28 May 2007

PCA report on NPP/FV: some positives

The PCA report on NPP/FV was released during my final exam period and responses began as I was in the midst of grading.

Unfortunately (or fortunately, perhaps), I've not been able to follow much of the discussion online. Beyond reading his opening summary, I haven't really had opportunity to work through the 30 Reasons against the report offered by pastor Jeff Meyers of St. Louis, or subsequent online interaction with that (for example, the lengthy conversation here).

Therefore, if what I say in this or following posts overlaps with those discussions, I apologize in advance.

At this point, I have read the NPP/FV report itself several times. I hope I have done so carefully, fairly, and without undue bias (see my earlier summary). Any discussion, if it is going to be profitable, must begin with listening and hearing the concerns of others.

I have also received various queries soliciting my perspective upon the NPP/FV report (and I'm sorry for not responding in any substantive way to those). I offer the following initial reflections in response to those queries.

I hope these reflections will be of some use to our presbyters as they attempt to discern how best to receive the report and its recommendations. My intent here is not to give a last word, but to provide what I hope is a helpful word, in order that our church courts might hear a variety of counsel before rendering decisions.

This first post focuses upon what strike me as some positive aspects of the report.

The Work of Church Courts

As our Book of Church Order (BCO) notes, church courts have the right "to resolve questions of doctrine and discipline seriously and reasonably proposed, and in general to maintain truth and righteousness, condemning erroneous opinions and practices which tend to the injury of the peace, purity, or progress of the Church" (11-4).

Nonetheless, it is also the case, that "there are truths and forms with respect to which men of good character and principles may differ. In all these it is the duty both of private Christians and societies to exercise mutual forbearance toward each other" (Preface to the BCO).

Moreover, as a denomination that requires "good faith" subscription for its officers, it is necessary to discern whether or not such differences rise to level of being "out of accord with any fundamental" of the system of doctrine contained in our Standards or being "hostile to the system" or striking at "the vitals of religion" (BCO 21-4).

The NPP/FV report seems intent to recognize the notion of "good faith subscription" and often takes up the language of such subscription in the way it evaluates and compares the teaching of the FV and the NPP with that of our Standards.

The question then is how the report carries through on that intention in assessing evidence, handling the Standards, and making recommendations. Do the report's criticisms of various views really demonstrate those views to be out of accord with the fundamentals of the system of doctrine within our Standards or to strike at the vitals of religion?

The report, as a good faith subscription document, however, seeks to keep its criticisms at this level and rightly so.

Preliminary Observations

[1] Among documents and reports produced thus far by various presbyteries and denominations, it seems to me that this PCA report draws attention to the central issues of contention, distilling those issues to several key soteriological loci (election, justification, covenant, church visible and invisible, perseverance, apostasy, assurance).

The report thereby gives evidence of lessons learned and matters clarified through prior discussions, dialogue, and reports. In that respect, this report is useful, focusing discussion in those places where, in my view, it most properly belongs and in keeping with its mandate from GA. Moreover, the report seeks to avoid straying into other areas of discussion that are less centrally vital and might prove less fruitful.

[2] The report gives sustained attention to our PCA doctrinal Standards. The question before our GA and presbyteries concerns how we subscribe to our Standards and how we interpret and apply those Standards.

Thus, any discernment about whether certain views are out of accord with or hostile to the fundamentals of the system of doctrine in those Standards or strike at the vitals of religion, of necessity requires such attention to the Westminster Standards. And this is where the report focuses it attention.

[3] The NPP/FV report provides set of nine "Declarations" in its conclusion that seek to mark out practical boundaries with regard to what constitute the "fundamentals of the system of doctrine" within our Standards on the relevant matters.

If the views in question do, in fact, violate our good faith subscription to the Standards, then church courts might well find use and help in some set of declarations that re-express the content of our Standards in a manner relevant to these issues.

[4] I would note at this point that, taken on their own terms, I find myself in whole-hearted doctrinal agreement with what those nine "Declarations" state.

While I'm not always entirely sure what each of those "Declarations" intends to express (e.g., the scare quotes around "election" are confusing in this context), I think I understand what the Declarations are trying to protect and the errors they are attempting to exclude. And, given that understanding, I can easily embrace what the "Declarations" seem to say.

Any further reflections that follow are premised upon that fundamental agreement.

In these respects, then, the report is a welcome contribution to the conversation, assisting the church by drawing attention to areas in which we might seek further clarity. As such we should be grateful for the work the committee put into its report, hoping that it will spark further conversation and clarification that will serve the peace, purity, and unity of our churches.

In future posts, I hope to draw attention to some areas in which I think the report could be better and which there is still room for iron to sharpen iron.