Schleiermacher In The Background: The PCA’s Struggle Over Confessional Identity

The struggle in the PCA over confessional identity is a microcosm of the macrocosm. The current discussions reveal that the PCA is on track to be another denominational domino to topple along with the mainline churches who have embraced theological liberalism. The Social Justice movement, along human sexuality redefinition, is escalating things quickly.

Often, it’s hard to appreciate in the moment exactly what is happening, especially when denominational leaders who are advancing the trajectory mock the “slippery slope” narrative as crying wolf…..

…I was struck by something Greg Johnson said in an interview by Preston Sprinkle. Consider Johnson’s words, “In the midst of suffering God would meet me very personally…I could count on one hand the number of times I actually felt loved by God, I knew I was loved by God cognitively but I never felt it. I can’t say that anymore…I know my father in heaven loves me, anyone who wants to mess with me is going to have a talk with him eventually.”

Here’s the question: What if you are advancing something theologically that is not true, does one’s feeling and “meeting with God very personally” triumph over confessional truth? To be clear, Johnson’s emphasis on religious feeling as triumphant is what non-confessional language sounds like. It’s all about feeling, reaching a status of knowing God consciously and personally that becomes the basis of how reality is defined. And don’t you dare mess with someone who has achieved this personal feeling of acceptance with God, lest God himself come after you.

This approach has huge implications for our present moment. What place do the objective truths of our theological tradition have in this scenario? The dogmas of the church and the confessional basis for how a denomination lives together in harmony becomes subservient to the subjective consciousness of one’s feeling. One can know God immediately apart from the truth of what has been confessionally embraced. One can know that God loves them, even when their practices stand over and against the objective truth of their own theological tradition.

This is why ideas like side-B Christianity find a way, that one be gay and still be a Christian. I was struck in the interview mentioned above, that the host scoffed at those who would bring charges against a man who was not practicing homosexuality, without ever really addressing the most important theological issue of whether Greg Johnson is repenting of these specific sinful desires that originate from the heart.

We have to appreciate that none of this is new. American Christians generally assume that they are carrying forward classic Protestantism; something vaguely connected to the Reformation that broke us free from Rome’s tyranny. But we forget that other movements happened along the way that have created our present moment.

Johnson’s language is taken from the play book of the father of modern theology, Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834). On August 6, 1791 Schleiermacher wrote to his father explaining his conversion. He wrote, “Here my heart is properly nurtured and need not wither under the weeds of cold erudition and my religious feelings do not die under theological speculation.

…Schleiermacher found reality in feeling, immediate experience, and spiritual illumination. He believed that many of his Romantic friends had abandoned religion because the rationalists had wrongly reduced the essence of knowledge to propositions and dogmas. As Roger Olson observes, Schleiermacher believed that religious experience is primary; theology is secondary and must constantly be reformed in relation to the changing aspects of Christian communities. Read more»

Chris Gordon, “Freidrich Schleiermacher, the PCA, and Side B Christianity” | June 25, 2021 | AGR Live

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6 comments

  1. I can’t argue with Chris Gordon’s analysis. But like other analyses, I reads like an autopsy rather than a diagnosis and treatment plan. The problems in the PCA seem so deep and pervasive that I honestly now see no hope that things will change for the better. In looking at denominations which were once biblically faithful, I am not aware of any which was able to correct its downgrade from within. The corrective has always come on the form of a split. Unfortunately, in the PCA’s case they were to be the corrective when the denomination was formed only to repeat the cycle a scant 50 years later.

    • There is one denomination among the Presbyterians that I think did course correct. It is the ARPC.

  2. Self-labeling of our identity is not how someone becomes a Christian, or anything else that has a real reference attached to it. The same is true for those who label themselves something else, either positive or negative: what they consider they “really are” is not the determinant, but the truth about it is outside the self-naming effort, which must be seen as a temptation. Just as it is not true that someone is a Christian by self-naming, neither is it true that someone becomes truly another sex by self-naming oneself so; nor is it true that those with SSA can name themselves by the culturally defined identity-term “gay.” What we are is what God says we are, and what God considers us to be. So we see the root of this particular self-naming controversy as the same as the subjectivism in Schleiermacher that wanted to take the determination of truth away from outside of oneself, and lodge it in onesself, whatever the self wants at the time. The attempt to the human to determine reality is just one of the many sins against God’s sovereignty.

  3. Sounds like something Timothy Leary would say. I remember hearing him in person on a college campus, long, long ago. He had very strong feelings, too.

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