08 June 2007

PCA report on NPP/FV: some concerns 6

I now come to my final assertion concerning the PCA report on the NPP/FV. In some respects it is a distinct point, but it also, in many respects, sums up my other four assertions:

[5] The report narrows the manner in which the Standards function in defining doctrinal boundaries, especially in relation to Scripture.

I think some of what substantiates this assertion is evident from my previous post. Thus, here I will suggest two other dimensions of my concerns.

BCO

The report accurately notes that, according to the BCO, our doctrinal Standards, along with the BCO itself, "are accepted by the Presbyterian Church in America as standard expositions of the teachings of Scripture" (BCO 29-1). Yet the report goes on to assert that the denominational "Constitution does recognize the Standards as our 'standard expositions of the teachings of Scripture'" (2202:39-41).

Perhaps this is nitpicking, but the report’s interpretation of BCO 29-1 seems to me to exceed what the BCO intends, implying that we should look to the Standards as the standard exposition of Scripture in our tradition.

As I read BCO 29-1, the point is, first of all, qualified by BCO Preface III where the Standards are given Constitutional status "as adopted by the Church" (emphasis mine). That is to say, "good faith subscription," as noted elsewhere in the BCO, would have to qualify the sense in which the Standards provide a standard exposition of Scripture.

Second, taken in context, BCO 29-1 regards limiting judicial process to things that are clear from Scripture and exposited by our Standards as such. It is not a general abstract principle about how we exposit Scripture.

Thus, the report seems overly narrow in the way it presents the Standards as a "standard exposition of Scripture."

Scripture

Part of what is noticeably absent from the report is any sustained attention to Scripture (2232:30 - 2233:5 is the rare exception, though it is very brief).

Of course, the report is correct that the primary question at hand is whether particular views conflict with the fundamentals of the system of doctrine in our Standards. So, close attention to the Standards is warranted.

Nevertheless, the Standards themselves teach the following:
The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture. (WCF 1.10)
Part of what this paragraph asserts is that, when there are "controversies of religion," the "supreme judge" of those controversies is not what some past Reformed figure has said ("opinions of ancient writers") or even what our confessional Standards say ("doctrines of men"), but what the Holy Spirit says as he speaks in Scripture.

This does not discount the witness of subordinate judges (such as our Standards), but requires that we never allow those Standards to come to replace or eclipse the authority of Scripture itself. This is a matter of the relative weight and emphasis we grant Scripture in relation to our Standards and how we handle the Standards in relation to Scripture's ultimate authority.

In this respect, it seems to me that the report moves in a troubling direction. While the report rightly analyzes the teaching of the Standards, the report strikes me as granting relatively too great weight and emphasis to the Standards taken in themselves - rather than as a subordinate guide to Scriptural exegesis - even while the report admits "that the biblical usage of some of these [confessional] words may have varying nuances in different contexts" (2203:6-7).

This is where "good faith subscription" is really put to the test: as we hold onto the fundamentals of our theological system, will we allow Scripture to norm and reform our thinking and ways of speaking on matters of theological detail? Will we allow Scripture come to new and fresh expression as we encounter new situations and contexts, new opportunities for ministry and mission? Or will the language and terminology of our Standards remain the final word?

Again, in this respect, to my mind the report moves in a troubling direction.

Effects: If the report's recommendations are adopted by the PCA, I am concerned that adoption may have unintended effects for how we use our Standards and how they relate to Scripture. The report could too easily edge us away in practice from the good faith subscription that we profess and subtly alter the relative weight we grant our Standards under the Word of God.