11 June 2006

thoughts on presbyterians together

In the midst of preparations for our trip to England I was unable to follow all of the discussion that arose around "Presbyterians and Presbyterians Together" (PPT), which now has around 250 signatures (you are still welcome to sign it, by the way). Much of what discussion I did see was encouraging as people wrestled with and discussed the issues raised by the document, and for the most part attempted to do so in a way consistent with its aims and commitments.

Since I had a hand in writing it, I thought it might be useful, at this point, to say a few things about the aims and intentions of PPT, though in the cyberworld, the document is already "old news." What follows here is simply my own personal perspective and shouldn't be taken to represent the views of any others who signed PPT or had a hand in it. And forgive the verbiage, but I thought it would be better to set matters out at some length rather than in a cursory way.

First, those of you who have known me for any extended time, either face-to-face or through my online presence, know how concerned I have been and continue to be concerning Christian unity in general, and the witness of our Reformed churches in particular. I am convinced that the Spirit of Christ is present whereever his name is confessed in faith by those he has gathered to himself through his word and sacraments.

Therefore, despite differences and disagreements within the church (and some of these are legitimate and exceedingly important, not to be readily glossed over), I am committed to learning from others in the Body of Christ who share with me in his one Spirit and to whom that Spirit has given a diversity of gifts and insights. Though I am not uncritical (as is evident from my own writings), nonetheless my first question when reading a Christian author or hearing a Christian speaker is, "What can I learn here? What does God's Spirit have to teach us through this person?"

This commitment is one that arises from a wide range of my own life experiences, especially as I have worked together closely in ministry alongside, studied Scripture with, and read the writings of brothers and sisters from a wide variety of traditions, from charismatic to Roman Catholic. In the mysterious providence of God and whatever the dangers, the sad and often sinful divisions within the church can teach us a great deal about what it means to appreciate and embrace a diversity of gifts in one Body. Christian charity is not risk-free living. We're not called simply to play it safe, avoiding and distancing ourselves from those who, theologically speaking, we might regard as "tax collectors and sinners."

Second, in light of that larger perspective, the differences that co-exist within the Reformed tradition seem rather less important and pressing, especially given our basic shared understanding of God's loving providence and the absolute priority of grace in salvation. Nevertheless, I love the Reformed tradition, consider it a privilege to have been raised within it, and find the issues internal to it to occupy my own doctrinal reflections. The Westminster Standards, for better or worse, are woven into how I think theologically and how I understand and interpret Scripture.

Moreover, my appreciation for and love of the Reformed tradition has grown deeper and been further enriched as I have interacted with those from other traditions. But as a person of Reformed convictions, I can only be humbled by my own limitations, blindspots, and (often happy) inconsistencies with regard to my understanding of the mystery of Christ, knowing that whatever I understand I have only received as a gift.

All of that, taken together with the pressing mission of our triune God to seek and rescue humanity from our sin and brokenness, forces me to evaluate the significance of various differences in light of the vital center of the Gospel - the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for our deliverance and the renewal of creation.

There are multiple ways of fleshing out that Gospel and speaking it to our contemporary world - no doubt some better and some worse - and our stuttering and faltering lips always run the risk of losing something in translation. But it seems to me more important that we try to speak in a way that others might hear and that is faithful to what we understand of Scripture, than it is to make sure we always get everything right or to speak a specialized language only known to others within our own tradition.

Of course, we must remain open to correction and willing to receive disagreement. That is all part of a process of discernment and growth in grace. But Scripture in general - and the book of Proverbs in particular - have a lot to say about how correction is best offered, disagreement best handled, and truth best spoken in love. If there is a besetting sin that plagues the Reformed church, it is one of censoriousness. And speaking truth with wrong intentions is, to my mind, as great (if not greater) a danger to the church's mission as speaking falsehood with good intentions.

At any rate, that provides some of the background I brought with me to "Presbyterians and Presbyterians Together" and which continues to inform my own views.

The document itself arose out of variety of similar concerns and perspectives. As with many ideas that begin in one place, evolve over time, and get passed along, I have no idea who "came up with" the concept of PPT. I know that over the past months it was being discussed among some academics, pastors, laity, and seminary students. Based on my writings, training, and experience, I was eventually asked to have a central role in wordsmithing the document, but significant bits of it were, more or less, drawn from existing documents and statements, ranging from Presbytery mission statements to church vision websites.

I and others sent drafts around to a bunch of different folks (seminary professors, pastors, students, etc.) and feedback was circulated. A number of suggested revisions and additions were incorporated. Many hands were involved, therefore, in the process and, of those folks, some dropped out and others came in, so there was no one consistent "group" behind PPT. The document emerged from a wide range of sources representing various perspectives, all in a rather ad hoc fashion.

PPT, therefore, despite rumors to the contrary, was never beholden to the agenda of any particular group or viewpoint. Furthermore, if PPT were intended more as a criticism (and less as the personal commitment that it tries to be), then there would be more than enough blame to dish out on all sides of any number of issues, without giving preference to any particular perspective. God knows that highly charged polemics, overblown rhetoric, uncharitable criticism, failure to listen, and so forth are hardly the peculiar provenance of just one viewpoint or one side of contentious subjects.

Moreover, as PPT was being written and as we began to disseminate it for signatures, I and others took care that most of those who are prominently associated with controversial viewpoints were not contacted about the document, in order to prevent any appearance of its being part of some larger ploy. Ironically enough, many such persons first learned about it through online reaction to it from individuals who have been their opponents.

The concerns of those who wrote PPT and first began to collect signatures were precisely what one finds on the "About" page and "FAQ" at the PPT website - that it's become increasingly difficult to have a fruitful conversation about a whole range of issues within conservative Presbyterian circles due to mistrust, a hermeneutics of suspicion, growing rancor, etc. Such problems have been perennial, of course, just given the human condition and our peculiar history as confessionally Reformed Christians. But these problems also seem to have grown in recent years. Moreover, they prove a barrier to the kinds of cooperation and growing relationship many of us would like to see among confessional Presbyterians of all denominations and between Presbyterians and the wider church.

Certainly the list of areas of historic diversity found in the PPT document does bleed off into a number of currently vexed areas of discussion (e.g., new perspectives on Paul, the emerging church, the nature of Scriptural inerrancy, creationism, the Auburn Avenue controversy, hermeneutics, and so on), but those are exactly the points at which the church needs, in the present moment, to exercise the most care, the most charity, the most discernment, and in which the conservative Presbyterian church's failures are, from the viewpoint of many onlookers and insiders alike, the most evident.

As you can imagine it was a difficult document to write. I think I noted on Mark Traphagen's blog that at the beginning it was a question whether or not any specific issues should be included in PPT. But it was felt by many that not to list some specifics would leave things abstract with no real accountability or traction. Having decided to include some specific issues, it was a question which ones to include.

Again, one could have stuck with matters that were all relatively "settled," but we chose to touch on some areas of ongoing dispute. This is because that's where charity is really put to the test. Some early signers wanted even more areas listed than what we included, but it was decided that it would be best to keep the document to two printed pages.

"Presbyterians and Presbyterians Together," however, isn't a church court. Thus, it isn't the job of the document, in calling for charity, to discern proper doctrinal boundaries, especially where they may not yet clearly exist. Thus PPT left matters vague. Otherwise the document could be accused of circumventing church courts or trying to stake out claims where the church has not yet made clear discernments and the historical record is one of diversity.

Yet, clearly, that's not satisfying to some folks. And that's fine. There are all sorts of legitimate reasons why one might not be comfortable with or interested in signing the document in terms of its content, its timing, one's current circumstances, and so on. I'm not sure, however, how the document could have been written in a way that would have made everyone in conservative Presbyterianism happy. Making everyone happy, however, was not the point and probably impossible. Rather, the point was for a significant number of Presbyterians to bear witness together and to commit themselves as signers to living in terms of what PPT holds out as a positive vision for mission and charity, with the hopes that this would have some kind of salutary effect.

None of this means, of course, that confessions aren't important or that some boundaries needn't been drawn. I think PPT is very clear in its scriptural and confessional commitments, its trust in proper processes of church courts, and the notion that there are appropriate boundaries to be discerned. That has all been subsequently made even more clear in the FAQ on the website.

Part of the question, I guess, is whether or not the church will be able exercise its proper roles (discernment, doctrine, mission, etc.) in a positive way when matters are highly politicized, mistrust is left unchecked, factions are permitted to thrive, and so on. The danger is for congregations and denominations to become inwardly focused, for broader catholicity to be neglected, for miscommunication to become codified as truth, for boundaries to be drawn in ways that exclude more than is necessary, and, in the midst of all of this, the church and particular leaders to send the wrong message to the world, to lose the trust of their own people, and to undermine their own moral authority.

Unfortunately, some of the reaction to PPT, particularly as propagated by those who are opposed to that constellation of viewpoints grouped together as the "Federal Vision" (FV), seems to have dominated conversation about the document, at least in some quarters. Though one could do the following with regard to a number of different positions, it might be a useful exercise at this point to go through some of the specific points of diversity listed in PPT and show how "FV" concerns might intersect with various statements, especially inasmuch as PPT has something to say to those who advocate such viewpoints.

To begin, PPT suggests that there has been historic diversity with regard to:
how we characterize the pre-lapsarian covenant, particularly as to probation, grace, merit, and reward, and its relationship to and distinction from the covenant of grace
For some followers of Meredith Kline, it is very
important to insist that the covenant of works with Adam was a matter of merit and justice and not gracious in character. Everyone is agreed that God promised some kind of transformed life to Adam and required perfect and perpetual obedience as the condition thereof. The disagreement is whether or not this is a matter of merit, exclusive of grace.

Of course, this isn't really an "FV" issue per se, but is a matter of ongoing discussion within Reformed covenant theology among a wide range of theologians. "FV" sorts, however, do fall out on the "gracious pre-lapsarian covenant with Adam" end of things. But part of what PPT is saying that people at that end of things need to be charitable towards Klineans and similar viewpoints as much as vice versa, understanding that Klineans are not speaking in terms of "strict merit" but "merit" redefined as "fulfillment of a covenant condition."

PPT notes diversity with regard to
the relative role we grant to specific experiences of conversion in relation to practices of Christian nurture and the ordinary means of grace within the covenant life of God's people
The question here goes back to the Independents in England, the Half-way Covenant folks in New England, the First Great Awakening, and Old Side/New Side disputes in the early 18th century.

The question is whether having a "conversion experience" or being able to relate some "narrative of conversion" is a necessary part of typical Christian experience, or whether we should expect a variety of different experiences of "conversion" among Christian people, some more dramatic, some more gradual, some onetime, some repeated. Moreover, there is the question of whether or not we should expect covenant children to grow up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord "never having known a time when they didn't believe" (as I myself did).

Again, this isn't an "FV" issue per se, though "FV" sorts would tend to speak of "conversion" more loosely (e.g., continual conversion) and hold to more of a "nurture" model of covenant children. But part of what PPT is suggesting that more "nurture"-oriented folks need to charitably accept how others describe their own conversion experiences which may not all fit nicely into a single model.

PPT likewise notes historic differences with regard to
how we best characterize the spiritual life of covenant children prior to their coming to a maturing faith through the ministry of the Word
The question here is not whether the ministry of the Word is the means that God ordinarily uses to bring people to a self-conscious faith. That is assumed and affirmed as per WCF 14.1.

The question is how we regard covenant children prior to such time they find themselves having such a self-conscious faith through the ministry of the Word. Do we consider them devoid of all faith, unsaved "vipers in diapers" awaiting a later conversion? Do we remain agnostic about their spiritual state? Do we hope for the best and consider them "probably" the objects of God's love and the Spirit's work, making a judgment of charity until we have evidence to the contrary? Do we trust that the Spirit is ordinarily at work in them sowing the seeds of faith that will later be brought to self-conscious maturity through the ministry of the Word?

Again, some of these are "FV" concerns, since "FV" sorts would mostly fall in the last category (i.e., trusting that the Spirit is already at work, at least within the proper context of faithful churches and families). These are, however, also issues of perennial and ongoing discussion within the wider Reformed and Presbyterian tradition.

And part of what PPT is suggesting that folks who are more trusting of the Spirit's work and God's promises in our children should nonetheless charitably accept the possibility that such a view could foster presumption, as opponents would point out. Moreover, more "covenant nurture" sorts should avoid charging folks at the other end of things as sowing seeds of doubt and unbelief by expecting their children to "convert" or "close with Christ" at some point.

PPT notes diversity on the matter of
whether we regard sacraments truly to offer Christ and whether, when effectual, they confer grace instrumentally or are only occasions for the imparting or promise of grace
This is basically noting that there is a sacramental spectrum from the Zwingli/Bullinger end of things to the Bucer/Calvin end of things within the Reformed and Westminster traditions.

This could be seen, I suppose, as an "FV" concern since "FV" sorts tend to emphasize the objective presence and offer of Christ in the word and sacraments and that, when received rightly, the sacraments are efficacious instrumentally. But part of what PPT is saying is that folks who hold to more robustly Calvinian, instrumentalist views shouldn't disparage more Zwinglian sorts as "Gnostic" or "rationalist" or "modernist," since such views go back in some form to guys like Bonaventure.

On the eucharist, PPT notes differences regarding
how we interpret and enact biblical teaching on worthy participation in the Lord's Supper
This covers a variety of issues: age of first communion, but also questions about how precisely we "fence" the Table and whether or not we use "suspension" from the Table as an intermediate form of church discipline short of excommunication.

The PCA only allows folks who make some kind of credible profession of faith to partake of communion (though it's up to individual Sessions to determine how young a child can be when "credibly professing"). Some other Reformed denominations allow for paedocommunion, while it's not untypical in some Dutch circles to wait until kids are in their late teens until their first communion. And in some traditions, even adults often skip partaking of the Supper if they have any lingering doubts about their regeneration and election. Some churches invite all the baptized to the table, while others require meeting with presbyters or exclude all but those who meet certain qualifications in terms of confessional commitment or church membership.

Among "FV" sorts paedocommunion is a commonly held position, though it's not practiced where church regulations don't permit it. But certainly not all paedocommunionists would fit into the "FV" camp (e.g., Rob Rayburn, Jack Collins, and Vern Poythress are all paedocommunionists, I think, without any of them being "FV"). While some Presbyteries in the PCA take a very hard line against even holding to paedocommunion in theory or teaching it (e.g., Mississippi Valley) there are other Presbyteries where a large number of pastors hold and teach the position (e.g., Missouri). Moreover, "FV" advocates tend towards more inclusive fellowship in general, with regard to how the Table is "fenced."

Part of what PPT is commending is that we learn to live patiently with some of these differences, even if we think some of them are unhealthy, recognizing that there's a history behind these variations, things aren't going to change overnight, and the conversation needs to continue. Moreover, PPT is suggesting that convinced paedocommunionists need to lay off the rhetoric that the rest of us are "spiritually starving" our covenant children as if non-paedocommunionist positions originate in malice or stinginess.

PPT points to differences concerning
the way we apply Scriptural teaching on election to the lived experience of God's people as the church visible
The first thing to note here is that this point of diversity implicitly affirms the distinction between the church "visible" and "invisible" as per WCF 25.1-2. Moreover, it alludes to the teaching of WCF 3.8 that the "doctrine of this high mystery of predestination is to be handled with special prudence and care" and that we are to turn people towards "the will of God revealed in his Word" rather than trying to peer into God's secret decrees in some other way.

But there have been a number of different ways in which this works out practically within the Reformed tradition, regarding how we interrelate God's promises, the word and sacraments, faith, assurance, good works, election, and so on.

Among "FV" sorts there are some who would draw upon Calvin's teaching about the corporate election of God's people as a basis for speaking, under the judgment of charity, to the church visible as "God's elect" and calling them to hold onto God's promises offered to them in Christ by faith.

But part of what PPT is suggesting is that there may be a number of ways in which the doctrine of election can be applied, pastorally speaking, relative to different contexts and the temperament of different parishoners. Further, it's suggesting that those who wish more to emphasize God's objective promises to the church visible take care neither to brush away others' concern that the doctrines of grace remain clear and intact, nor to gloss over the significant pastoral problem of those tender consciences who are plagued by doubts.

So much for some of the specifics of "Presbyterians and Presbyterians Together." If one were to try to connect the dots with "FV" sorts of concerns, those are the ways in which I would do it. One could probably do a similar reading of the document relative to other sets of concerns.

But I think it should be clear, from what I've said, that PPT is as much a call to charity directed at those on the more "FV" side of things as it is directed towards other perspectives. As far as I can see, a big dose of charity - along with a concern to be clear and careful in how we speak - is necessary all around. PPT holds up a standard that cuts against pro-"FV" polemics as much as other factions in the conservative Presbyterian world.

I'm sure these remarks don't answer every question people might have and I'm not sure I can personally address every possible issue in connection with the document. But I do hope that I've helped provide some context to at least how I, personally, view the document as one individual who had a hand in it.

I also hope I've helped demonstrate that the document is just what it purports to be: a call for charity in order that Presbyterians of all sorts might learn better to talk to one another, listen to each other, and labor together, for the sake of growing cooperation among Reformed and Presbyterian bodies and, more widely, for the sake the work to which God calls his whole church.