The practical impotence of in thesi declarations is why I think them corrosive to the Church’s well-being. Church officers are free to agree or disagree with them with whatever degree of openness they prefer; disagreement brings with it no automatic sanctions
Bob Godfrey still being Bob Godfrey, I imagine he’s still telling seminarians in his Church history classes that Church officers should make a point of reviewing their confessional standards about once a year just so they can remember what they’re supposed to believe. I’ve long thought that discipline might prevent the eagerness in some circles for presbyterian General Assemblies to issue statements on whatever the putative theological controversy of the hour might be.
The Westminster Standards cover a great deal of doctrinal ground, and I (for one) think it unlikely a committee-penned statement on, say, justification will be any more clear than the Confession, Larger Catechism, and Shorter Catechism.
Thus, the cockles of my curmudgeonly heart (if, in fact, a curmudgeon can be said to have a heart) were warmed when the 40th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in American rejected an overture that it make an in thesi declaration against theistic evolution on the ground that Scripture and the Westminster Standards do so with sufficient clarity.
This is important for two reasons: first, the Assembly has taken the very grown-up position that presbyterians need not restate what they’ve already stated, no matter how many people insist it is VERY IMPORTANT that they do so. Let the Baptists issue statements; we’ve subscribed to a confession.
The second reason has to do with that lovely latinate phrase, “an in thesi declaration,” and what I believe to be the corrosive effect of these declarations. Such a declaration would state, in this case, that the Assembly believes a minister teaching theistic evolution would be in error.
In practice, however, that declaration would do nothing, even if it were passed and a pastor began preaching that God ordained to evolve mankind from lesser organisms. Such a pastor would have to be dealt with through judicial proceedings, and in this case the prosecuting judicatory would have to prove our supposed pastor’s views to be out of accord with the Bible and our confessional standards, notwithstanding the existence of an in thesi declaration. (The Orthodox Presbyterian Church has already had such a judical case concerning a ruling elder who taught theistic evolution, which is why the issue is already settled in our denomination.)
The practical impotence of in thesi declarations is why I think them corrosive to the Church’s well-being. Church officers are free to agree or disagree with them with whatever degree of openness they prefer; disagreement brings with it no automatic sanctions. This creates the impression that the Church’s highest judicatory has spoken in a final way on a matter, and can be freely ignored by any and all of the Church’s members; this simply cannot be healthy for any ecclesiastical body.
Far better, I think, to read our confessional standards and be content with the very grown-up statements they provide.
Matthew W. Kingsbury is pastor of Park Hill Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Denver, CO. He blogs at The Presbyterian Curmudgeon when this article first appeared.