If I am to be classified as a traditionalist, here is my definition of it: I believe in a tradition that is derived from the Scripture and has been held by great names in church history. This Scriptural tradition has found its way into the great creeds and confessions of the Church, particularly the Westminster Confession of Faith. I hold to such creeds and confessions as secondary standards and as faithful expositions of the fundamental teachings of Scripture.
Like Rick Phillips and Benjamin Shaw, I disagree with several things in the article by Dr. Bryan Chapell posted in the PCA’s magazine, ByFaith Online. I know there are a number of ministers, officers, and laymen across the denomination who feel the same way I do.
As a sixty-four-year old minister who has served in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) since my ordination in 1976, I would fall into the category of the “traditionalist,” according to Chapell (though I certainly disagree with his description of that group). I fall somewhere between Shaw and Phillips in my travels in denominational circles. I served for 15 years on the General Assembly’s Standing Judicial Commission (SJC). Yet, I have always considered myself as someone who is mostly unknown to most ministers in the PCA.
With that being said, here are my differences with Chappell’s paper:
First, Chapell says that the PCA needs to be “United By a Greater Enemy.” He identifies that enemy as the pluralism of our society that will increasingly persecute churches that proclaim Jesus as the only way of salvation. Pluralism wants us to proclaim that there are many ways of salvation with Jesus being just one of them. I have no doubt that pluralism will be such a threat to the church, but unions based on a common enemy are the weakest unions of all. The best and strongest unions are those which are united for a common cause or common purpose. J. Gresham Machen made this point well nearly a century ago in his book, Christianity and Liberalism:
The type of religion which rejoices in the pious sound of traditional phrases, regardless of their meanings, or shrinks from “controversial” matters, will never stand amid the shock of life. In the sphere of religion, as in other spheres, the things about which men are agreed are apt to be the things that are least worth holding; the really important things are the things about which men will fight.[i]
It is certainly important for all evangelical denominations to be united against the pluralism of secular society, but that union will accomplish nothing unless there is a union in the truth that precedes it. Ephesians 4:13-14 teaches that the “unity of the faith” which is the measure of the “mature man” and belongs to the “fullness of Christ” is characterized by no longer being “tossed here and there by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine.” In other words, true unity is unity of the faith and is based on the essential doctrines of the Bible. There must be some things for which we are willing to fight at all costs and those things must be the essentials of the faith.
This leads to my second concern about Chapell’s article: He identifies, rightly or wrongly, that there are three main groups in the PCA – the progressives, the neutrals, and the traditionalists. Whether he is right or wrong in his assessment, I think it is very unhelpful to classify the PCA in this way. For instance, what does he mean by “progressives”? He doesn’t define them and what they believe. Are they progressive only about matters of indifference? If so, I could not care less about their progressivism and no one else should either. The system of doctrine found in the Scriptures and explained in the Westminster Confession of Faith is all I really care about.
But there are reasons to suspect that progressivism includes more than just differences over matters of indifference. For instance, Chapell never identifies in which group those in the PCA who hold to the New Perspectives on Paul and/or the Federal Vision would fit. I suspect they are not the “neutrals’ or the “traditionalists.” The teaching of the New Perspectives on Paul and the Federal Vision are contrary to the Reformed doctrines of salvation. While we can and must charitably leave to the judgment of God the eternal state of those who differs with us concerning the great Scriptural doctrines of salvation, we cannot and must not compromise our adherence to these doctrines for the sake of unity against a greater enemy. There is no greater enemy for the Church than the enemy against the Scriptural doctrines of salvation- whether that enemy is inside or outside of the church.
Further, Chapell did not specifically mention that there are those in the PCA who hold views of the creation accounts in Genesis, and deny the historicity of Adam and Eve as the first humans from whom all humanity has sprung. Once again, I suspect these people would have to be classified as progressives. Yet, this is not an area where the PCA can make concessions to science or culture.
The whole scheme of salvation depends on the unity of the race in Adam and Eve, our first parents. Paul’s argument in Romans 5:12-21 about redemption breaks down completely if Adam was not the father of the human race in whose sin the whole world sinned in him. As Paul says, “For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous” (Romans 5:19). The argument is simple and profound. There was one man, Adam, at the fountainhead of the human race who stood in the place of the rest of humanity under a probation imposed by God. He failed the test and the whole race suffered as a result. That is bad news. Here is the good news: That unity of the race set the stage for our redemption in Christ. “Through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous.” The historicity of Adam is a non-negotiable for me because the whole scheme of biblical salvation falls apart without it.
I certainly believe that we must exercise charity in all things and that we must allow liberty for others in non-essentials. But I also firmly believe that the only way to have and maintain true biblical unity is to have unity in essentials. Such unity cannot be maintained simply by rallying against a common enemy, no matter how great that enemy is perceived to be.
Third, I dissent from Chapell’s caricature of my group, the traditionalists. I have not known anyone in the PCA over the age of 50 that considered Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, James Dobson, James Kennedy, and Chuck Colson as their heroes. Kennedy is the only one in that group who was in the PCA. Like others have written, I am flummoxed as to how Chapell arrived at that assessment. There are things about all of those men that I appreciate (or appreciated in the case of the departed), but calling them my heroes is overboard.
I also disagree with Chapell’s title of my group (though I have never officially joined any such group) as traditionalists. What does he mean by ‘traditionalist’? Like so much of his article, Chapell doesn’t tell us what he means by the terms he uses. I could make the argument that many of those in the so-called progressive wing of the PCA can be said to be following tradition rather than the Scripture. When ministers and elders who hold to the Federal Vision scheme of soteriology are examined about their views, they tend to quote ministers from the past who held similar views to justify and validate their views. (I have witnessed that time after time in the various cases that came before the SJC during my service there, particularly the cases concerning Peter Leithart.) That is the kind of traditionalism condemned by Jesus which is basing one’s views on the opinions of uninspired men rather than the Word of God.
When ministers and elders redefine the creation account of the Bible, they are following a long line of liberal tradition that interprets Scripture by evolutionary science. There are many things about progressivism, whether theological or political, that harkens back to the traditions of men that have gone before. The point can be made again and again concerning so-called progressive theology: The more things change, the more they stay the same.
If I am to be classified as a traditionalist, here is my definition of it: I believe in a tradition that is derived from the Scripture and has been held by great names in church history. This Scriptural tradition has found its way into the great creeds and confessions of the Church, particularly the Westminster Confession of Faith. I hold to such creeds and confessions as secondary standards and as faithful expositions of the fundamental teachings of Scripture. If someone wants to hang that definition of tradition around my neck, I will gladly wear it as a badge of honor.
On the other hand, if someone can point out that I have departed from Scripture in my faith or practice by holding to man-made traditions, I am all ears.
Dewey Roberts is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and is pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Destin, Fla.
[i] J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (Grand Rapids, Michigan/Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009), 1-2.