Not An Ordinary Meeting of Synod

Article by   June 2008

            Recent meetings of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church (ARPC) General Synod have been, for the most part, rather sedate affairs.  In contrast to the period from the late 1960's until the early 1980's, when the Synod was persistently torn by debates over the authority of Scripture and the ordination of women (see http://www.arpsynod.org/pdf/WomenInTheChurch.pdf), sustained theological debate and discussion has been rare at recent meetings.  Unlike the PCA and OPC, the ARPC elects its moderators one year in advance and recent elections have been consensus affairs in which a single candidate has been elected by acclamation.  The 2008 ARP General Synod, which met at the denominational conference grounds in Flat Rock, NC on June 10-12, was quite different in ways that beg for analysis and reflection. 

            A constructive tone was set by the June 9-10 Pre-Synod Conference.  The theme chosen by incoming Moderator RE Gordon Query was "The Indispensable Word."  After a splendid concert of sacred music presented by bass Dan Cole from Tenth Presbyterian Church (Philadelphia), tenor Gary Seydell from First Presbyterian Church (Columbia, SC), and pianist Dr. Gabriel Statom from First ARP in Lake Wales, Florida, the vital importance of sacred Scripture for the church was explored in excellent and challenging sermons by Dr. Philip G. Ryken and Dr. Mark Ross.

 

A Horse Race!

 

            The first two days of the General Synod were largely uneventful, as reports from various Boards and Committees were considered and approved.   On Thursday morning the floor was opened for Moderator nominations, and two names were presented.  Erskine Seminary Executive VP TE Neely Gaston nominated TE Barry Dagenhart of First ARP in Rock Hill, SC.  TE William B. Evans (i.e., yours truly) nominated TE John R. deWitt, with a seconding speech written by TE Sinclair B. Ferguson but presented by Erskine Seminary Systematic Theology Professor TE R. J. Gore because Ferguson was unable to attend the Synod meeting. 

            The tenor of the two nominations could not have been more different.  Gaston emphasized Dagenhart's deep roots in the ARP Church.  On the other hand, Evans presented deWitt as a pastor-scholar and Reformed statesman of international stature, and Gore suggested that deWitt's theological acumen would help to bring theological "clarity" to the church.   An election by secret ballot was held on Thursday afternoon, and deWitt was declared the winner.  In this instance, it appears that an inward-looking nomination emphasizing ARP roots and legacy was deemed less compelling than a nomination highlighting theological integrity and relationships with the broader Reformed world. 

 

Three Motions

 

            Later on Thursday morning three motions dealing with the nature and authority of Scripture were presented and approved by the Synod.  The first was presented by TE James Coad of First Presbytery.  He moved that the following statement be approved by the Synod: "'The Bible alone, being verbally God-breathed, is the Word of God written, infallible in all it teaches, and inerrant in the original manuscripts."  Considerable discussion ensued, with concerns expressed about both the merits of the question and the process.  Some delegates complained that the term "inerrant" lacked definition.  Another contended that the term "inerrant" should not be used because it is not found in Scripture (delegates were kind enough not to point out that the same can be said of "Incarnation" and "Trinity").  A TE from Second Presbytery argued against the motion on the grounds that "God is bigger than Scripture."   Nevertheless, when the votes were counted the motion was approved by a significant margin. 

            TE Billy Barron of Second Presbytery then rose and moved that the language just approved be forwarded to the Special Committee to Revise the Form of Government for inclusion in the ordination vows of ministers and elders.  After considerable discussion focusing on process, this motion was approved as well. 

            Finally, TE Rob Patrick of Florida Presbytery moved that the new language regarding Scripture replace the current line dealing with Scripture in the "Definition of Evangelical Belief" found in the ARP Manual of Authorities and Duties. 

Approval of this would make the new language immediately binding on the hiring of all administrative and teaching employees of the General Synod.  Once again, after considerable debate focusing on process (especially on the propriety of requiring an affirmation from new Synod employees that is not yet demanded of ministers and elders), this motion was approved. 

 

Making Sense of It All

 

            So much for the "brute facts"!  The interpretation of these matters is more challenging.  Why was this meeting of the General Synod so . . . well . . . substantial?  Two possible explanations stand out.  First, for some time there has been a sense on the part of many that the task of standing for the full authority of Scripture that was begun in the 1970's and 1980's remains unfinished and that further clarity is needed.  In 1979 and 1980 the General Synod affirmed that "that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament are the Word of God without error in all that it teaches" (for an analysis of this period, see William B. Evans, "'Things which Become Sound Doctrine': Associate Reformed Presbyterian Confessional and Theological Identity in the Twentieth Century," Haddington House Journal 8 supp. [2006]: 89-116).  Almost immediately, however, some church leaders claimed (in a 1980 "Covenant of Integrity") that these affirmations were "not to be interpreted as 'inerrancy statements.'"  Moreover, the Synod's statement was not accompanied by concrete action to change the ordination vows of ministers and elders, nor was action taken against moderate and liberal elements who steadfastly opposed the statement.  While such a conciliatory stance is understandable in light of the ARP tradition of a gentle and non-sectarian ecclesial sensibility, it did not move the church toward clarity and it did not provide firm guidance for the church's agencies. 

            Second, in recent months allegations by a number of TE's regarding the presence of Barthianism/Neo-orthodoxy at Erskine Seminary have circulated widely within the denomination.  These issues were reportedly discussed in the context of the Synod Moderator's Committee examining the Erskine College and Seminary Report.  Anecdotal evidence suggests that these concerns may well have served as a catalyst for the broader conviction that more definition and clarity is in order. 

 

What Does the Future Hold?

 

            It is still much too early to tell, but the 2008 General Synod may well turn out to be the most significant meeting of the ARP's highest court in several decades.  Much will hinge, however, on follow-up and implementation.  For example, how will the Synod agencies respond to the General Synod's directives?  How quickly will the ARP Form of Government be revised to contain ordination vows reflecting the sentiments approved?  Will there be a backlash from the vocal minority that clearly opposes this direction?  Only time will tell. 

 

William B. Evans

Due West, SC

 

 

 

 

 

A self-described "paleo-orthodox ecclesial Calvinist," Dr. Evans is the Younts Prof. of Bible and Religion at Erskine College in Due West, SC.  He holds degrees from Taylor University, Westminster Theological Seminary, and Vanderbilt University.  He served as an Assistant Editor of the New Geneva Study Bible/Reformation Study Bible and as Moderator of the 2005 General Synod of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church.  In his spare time he writes the ARP Adult Quarterly Sunday School curriculum for the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. 

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