I am “informed” by a lot of things. I am informed by the entire Christian tradition. I’ve learned something from a broad variety of sources and traditions. I have learned from them and am informed by them but I am not identified with or necessarily and permanently committed to them. It’s the difference between dating and marriage. It’s the difference between a wine tasting and a good meal.

We shouldn’t be surprised that those whose roots are in modern American evangelical Christianity might only be “informed” by the Reformed faith but it should be distressing to hear ministers and elders who are ordained to ministry in confessional Presbyterian and Reformed churches speak thus. At their ordination they took vows. One of those vows says that they “receive and adopt the Confession of Faith and Catechisms of this Church, as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures….” The Westminster Confession and catechisms are not mere information. They are not merely one source of guidance among others. There is a hierarchy of authority in the (visible, institutional) church. The Word of God written (sola Scriptura) is the un-normed norm. All ecclesiastical authority is subsidiary to and derived from God’s Word. We confess what we do because the Word says what it says. For this reason the Reformed confessions are an authoritative, binding, ecclesiastical summary of the teaching of God’s Word. In them we confess a theology (doctrines), a piety (a way of relating to God), and a practice (a way of living out the faith in worship and life). Beneath them are church orders and other such documents. The church does not confess a church order. We do confess God’s Word in the confessions and catechisms. This is why we require candidates for ministry in confessional Presbyterian and Reformed churches to stipulate to presbyteries and classes if, where, and why they disagree with the confessions (some candidates for ministry find nothing objectionable in the confessions and catechisms!).

To take the stance that the Reformed faith is merely one source among many is necessarily to marginalize the Reformed confession. If this stance is allowed to persist within Reformed and Presbyterian churches they will not long be Reformed. The lessons of history are clear. If you doubt me all you need to do is to spend a few minutes perusing the PCUSA website. What hath Louisville to with Geneva? That’s not the criticism of an embittered, marginalized, sideliner. That is the criticism of PCUSA insiders. The mainline is a train wreck (see the stories linked below). Mainliners regularly describe itself as being “informed by the Reformed tradition.” Borderliners (e.g., the CRC, the EPC) adopt this language too. This isn’t post hoc, propter hoc. The stance implied in the language of being merely “informed” reveals the nature of the relationship to the Reformed faith.

All of us who have taken such vows are bound to the faith taught by God’s Word and confessed by the churches in way that far exceeds and transcends mere information. We have not sworn before God and the church merely to informed by the Word as confessed by the churches but that we embrace it heartily. We’ve sworn to uphold it, to teach and preach it and to order our lives according to the same. The Word of God as confessed by the churches is not merely informative it is normative.

© R. Scott Clark


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  1. Amen. Double talk and spin is irritating. I’ve seen lots of that in the Anglican movement.

    The 39 Articles are not as detailed as they should be but most Anglicans won’t accept what is clearly taught in the Articles, including double predestination (Article 17).


  2. THanks for this! Thanks to Martin. too!
    >> the difference between dating and marriage << Excellent analogy in an excellent post. The difference is embracing the Reformed Confessions and Reformed theology vs. being informed by them.

    The core of "confessional crisis" is the nature of subscription, and the willingness of a presbytery or classis to uphold and enforce faithful, meaningful, biblical subscription. It's another angle on the "broadening church" thesis, ala Loetscher's book on the old Northern PCUSA.

  3. “We shouldn’t be surprised that those whose roots are in modern American evangelical Christianity might only be “informed” by the Reformed faith but it should be distressing to hear ministers and elders who are ordained to ministry in confessional Presbyterian and Reformed churches speak thus. ”

    Yes, but to what do you attribute this? These ministers and elders are being trained somewhere. Do the seminaries bear some responsibility here? I think it may be coming in a step too late to say it’s just a matter of them not upholding their vows. There has to be some reason why they take those vows lightly in the first place.

    • Louis,

      That’s a difficult chicken-egg question. My school works hard to teach the Scriptures and confessional Reformed theology, piety, and practice to our students but they also come to us from a variety of backgrounds and they are in a variety of ecclesiastical settings while they are here. They usually graduate confessionally Reformed but it’s not the same outcome in every single case.

      I guess that other schools have the same challenges. Some schools, of course, don’t have a unified message about theology, piety, and practice and are more closely aligned with broad, American evangelicalism. They don’t challenge their students as frequently to recognize the difference between the Reformed confession and American evangelicalism. Some of those schools are quite large and they are producing a lot of graduates. Proportionally the more evangelical, American schools produce more ministers for the PCA for example than WSC or the smaller schools.

      Thus, it’s up to the presbyteries and classes to do due diligence. It’s up to ruling elders to be aware of the drift toward evangelical pragmatism in worship, piety, and practice. It’s up to the churches to understand the challenges.

  4. Thanks for this post, Pastor. I think Louis’s question is a good one. My first thought is that Reformed/Presbyterian pastors that claim to be “informed” really are not. That’s the problem. Were they informed *about* the Reformed faith (that is, confessionally Reformed theology, piety and practice), they would simply be Reformed and then be “informed” by the broader Christian tradition, with all its variations. Being “informed” is tantamount to having looked at Berkhof on this and Calvin on that. It does not mean that they’ve studied the Reformed faith as a whole system, which is embodied in the confessions. Thus, those “informed” by the Reformed faith are really not informed about the Reformed faith. If such claim to be Presbyterian/Reformed, then they have an identity crisis.

    Pastor, if you don’t mind me asking, have you taken any exceptions to the Standards?

    • Tim,

      I have a dual relation to the six-forms of unity (the Westminster Standards and the Three Forms of Unity). As an ecclesiastical matter I subscribe the Three Forms of Unity quia i.e., because they are biblical. You can see the case for this in RRC. I took no exceptions to the Three Forms when I was ordained in the RCUS nor when I was received as a minister into the URCNA. In the churches I’ve served there aren’t usually recorded exceptions. The Synod of Dort did provide that should a minister’s mind change after ordination, he could should report that change of mind to the classis for adjudication. If anything I think I hold the confessions more strongly and clearly than I did when I was ordained.

      As a faculty member at Westminster Seminary California I also subscribe the Westminster Standards ex animo. I’ve sworn before God and the board of directors that the Westminster Standards is a just summary of the system of biblical doctrine and the confession of my faith. I just renewed that oath recently as part of my installation as prof of church history and historical theology. Here is the pledge we take when we are appointed to the faculty:

      In the presence of God, and of the Trustees and Faculty of Westminster Seminary California, I do solemnly and ex animo adopt, receive, and subscribe to the confessional standards of the seminary as the confession of my faith, or as a summary and just exhibition of that system of doctrine and religious belief, which is contained in Holy Scripture, and therein revealed by God to man for his salvation; and I do solemnly, ex animo, profess to receive the fundamental principles of the Presbyterian form of church government, as agreeable to the inspired oracles. And I do solemnly promise and engage not to inculcate or insinuate anything which shall contradict or contravene, either directly or impliedly, any element of that system of doctrine, nor to oppose any of the fundamental principles of that form of church government, while I continue as a member of the Faculty of this Seminary.”


      I’ve not taken any exceptions to the Westminster Standards.

      • Wow! I’m genuinely impressed and gratified with the substantive content of this pledge. Were it that this was the same standard used at all R&P seminaries…

      • Interesting. Never seen the reformed use the phrase “inspired oracles” before. Kinda mystical.

        And what’s ex animo? Is that the same as “system” subscription?

        P.S. Did Paul write Hebrews (BCF 4)?

        • Rube,

          If memory serves the oath came from old Princeton.

          On subscription see RRC. There’s an entire chapter on it.

          The Dutch Reformed Churches have not received in modern times at least, the BC as confessing that Paul wrote Hebrews any more than we confess that 1-2 Chron are “commonly called Parilopomenon.” There was a division of opinion in the 16th century over Pauline authorship of Hebrews, though Pauline authorship was probably the majority view. These phrases are received by the churches as accidental to the confession rather than essential.

          • My RRC is at home; I read it, but I don’t remember the phrase “ex animo”, it was “quia” and something else.

            Does quia subscription, plus an accidental/essential (i.e. circumstantial/elemental?) distinction not boil down to system subscription? I.e. I confess all of this because it is biblical (inasmuch as it is essential, not accidental)?

            • Ruben,

              “System” subscription is a variant of quatenus (insofar as) subscription. It is inherently subjective. Someone, either an individual or a presbytery has to determine how far is far enough. As I argue in the book it takes on a variety of forms. Joey Pipa takes it one way so that it requires affirmation of 6/24 creation and Charles Hodge took it in a completely different direction so that it really only required affirming the five points of Dort.

              In my view, both are wrong because neither has a completely objective confession. It invariably results in different confessions.

              Quia (because) subscription is an alternative. We subscribe the Belgic because it’s biblical. The Beglic also has to been received. So the churches have not received the Belgic to require affirmation of inconsequential matters. I can only think of three (i.e., the use of the Johannine Comma in 1 John 5 as a proof text for Trinity, paralipomenon, and Pauline authorship of Hebrews). This is not system subscription. This is a finite list of implicit revisions of the Belgic alongside the explicit revision of Art 36 on the magistrate. The Belgic hasn’t been reduced either to the five points nor can it be expanded infinitely to include every possible implication of the text or what was in the author’s mind. Apart from these three implicit and the one explicit revision the Belgic remains as it was in 1561.

              So the “system” debate is a largely an American and British debate post 1700.

  5. Thanks for an excellent post Dr. Clark!
    You said “In them we confess a theology (doctrines), a piety (a way of relating to God), and a practice (a way of living out the faith in worship and life).”
    Would you please help me understand more specifically what the meaning of piety is in this context? Previously, I had thought of piety as practice. Thank you!

    • Hi Beth,

      There is overlap. We certainly express our piety by and in our worship. I’m using piety here to denote our stance toward God and how we relate to him, how we hear from him. The mystics hear from him directly, without mediation. I call this QIRE. The rationalists know what God knows the way he knows it. I call this QIRC. Reformed theology teaches and Word and sacrament piety, in which we receive God’s Word and grace humbly with empty hands. You can see more in RRC.

      • Thank you for answering my question so well! I understand what you mean now.

  6. Dr. Clark has already answered the questions here very well, and expanded on my little paragraph in excellent fashion.

    But perhaps a little more in re: Louis’ question. Sometimes I don’t think it is men taking their confession lightly. Sometimes I think it is a disconnect between faith and practice that, quite frankly, I don’t understand and can’t completely explain. I have heard others (e.g., Peter Jones) explain this as a byproduct of the kind of postmodern thinking many younger people engage in today. They are comfortable with logical inconsistencies between belief and practice – even unaware of them. One of the great tasks of today’s pastors and teachers, I believe, is to try to help people see in very particular and explicit ways how theology translates into practice. It’s another variation on the “see the world through scriptural spectacles” theme.

    • Martin,

      This is very helpful. Indeed. As I get older and the students get younger I find that one of the first things I have to discuss with them is the existence of objective reality. This is not something they readily assume and certainly not when it comes to religion and piety. They tend to religious subjectivism as their default.

  7. Usually I agree with you Dr. Clark on most things you post on your excellent blog but on this matter in the PCA I would like to make this observation, that from an outsider to your “Reformed Confessions” it appears that you are arguing that fidelity to these Confessions are one and the same with fidelity to the Bible. Now, chances are that this turn of events will lead to departure from historic Evangelical orthodoxy but such departure has not occurred yet and is not in fact, one and the same with abandonment of the Reformed Confessions.

    • Ed,

      How dangerous is pragmatism? What troubles me about the proposed Strategic Plan are the reasons for adopting it and what it will do to the WCF.

      What is the status of the Westminster Standards in the PCA? Is it just some document (like a church order) or is it constitutional, i.e., does it help make the PCA what it is? Do ministers take vows to uphold and defend the Westminster Standards? Yes, they do. Why? Because the Standards are the summary of the Reformed interpretation of Scripture.

  8. Dr Clark,

    I’m a bit concerned and probably just confused by several things you have said here in the comments and I’m hoping you would be so kind as to help me understand better.

    Firstly, did I understand you correctly as characterising Dr Pipa’s position on subscription as ‘quatenus,’ i.e., ‘system’ subscription? He has spent a good bit of time arguing against that form of subscription, so if I’ve understood you correctly, I’m surprised at that characterisation. Of course, I may have simply misunderstood the implications of his position.

    Secondly, I think I understand you to be suggesting that the Westminster Standards do not expressly teach the ‘6/24’ view of creation. It seems you’re saying that the ‘6/24’ view is simply a ‘possible implication’ of what is stated in the WCF. Have I understood you correctly? In light of the fact that the WCF explicitly states ‘in the space of six days’ and that originally this was apparently intended as a rejection of creation views that denied this literal length of time, I’m not sure how it can be considered a mere ‘possible implication’ rather than an explicitly confessed part of the doctrine of Creation.

    Finally, you contrast ‘quia’ with ‘quatenus’ subscription pointing out that the latter is inherently subjective. I couldn’t agree more with that assessment of ‘quatenus’ forms of subscription, but I fail to see how ‘implicit revisions’ are any more objective than a ‘system’ or ‘quatenus’ style of subscription. I agree that the items you described sound like they could be inconsequential — unless they are explicitly held forth in the confession as a defense of the truth of Scripture on some point of doctrine (as appears to be the case with the Johannine Comma). If such is the case and we believe it to be in error, what reason is there for not correcting it? More to the point, if revisions are not explicit then how are they objectively known, and isn’t ‘implicitness’ largely contrary to the very reason for confessing the faith? In the PCA we claim that we ‘just know’ what the relevant points of the ‘system’ are and what doctrines in the Standards we don’t actually expect anyone to believe. How is this any different in principle than having ‘implicit’ revisions?

    Thanks very much for your edifying and diligent labours.

    Vaughn R. Hamilton

    • Vaughn,

      I argue this in more detail in RRC. The basic issue is the way Am. Presbyterians subscribe. They all subscribe “insofar as.” Some have a more extensive view of “insofar as” and some have a less extensive view of “insofar as.” Not every “quatenus” approach “system” but every quatenus subscription entails “insofar as.”

      Yes, 6/24 creation is a possible implication of the WCF. The confession also has to be received by the churches (and it’s been so since 1648). What is obligatory is “in the space of six days.” What that means exactly must be determined by the receiving churches. There is more on this in RRC.

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