The PCA and Confessional Integrity

The PCA’s adoption of “good faith subscription” in 2002 has had an unintended consequence of amending the Westminster Standards “in fact” without using “lawful process,” raising questions of integrity.

There are provisions in the BCO for emending the confessional standards. Yet there has been no move on the part of the minority to propose changes to the standards. Perhaps they believe that the approval of the presbytery for their exceptions is sufficient. But over time, as more and more men take these exceptions, and have them approved, there is a de facto change of the confessional standards. When these kinds of de facto changes take place, there is a muddying of the doctrinal waters.

 

In 2002, the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) adopted what is usually called “good-faith subscription” to the denomination’s doctrinal standards—the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) and the Larger (WLC) and Shorter Catechisms (WSC). This required changes in the Book of Church Order (BCO) and thus in the practices of presbyteries when examining a candidate for ordination. The amended section of the BCO now reads as follows: The presbytery “shall require the candidate to state the specific instances in which he may differ with the Confession of Faith and Catechisms in any of their statements and/or propositions. The court may grant an exception to any difference of doctrine only if in the court’s judgment the candidate’s declared difference is not out of accord with any fundamental of our system of doctrine because the difference is neither hostile to the system nor strikes at the vitals of religion.” (BCO 21-4.f).

If such an exception is granted, it is to be noted in the minutes of the presbytery using language prescribed by the Rules of Assembly Operations (RAO) as follows: “Each presbytery shall also record whether:  a) the candidate stated that he had no differences; or  b) the court judged the stated difference(s) to be merely semantic; or  c) the court judged the stated difference(s) to be more than semantic, but “not out of accord with any fundamental of our system of doctrine” (BCO 21-4); or  d) the court judged the stated difference(s) to be “out of accord,” that is, “hostile to the system” or “strik[ing] at the vitals of religion” (BCO 21-4).” (RAO 16.3.e.5).

Since that time, it has become common for candidates to express differences from the standards in three areas: creation, Sabbath observance, and visible representations of Christ. These stated differences have become so common that it seems it is almost expected for candidates to express those differences. (Whether candidates have actually studied the issues involved or have consulted any works defending the confessional statements is another matter.) Those differences are also commonly allowed as exceptions by presbyteries under category (c) above: The difference is “more than semantic, but not out of accord with any fundamental of our system of doctrine.”

As stated, the matter sounds innocuous. But the denomination has reached the point where a sizeable minority (at least) of the denomination’s ministers believe the confessional standards of the church to be wrong in at least three specific areas. Put another way, these men believe that the confessional standards of the church misrepresent the teaching of the Bible in these areas.

The Westminster standards are not inerrant. The version of the standards used in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and in the Presbyterian Church in America differs significantly from the original formulation regarding the relationship of church and state. Those changes were introduced in the late eighteenth century when the Presbyterian Church in the USA was first formed. There are provisions in the BCO for emending the confessional standards. Yet there has been no move on the part of the minority to propose changes to the standards. Perhaps they believe that the approval of the presbytery for their exceptions is sufficient. But over time, as more and more men take these exceptions, and have them approved, there is a de facto change of the confessional standards. When these kinds of de facto changes take place, there is a muddying of the doctrinal waters.

Now it is likely the case that at the time the PCA was formed (1973), and again when the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod joined the PCA (1982), there were men who held these same differences. The matter of confessional change was not brought up at either of those times, though it probably should have been. But another generation or so has passed and there has still been no action. Perhaps, for the sake of our confessional integrity, it is time to begin.

Benjamin Shaw is Associate Professor of Hebrew and Old Testament at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. This article is used with permission.