Thoughts On Overture 12 From PCA General Assembly (2023) And Ascension Presbytery’s Sending The Overture To The Civil Magistrate: Part Three

The first two parts of this series discussed the confessional considerations for why I protested the sending of Overture 12 to the magistrates. In this final part, I provide two further considerations: practical and historical.

II. Practical Considerations

At this point, I remain persuaded that synods and councils (church officers gathered to exercise joint power in jurisdiction) are “to handle, or conclude nothing, but that which is ecclesiastical: and are not to intermeddle with civil affairs which concern the commonwealth.” Thus, the matter is decided for me on constitutional grounds, as noted in the previous two parts. I observe, however, that some officers are less confident than I am about what WCF 31.4 says, and/or are less confident than I am about what “cases extraordinary” means. Such individuals might be aided by considering practical considerations, and so I include a few thoughts about the matter in three areas: what is the practical effect on the civil magistrates, what is the practical effect on the churches, and what is the practical effect on the confidence people have about the church courts.

A. Practical effect of synodical overtures to the civil magistrate

If the civil magistrate desires our advice or counsel, he may solicit it, and WCF 31.4 would permit us to answer him: “Or, by way of advice, for satisfaction of conscience, if they be thereunto required by the civil magistrate.” The Westminster Assembly itself was called to assemble by an act of Parliament, which wished for its advice about how to “vindicate” the doctrines of the Church of England. Westminster met for nearly five years, framing two catechisms, a confession of faith, the Solemn League and Covenant, and the directory for worship. The magistrate had required such, and the assembly provided such. If any civil magistrate today “required” the counsel of any of our church courts—Session, Presbytery, or General Assembly—WCF 31.4 would permit our reply. But those magistrates do not (and, in all likelihood, will not) “require” our counsel. To provide unrequested counsel to the magistrate will do no good for the civil magistrates, practically speaking, for the following reason.

In our American experiment, magistrates desire to be reelected. Considering first amendment issues, they know that their constituency is a blend of irreligious and religious citizens, and that even the religious ones often embrace differing religions (e.g., Islam, Judaism, Christianity). Thus, they will studiously avoid/evade angering their constituency by favoring some citizens over other citizens. They need not and should not give their Christian citizens special consideration. What they care about is opinion polls, many/most of which do not distinguish religious from irreligious citizens.

I honestly believe that no one, whether in our Ascension Presbytery or anywhere else, believes that unsolicited ecclesiastical overtures to the magistrate are likely to have any effect at all on the governing process. Congressmen, for example, who are professing Christians (such as Senator Ben Sasse until he ran afoul of MAGA and did not seek reelection) will solicit the private counsel of pastors and elders anyway, and those who do not solicit it are unlikely to care about it; after all, they did not care enough to solicit it.

B. Practical effect of synodical overtures on the church.

Regrettably, such overtures do have a substantial effect on the church, and the effect is all negative. First, substantial energy and man-hours of labor (such as what I am expending right now explaining myself and which you are expending reading this explanation) are expended at GA and Presbytery, some of which, almost always, rightly wrestle with WCF 31.4. Then, additional energy is expended in committee somewhere, then on the floor, sometimes attended later by dissents and protests that take time to compose and which take man-hours of deliberation by the courts to determine whether they have been couched in temperate language and are respectful of the court and whether the court wishes to reply to the dissent or protest. All of these man-hours of energy are expended by those who have vowed to serve the church (not necessarily the magistrate, or, collectively, the “commonwealth”). Thus, for our case, these are man-hours of energy, by necessary arithmetic, that are not employed to serve the church or the flock.

Second, such overtures necessarily strain the goodwill and affection within the church courts. It is inevitable that Sessions, Presbyteries, and General Assemblies will have to wrestle with WCF 31.4; however an individual interprets it, any reasoning person realizes that, prima facie, such overtures are clearly and doubly prohibited unless they satisfy one of the two exceptions. So, we inevitably find ourselves wrestling with the meaning of “cases extraordinary,” knowing ahead of time that some, such as myself, have a more objective understanding of “extraordinary” (that of A. A. Hodge, surely informed by his father’s protest of the Spring Resolutions of 1861), and others have a more subjective understanding of the same term, and that they rarely persuade one another.1 Often, of course, the grace of the Holy Spirit preserves Christian fellowship and brotherhood, for which we are all thankful; but dealing with that same unresolved issue, year after year, time after time, does indeed strain (but not break) the bonds of Christian fellowship. Other NAPARC communions have tended to settle the interpretation of WCF 31.4 as A. A. Hodge had settled it, so they rarely expend time debating its meaning. The PCA enjoys no such consensus, and 42% of the delegates were likely frustrated by the time expended on a matter that does not fall under the church’s purview at all.2

C. Practical effect on confidence in church and confessional authority.

Drafting and sending such overtures erodes somewhat the public confidence in the courts of the church. It does not destroy such confidence entirely, but it does erode or weaken it. When an entire General Assembly or Presbytery cannot even discern what its own Confession of Faith says (in this case, WCF 31.4) or what “ecclesiastical” means, people will understandably lose some of their confidence in our ability to govern in accord with our standards. When we effectively say, by our actions and deliberations, that we do not know what WCF 31.4 means (or that only 42% of us do), how can we fulfill our vows to govern the churches consistently with our confessional standards?

Similarly, many thoughtful observers of the actions of Presbytery and General Assembly find their confidence in the courts eroded by the apparent arbitrariness of such overtures. Why do we overture the magistrate about some matters that affect the commonwealth, but not others? Why did we/do we say nothing about the fentanyl crisis that ruins many lives? Why do we not alert magistrates about children who die of cancer, and encourage the magistrate to address the matter? Why have we not told magistrates to cease using the sinful, addictive, and destructive practice of gambling as a means of raising revenue? In one of our extremely arbitrary moments as a denomination, we debated overtures regarding women in the military for several years, but sent no overtures regarding whether wars in Kuwait, Iraq, or Afghanistan satisfied just war theory; we had nothing to say about whether we should be engaged in a particular war, but were very concerned that women not serve in them, even in a supportive role such as quartermaster. Secular observers might have been forgiven for regarding this as straining out gnats while swallowing camels. There are many matters that affect the commonwealth (our fellow citizens) that are very important (extraordinary?); why do we address some of them, but not the others? The perceived arbitrariness with which we address some of those matters but not others erodes the confidence of many impartial observers, both within and without the church.

Perhaps the worse aspect of confidence in the courts of the church is due to this: while we do not intend it, our expending so much energy and effort addressing civil matters may suggest to many that we do not regard our own ecclesiastical work important enough to be justified on its own merits. By expending so much time and effort, at considerable strain to goodwill, to achieve nothing helpful to the magistrate and lose so much for ourselves, we implicitly say that the only thing that is important is what the civil magistrate does, and that “ecclesiastical” matters alone are not worthy of our concentrated and exclusive effort. I hope that not many observers notice this, but I know that I do, and it disheartens me.

Summary of Practical Considerations

There is no trade-off here, such as where the magistrates (or those they govern) gain something and the churches lose something; here, the magistrate gains nothing by these overtures, and the churches lose a great deal of time, a great deal of energy, a straining of brotherly fellowship, and an erosion of confidence in our ability to govern the churches. No one wins and the church loses. On practical grounds alone, therefore, I believe all such overtures that address the civil magistrate are unprofitable (practically) and unconstitutional, and we should follow the examples of the other NAPARC churches, who ordinarily do not expend ecclesiastical energy on such fruitless tasks.

III. Historical Consideration: Charles Hodge’s Protest of the Gardiner Spring Resolutions3

One of the remarkable things about the Presbyterian church in the early- to mid-nineteenth century was its relative peace within a culture that was deeply torn about how the border states might affect the Union. The precarious balance that had existed for the first fifty years of the Republic between slaveholding states and non-slaveholding states was now threatened as each of the new territories sought statehood. The “Missouri Compromise” of 1820 was an attempt to negotiate this delicate matter, and subsequent decades tested whether this particular glue would continue to bind the states. Within the Presbyterian church at the time, strong opinions were held by individuals who were abolitionist and those who were not, but the peace of the Presbyterian church was maintained, largely because WCF 31.4 prohibited its synods and councils from intermeddling with civil affairs that concern the commonwealth.

The Gardiner Spring Resolutions of 1861 destroyed the Presbyterian church’s unity and precipitated the formation of the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America the next year. The two resolutions, with their explanatory note, were these:

  1. Resolved, That in view of the present agitated and unhappy condition of this country, the first day of July next be hereby set apart as a day of prayer throughout our bounds; and that on that day ministers and people are called on humbly to confess and bewail our national sins; to offer our thanks to the Father of light for his abundant and undeserved goodness to us as a nation; to seek his guidance and blessing upon our rulers and their counsels, as well as on the Congress of the United States about to assemble; and to implore Him, in the name of Jesus Christ, the great High Priest of the Christian profession, to turn away his anger from us, and speedily restore to us the blessings of an honorable peace.
  2. Resolved, That this General Assembly, in the spirit of that Christian patriotism which the Scriptures enjoin, and which has always characterized this Church, do hereby acknowledge and declare our obligations to promote and perpetuate, so far as in us lies, the integrity of these United States, and to strengthen, uphold, and encourage the Federal Government in the exercise of all its functions under our noble Constitution; and to this Constitution in all its provisions, requirements, and principles, we profess our unabated loyalty.

And to avoid all misconception, the Assembly declare that by the terms “Federal Government,” as here used, is not meant any particular administration, or the peculiar opinions of any particular party, but that central administration, which being at any time appointed and inaugurated according to the forms prescribed in the Constitution of the United States, is the visible representative of our national existence.4 (Italics mine)

While much of the content of the Spring Resolutions would have been of general assent, the italicized portions settled, in thesis, the very question then debated: Whether the “authorities that be” of Romans 13, to whom submission was owed by all Christians, was the federal government, or the several (originally thirteen) state governments who had entered this federal arrangement as themselves sovereign states. When Robert E. Lee was offered command of the Army of the Potomac by General Winfield Scott, for instance, his reply was that the Virginia legislature had not yet met to determine whether to remain in the Union or to secede, and that he would need to await their decision before he made his decision either to remain in the United States Army or to retire from it. Lee had served for twenty-five years in the army, and much of that service was under the leadership of General Winfield Scott whom he greatly admired, saying, “To no one, general, have I been as much indebted as to yourself for uniform kindness and consideration. . . . Save in the defense of my native State, I never desire again to draw my sword.” Lee did retire, and two days later received a commission to lead the Army of Northern Virginia, in which duty he did again draw his sword in the defense of his native state.

When Charles Hodge learned of the passage of the Spring Resolutions, he went (to put it mildly) ballistic:

We make this protest, not because we do not acknowledge loyalty to our country to be a moral and religious duty, according to the word of God, which requires us to be subject to the powers that be; nor because we deny the right of the Assembly to enjoin that, and all other like duties, on the ministers and churches under its care; but because we deny the right of the General Assembly to decide the political question, to what government the allegiance of Presbyterians as citizens is due, and its rights to make that decision a condition of membership in our Church. . . . It is, however, a notorious fact, that many of our ministers and members conscientiously believe that the allegiance of the citizens of this country is primarily due to the States to which they respectively belong; and, therefore, that when any State renounces its connection with the United States, and its allegiance to the Constitution, the citizens of that State are bound by the laws of God to continue loyal to their State, and obedient to its laws. The paper adopted by the Assembly virtually declares, on the other hand, that the allegiance of the citizens is due to the United States; anything in the Constitution, or ordinances, or laws of the several States to the contrary notwithstanding. . . . In adopting this paper, therefore, the Assembly does decide the great political question which agitates and divides the country. . . . This is a matter clearly beyond the jurisdiction of the Assembly. . . . The General Assembly in thus deciding a political question, and in making that decision practically a condition of membership to the Church, has, in our judgment, violated the Constitution of the Church, and usurped the prerogative of its Divine Master. We protest loudly against the action of the Assembly, because it is a departure from all its previous actions.5 (emphases mine)

For our purposes, it is primarily important to understand both the intensity of Hodge’s protest against the Spring Resolutions, and the likelihood that his view influenced the view of his son, Archibald Alexander Hodge. Therefore, regarding our earlier discussion of A. A. Hodge’s interpretation of “cases extraordinary” in WCF 31.4, although what he said there was fairly brief, the brevity was probably due to the fact that any readers of his commentary would have known what he intended by “in extraordinary cases, where the interests of the church are immediately concerned, by the way of humble petition.” Neither he nor his father would have denied that the moral question of the African slave trade was “extraordinary,” nor would either have denied the profound social or cultural influence of the same. What both affirmed, however, was that it would be “extraordinary” for the synods of the church to exceed their jurisdiction over the various churches by intermeddling in affairs that properly belonged to the civil magistrate. That is, A. A. Hodge’s narrow/jurisdictional/ecclesiastical interpretation of “cases extraordinary” in WCF 31.4 is illuminated, in part, by his father’s strong protest against the Assembly’s 1861 adoption of the Spring Resolutions, which were not “extraordinary” for their concern over Christian ethics, but “extraordinary” in that synods and councils were addressing matters that belonged to the jurisdiction of the civil magistrate. What is “ordinary” is for the three God-ordained institutions of family, state, and church to respect the jurisdictions of one another; what is “extraordinary,” therefore, is when one or more of them exceeds its divinely-ordered jurisdiction.

Following the adoption of the Spring Resolutions and the founding of the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America, the Old School constituency (Charles Hodge et al.) in the northern Presbyterian church became a minority. That ecclesiastical body continued to intermeddle in civil affairs and to decline in orthodoxy, such that, by 1871, one decade after adopting the Spring Resolutions, it reunited with the previous New School Presbyterians, even though not one of the matters that had previously divided them in 1837 was addressed. A memorial volume of the reunion of the two denominations was printed,6 and not one of the dividing issues in 1837 is addressed therein, much less resolved; Old School Presbyterianism simply disappeared in the north. The first two chapters contain reviews, respectively of the Old School and New School, the next two contain “Biographical Sketches” of both, and the fifth (of only seven) addressed “The Reunion.” Tellingly, the first two sentences of that chapter read as follows:

Many of those who were leaders on both sides of the time of the disruption had either passed from this life, or had entered into other ecclesiastical relations.7 Personal prejudices, those most powerful agencies in producing the separation, were thus to a large degree eliminated from the question.8

Note, then, in this remarkable introduction to the reunion itself, that the “disruption” was attributed not to real, important issues of theology and/or ecclesiology, but to “personal prejudices,” which were, ostensibly, responsible for “producing the separation.” Better yet, such responsible individuals “had either passed from this life, or had entered into other ecclesiastical relations.” How droll. The entire northern Presbyterian communion had now become New School, within a decade of its adoption of the Spring Resolutions, after which it declined to the point that within a half-century it defrocked J. Gresham Machen.

My concern, which provoked my drafting my only protest of any action of the Presbytery of the Ascension, was that the precipitating event that made the northern Presbyterian church the liberal church it quickly became, was the adoption of the Spring Resolutions in 1861, by which, according to Charles Hodge, it acted “clearly beyond the jurisdiction of the Assembly . . . violated the Constitution of the Church, and usurped the prerogative of its Divine Master.” In American Presbyterian history, intermeddling with civil affairs that concern the commonwealth (aka political activism) has always led to theological liberalism. I am not predicting that the adoption of Overture 12 by the fiftieth General Assembly, or its adoption by many presbyteries, will lead the PCA in the same direction. I was and am disturbed, however, by the ease with which the Westminster Confession of Faith 31.4 was either so breezily dismissed, or its interpretation by two generations of Hodges so easily ignored.

Notes

  1. While Overture 12 was adopted by the 2023 General Assembly, the vote was 1,089 to 793; 42% of the delegates disapproved sending the overture to civil magistrates, even though probably every delegate agreed with the overture for its substance. Some disapproved of what they perceived as intermeddling in affairs that concern the commonwealth; others disapproved of the peculiar (if not unique) procedure of instructing the Moderator to appoint a commission to edit and/or rewrite the Overture. Had Overture 12 not been addressed to the civil authorities, but recommended as counsel for presbyteries and sessions, it would likely have passed unanimously and not needed a commission to refine it. Dr. Sean Lucas spoke eloquently to this point on the floor of the Assembly.
  2. Our PCA already expends entirely too much time entertaining BCO revisions on an annual basis. Some other communions permit such amendments only on years that end with a five or a zero, and others await a motion to revise the entire book, ordinarily only after several decades of dissatisfaction with the book. This, too, strains goodwill and patience. So, we hardly need to strain goodwill and patience further by proposing and entertaining overtures that address the civil magistrate.
  3. It is one of the many paradoxes of church history that Gardiner Spring is now remembered (if at all) for his resolutions that fractured the church into two branches (northern and southern), drove many northern churches into affiliation with the southern church, and led inevitably to the exodus of all of the Old School Presbyterians within a decade, when the Old School and New School reunited, leading to the inevitable decline in orthodoxy of the entire northern Presbyterian church, which, unsurprisingly, within a half-century defrocked J. Gresham Machen. I say “paradoxes,” because, had it not been for his eponymous resolutions, he would have been remembered as one of the great pastors in American history. He served the Brick Church in New York City for a remarkable sixty-three years and was highly regarded in that role. He declined offers of the presidency from both Hamilton College and Dartmouth College, and served on the Board of Princeton Theological Seminary and as a trustee of Lafayette College. He also attended the judicatories of Presbytery and General Assembly, and wrote learnedly on various theological topics. His book on the atonement (appropriately titled The Attraction of the Cross) remains a classic, winsome statement of orthodox theology on the matter. Ministers and ministerial candidates today still benefit from reading his excellent The Power of the Pulpit. How tragic that such a devout, capable, and fruitful minister is now remembered for the only wrong-headed thing he ever did.
  4. See “The Gardiner Spring Resolutions,” PCA Historical Center: Archives and Manuscript Repository for the Continuing Presbyterian Church,
  5. For a thorough analysis of the Spring Resolutions, and especially of Hodge’s protest, see Alan D. Strange, Empowered Witness: Politics, Culture, and the Spiritual Mission of the Church (Crossway: 2024), especially the section on “The 1861 General Assembly,” 69–78.
  6. Presbyterian Reunion: A Memorial Volume, 1837–1871 (New York: De Witt C. Lent & Company, 1870).
  7. Probably an oblique reference to the fact that some had left the northern church to join their Old School sympathizers in the Presbyterian Church of the Confederate States of America.
  8. Presbyterian Reunion, 247.

©T. David Gordon. All Rights Reserved.

You can find this whole series here. 


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  • T. David Gordon
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    Dr. T. David Gordon is a teaching elder in The Presbytery of the Ascension. Before retirement, he taught at Gordon-Conwell Seminary (1984–98) and Grove City College (1999–2021).

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One comment

  1. There is a certain amount of irony with the Overture 12 statement inasmuch as the primary reason for so many pressures on developing children to engage gender transitions stem from the fact that they are being duped by the public educational system into believing that biological genders are arbitrary. And the reason that it is ironic for the PCA to suddenly “wake up” and petition the magistrate to curtail such procedures is the fact that various “evangelical” denominations have long since abdicated the education of the nation’s youth to the state in the 19th and 20th Centuries.

    Machen warned of the danger of such an action in the introduction of his famous work, “Christianity and Liberalism.” D.G. Hart discusses in detail these same actions in several of his books. Immigrating Lutherans and Reformed (Dutch Reformed for the most part) did no such thing and established their own schools. And, of course, Roman Catholics did so de facto. So why now, at this late date, when the horse has long since gotten out of the barn, suddenly petition the magistrate to reconsider support for actions that have been almost forcibly foisted on the nation’s youth?

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