Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Intinction and Extinction: Where is Our Good Faith?

PCA pastor David Garner has written a fantastic piece over at Reformation21 on the topic of "good faith subscription" to the Westminster Confession of Faith and related catechisms. That term describes kind of a middle road between strict subscription to the Westminster standards and simply using them as guidelines.  The PCA adopted this middle position a little over ten years ago in the hope of bringing peace.  Sadly, things are perhaps more tense now than ever.

Using intinction and the debates about the historical Adam as a backdrop, Garner illustrates how good faith subscription is now unraveling before our eyes.  Post-modernism and the deconstruction of language are partially to blame.  So also is the desire to be nice and give men lots of latitude.  So, today in the PCA we have churches playing fast and loose on a number of issues: intiction (dipping of the communion bread into wine and then consuming), fudging on the historicity of Adam, paedocommunion (serving communion to young children.  Many men affirm this view but few are actually practicing it), and more.

Garner writes:

Out of these contemporary considerations of Adam and the Lord's Table, the message blares loudly. The Westminster Standards and the PCA's Constitution are documents to interpret creatively rather than to advance sympathetically. In fact, for many, imaginative spinning elicits admiration rather than alarm. That trend in itself is alarming. Add to that drift the driving "theology of nice", where latitude in theology is a badge of honor and marking theological lines is inherently unloving, we find ourselves in an age when truth gets trumped by contemporary imports - academic and cultural.

It is no longer academically respectable to hold to Adam as a special creation from the dust of the ground. That thinking is dead and gone. Get with the times.  Even if it were true, it lacks cultural timbre. It is now more germane to soak your morsel in the communion cup. Let's not be so banal about the language or historical meaning of the Confession. This is a new day, and theology should not be so nasty, so separating, so rigid, so . . . historically reformed. Drop Adam and dip your bread in your wine. Adam is extinct, let's intinct.

The final third of Garner's article offers helpful application for our presbyteries as they examine men for licensure and ordination.  He begins by offering this definition of good faith subscription:

Properly employed, "good faith" assumes that the Confession expresses meaning meaningfully because God has spoken, and the Confession attends to receiving and expressing those divine words faithfully. "Good faith" subscription can operate with effectiveness only because the constitutional language itself possesses and conveys actual meaning. In "good faith," the speaker ex animo (from the heart, sincerely) supports, believes, and commends those content-laden words. "Good faith" subscription means that I receive the resident meaning of the Westminster Standards as my own. Exceptions arise for precisely the same reason: conscience before the supreme standard-the divinely revealed, content-laden Word of God.
The fourth sentence is paramount: "I receive the resident meaning of the Westminster Standards as my own." That has always been the goal of good faith subscription.  This also leaves room for men to state where they have differences with the standards and have those views judged by the presbytery while preserving unity in the church amongst its office-bearers.  Yet, to any who've attended General Assembly over the last five to ten years it is not clear that most or all share this view of good faith subscription.  I fear that we are on the road of ordaining men who give mental assent to the Westminster Standards and nothing more.  

Garner hints at this and offers helpful comments about how we examine men for office.  He writes:

To be clear these comments issue no plea for strict subscription. Only to the Scriptures do we pay that pledge. Rather it is a plea to revisit "good faith" subscription, and to put our own ordination vows and those of the next generations of ministers to the "good faith" test of what "good faith" intended. Good feeling--even sincere good feeling--and pure doctrine are not blood brothers. Postmodernism has birthed murkiness, and treats orthodoxy like a redheaded stepchild. Combine such reader-centered, interpretive fog with our "theology of nice," and our precious doctrinal integrity will slip right through our intinction soaked fingers. 

How do we respond? For starters, we need to ask the hard questions and face the hard answers. We must recognize the problem in the mirror: the problem is not the Confession, but we, the confessors. The problem is not the Constitution, but its advocacy. 

Practically speaking, committee and floor exams must move from abstract affirmations to appropriated implications of our Constitution. We must address licensure and ordination candidates head on with contemporary theological and methodological questions. 

Garner provides several suggested questions that set the tone for how we examine men in our presbyteries.

As the chairman for the Candidates and Credentials Committee of Great Lakes Presbytery I truly appreciate the spirit of this article.  Not only do I deal with such things in presbytery but I've done so at the denominational level serving on the Committee for Review of Presbytery Records (RPR).  Its been an eye-opening experience to see what happens in other presbyteries.  In some presbyteries issues like intinction and paedocommunion are anathema: in others folks hardly bat an eye.  More than once I've read presbytery minutes and a man has declared that the PCA is wrong on a particular matter and that he will not not abide by our standards until such time as they are amended.  Sadly, the presbyteries in question went ahead an ordained him or processed his transfer into their bounds without much (apparent) discussion.  RPR will be dealing with such a question again this year as one such situation could not be resolved at last year's General Assembly.

In closing, we in the PCA need to learn from recent history.  Most of us know what has happened to the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) so those things do not need to be chronicled here.  Consider the following account of how a professor of theology at Calvin College taught very non-confessional views and despite valiant attempts to hold him to account, nothing was done.  Unless we get our act together I believe that we in the PCA are in danger of the same outcome.

Please read:  The Case that Went Nowhere: Willis DeBoer in the CRC    

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