Fifty Years Ago . . . The 1974 PCA GA

The Charismatic movement was a controversial issue for the day, even among reformed and Presbyterian churches. Much of the past century, with its cooperation with broad evangelicalism, left some churches unprepared to speak to this issue. The PCA, in its first major doctrinal pronouncement drew upon an interesting choice of genre, namely a “pastoral letter,” which was intended to set expectations and find consensus rather than legislate doctrine.1

Reported by an admired seminary professor, Jack Scott, the committee recommended measured advice on this topic.2 The report admitted its “concern over an increasing emphasis on experience-centered criteria as they are applied to the life of God’s people.” The Assembly reaffirmed several key theological points before discussing the gifts of the Spirit, namely: (1) that “the Spirit’s baptism coincides with regeneration. It is therefore not to be viewed as a second blessing or a special work of grace enjoyed by some but not by all Christians.” (2) Spiritual life begins at regeneration. (3) Every true Christian is filled with the Spirit, not awaiting a later work of the Spirit.

Then to the subject of spiritual gifts, this Assembly’s Pastoral Letter advised that such gifts were not to be despised. Further, this Assembly categorized that some gifts (related to revelation) had ceased, thus distinguishing between continuing gifts and non-continuing gifts. The gift of tongues was determined to be non-revelatory, lest the finalized character of revelation be confused. In addition, this Letter affirmed that “Any view of tongues which sees this phenomenon as an essen­tial sign of the baptism of the Spirit is contradictory to Scripture; and any practice of the tongues phenomenon in any age which causes dissension and division within the body of Christ or diverts the church from its mission is contrary to the purpose of the Spirit’s gifts.”

Concluding both irenically but with restraint, on the subject of miracles, this Assembly stated: “Finally, the General Assembly would speak a word of caution against an obsession with signs and miraculous manifestations which is not indicative of a healthy church, but of the opposite. The Spirit provides all that is necessary for the equipping of the saints through His presence and power in the lives of the regenerate. The true basis of faith and spiritual growth is the work of the Holy Spirit in believers as they are made subject to His written Word, which is sufficient in itself for spiritual growth to complete maturity. The General Assembly would also urge a spirit of forbearance among those holding differing views regarding the spiritual gifts as they are experienced today.”

Proper study and teaching on this subject were called for in churches, presbyteries, and seminaries, along with both a charitable spirit throughout the church on this issue, and specifically to study the church’s “Standards on such areas as Scripture, Trinity, Doctrines of Grace.”

As expected, much more detailed work and attention was required on the various constitutional documents. The church also continued to advance their annuity program, urging all ministers to participate both in that pension program and also in Social Security. Some even wanted more formal and reformed liturgies, along with standards for “majestic” architecture.

A highlight of this Assembly was an address by Dr. Francis Schaeffer. Earlier, the Presbyterian Journal released an article from him. In it, he urged the new church to manifest “observable love” for others as it departed. He also opined:

To me, practicing the principle of the purity of the visible Church is a part of the command of the word of God. In the PCUS, good men have tried unsuccessfully to practice this principle by combating clearly false teachings at the center of Christian truth. These include the older rationalistic liberalism and the new neo-orthodox, existential liberalism. After having failed to bring purity into the Church, they chose the only way to be obedient–they practiced the principle in reverse and withdrew.

While calling on the church to build bridges where possible, he also described the theological flashpoint as:

The battleground on the modern scene is whether the Bible is completely authoritative where it touches history and the cosmos, or only where it touches religious matters. It is difficult to see any basic difference between this and neo-orthodox existential theology. The divergence in evangelical groups centers especially in the first half of Genesis, which is often considered to be parable rather than space-time history. The weakening among evangelicals is not limited to the United States; it is present in other parts of the world as well.3

Schaeffer was “thankful for the formation of the National Presbyterian Church and I pray no small or provincial vision for it.”

This address was given at the nearby Macon Grand Opera House, a stone’s throw from the First Presbyterian Church.4 Later in the same Assembly, Schaeffer would also give a lecture critiquing modernism (Min2GA, 54).

On the significance of Schaeffer, a rising star in a pre-Moral Majority world, he was more doctrinally rigorous than many of the PCA founders; thus, spotlighting him either revealed an aspiration to become more intellectual than some southern evangelicals were at the time or else to tighten the boundaries of practice. The location in the Opera House was also a deep South cultural testimonial of sorts. The common joke of the day, i. e., that Presbyterians were Baptists who had moved to town or gone to college, was being exhibited in the Opera House in Macon as part of this early Assembly.

David Hall | “The 1974 (2nd) Assembly: Gifts, Administrative and Charismatic,” in Irony and the Presbyterian Church in America (Covenant Foundation, 2023)

Editor’s Note: This material is reproduced here with permission from the author. Single copies of this volume are available here. Discount available on bulk orders from the author.

Notes

  1. In his Foreword to Lucas’ recent work, J. Ligon Duncan previews the major study papers in the first generation of the PCA’s life, beginning with “the role of spiritual gifts (continuationism and cessationism); Christian reconstructionism (theonomy); marriage, divorce, and remarriage (especially the matter of biblical grounds for divorce and remarriage); Freemasonry; creation and the days of Genesis; paedocommunion; the validity of Roman Catholic baptism; confessional subscription; women in the military; the Federal Vision controversy; the ‘Insider Movement’ (dealing with contextualization issues, especially in relation to Muslim mission work and Bible translation); and more.” See Sean Lucas, For a Continuing Church: The Roots of the Presbyterian Church in America, 11.
  2. See the Letter at Appendix N, pp. 170–175 of Min2GA.
  3. Cf. https://www.pcahistory.org/documents/stepforward.html.
  4. For more on the history on this beautiful setting—a cultural accomplishment in its own right for the infant church—see https://www.thegrandmacon.com/about/history/.

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Posted by David Hall | Monday, April 29, 2024 | Categorized in Christian Life, HeidelQuotes, PCA. David Hall. Bookmark the permalink.

About David Hall

Reverend David W. Hall is married to Ann, and they are parents of three grown children and grandparents of eight grandchildren. He has served as the Senior Pastor of Midway Presbyterian Church (PCA) since 2003. Previously, he served as Pastor of the Covenant Presbyterian Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee (1984–2003) and as Associate Pastor at the First Presbyterian Church in Rome, Georgia (1980–1984). He was ordained to pastoral ministry in 1980. He was educated at Covenant Theological Seminary and is the editor and author of several volumes. Meet all the Heidelberg contributors»

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