Thursday, January 27, 2011

Update: Always Reformed & Courageous Calvinism, II

UPDATE 1/27/11: Based on my post some have inferred that I, along with Dr. Godfrey, advocate a narrow-minded view of reformed theology.  That was not my intent nor was it part of Dr. Godfrey's original address.  Below I have added some more words from his address that dispel that notion.  They are bold and italicized.  As I have repeatedly said, read the book.
I would like to follow up my earlier post with some additional comments on Robert Godfrey's essay, "Courageous Calvinism for a New Century".  This essay is the actual text from his inaugural address upon assuming the presidency of Westminster Seminary in California in 1993.  His message revolved around four major points: Comprehensive Calvinism, Consistent Calvinism, Christocentric Calvinism, and Committed Calvinism.  Though his message charted the direction he wanted WSC to go, the message serves as a good reminder for all churches in the reformed tradition.  Today I'd like to address the second of those points, Consistent Calvinism and its implications for my denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America.

What is Consistent Calvinism?  Godfrey explains:
We need a Calvinism that grows out of its own inherent genius, a Calvinism that shows a coherence in its life, ministry and message. We need Calvinism, therefore, that at every point and in every way seeks to ask how do we build organically on the insights into Scripture that our forbears have given us.  As Calvinists, we want to avoid a kind of eclecticism that goes through the religious world gathering tidbits here and there and in an artificial way tries to connect them to the Reformed heritage we have inherited...Now, in calling for a consistent Calvinism, we are not saying that there is nothing to learn from others.  We need to resist our all too present Reformed tendencies to be smug and self-satisfied.  We need to listen to brothers and sisters of other traditions.  We need to weigh what they would say to us.  We need clearly to recognize the reality of genuine Christianity in other traditions that can speak to us and can help us.  But if we are committed, as Westminster Seminary is, to the fact that historic confessional Calvinism is the fullest and most faithful form of Biblical teaching, then we must evaluate what we are hearing from other traditions by that root of faith from which we seek to grow and to be sure that we are being consistent Calvinists.  We need courage then, to be consistent Calvinists."
Here Godfrey warns about the danger of blindly adding beliefs, practices and insights from other traditions simply because they make sense, are appealing, or may work.  I don't think he was criticizing any person, church or movement as much as stating the obvious: the reformed tradition has been around for a long time.  Before we think it to be obsolete, outdated, or broken, we ought to examine it more closely.  This builds upon his earlier point of a Comprehensive Calvinism and the insight that our confessions provide a piety of Word and Sacrament, of Psalm and Sabbath but he means more than this too.  He specifially mentions that this reformed heritage ought to affect our "lives, our piety, our worship" along with evangelism, church-planting, and of our training of ministers. 

One need only visit a few PCA churches to find great diversity amongst them.  In any given presbytery you will find upbeat churches whose worship barely differs from many charismatic churches and just a few miles up the road you will find a traditional church that sings from a hymnal. Why the great divergence?  Just consider where our ministers have studied --  RTS Jackson, RTS Orlando, RTS Charlotte, Greenville, Westminster Philadelphia, Westminster California, Covenant Theological Seminary, Biblical Theological Seminary, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Dallas Theological Seminary, Gordon-Conwell and a score of lesser known institutions.  Each school has its strengths and weaknesses: each school has its own loyalties and distinctives.  Some are "old-school" Presbyterian while others are broadly evangelical.  Some study the giants in reformed theology; others prefer modern interpretations of reformed theology.  Added to this mix is the fact that the PCA is a member of the The National Association of Evangelicals. Prominent PCA leaders advocate involvement with The Gospel Coalition, The World Reformed Fellowship, and other broad organizations. 

It seems by design that our denomination is more eclectic than is healthy.  To try to implement an eclectic Strategic Plan is a curious proposition at best. 

Is there an easy way out of this mess?  I've not heard one.  For starters I think simply realizing that we are not in agreement would be a good thing.  Moreover, discussions at the presbytery level would be healthy.  For instance, a presbytery could decide what sort of churches it will plant and/or allow to join the denomination based upon a common agreement of what it means to be reformed.  That agreement could be forged by reading "Always Reformed" and applying its insights.  One would also do well to do some additional reading of those who contributed to this volume.  Additionally, folks would do well to slow down a bit and learn from history.  Today I finished listening to this fascinating interview on J. Gresham Machen and his legacy. 

For my part, I've read the book and given it to my elders as a Christmas present.  I'm also encouraging a wider audience, especially my fellow ministers in the PCA, to purchase the book and reflect on its insights. 


Pastor St. John said...

I believe there is one way out: The PCA must return to its original aspiration to be a "grass roots" denomination. I propose that we change our BOCO to allow only church-attached active pastors and ruling elders to debate and vote in our presbyteries and at the General Assembly. I believe this would create a strong unity in the PCA, and would eliminate many of our disagreements.

Dave Sarafolean said...

Pastor St. John,

Agreed. Though 1200 delegates gather for General Assembly they only represent about 1/3 of our churches. To think that we have grass-roots representation and debate is foolhardy. Those who can afford the GA fees get to vote while the rest watch from the sidelines. Sad.