It started with John Frame’s “Warrior Children” piece in 2003. In June, 2012 Anthony Bradley wondered about the decline of popular presbyterians. More recently Bill Evans has elaborated on the theme of the decline of conservative presbyterianism. This morning I wake to find my friend Matt Tuininga has climbed aboard the Peace Train.
What do each of these writers have in common? They’re theologians. They theologize, i.e., if they’re doing their work properly, they study Scripture, they study the Reformed confessions, and they seek to present a systematic or topical account of the faith. Their focus tends to be on what should be whether that ought is doctrinal or ethical in focus. In my experience, theologians tend to spend less time thinking about what was and why things are the way they are. That’s the job of the historian. When they do interact with the past it tends to be in the form of arguments with the dead or appeals to the past in support of a theological/ethical program.
In the the nature of things, however, the theologian’s vocation leads to a certain blinkering. In this case I think the result is an over-simplified account of the fortunes of Reformed Christianity in North America. To be sure, Anthony’s brief post was simply raising an interesting question about the apparent triumph of Baptists within the “Reformed” world so I’m not including him in my analysis and critique. Most of these laments, however, seem to say the same thing: “if only we could get beyond our infighting and do/say/believe x.” In each case the proposed solution is a little different because the theological program is a little different but the bottom line is really “agree with my theological vision.”
The analysis is simplistic, however, because none of them really explain why there has been infighting and how the infighting, to the degree it really exists, came about and what it means. Most fundamentally, the lament assumes more than it has proved: that Reformed Christianity really is in decline in North America. Is there any sociological evidence for the “decline” thesis?
How one would measure such a decline is an open question. I’ve criticized “buildings, bodies, and budgets” as standard of measurement. The early, post-apostolic, church showed little interest in the “Killer Bs.” So, our fascination with them reveals our cultural biases. Nevertheless, in the interests of some objective standard by which to measure the alleged rise or fall of Reformed Christianity in North America we’ll use them in this post. To the best of my knowledge, there are about 500,000 confessional Reformed folk in North America. That’s roughly the number of people in the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council, which is composed of 12 denominations. There are some boutique and micro denominations that are not included that might add a few thousand to the number and there is an ethnic denomination or two that is not included that might add a much larger number but if we say 500,000 we have one reasonably accurate standard by which to measure.
There are three kinds of Reformed/Presbyterian denominations in North America: Mainline, Borderline, and Sideline. The “mainline” refers to the largest Presbyterian body in North America, the PCUSA which claims more than 2 million members. This claim seems inflated since the PCUSA has been hemorrhaging members for decades and yet the membership statistic most often cited has not changed. The mainline also includes the Reformed Church in America, the oldest Dutch Reformed denomination in North America and the United Church of Christ, which subsumed the old German Reformed Church.
The borderline groups include the Christian Reformed Church in North America and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. The CRCNA was once about 300,000 but is smaller today since it began its journey toward the mainline. The EPC, which reports 115,000 members, once appeared to be heading toward the sideline but now appears have reversed course and is probably more oriented toward the mainline—largely due to the influx of congregations leaving the PCUSA and joining the EPC and bringing with them of mainline convictions and practices. The sideline denominations are mostly found in NAPARC. Numerically, taken together, the borderline denominations are about the same size as or a little smaller than NAPARC.
The mainline, by virtue of its possession (and retention of!) church properties and institutions is the wealthiest and probably has the largest and greatest number of buildings. For similar reasons, the borderline would be next, followed by the sideline denominations, several of whom are separating bodies that left behind substantial investments in buildings and budgets.
The greater story is one of disintegration and fragmentation of Presbyterian and Reformed churches in North America since the 19th century. The CRC judged that the RCA was already beyond hope in the 1850s and thus split to preserve its confessional identity. That lasted a little over 130 years. The move by the mainline in the 19th century to adapt to the growing influence of the Enlightenment ensured that those who who were determined to resist Modernism (rationalism, empiricism, and mysticism) would hive off the mainline with resulting fragmentation. The German Reformed Church (RCUS) followed the same pattern as the PCUSA leaving only a scattered, strongly ethnic minority continuing church scattered across the Dakotas.
From perspective of “bodies,” i.e., membership statistics, the fact that the confessional/conservative churches are holding steady and showing moderate growth in some quarters despite the history of fragmentation since the mid-19th century is actually encouraging rather than discouraging. Given that NAPARC lost at least 200,000 members when the CRCNA elected to move toward the mainline the stability of NAPARC is remarkable.
We could look at some other objective measurements such as the rise in the number of seminaries serving NAPARC. Consider that from the time Old Westminster Seminary split from Princeton Seminary, in 1929, until the 1970s, there were very few Reformed seminaries serving the NAPARC churches. During the 1940s and 50s, the most important of those few schools, Westminster, was actually a very small school with a very small faculty. In the 1960s and 70s, the Westminster student body began to grow (due to a variety of factors not all of which had to do with a sudden surge of popularity of Reformed theology) and WTS tried to branch out to Florida and failed. The establishment of Westminster Seminary California in 1980 was, in that regard, a signal event. Through the 1980s and 90s the number of Reformed seminaries in North America grew markedly. The fragmentation of theological education has been lamented in some quarters (not without cause) but insofar as they all seem to be finding support and students there is some reason to be encouraged.
None of the analyses offered by our theologians accounts for the fact that, since the early 19th century, evangelical Christianity in North America has been dominated by the theology, piety, and practice that is alien to the Reformation. All confessional Reformed congregations are missions in a largely Anabaptist, revivalist religious culture. We are cross-cultural missionaries but do not always seem to aware of that reality. This is Sister Aimee’s America, as it were, and we’re just living in it.
The lamentation of the theologians, however, isn’t really about buildings, bodies, and budgets. It’s theological and ethical. They want us all to get along more than we do. Well, as a matter of history, that was one of the pleas made by the mainline: “why must you conservatives been so contentious?” In 1923, J. Gresham Machen answered: “Because Modernism isn’t Christianity and we would be Christians.” So, the great schism between the conservatives and the modernists was over the existence of Christianity.
What about the infighting that has occurred within the NAPARC world since 1929? To be sure, some of it was perhaps avoidable but some of it was not. The spirit of the “Clark Case” in the 1940s was regrettable but the argument itself was worth having because the Creator/creature distinction is essential to catholic and Reformed Christianity. (See the essay on the free offer of the gospel in this volume). Indeed, some arguments that should have occurred, such as the Shepherd Case, were initiated but not concluded properly and thus, after lying dormant for a time, the thistle of moralism, re-armed and re-named, reappeared and threatened to choke the gospel life out of the NAPARC churches. The Shepherd/Federal Vision controversy is about the article that the Reformed theologian J. H. Alsted called the “article of the standing or falling of the church.” See this volume.
The ongoing arguments about worship are also worth having. After all, it is not as if we do not confess clearly a doctrine and practice of public worship. The trend in the NAPARC world, however, seems to be away from the Word of God as confessed by the churches and toward the revivalist pattern. The medieval church knew that “the law of praying is the law of believing.” What we do in worship will influence and eventually transform what we confess. When we worship like Pentecostals and charismatics we will train our children to become Pentecostals and charismatics. They will eventually see the discrepancy between our confession and our practice and history suggests they will resolve the tension, vote with their feet, and join the revivalists rather than remain with the Reformed.
I quite agree that there are arguments that are not worth having: King James Only, the length of the creation days as a measure of orthodoxy, theonomy, and the like. NAPARC is affected by the Quest for Illegitimate Religious Certainty and the Quest for Illegitimate Religious Experience. These are the side effects, however, of living in late Modernity, living in North America, and of having been in the borderline and mainline. The question is how we should respond?
The theologians each seem to affirm the confessions but in three of the cases they also marginalized them. It’s true that mere affirmation of the documents will not preserve NAPARC or lead to its flourishing but they do play a central role in our renewal. Arguably, when the confessions lost their status, we lost our soul. That’s why I’ve argued for a recovery of the Reformed confession in a broader sense. We need to recover not only a set of doctrinal propositions, which is essential, but also a piety (a way of relating to God), and a way of practicing the faith. We must have a baseline and we do. Theologians tend to think of this “system” and that “theory” but they sometimes forget that there is an institution: the visible church, established by Christ himself for the propagation of the faith. They tend to think of confessions as mini-dogmatics but they aren’t any such thing. The confessions are an embodiment of certain doctrinal convictions but also of the church’s way of reading Scripture, of applying Scripture, of living, communing, and worshipping together.
A call to return to our confession, defined narrowly as a document containing theological propositions and defined broadly as the embodiment of a piety and practice, is not backward looking. It is forward-looking. In order for us to grow and fulfill the mission with which we’ve been entrusted we must have a constitution. Systematic and dogmatic theologies are not our constitution: our churchly confession is our constitution, our charter, and our identity. In order for us to go about fulfilling our vocation we must first recover our identity. We are wanderers but there are different ways of wandering. Aimless, amnesic wandering would be fruitless but we don’t have to be aimless pilgrims. We are pilgrims with a purpose: to glorify God and enjoy him forever, to make known the riches of God’s grace in Christ to sinners, to call the lost to repentance, and to call the penitent to maturity, through the due use of ordinary means, in church, with a shared confession of the Word of God.
UPDATE: Darryl comments on this issue at Oldlife.