"Sectarians" v "Relevants" in the PCA and the Strategic Plan

“Nowhere has the disagreements between the “sectarians” and the “relevants” been more evident than in the discussions regarding the Regulative Principle of Worship, women in diaconal ministry, and the cultural mandate of the Church. The Metro New York Presbytery of the PCA, for better or worse, has often been seen as a vanguard for the BR faction of the denomination. This is due, in no small part, to the influence of Dr. Tim Keller and Redeemer Presbyterian Church (RPC). Certainly, Dr. Keller and RPC’s influence has extended well beyond that of Reformed circles into the broader evangelical community. However, some within the Reformed community would argue that this has occurred at the expense losing their Reformed confessional identity, the very direction that the BRs believe the proposed Strategic Plan is leading the PCA towards. Therefore, I believe it would be worth considering how the Reformed faith is lived out in the Metro New York Presbytery, beginning with the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW).” Read more»

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  1. I hope the debate around the PCA’s Strategic Plan leads to a more broader discussion as to whether Tim Keller and progressive types like him should really warrant the description of being faithful to the Reformation and it’s principles. A term to describe and set apart such men from the more clearly defined Reformed pastors and men of influence is needed. How about ‘pseudo Reformed’?

    Are there others, like me, baffled and very concerned that the Presbyerian and Reformed identity is being further compromised by progressives like Tim Keller? You show your affinities by looking at those you work with and identify with. Keller advocates sharing with a very mixed bunch, ranging from N.T. Wright, Bill Hybels, and charismatics. Would great Presbyterian men like BB Warfield and Gresham Machen have had the same fellowship, which speaks of advocacting theology at variance with the Reformed principles, with a clear conscience? I am begining to wonder who he will next pop up with! And nearly all the proposals he is advocating, like women deacons, reflect that progressive tendency which runs counter to the old faithful paths and identity which have powerfully and rightly shaped Presbyterian identity, rooted of course in Scripture and the confessions.

    Despite whatever style and elements of Reformed belief his church may thankfully practise, Keller himself seems to be sending out profoundly mixed signals from the assumed Reformed Presbyterian camp, and he is not alone. Let me give one more example: even within the OPC I can think of one very prominent writer, lecturer, and historian who is warmly sharing thoughts and words with charismatics like the pseudo Calvinist CJ Mahaney. Are such exchanges reflecting a subtle commendation? What’s going on?

    • Paul,

      There’s a difference between ecclesiastical cooperation that compromises the Word and the faith as confessed by the churches and extra-ecclesiastical cooperation. Here is where C S Lewis’ (and Mike Horton’s) distinction between hallways and rooms is useful. Evangelicalism probably doesn’t exist in the way most people think (see D G Hart’s Deconstructing Evangelicalism) but it is a useful way to think of a religious hallway or village green where people with common convictions can talk. As Horton has reminded us we don’t to live in the hallway (and thus turn ETS into a quasi-synod) nor do we want to be churchless—without root in a particular congregation, confession, and tradition. The institutional church is just off the village green or congregations constitute the rooms off the hallway. We live in the rooms or we worship in the churches. We don’t worship on the village green or in the hallway.

      When Christians with different confessions gather at conferences they are meeting in the hallway or on the village green. Conferences aren’t churches.

      In this way having a strong doctrine of the church frees us to cooperate in some ways that do not threaten our theology, piety, and practice.

  2. Affirming Dr. Clark’s reply, one example is how good confessional men made common cause with dispensationalists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in a mutual effort to affirm and uphold vital doctrines concerning Scripture. The print edition of these efforts was known as The Fundamentals, and that multi-volume work includes an article by B.B. Warfield.

    By itself, pictorial evidence has its limits, but here are some fellow-travelers seen in a photo of the faculty of a Bible Conference held at Grove City, PA, in 1909:


    Pictured in the above photo, are two Princeton professors:
    Robert Dick Wilson, front row, seated second from the right
    Charles Erdman, back row, standing, fourth from left. [I realize he had his problems!]
    Also pictured are Dr. Isaac Conrad Ketler, first President of Grove City College, behind Dr. Wilson, and Dr. Alexander T. Ormond, 2d pres. of GCC, seated to Wilson’s right.

    But it’s the dispensationalists in the picture that make the point, though I will admit identification is not 100% confirmed in each instance:
    Reuben A. Torrey, seated, front row, 1st man on the left.
    W.H. Griffith-Thomas, co-founder with Lewis Sperry Chafer of the Evangelical Theological College (now Dallas Theological Seminary) is seated 2d from left, front row.
    and L.S. Chafer standing behind the seated Griffith-Thomas.
    Clarence Larkin, standing to Dr. Ketler’s right, in the back row.
    And quite possibly A.C. Dixon seated in the front row, on R.D. Wilson’s left.

  3. Well, we try to keep it interesting. Would love to get good identification on the others in the photo. [there’s a student project!]

    Another illustration of your point would be the sermon log book of T.D. Witherspoon. Rev. Witherspoon was a Southern Presbyterian pastor in the second half of the 19th century. He kept a log of nearly every sermon he ever preached, and among the notations, there were a number of occasions where he filled the pulpit in Cumberland, Methodist, and Baptist churches, even helping to officiate at the dedication of a Baptist church.

    A portion of the log book is posted here:

    [use Control + F to locate “Methodist” or “Baptist” notations]

  4. I do appreciate that distinction. Historically speaking though (and not to counter your point), it seems that Witherspoon’s practice was not unusual in his era, as per an observation by Dr. Sean Lucas.

  5. I seem to recall that Machen was not opposed to working closely with certain fundamentalists of a strongly revivalist strain at times. I appreciate the hallway metaphor, and it would appear that the hall is very wide indeed on some occasions.

  6. Regarding Wayne Sparkman’s point about Princetonians “working with” dispensationalists, I’m not sure I’d qualify writing an article for a pamphlet series “working with.” I write indiscriminately and I’m not sure it adds up to my endorsing those other matters. The particular example of Charles Erdman is also important here because Erdman, while editing the Fundamentals, was no help to conservative Presbyterians in the 1920s, but was in fact one of Machen’s greatest opponents.

    Also in the background here is the Sandeen thesis on fundamentalism. Before Marsden, the standard definition of fundamentalism was dispensationalism and inerrancy, thanks to Sandeens contrived alliance of Princetonians and dispensationalists. But if Princetonians never joined a dispie organization — which they did not — then what kind of aliance was it (other than an alliance in Sandeen’s head)?

  7. Darryl:

    Speaking for myself, I’ve never considered your writing to be indiscriminate.
    [weren’t those ‘sly grin’ emoticons supposed to be here by now, Scott?]

    But I’m not claiming that the Princetonians endorsed other matters connected with either dispensationalists or the later “fundamentalists”, only that they made space to stand in the hallway, to use Scott’s helpful analogy, with others in defense of the Scriptures. We’ve got pictures to prove it.

    As for Sandeen–haven’t read him yet; mea culpa. His thesis would seem to be immediately and demonstrably wrong, given that “the fundamentals” came initially out of the context of the 1910 PCUSA General Assembly.

  8. Dr. Clark,

    Thank you for your helpful reply to my comments in which you use the metaphor of the village green to make a parallel with perhaps the discussions going on around the PCA’s Strategic Plan. There is much to comment on in your reply. I have heard of this village green idea before, and it strikes me as more influential in forming and facilitating folks to take ideas back into churches, synods etc. than maybe many realise. While it could be argued that such places for the exchange of ideas and beliefs is helpful, I would contend that some (if not most) come to the green with an agenda to persuade others to their position, or to weaken at least their counter parts beliefs on certain matters.

    I think the village green should be far more used by Reformed Presbyterians to critique far more incisively and deeply the changes folks are advocating and the groups they are mixing with. If they don’t, then the present drift towards accepting practises like women deacons, charismatics as Reformed, and worship practises which reflect the world will continue to stealthily move into Reformed thinking and practise. If this sounds alarmist, then look at how this has happenend in the supposedly Reformed Baptist area, with the influential Mark Dever who heartily commends the ministry and approach of a pseudo calvinist like CJ Mahaney and his Sovereign Grace Ministries.

    Going back to my thoughts in my first comment, for Tim Keller’s church to have NT Wright in such an environment for exchange (in a village green environment) is highly questionable, and poses the question for me “What is the aim of such an exchange?” I will be open with you and readers of these comments. I am an evangelical Baptist with a growing appreciation of the Reformed faith, and yet my belief system in the former respect is being eroded by the gradual seeping in of charismatic influence into the Reformed circles. I am, also to be honest, someone who came to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ in a very strongly charismatic church, one which was used by John Wimber for his ‘ministry’. So, I find your advocating of reading DG Hart in ‘Deconstructing Evangelicalism’ to clairify my thinking helpful, but could you summarise the main points of this book for me and others? By the way, if there has been any author who has helped me to deeply examine my understanding of evangelicalism and the touchstone of Reformed orthodoxy found in Old School Presbyterianism, it is DG Hart. Nearly every paragraph if not sentence he writes evokes a mulititude of thoughts and challenge.

    I know that some of my thoughts may lack some coherance, but it is hopefully a joyful responsiblity of clearly Reformed Presbyterians to help folk like me to move into a better understanding, and in these days where hybrids and mixing of styles seems to be the rage, I intuitively think a clear, uncompromsing, and unashamedly historic Reformed stance and practise is even more vital and will rightly reflect the orthodox, catholic, and Biblical faith in the tri – une God.

    • Paul,

      1. Influence goes two ways. When Reformed speakers stand on the same platform with non-Reformed speakers non-Reformed listeners hear Reformed ideas and doctrine. Sometimes those listeners become Reformed! For some of them it’s the first time they’ve ever seen a living Calvinist or heard Reformed teaching. If confessionally Reformed teachers refuse to go into the village green for fear of contracting some contagion they lose that opportunity.

      2. Are you suggesting that the Reformed fellows who speak are unable to protect themselves from doctrinal corruption?

      3. I doubt that Reformed laity can isolate themselves, as you suggest. That might have been possible once upon a time but it’s pretty difficult to do today — the electronic media being what they are.

      4. Historically we haven’t adopted the sort of separatist approach you advocate.

      5. One thing we must do is to exercise doctrinal discipline in our churches and we must teach our people clearly the difference between Reformed and non-Reformed doctrine. We must define the adjective “Reformed” accurately (which is a major mission of the HB).

      6. If people were conscious of and intelligent and thoughtful about the village green/hallway we would be better off.

      7. I agree with you about Wright. I complained about that here. In that case Redeemer NYC didn’t observe the hallway/room or green/church distinction. Further, there are limits even on the green or in the hallway. For example, if we’re talking about evangelicals does Wright really qualify? If the evangel makes one an evangelical and NTW denies the evangel (and he does by virtue of denying the Protestant doctrine of justification) then he doesn’t qualify to be on the evangelical village green or in the evangelical hallway. It was manifestly irresponsible to bring NTW to a church-sponsored event. The institutional church is not a village green.

      8. You should get Hart’s book and read it. Hart writes very well and is easy to read.

      9. Confessional Reformed folk should stop describing those who cannot subscribe the Reformed confessions and who are not (or should not be) eligible for membership in Reformed churches as “Reformed.” Search the phrase “defining Reformed” on the HB. See also Recovering the Reformed Confession where these themes are discussed at length.

  9. Wayne, I don’t do emoticons. Everything I write (on-line at least) should be taken with a grain of salt and a beer chaser. Though I had thought the context of The Fundamentals, as Marsden suggests, was more the Bible college movement since the funders of the pamphlets were also the chief funders of BIOLA.

  10. Darryl:

    Low-salt diet here, but I’d definitely join you for the beer chaser sometime.

    Lyman Stewart and his brother, primary owners of Sinclair Oil, were the funders behind the printing of The Fundamentals and you’re certainly right–those twelve little volumes were published by the Bible Institute of Los Angeles (i.e., BIOLA).

    • Easy, you’re not a German or at least you don’t write like one. You don’t assume that “being difficult = being intelligent” and I for one appreciate that.

      Lewis and Sayers are also easy to read. In my book that’s a high compliment.

  11. I have been at a couple of services at Redeemer and I have to honestly say that I never would have known it was reformed. The nature of their worship service reminds me of mega churches … I also know of a number of arminians who attend that church and they don’t seem to even embrace the Doctrines of Grace, nor have a good understanding of it …

  12. Jade,

    Redeemer’s worship service is a blending of Evangelistic Worship with Reformed Worship under the rubric of the Regulative Principle of Worship, at least as defined by more recent Reformed theologians like Dr. John Frame. I actually talked a little bit about the underpinnings for Redeemer’s worship in a separate post on my blog, the one Dr. Clark so graciously linked to here.

    Whatever disagreement anyone may have about how Redeemer structures their worship, one thing that really can’t be disputed is that they are clearly preaching the Gospel and not merely holding seminars on “having your best life now” as is often done on Sundays at many mega-churches.

    Also, the requirements for attendance and membership at a Presbyterian church is not usually subscription to the church’s confessions, but simple faith in the finished work of Jesus Christ. However faithful Reformed believers want to be to our confessions, I don’t think we want to set the bar for church attendance so high that we basically keep anyone out who is not a staunch Reformed believer.

  13. Dr. Clark,

    Thank you very much for your thougtful reply to my last comments. Again, I will respond to a few of your points. Regarding this ‘village green’ concept, as Professor of Church History and Historical Theology do you have any comments on how the Reformers may have approached such a public place for such theological discussion and debate? I have no specific examples of how they spoke about unwise or heritical practise, but my guess is that they would have been more direct in their words about the practises of modern day Anabaptists (charismatics) and those who seem quite comfortable in having largely uncritical fellowship with them.

    I agree any village green input should be thoughtful and intelligent, nor should we be separatist. And it must always avoid mockery, cynicism, arrogance, and the sheer spitefulness which I occasionally see; cheap shots are never a substitute for reasoned, cogent, pithy comments. But we need more debate brought into this arena to counter the gradual assimilation of the non Reformed into Reformed circles as co – equals in terms of identity, authorative teaching, and input which can give the impression we are walking together in many ways.

    These so called ‘spiritual gifts’, called “essential and not optional” (to quote CJ Mahaney) which I am concerned about and underpin pentecostal/charismatic groups are not just a matter of so called secondary matters or opinion, but a subject of truth in terms of practise and belief. You also ask if I think that the Reformed fellows who speak in the village green are unable to protect themselves from doctrinal corruption. No, but they should be powerfully articulate and crystal clear in their opposition to such non Reformed practise, rather than giving what may appear to be tacit support to some by fellowshipping with certain men in a relaxed, amicable way. I won’t go into specific cases, but there are some Reformed Presbyterian men whose interviews with charismatics seem little more than a pleasant get together.

    You write ” we must teach our people clearly the difference between Reformed and non-Reformed doctrine. We must define the adjective ‘Reformed’ accurately..” I totally agree! And of equal importance the vitality, sweetness, and persuasive nature of confessional and liturgical Reformed practise must be vigorously promoted. To further examine some of these present issues, how about someone writing a book to explore this growing phenomena of the supposedly restless and reforming types who happily commend ‘Reformed’ charismatics without calling them to reconsider getting out of their ecclesiology and practise? This is a matter very current and growing, and these hybrids in terms of theology are popping up every where.

    Finally, I have read DG Hart’s book ‘Deconstructing evangelicalism’. It is deep, excellent, incisive, stimulating, provocative, and should be required reading in Reformed churches and their seminaries. Now we need a similar book to counter the false views that one can be Reformed and charismatic/ a continuationist. How about a simple side bar on the Heidelblog front page clearly titled ‘Recommended reading’, with links to book reviews regarding such literature? I see books are already featured on the homepage along with other links, and book reviews can encourage the enquirer to explore teaching like that in DG Hart’s book.

    As a possible signing off from my comments and this thread, I will gladly treat you to a meal here in England if you ever visit, maybe at Cumbria’s White Hart Inn, Bouth, and we can talk some more over a pint or two of Cumberland Ale or Bluebird Bitter!

    • Paul,

      Well, this isn’t the 16th or the 17th century. The “evangelical” movement has largely been taken over by those who no longer sympathize with the historic understanding of the evangelical faith. This is why I argue in RRC that we are “evangelical” but we are not “evangelicals” in the modern (post 1840) sense of the word.

      We live, in N. America, in a religiously pluralistic society (as do you) and we live after Christendom. Thus, the village green work metaphor as I’m using here couldn’t have functioned in the 16th and 17th century. Depending upon who was in power and where one found oneself there was only one church in a given place most of the time.

      The issue is how do confessional Reformed folk relate to those who have sympathies with Reformed theology but aren’t confessionally Reformed in theology, piety, and practice.

      I’ve argued strenuously here (search “pentecostal” and “charismatic”) and in RRC against the notion that one can be pentecostal/charismatic and ‘Reformed.” The penteocostal and charismatic movements are the spiritual children of the Anabaptists. They implicitly deny or subvert sola Scriptura (sufficiency of Scripture) and marginalize the Word and sacraments and divinely instituted means of grace.

      I would rather focus here, however, on encouraging people to see the value of being confessionally Reformed. Hence the book. You might find it encouraging and if you do, you’re welcome to give it away to others and to point them to the HB.

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