The largest NAPARC denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) is in the throes of an identity crisis. Founded by Southern Presbyterians and emerging out of the old PCUS (the Southern version of the Presbyterian mainline) it has always been more more broadly evangelical than the other members of NAPARC. It became even more broadly evangelical when it merged with the Reformed Presbyterian Church Evangelical Synod (RPCES). It is in crisis just now because in part because of the relatively decentralized character of the PCA and a relatively lax approach to confessional subscription, which has developed over the last twenty years. In that time an influential and organized progressive movement has developed in the PCA. It has allowed them to adapt and adopt pragmatic church-growth principles, to take significant exceptions to confessional standards, turn a blind eye to the Federal Vision movement in the church courts, create functionally female deacons and elders, and to promote the so-called Side-B approach to homosexuality. When the progressive or perhaps better, latitudinarian wing of the PCA is challenged on these things the response has been consistent. See the PCA resource page below for the evidence. The rhetoric is remarkably consistent. It is, in effect, “when I joined the PCA it was predominantly influenced (insert list of good guys and heroes) but now the PCA is threatened by (anonymous) fundamentalists. We must resist this movement and return to the good old days.” David Cassidy’s essay of September 21, 2021 is the latest example in this genre.
The Contested History of the PCA
One of the difficulties in analyzing the PCA is that there is no agreed historical narrative. The wing of the PCA represented by Cassidy’s essay tells one story about the identity of the PCA and other wings have their own narratives.
The sociological reality of the PCA is that it is probably actually multiple denominations formally connected by presbyteries and general assembly but actually divided from one another by their varying approaches to the Westminster Standards, to worship, and to polity at the congregational level. The PCA in urban cities (e.g., New York and St Louis) is starkly different from the PCA in Greenville, SC and Jackson, MS.
In a confessional Presbyterian denomination, the churches would be united around the theology, piety, and practice confessed in an envisioned by the Westminster Standards. As much as I have been able to tell, the PCA has probably never been a confessional Presbyterian denomination thus defined. Parts of the PCA have always been socially and theologically conservative. It is probably the case that the PCA was more socially and theologically conservative and cohesive at its founding but the joining with and receiving of the Reformed Presbyterian Church Evangelical Synod moved the PCA in a more broadly evangelical direction theologically and practically. The adoption of “Good Faith Subscription” around the turn of the century was another watershed moment further pushing the PCA away from confessional Presbyterianism. There are as many ways to subscribe the Standards in the PCA as there are presbyteries. In some presbyteries. The adoption of the strategic plan (2010) was another watershed moment. The vote at General Assembly (2007) against the Federal Vision has turned out to be a largely symbolic but hollow victory. In practice, at presbytery, the PCA has been quite reluctant to discipline actual living and breathing Federal Visionists.
Since the adoption of the Strategic Plan, those who favor a more progressive and latitudinarian presbyterianism have carried the day in the PCA. In that light the Sturm und Drang communicated in the the laments by the reigning latitudinarians is puzzling. They have largely dominated the more conservative elements in the PCA. The confessionalist wing is a minority party in the PCA with some outstanding voices but probably relatively little actual influence.
The Missing Category
The bête noir of the latitudinarian party are the alleged “fundamentalists.” This passage in Cassidy’s essay is striking:
Looking back, men like Kennedy Smartt, Frank Barker, Francis Schaeffer, James Kennedy, David Nicholas, Cortez Cooper, RC Sproul, Steve Brown, and many others were not only deeply Reformed but also broadly evangelical, and resistant to fundamentalist impulses. They showed the way ahead on many critical issues while embracing authentic confessional integrity.
These are his good guys, those of the “majority…who favored a Good Faith approach [to confessional subscription]” as opposed the fundamentalists, whom he seems to regard as equivalent to those who favor “a more strict approach to the Confession…”. Francis Schaeffer certainly had deep roots in American fundamentalism. His early career was arguably fundamentalist as was his later career, when he returned to form to became something of a right-wing culture warrior. D. James Kennedy was hardly a model of progressive tolerance. In the same building that housed the seminary was a floor dedicated to taking back America for Christ. Coming out of the old PCUS, Kennedy was perhaps a little latitudinarian doctrinally but he did not agree with the National Partnership ethos regarding the Federal Vision, which he attacked from the pulpit quite forcefully. R. C. Sproul was hardly a doctrinal latitudinarian. Again, during the General Assembly of 2007, when the latitudinarians were calling for toleration of the Federal Vision, Sproul stood up and called the denomination to reject the FV categorically. So, this list would not seem to serve Cassidy’s argument very well.
Where are the fundamentalists threatening the future of the PCA? What are the marks of their fundamentalism? It would seem that, for Cassidy, rejecting “Good Faith Subscription” is all that is necessary to make one a fundamentalist. In that case, the entire Reformed tradition in the classical period was fundamentalist, since none of them accepted anything like Good Faith Subscription. Indeed, when the Reformed confessions were originally drafted and adopted, they were intended to be subscribed not insofar as (quatenus) they were thought by a subscriber to be biblical but because (quia) they are biblical.
The quia (because) approach does not fit Cassidy’s categories of analysis. E.g.:
Being a Good Faith Subscription denomination is central to that fruitfulness. The PCA is not and must not become a Strict Subscription denomination, even in a de facto sense. Maintaining fidelity to Scripture and insisting on our Confession and Catechisms having subordinate authority in our practice and polity is essential. The uniqueness of Scripture and the limits of our own understanding commend this Good Faith approach.
Both the more so-called “strict” and “good faith” approaches are species of the quatenus approach to subscription and are at odds with the original understanding of the nature and function of the Reformed confessions. See the chapter on this in Recovering the Reformed Confession. We should hope that folk in the PCA will reject Cassidy’s characterization of the function of the Standards in the life of the PCA:
Demanding that ministers only teach in conformity with the Confession and Catechisms – when their stated exception is already acknowledged as acceptable and ‘not striking at the vitals’ – is a-historical and contrary to the practice of the very Westminster Divines who framed the Standards. It establishes a dangerous precedent that sends a signal to churches that far from being a faithful summary of what the Scriptures teach, the Standards set the boundary marker of everything Scripture says. This approximates the authority of the Standards in the Church with the authority of Scripture itself, a direct violation of Sola Scriptura. I suspect the Westminster Divines themselves and our forefathers in the Reformation would be appalled and deeply troubled by this practice in the PCA.
Cassidy complains, the “fundamentalists” would prohibit him from teaching doctrines which are contrary to the Standards he subscribed. Since he has been graciously granted exceptions by three presbyteries he believes that he is entitled to teach views contrary to the Standards. The only response I can muster is two words: non sequitur. It simply does not follow that if a presbytery graciously allows into the ministry a man who holds views at variance with the Standards, the wisdom of which procedure should itself be discussed, that therefore he is entitled to contradict the Standards. Were I to allow a guest in my house who, shall we say, did not wash his hands thoroughly before dinner does this mean that he is entitled to teach my children not to wash their hands? Not in my house it does not. Some folks might even call such a thing presumption.
His essay is a good reminder of the value of J. Gresham Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism. Before the reader reaches high dudgeon, I am not calling Cassidy a liberal. I am pointing out, however, the formal and structural parallels between Machen’s struggle with theological liberals (who were social conservatives) in the mainline Northern Presbyterian Church. They thought that they had a right to be in the Presbyterian Church and contradict her confessions. Machen’s argument was no, they do not. The point of having confessions is to establish boundaries of what is acceptable teaching and preaching within a communion. When a presbytery is so gracious as to grant exceptions, to return to the analogy above, the least a polite guest can do is to observe the house rules. Cassidy writes a “Reformed theological framework” but he seems to distance that concept from the Standards. No, the Standards are the Reformed theological framework within which the denomination and her ministers are to carry their service.
This is the great problem of all forms of quatenus subscription: they invariably create a confession within a confession or a canon within a canon. They probably tend, as we are seeing in the PCA, to create churches within the church. Is the PCA really one denomination or is a series of mini-denominations within a loose framework? Consider the remarkably diversity of approaches to worship and the working principles of worship that govern worship services conducted in the PCA. One can find everything from quasi-Lutheran or Anglican services to quasi-Pentecostal services within the PCA. How many of them are actually governed by the principle of worship articulated in the Standards (e.g., “But the acceptable way of worshiping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will” WCF 21.1) and how many are actually governed by the Lutheran/Anglican principle that we may do in public worship whatever is not forbidden? The differences between the various factions within the PCA are more than cultural they are theological. The National Partnership represents one approach to Presbyterian theology, piety, and practice and the Gospel Reformation Network represents another.
The missing category in Cassidy’s taxonomy is confessionalist. Cassidy invokes George Marsden’s (?) taxonomy of pietists, doctrinalists, and Kuyperians (which, Marsden intended to describe the wings of the CRCNA) to describe the PCA. In both contexts there was and remains a missing category. D. G. Hart has been rightly complaining for decades about its absence from the historiography of American Presbyterianism so we might forgive Cassidy for ignoring it. The typical story only has two sides: liberal and conservative or progressive and fundamentalist or what have you. As Hart has been demonstrating, however, Machen was only nominally a fundamentalist. He was actually a confessionalist. His theology, piety, and practice was not marked by a merely formal affirmation of the Standards but rather the Standards animated his theology, piety, and practice. The Standards were not an addendum, but rather they supplied the vocabulary, the categories of analysis, and the structure of his theology, piety, and practice. Machen was not an evangelical who also happened (accidentally, i.e., immaterially) to be Presbyterian. He was a Presbyterian evangelical in the best, pre-revivalist sense of the word. He was about the evangel, the gospel. He delighted in preaching the gospel, writing about it and he died confessing it. He was supportive of the orthodox conservative Christians of his age who sought to preserve the basics of the ecumenical faith, which they called “The Fundamentals of the Faith,” but not of the narrow, bigoted, angry wing who came to be used as the poster boys for “fundamentalism.” With his call to the students, “Don’t be tightwads boys!” (translation: chill, have an orange) he put the fun in fundamentalist. Even so, he was entirely opposed to the theologically liberal and more narrow fundamentalist corruption of the gospel into a message of morality. It is easy to suppose what Machen would have made of the Federal Vision and the New Perspective on Paul. He was a fierce and unyeilding defender of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone.
A confessionalist is not a “fundamentalist” in the sense in which Cassidy seems to be using the term. A confessionalist, as Hart has been noting, fits neither of the typical categories (liberal or conservative). Machen was tolerant of alcohol as a matter of Christian liberty. He was libertarian on several social issues. He opposed prayer and Bible reading in the public schools) and advocated the highest possible view of the Scriptures as the Word of God. Unlike some of the fundamentalist He was not a chiliast. He, like the rest of the confessionalists, simply does not fit in the binary analysis on which Cassidy relies to understand and characterize the PCA. It is true that Machen was not in the PCA (though the OPC was originally the PCA) but there are Machenites, if you will, in the PCA and they are neither latitudinarians or fundamentalists. They are confessionalists. They desire their doctrine, their relations to God, and their practice of the faith in worship etc to be shaped and informed by God’s Word as confessed by the church in the Standards. That is not, as Cassidy seems to imply, a contradiction of the sola Scriptura. That is how the Reformed originally understood sola Scriptura.
©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.
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Thanks to David Linden for his editorial assistance with this essay.
Just to make it clear, the Confessionalists do NOT belong to that other missing category of Ugly Guys!
“The PCA in urban cities (e.g., New York and St Louis) is starkly different from the PCA in Greenville, SC and Jackson, MS.” Concerning Greenville at least this is increasingly untrue: there is a strong presence of confessionalists/GRN types in the Calvary (Greenville/Spartanburg) Presbytery, yes, but in recent years there has been an increase in the young/trendy/culturally ‘relevant’ types of TEs so that churches like 2nd Presbyterian are counteracted by ones like this (https://www.downtownpres.org/leadership).
One church plant doesn’t make Greenville into St Louis does it?
The tent has gotten so big in the PCA that it is difficult to see how the middle can hold for much longer. There were some glimmers of hope coming out of this year’s General Assembly but I would be surprised if the denomination can go another ten years without a major split. As is always the case, the non-confessionalists will retain the name PCA and the confessionalists will leave and either start a new denomination or join with another.
Thanks, Scott; it’s always good to see how other folks in NAPARC view the PCA. It appears that the PCA never came clean on the Old Light/New Light or the Old School/New School interactions with Revivalism. More tellingly, at our founding, our fathers intentionally distinguished themselves from the history of the confessional reformed tradition/s by not granting full constitutional authority to the Directory for Worship (granting such only to the chapters on the sacraments). Not any “assembly” is the church/assembly. When I was a Page in the Virginia legislature, I worked for the “General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Virginia.” It was an “assembly,” but it was no church. The notion that, as long as we assemble on the First Day of the week we are the church, and a Presbyterian church at that, is both facile and self-congratulatory. If it walks like a Pentecostal, and it quacks like a Pentecostal (or a Lutheran, or a Baptist, or a Revivalist), it is a Pentecostal.
Many, such as yourself and D. G. Hart, rightly acknowledge the confessional chaos that has characterized the PCA from the beginning; but the liturgical chaos is profounder even than the confessional chaos. In 1967, Julius Melton wrote the wonderful, but rarely noticed, Presbyterian Worship in America: Changing Patterns since 1787, in which he traced the movement from “Scriptural decorum” (his expression for a regulative understanding of worship) to “evangelistic effectiveness.” Our PCA founding fathers—at least as a group, with one or two exceptions—knew at an intuitive level that no liturgical commitments bound them together in denominational unity, and so they granted no constitutional authority to the Directory for Worship; we are the only Reformed body in the history of the Reformed tradition to have no authoritative Directory for Worship, which means that what we actually do once weekly in our formal assemblies has nothing to do with who we are. At least when many Anglicans went nuts theologically over a century ago, The Book of Common Prayer still identified them until 1979, when the new BCP surrendered much of the earlier liturgical orthodoxy. In the PCA, no one makes motions to modify the Directory for Worship, because it has no authority (okay, I proposed one modification to it and its pertinent parallel in WCF 21, but no one paid any attention to it, because who cares whether we have constitutional authority to take collections in worship?).
My communion was schismatic at the beginning. Individual men could have conscientiously left the PCUS without further rending the body of Christ by forming another communion. If they had been truly Reformed, and had they truly believed in the importance of Christian unity, they easily could have found homes in other NAPARC communions; in fact, after about a decade, they began inviting other NAPARC communions to join them en masse. Why didn’t/couldn’t they have just joined such existent bodies in 1973? At any rate, any ecclesiastical body that is born in schism is likely to die in schism; I only hope that when we do, we individuals who remain confessional presbyterians will join the existing NAPARC churches, and not create another.
As always you’ve given me things to consider. May I ask some questions?
1. I don’t know about “coming clean” but was the PCA ever self-consciously identified with the Old School or the New School. Was it not, from the beginning, a coalition of influences from both?
2. No separation is ever perfect. The Directory of Worship in BCO 47ff might not say everything I would but it is a recognizably Reformed Directory. I’m sure it’s the case that chapters 47 (and esp. 47) etc are probably ignored in a lot of PCAs but is that the fault of the Directory? The PCA still affirms WCF 1.6 and 21.1 so the principle of Reformed worship is still affirmed, right? Has the PCA been liturgically chaotic from its beginning or is that a more recent development?
3. Sociology and history matter. Yes, when the OPC was founded those fellows might have united with the PCUS, the UPCNA, the RPCNA, or the ARP or one of the pre-existing confessional bodies (though perhaps the ARP wasn’t all that confessional back then, I’m not sure) and southerners leaving the PCUS might have joined the OPC but the folks leaving the Northern Presbyterians (I can’t remember the name, was it UPCUSA?) didn’t join the more conservative southern Presbyies and the folks leaving the PCUS didn’t join a Northern Presbyterian church. They had a distinct identity, a view of the spirituality of the church etc that led them to form their own denom just as the OPC felt compelled to form their own denom. Is the PCA more schismatic than the OPC in that regard? I’m part of a separating body (the URCNA) are we schismatic for not immediately merging with the OPC or were our differences sufficient to warrant forming a new federation?
I read David Cassidy’s article, and am impressed about one thing, anyway. It tracks pretty closely to other statements opposing the present overtures. They tend to begin quietly, warmly, and with respect toward all. But by the end, the knives are out, the enemies have been identified, and their failures/hypocrisy are stated.
Stated differently, “Heads, I win. Tails, you lose.”
I agree that there is a remarkable coherence among the various responses to the overtures. The lists of good guys changes but the structure is very similar.
Let me attempt a brief answer to your thoughtful questions.
1. To your first question: “…was the PCA ever self-consciously identified with the Old School or the New School. Was it not, from the beginning, a coalition of influences from both?” I believe from the outset it was both. Morton Smith and Paul Settle were men of real OS sympathies; the other founding individuals were not. There was no “golden era” of the PCA from which it later declined; it was always an untenable mixture of oil and water.
2. “The Directory of Worship in BCO 47ff might not say everything I would but it is a recognizably Reformed Directory.” The DW is indeed Reformed, but it expressly does not have constitutional authority. It begins this way: “Temporary statement adopted by the Third General Assembly to preface the Directory for Worship: The Directory for Worship is an approved guide and should be taken seriously as the mind of the Church agreeable to the Standards. However, it does not have the force of law and is not to be considered obligatory in all its parts. BCO 56, 57 and 58 have been given full constitutional authority by the Eleventh General Assembly after being submitted to the Presbyteries and receiving the necessary two-thirds (2/3) approval of the Presbyteries.”
So from the outset, the founders employed the old PCUS directory (with small changes, all wrong; they approved “tithes and offerings,” and the 1854 Assembly had declared the tithe Levitical, and that it was “presumptuous” to declare the amount of one’s giving), but expressly said it was “not to be considered obligatory…” So yes, the DW is Reformed, but from the beginning, churches were not obliged to follow it.
3. The OPC (despite its human imperfections) had a different birth from that of the PCA. Machen was defrocked by the UPC, and, at his trial, the moderator ruled all references to the constitution to be out of order, so Machen and his representative offered no defense at all. By contrast, none of the founders of the PCA had been defrocked, or even tried, much less ruled out of order for defending themselves by referring to the constitution of the PCUS. The UPC defrocked Machen for doing what the constitution expressly said he could do (support missions agencies in addition to the denominational ones); none of the founders of the PCA was defrocked or even tried.
As to the URC, I am not sufficiently familiar with the issues of its founding (I think it was largely the issue of women’s ordination) to have a firm opinion. But I doubt there was another communion to which they could have gone that had the three forms of unity, whereas the PCA founders could have gone to other communions that embraced the Westminster standards (and indeed, within roughly a decade they invited two of them to join them).
From the pen of one of our PCA founding fathers:
“One must not forget that the PCA was formed from a mixed multitude of pastors and people from a wide variety of ecclesiastical and theological backgrounds. Some had been raised in mainline Baptist or Episcopal or Methodist or Presbyterian Churches. Others were from liberal, or independent, or fundamentalistic, or Pentecostal, or dispensationalist or parachurch backgrounds: they did not fully know or understand Presbyterian and Reformed distinctives, and many did not care. What mattered to them is that they had escaped liberalism. They were content to belong to an evangelical and conservative but progressive denomination.” —Paul Settle, “To God All Praise and Glory” p. 55
Initially I wanted to post a comment but waited after seeing your exchange with T. David Gordon. Let me add to your words addressing the use of the term “fundamentalist.” David Cassidy is not the first one to use the term to describe conservatives in the PCA. Bryan Chapell used the term a couple of years ago in this address – https://www.pcaac.org/bryan-chapell-message/.
J.I. Packer addresses this issue in his book, Fundamentalism and the Word of God:
““In order to be a ‘Fundamentalist’ one must keep one’s mind resolutely closed – locked, bolted and barred – against the entry of modern knowledge about the Bible. ‘Fundamentalism’ is thus retrograde and, in effect, dishonest. ‘Intellectual hara-kiri’ (to quote a correspondent to the The Times) is the price which it exacts of its adherents; they have to learn to turn a blind eye to plain facts. This is why ‘Fundamentalism’ is so often equated with obscurantism, which the Shorter Oxford Dictionary defines as ‘the practice or principles of those who strive to prevent enlightenment or the progress of knowledge’. The critics of ‘Fundamentalism’ see it as one among the many movements of blind reaction which disfigure the record of man’s intellectual history; it presents to them the all-too-familiar spectacle of a die-hard traditionalism refusing to confess itself out-of date. And in the heat of its reaction, they think, it has lost all balance of judgment. Some truths it runs to death, other it neglects entirely, and those who cannot say all its shibboleths it damns out of hand.” pp. 11-12. ”
Later in the book he provides several reasons why the term “fundamentalist” is objectionable. Here is the first reason:
“In the first place, it is word that combines the vaguest conceptual meaning with the strongest emotional flavor. ‘Fundamentalist’ has long been a term of ecclesiastical abuse, a theological swear-word; and the important thing about a swear-word, of course, is not what it means but the feelings it expresses. It seems as discourteous as it is confusing to refer to Evangelicals as ‘fundamentalist’ and so invokes against them all the contemptuous overtones that have gathered round the title. ‘Give a dog a bad name – and hang it’ is a time-honored maxim in controversy – even, one fears, in theological controversy. And what happens when once the ‘bad name’ has caught on is always the same: as its derogatory flavor grows stronger, it is used more and more widely and loosely as a general term of abuse, till it has lost all value as a meaningful description of anything.” p. 30.
Thanks for defending those who are confessionalists.