Tim Keller: What’s So Great About The PCA
I thought this was a very interesting analysis over at a PCA website of the internal divisions within the PCA. While I appreciate the PCA denomination very much, and respect their work, it’s not a place that I’d like to go, and for various reasons I think Dr. Keller may be a bit too optimistic about its long-term chances of growth. But ... I could be wrong about that.
Regardless, what I liked about his analysis is that he articulates how a church that is not divided over Gospel issues [in theory, leaders of the PCA church largely believe the Gospel], yet is divided over other less significant matters, might be able to remain unified. I thought this applied very nicely to traditional Anglicans who also believe the Gospel yet have significant divisions. Keller provides some practical advice towards the end of this essay.
I also appreciated his helpful overview of the development of the different groups within the PCA and his assessment of the weaknesses and strengths of each of them.
I’m starting off with some of the initial historic overview, but the entire piece is well worth the read.
My first General Assembly was the PCA’s third, held in Jackson, Mississippi just under thirty‐five years ago. Ever since then, I’ve seen a lot of conflict in our communion. My friends in other denominations ask, ‘isn’t there something inherently wrong with a denomination that is filled with such tensions?’ Now church fights are always fueled in part by ego and spiritual immaturity, and we must all share responsibility for that. But I propose that these struggles are also a sign of something good, even uniquely good, about our denomination. I believe our conflicts lie in that we are one of the few Presbyterian denominations that hasn’t pruned off one or more of its historic branches.
Within the Reformed churches, there has always been a tension between what George Marsden calls ‘the Reformed branches’‐‐the doctrinalist, pietistic and culturalist impulses.1 (Please read this footnote.) To understand the PCA today, we must trace out the history of these branches in American Presbyterianism.
Spiritual revival and the ‘sides’ of Presbyterianism
Reformed Christianity puts a high value on the objective—on theological soundness and creedal subscription. But it has also historically given a lot of attention to the subjective. Reformed soteriology holds that salvation is not a human product—it is God’s work. This emphasis has drawn attention to the topic of spiritual experience. 2 If regeneration is strictly God’s work, it is only natural to ask how we can distinguish true, God‐ generated spiritual experience from the spurious.
The Puritans attended to this subject in massive detail. A great deal of energy was given to distinguishing false professors of Christianity from those with true experience. Thomas Shepherd’s The Parable of the Ten Virgins and John Flavel’s The Touchstone of Sincerity were examples of such works, and both were quoted extensively by Jonathan Edwards in his Religious Affections.3 Many of the interests of 17th century Puritans led on directly to the emphases of 18th century revivalism. In America the European state church‐establishment and parish system was not adopted. In that older system the great majority of people in a society were literally born into their churches and grew up in them. In the more democratic ethos of America, churches had to reach out to individuals and call them to conversion through a personal decision. Reformed theology, especially of the Puritan variety, gave revivalist American preachers resources to help listeners examine their hearts, become convicted of sin, and seek true conversion.
During the 18th century in the U.S., the doctrinalist and pietist (or revivalist) impulses within the Reformed church split the church . The doctrinalists were called ‘Old Side’ and they took a dim view of revivals. They stressed the creeds and the ‘great objectivities’ of salvation, rather than a conscious conversion experience. Their ministries were based on the long, communal process of admission to sealing ordinances and catechesis. The pietists were called the ‘New Side’ and they emphasized the importance of ‘experimental acquaintance’ of the gospel. Their ministries were based more on crises, turning points, and voluntary societies. The revivalists emphasized innovative ways to evangelize individuals through measures like field preaching, outdoor meetings, and societies meeting in homes for ‘follow up’ of converts. For doctrinalists, one became a Christian by identifying with and entering the church. For them, the moment of conversion was the moment one became a Christian.
Each side developed long‐standing critiques of the other side that still resonate today. Doctrinalists felt that the pietists were too individualistic and subjective in their emphases. They felt revivalism led people to trust in their often ephemeral and passing feelings, and they felt many of the ‘conversions’ of the revivals were merely emotional experiences that would pass away. The revivals also weakened people’s connection to the institutional church. New Siders, however, felt Old Side churches contained many nominal believers who still needed to be converted. They were afraid of dead orthodoxy and a lack of evangelistic fervor. Old Siders felt many New Siders were pragmatists, and New Siders saw many Old Siders were legalists. History provides much evidence that both critiques were largely right.
Something of a compromise between these two branches happened in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. From 1741 to 1758 the Presbyterian Church existed as two denominations—the traditional and the revivalist. The Reunion of 1758 brought the two branches back together. The Old Side insisted on confessional subscription and church authority, and they got what they wanted. But, as part of the compromise, the piety of the revivals was largely embraced. The new Presbyterianism required that ministers demonstrate ‘experimental piety’ and that members be people who give evidence of a conversion experience. Leaders such as Archibald Alexander and Charles Hodge of Princeton Seminary articulated this Old Side/New Side synthesis in their writing and ministry.
Both of these approaches, the doctrinalist and the pietist, have chafed against one other over the years. Nevertheless, they both grow out of commonly held Reformed theology. That is why, whenever there has been a church split over such issues, and the doctrinalists have run off the pietists or vica versa, the pruned off branch often grows back within the new, more ‘pure’ denomination. Why? Both impulses come from the theology itself.
1 I am going to use George Marsden’s terminology to describe the Reformed Branches, even though they are rather bland, and each on is bit negative. Doctrinalists prefer to call themselves ‘confessionalists’ and pietists would rather talk about ‘renewal’ and the reformists or culturalists would perhaps prefer to call themselves ‘kingdom’ people. But in each case the other parties can rightly object that they believe in the confession or in spiritual renewal or in the kingdom as well, and they dislike the implication that they do not. Often the names we choose for ourselves are self‐aggrandizing while insinuating negative things about any who differ with us. My roots are in what here is called the ‘pietist’ or ‘revivalist’ wing. I wince at those terms, and would prefer a more noble name, but for the sake of fairness and utility I will use Marsden’s phraseology which is mildly insulting to everyone(!) See his essay,” Introduction: Reformed and American,ʺ in Reformed Theology in America [ed. David F. Wells; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997]
2 As long as you believe (as Reformed Christians do) that regeneration and saving faith is wholly the work of God, it is inevitable that the revivalist question will keep coming up: “Many in Israel were circumcised in flesh but not circumcised in heart! Even though Nicodemus was in the covenant community, Jesus asked him if he was born again. So yes, you are in the church and you take the sacraments, but do you know that God has done a saving work in your heart?” That’s the revivalist question. Reformed theology will always produce people who keep posing this question in their preaching.
3 See Peter J. Thuesen, ed. Catalogues of Books, volume 26 in The Works of Jonathan Edwards (Yale, 2008) pp. 442, 460.
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