09 June 2007

PCA report on NPP/FV: conclusions

This will be my final post on the topic of the PCA report on the NPP/FV. I am glad to be done with this and would be happy to never address the topic again.

Allow me to begin by summing up what I have been saying in this series of posts. I regret the length and detail of what I've already written. Unfortunately, it was necessary in order to substantiate my points.

On the positive side, I began by noting that it is certainly the privilege - and indeed the duty - of our church courts to "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" (BCO 11-4).

The PCA report on the "New Perspective on Paul" and the so-called "Federal Vision," at the request of our General Assembly, attempts to assist GA in exercising this oversight.

I noted what strike me as several positive ways in which the committee's report carries forward this task:
[1] The report focuses upon what seem to me to be the central issues and it gives evidence of having learned from prior reports and discussion.

[2] The report gives sustained attention to our PCA doctrinal Standards as the proper guidelines for determining matters of confessional subscription.

[3] The report provides nine "Declarations" that seek to mark out practical boundaries on the relevant matters.

[4] Taken on their own terms, I find myself in whole-hearted doctrinal agreement with what I understand those nine "Declarations" to state.
Nevertheless, the report also presents to me several areas of significant concern:
[1] The report shows inadequate generosity at times in presenting others’ views, casting the NPP and FV in a worse light than is warranted by the textual evidence cited in the report.

[2] The report uses isolated statements as lenses through which to portray wider perspectives, thereby tending to distort them, particularly concerning Wright on justification and FV views on sacramental efficacy.

[3] The report cites statements that have been either retracted or significantly qualified by their authors, in particular statements by Wilkins on baptism and Lusk on imputation.

[4] The report reads our confessional documents in ways that either seem to misconstrue or unnecessarily restrict their meaning and original intent, particularly on topics such as merit, covenant conditions and requirements, imputation of active obedience, and wider and narrower uses of terminology.

[5] The report narrows the manner in which the Standards function in defining doctrinal boundaries, especially in relation to Scripture, undermining good faith subscription in practice and overshadowing the ultimate authority of Scripture.
I find each of these weaknesses in the report to be separately troubling and, taken together, exceedingly problematic.

In my previous posts, I attempted to substantiate each of these concerns at some length and in some detail. My prior remarks, however, should not be taken as comprehensive, but as selective and representative.

There are many more areas in which we could further examine the report - how the report handles Wright on the corporate dimension of salvation, the way the report underplays how FV views qualify the notion of "covenant" as relation, what the report says about paedo-communion, the way in which the report considers "undifferentiated grace" and conflates the perspective of phenomenology and initial experience with the perspective of ontology and diachronic experience, how the report seemingly misreads the Standards on visible "covenant" memberhsip - to name a few.

I do not make these claims or provide this evidence because I agree with Wright or the NPP or FV proponents in every detail.

There are areas in which I find each of these viewpoints or authors to be confusing or with which I simply disagree (e.g., Wright's insistence that "justification" is not "entrance language," paedo-communion, some formulations of final justification, some initial FV affirmations about baptismal efficacy, some historical claims about the shape of 17th century scholasticism, and so forth). I've never denied such disagreements and, when opportunity arose, I have engaged profitably with a number of individuals concerning what they've said and written.

I do worry very much, however, about the effects that adopting the report's recommendations might have for the PCA. I've outlined those worries already (see the sections on "Effects" in my prior posts), so will not repeat myself here.

Whatever we think of the NPP or FV, we should consider carefully if this report and its recommendations are the response to which we wish to commit ourselves. Given the shortcomings of the report, is this how we want to go on record in correcting what some perceive to be significant errors? Is this the witness we wish to bear to those outside our tradition who are watching or to the Christian journalists who are being sent to our GA?

Sometimes in our desire to speak truth and to protect the church against perceived error, we can overreach, to the detriment of Christ's church and to the embarrassment of those around us, if not ourselves.

Jonathan Edwards, in Charity and Its Fruits, agrees that making careful judgments and correcting error is important, but it must be undertaken with the utmost care. Sometimes "there is plain and clear evidence" that certain individuals "are justly chargeable" with error or other wrongdoing, and in such cases we cannot help but judge.

Nevertheless, even then Edwards cautions that we must take great care lest we find ourselves "judging evil of others when evidence does not oblige to it, or in thinking ill of them when the case very well allows of thinking well of them." Edwards warns against situations of judging others in which "those things that seem to be in their favor are overlooked, and only those that are against them are regarded," or "when the latter are magnified, and too great stress laid on them."

A further danger, Edwards observes, is when we take delight in censuring others, since this distorts the process of discernment and right judgment. He writes,
But very often judgment is passed against others, in such a manner as shows that the individual is well pleased in passing it. He is so forward in judging evil, and judges on such slight evidence, and carries his judgment to such extremes, as shows that his inclination is in it, and that he loves to think the worst of others.
If we truly regard others with Christian charity, Edwards insists, we "will be very cautious in" judging them. Those who judge with such charitable care "will go no further in it than evidence obliges them, and will think the best that the nature of the case will admit, and will put the best possible construction on the words and actions of others." May we be the people Edwards describes.

Moreover, with regard to those who are the object of the report's critique, we should remember that sometimes we all say things with the enthusiasm of discovery that tends to lead us to overstate and exaggerate.

Those of you who have come to Reformed convictions from outside of our tradition may have experienced this yourselves - you came to a fresh understanding of the doctrines of grace, but that gave rise to expressions bordering on hyper-Calvinism or virtual denials of common grace or the free offer of the Gospel. For some, in their enthusiasm, the beauty of the "system" can begin to eclipse of the beauty of the Savior to whose abundant and wonderful grace the system is supposed to point.

Pastors, theologians, and even academics are not immune from similar bursts of enthusiasm. I know I myself have fallen prey more than once.

Could it be the case that in the flush of initial discovery, Wright perhaps overplayed the corporate dimensions of justification or that Wilkins exaggerated the character of the grace held forth to all within the visible church?

Even so, do we judge others by the worst of what they say or will we be gracious enough look for openness to correction on their part, a willingness to learn, and a readiness to revise and qualify? Will we believe it when we see it? Or will we insist on holding other's most confused and least considered moments against them?

What kind of denomination will we prove to be? Is this report the best we can do?

As Jonathan Edwards notes elsewhere (in his 1746 work Religious Affections), "Truly gracious affections differ from those that are false and delusive in that they naturally beget and promote such a spirit of love, meekness, quietness, forgiveness, and mercy, as appeared in Christ."