More Thoughts About The PCA: Liberal v Conservative Is The Wrong Paradigm

I have had some interesting and illuminating responses to my analysis and critique of the anonymous “Open Letter” (OL) to the PCA published last week.

Publicly at least one fellow who agrees with the OL was furious that Jon Payne wrote a response to the OL on behalf of the Gospel Reformation Network. From what I could tell the sticking point seemed to be that the GRN is a 501(c)3 (non-profit, tax-exempt) organization. He did not explain why that is material but the fact that Payne is an ordained TE in the PCA (and thus, has a right and interest in addressing the OL) is not. He expressed frustration at being labelled a “liberal.”

A few, who agreed with the substance of my critique, responded privately to express their frustration with being misrepresented in the OL and in other, similar, publications, e.g., James Kessler’s, A PCA Worth Having.

Then, over the weekend, I was reminded of Charles Erdman. As Darryl Hart and Brad Longfield have each explained, Erdman was not a liberal but neither was he a confessionalist. He was ostensibly, theologically “conservative” but socially “progressive.” He was a moderate evangelical in the Presbyterian mainline. I explained in 2010 (see the resources below) that it was not “the liberals” but “moderate evangelicals” like Charles Erdman who did in Old Princeton. The moderate evangelicals said, in effect, “I am personally orthodox but I am tolerant of and willing to cooperate with those who are not” who fatally undermined Old Princeton.

Confessional v. Non-Confessional

One way to avoid the same outcome in the PCA is to use the right categories of analysis: confessional v. non-confessional rather than “liberal v. conservative.” It is possible to be generally theologically conservative but non-confessional. Of course theological liberalism is also non-confessional but it is easy to assume that the theological “conservatives” in the PCA are confessional, even when they are not.

Formal Affirmation v.  Confessionalism

How can that be? After all, have not all PCA Teaching Elders sustained presbytery examinations? Yes, they have but what are the standards of those examinations? One of the consequences of the PCA’s “Good Faith” approach to subscription (on this see the chapter in RRC) is that there are potentially and actually as many versions of the Standards as there are presbyteries in the PCA.

One gets the clear sense in the OL and in Kessler’s “Worth Having” essay that the Standards are not driving and shaping the theology, piety, and practice that is being advocated. One might even get the sense that some folks want credit for being confessional without actually being confessional. E.g., Kessler’s attitude toward those within the PCA who are concerned about the direction of the PCA is to tell them to ignore the Aquila Report and the Presbycast and to read By Faith and to be quiet. It was impressive that when he seeks to establish his bona fides he invokes a lot of honored leaders and resources but the Westminster Standards were not among them. When PCA Teaching Elders are examined and ordained, the standard to which they pledge fidelity is the Word of God as confessed in the Standards.

What Erdman Means

The history of American Presbyterianism (and Scottish and Irish etc) is that broad, inclusive Presbyterian denominations do not remain substantially Reformed. The mainline Presbyterian church(es) obviously did not. As the nineteenth century drew to a close, what we know today as the PCUSA, faced a choice between being confessional and being broadly evangelical and relatively tolerant of error for the sake of being inclusive and national, i.e., influential. If you have not read and heard Bob Godfrey on “The Myth of Influence,” you should (see the resources below). Erdman and others like him wanted to be part of a big, national, influential denomination. There was a certain prestige in being part of the PCUSA. When Machen threatened that, by trying to hold the PCUSA to its confessional standards, he was made to pay the price. The PCUSA strained at the gnat of Independent Board for Foreign Missions and swallowed the camel of the Enlightenment.

It not an accident that we have been witnessing an attempt to marginalize Machen once again. Twenty years ago it was “Machen’s Warrior Children.” Now, it is Machen’s segregationist letter to his mother. He, and those who continue to agree with his critique of both the moderates and the liberals, remain a fly in the ointment for those who are more interested in “going and growing” than fidelity to the Standards.

That is what motivated the Erdmans of the PCUSA. They wanted a big, inclusive, national denomination that was growing and going. Charles Erdman could also cite honored personalities and institutions in the PCUSA in the 1920s but when push came to shove Machen had to go. Where is the PCUSA today and how did it get there? It  did not just become liberal. It first became broadly evangelical and inclusive. The Standards were marginalized in favor of being missional and inclusive. It is the following generations who become liberal. This was the pattern in Geneva after Francis Turretin. Jean Alphonse was a not a liberal. He was broadly evangelical. He worked to marginalize the confessions in order to be inclusive. It was the succeeding generations who became liberal. See the resources below for more on this.

TLDR: If you have not read Darryl Hart’s Lost Soul of American Protestantism, you should and preferably before GA.

Ps. A group of former PCA GA Moderators has published another Open Letter, decrying those who are warning of a slide, in the PCA, down the slippery slope to liberalism. The letter is an excellent example of why the conservative v. liberal paradigm is inadequate to address what is happening. The question is whether, since 2002, the PCA is becoming more or less confessional.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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  1. When my husband attended the AMP program at Harvard ( I’m sorry, I’m sorry. He was only there three months, and he’s an engineer, which gives him antibodies, as it were), one fundamental of good business practice was having a creed as a unifiying statement of moral commitment. That seemed pretty clear and true to me, perhaps because I am headstrong and independent. I am persuaded by Carl Trueman, Burk Parsons, and R. Scott Clark among others of the power, and even more, the beauty and comfort of creeds and confessions. I am grateful to have bounds and familial fellowship and a fixed standard for doctrine and practice, as well as a representative format of church government to address confusion and conflict. In short, I have difficulty understanding those who are comfortable with a sort of free-floating independence. Also, I perceive the force toward ever more lack of definition, when subjective, individual self-determination is part of the equation. And yet, I knows whatever God ordains is good indeed.” There will still be those who stand steadfast and faithful, in the LORD’S grace. All the same, I am sad, and I think many in the PCA are pursuing a mess of potage. By the way, my husband is an ordained PCA RE, though we now are members of an orthodox church (I hope).

  2. This explains a great deal about the difficulties my family faced while attending a PCUSA church. The teaching elder was orthodox but willing to tolerate folks who weren’t in leadership roles.

  3. Just a small but somewhat significant correction: Charles Erdman has a different last name than William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. They’re spelled differently.

  4. I’m wondering if the blowback from being publicly recognized as a signer of the “Open Letter” may make some of these representatives to the GA skittish about casting what they thought would be relatively anonymous votes on controversial issues. They may feel the laity in their congregations giving these votes much more scrutiny than usual such that they lose the courage of their convictions regarding these votes. When they feel the heat, they may see the light.

    • Bob, let me walk with your idea a bit.

      (We could try to name differences between social justice and traditional justice: Social justice is often based on violation of feelings, whereas traditional justice is based on violation of laws. The methods of social justice sometimes violate the methods of traditional justice. Social justice is prone to slander and misrepresentation, where traditional justice is prone to record keeping and accountability. Social justice relies on power where traditional justice relies on authority.

      I assume that’s why in “A PCA Worth Having” Kessler bemoans the use of extra-judicial blog justice and speaks so favorably about the constitutional process: “When the record of the case is finally released, I believe we will see that far more can be accomplished by a constitutional process than by extra-judicial blog-justice.”

      But now this latest open letter is a bit of reversal as Kessler signs his name to this extra-judicial blog. This letter is an example of social justice: feeling rather than law; misrepresentation rather than accountability; a show of power rather than an act of authority.)

      Contemporary social justice is often unaccountable because the movement is almost entirely psychological manipulation, herd mentality based on “likes” or tokens of solidarity such as changing your instagram picture etc. But this has garnered signatures which are usually the purview of traditional justice.

      My thought is that rather than treat this as an anonymous blog post, maybe those ordained in the PCA could treat it as authored by the folks who signed it.

      I’m going to ask a few of the signers what they’re talking about.

    • Hi Joe: My common sense understanding is that if you sign something you endorse it. That is, unless these signers were allowed to make good faith exceptions to some of its statements.

    • I assume that’s why in “A PCA Worth Having” Kessler bemoans the use of extra-judicial blog justice and speaks so favorably about the constitutional process: “When the record of the case is finally released, I believe we will see that far more can be accomplished by a constitutional process than by extra-judicial blog-justice.”

      Of course he does, because he can whip the votes he needs from the NP and can control standing committees.

      But now this latest open letter is a bit of reversal as Kessler signs his name to this extra-judicial blog.

      If it weren’t for double-standards….

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