Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Always Reformed & Courageous Calvinism, I

                                                          Though there are many fine essays in this book, I'd like to draw your attention to the final essay, The Whole Counsel of God: Courageous Calvinism for a New Century.  This essay was actually the inaugural address given by Dr. Robert Godfrey when he assumed the presidency of Westminster Seminary California in 1993. 

I first read the essay last spring when I quite unexpectly crossed paths with Dr. Steve Baugh, New Testament professor at WSC who happened to be visiting his daughter at college while I was doing the same thing.  He gave me some literature about WSC in honor of  its 30th anniversary in 2010.  I liked the essay so much that I intended to use it to comment on of the current trends in the PCA but somehow time got away from me.  How thrilled I was to see it re-published for a broader audience as the final chapter of the book.  I wish to touch on some of the highpoints of this address. 

First, after acknowledging his predecessors (Edmund Clowney, Robert den Dulk and Robert Strimple), who were in attendance, Dr. Godfrey explains his vision for WSC:

"But as I continue to think about vision, my hope is that Westminster Seminary might be as an instrument in the hand of the Lord to renew the church through a renewal of historic Calvinism." 
He went on to note the great tradition that WSC has inherited stretches from Van Til's apologetics, to the biblical theology of Geerhardus Vos, to Machen's defense of the historic Christian faith, and more.  To him it is this heritage that the church of the 21st century desperately needs.

His message revolves around four major points: Comprehensive Calvinism, Consistent Calvinism, Christocentric Calvinism, and Committed Calvinism.  Time and space will only allow me to speak to the first in this post. 

Comprehensive Calvinism - What is it? Building upon Paul's words of Acts 20 - "the whole counsel of God" (27) and Jesus' words to go and teach 'all things that I have commanded you' (Matthew 28:20) Godfrey states: 

"The Scripture is clear and our Calvinistic heritage is clear that we are committed to all that the Lord has revealed in His Word.  We seek no shrunken religion.  We seek no minimalist doctrine.  We seek the fullness of what the Lord has revealed to us."  Consistent with this statement he affirms the necessity of theological discourse and what he calls "the full theology" of The Three Forms of Unity and the Westminster Standards (noting that the faculty members have subscribed to these confessions).  

What is striking about this is his forthright approach to creeds and confessions - there will be no picking and choosing of what one likes or dislikes.  There will be no shading of truth.  There will be the straightforward and robust teaching of theology within the parameters of these confessions in keeping with the historic understanding of reformed theology.  

Compare and contrast this this vision with the current scene in the PCA.  Officially our stance towards the Westminster Confession of Faith is called "good faith subscription," meaning that one can take exceptions to the standards that might be semantic in nature or that might significantly differ from the standards as long as they do not strike at the fundamental system of doctrine contained in the standards.  Sadly, we are witnessing more than semantic difference and minor exceptions from the confession.  In some presbyteries we are witnessing the demise of the ecclesiastical office of deacon.  In other places we are witnessing entire chapters of the confession (for instance WCF 7) either being rewritten, denied, or basically torn from the confession.  In an ever-increasing fashion the up-and-coming generation of PCA ministers knows next to nothing about the 'historic Calvinism' Godfrey speaks about.  Tragically, The Strategic Plan adopted at last summer's General Assembly sidestepped theology altogether believing that it is a settled issue.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.  

Farther down in this essay Godfrey makes the following assertion:

"As we seek a comprehensive Calvinism, we must be sure that we have not shrunk it just to theology--however full our theology might be.  We need not only a Reformed service in the world.  We must be renewed in the fullness of a Reformed life flowing out of a Reformed theology.  Our life must follow a pattern of Bible study and prayer, of word and sacrament, of self-denial and active love, and let me say, of Sabbath and Psalm.  We have seen a great decline in Reformed piety, in Reformed life, and I would suggest that decline is tied intimately to our loss of Sabbath and of Psalm.  Too many of us have lost a day of rest and worhip and study and reflection and have lost the Psalms which put steel in our souls.  We need to recapture that fullness of Calinistic exerirence as well as Calvinistic theology."

Here is where I think we find the greatest deficiency in the PCA.  We borrow from many traditions and neglect our own.  Put differently, we embrace piety, but not the piety that arises from our confessions (HT to Scott Clark on this.  See Recovering the Reformed Confession, Chapter 3, The Quest for Illegitimate Religious Experience which was very helpful to me).  One need only take a casual look at the PCA churches of any locale to see that many, if not most, do not have Sunday evening worship.  That alone doesn't prove the point but should raise questions about what is being taught about Sunday as the Lord's Day, a foretaste of our eternal Sabbath. 

Furthermore, what passes for worship in most churches, is well, pretty anemic.  I recall visiting a "flagship" PCA church in a major metropolitan city a year or two ago.  The obligatory praise band was dressed in jeans with untucked shirts and looked anything but authentic.  The music fell far short of what our God deserves.  As we sang the hymn, "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross", the moment of  greatest cognitive dissonance occurred when we reached the third stanza and sang acapella, except for the conga drum beat: "See, from his head, his hands, his feet, sorrow and love flow mingled down; did e'er such love and sorrow meet, or thorns compose so rich a crown?"  This passes for appropriate worship because that is what younger folks want.  Added to this is our General Assembly's inability to sing anything but the standard top 40 traditional hymns when it gathers.  There are many Psalms set to music in the Trinity Hymnal and the Trinity Psalter is also available to every delegate.  However, for some reason the only psalm we sing from the Psalter is Psalm 133 and that is on the last day when we dismiss.  Last summer it sounded rather hollow after the contentious debates about the Strategic Plan.  

What is going on the PCA these days is a far cry from what Dr. Godfrey set forth seventeen years ago.  Are we listening?  Do we care?  

I am reminded of an article published several years ago about a Kindler, Gentler Calvinism.  For those in the know that approach isn't working out so well for the EPC.  Pastors have been dismissed for teaching the doctrines found in the Westminster Confession of Faith.  Ward Memorial Presbyterian Church along with many other churches offer child dedications AND infant baptisms.  Then there is the New Wineskins Movement poised to join the EPC.  Conservatives are not quite sure they like this Kindler, Gentler Calvinism.  

The good ship PCA has been taking on water in for quite a long time I believe that it will only get worse as we experiment with our own version of  A Kindler, Gentler Calvinism (i.e. The Strategic Plan).  Is anyone in the PCA heirarchy taking note?  

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