2012 ARP General Synod Faces Tough Decisions
This upcoming meeting of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church's General Synod, scheduled for June 5-7, 2012, has the potential to be one of the more significant meetings of that body in recent memory. Judging from the contents of the Synod packet of materials sent out to delegates, a number of issues will elicit spirited discussion.
One matter that has received some media attention already is a Memorial (the ARP equivalent of a PCA "Overture") from Mississippi Valley Presbytery calling upon Synod to affirm the special creation of Adam and Eve as the first parents, to affirm that "the account of creation as found in Genesis 1 and 2 is history," to "deny any teaching that claims that the account of creation as found in Genesis 1 and 2 is mythology," and to "deny any theory that teaches that Adam and Eve descended from other biological life forms and that such a theory can be reasonably reconciled with either the Standards of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church or Holy Scripture."
There is nothing to which I strenuously object in the Memorial, so long as terms are properly defined. But therein lies the rub. It bears some resemblance to an Overture being presented this year by Rocky Mountain Presbytery to the PCA General Assembly. A key contextual difference, however, is that the PCA already has an excellent report regarding the interpretation of the days of creation in which a variety of views (literal six days, the day-age theory, the literary framework hypothesis, and analogical days) are recognized as falling within the bounds of orthodoxy. However, there apparently are some in the ARP who believe that those who do not hold to literal six-day young-earth creationism should "change, acquiesce, or depart honorably in conviction" (see my response here), and approval of the proposed Memorial without additional study and interpretive context may well lead to conflict and dissension in the future. In addition, the Memorial would also exclude such fathers in the faith and defenders of the inerrancy of Scripture as B. B. Warfield, Gleason Archer, and J. I. Packer. Better to study this one for awhile!
Last year's Synod referred a recommendation from the Board of Stewardship that sought to extend the tithing principle from individual support of the church to congregational support of the Denominational Ministry Fund (a novelty in Presbyterian history, so far as I can see) to the Committee on Theological and Social Concerns. In response, the TSCC has produced a substantive and nuanced report that repays careful study.
Church Government and Related Matters
The Special Committee to Revise Form of Government has presented a "Proposed Draft for the Revision of the Form of Government" to this year's Synod. This document represents a substantial and in many ways needed revision. It will, however, need to be carefully examined and evaluated by the delegates. One matter in the document that caught my eye was a change in the educational requirements for ministers. According to the current FOG, "A minister must present evidence of having obtained a baccalaureate degree, or its equivalent, from an accredited four-year college or university, as well as evidence of a theological education embracing three years of satisfactory work in the seminary of this denomination or in a seminary approved by the Presbytery." The proposed document includes a seemingly small but potentially significant change: "A minister must present evidence of having obtained a baccalaureate degree, or its equivalent, from an accredited four-year college or university, as well as a master of divinity degree from an accredited seminary approved by the Presbytery." This change will have the net effect of tying ARP ministerial preparation even more closely to a transcript-based seminary model of theological education, and this at a time when the effectiveness and viability of the seminary model is increasingly questioned.
In other matters, the Special Committee on Efficiency has presented a long series of recommendations, three of which would effect significant changes to Presbytery boundaries. These would split the current First Presbytery (which includes all of North Carolina) into eastern and western NC presbyteries, establish a new Presbytery consisting of churches in the Charlotte, NC area, and fold all ARP churches west of the Mississippi River into a Midwest Presbytery. This presumably would entail the end of the current Korean-speaking Pacific Presbytery, problems with which are the subject of an extensive report by the Ecclesiastical Commission on Judiciary Affairs.
The Elephant in the Room
Once again a major topic of discussion at Synod promises to be the relationship between the General Synod and its historic educational institutions--Erskine College and Erskine Theological Seminary. A bit of context is needed to understand the current state of the question. In March of 2010 the General Synod in an extraordinary called meeting (known as the "Snow Synod") voted to remove the Erskine Board of Trustees and replace it with an Interim Board. A number of legal actions were filed by trustees and other parties, and at its June 2010 meeting the Synod renounced its efforts to replace the Board contingent upon the dismissal of the lawsuit that was pending against the Synod. Over the next year the Erskine Board revised its By-Laws in ways that were interpreted by some in the ARP Church as marginalizing the role of the ARP Church at Erskine.
At the 2011 meeting of the Synod, a motion was overwhelmingly adopted calling upon the Erskine Board to enter into a process of Charter and By-Laws revisions that would recognize the organic relationship between the Church and schools, and grant the Synod right of trustee removal for cause. In February 2012 the Erskine Board declined the request of the Synod, citing accreditation requirements and the need for fiduciary independence. Then in May 2012 a "Minority Report of Erskine Trustees" was submitted by eleven members of the Erskine Board. It argues, in essence, that the Board majority is trying to present Erskine as a more-or-less independent institution instead of an "agency" of the ARP Church accountable to the General Synod. It also points out that quite a number of accredited church-affiliated colleges and seminaries have charters which allow for trustee removal by the respective churches. This "Minority Report" also contends that the relationship between Erskine and the General Synod is at an "impasse," and recommends that "the Moderator of Synod appoint a Special Committee to Study the Relationship between the General Synod of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church and Erskine College and Theological Seminary."
In addition, two Erskine-related judicial complaints will be before the Synod. Both come out of Second Presbytery (Erskine is located within that presbytery's geographical bounds), and involve alleged failures by a congregation and the Presbytery to discipline officeholders who filed legal actions against the Synod in the wake of the March 2010 "Snow Synod." It will be interesting to see if and how the Synod decides to deal with these complaints.
At this point, we can step back a bit and ponder where the Erskine/ARP relationship is going. The "Minority Report" description of an "impasse" may well be appropriate language, and I have sensed for some time that Erskine and the ARP Church are probably headed for separation (though I doubt that either will ultimately benefit from a split). A key question for the Synod at this point is whether the Church has a realistic chance of effecting the sort of changes it desires (i.e., similar to the pattern followed at many Southern Baptist-related colleges and seminaries), and the answer to that question is less than clear. At the same time, Erskine is still heavily dependent upon the over half million dollars per year that the General Synod contributes to the schools, and a question to be asked is whether Erskine can survive as an independent entity.
An issue that has been percolating on the Erskine campus (but largely under the radar of the Church) is Erskine President David Norman's "Presidential Initiative for Human Restoration" and the associated THRIVE series of meetings and convocations. This has been Dr. Norman's effort to flesh out his administration's commendable emphasis on "care for the poor" that was announced when he took office in 2010. In a meeting for faculty and staff earlier this year Norman presented an interpretive schema in which "mental poverty" leads to "social poverty," which then lead to "economic poverty" and physical poverty" (a portion of Norman's presentation that day was later published as "Understanding Our Poverty," ARP Magazine, March/April 2012, p. 16). An astute Erskine Seminary professor present then asked Norman, "Where does the spiritual dimension fit in?" The President's response suggested that the spiritual aspect is somehow related to all four forms of poverty.
In the same meeting Norman explained how he had come to have questions about the nature of the human soul while a seminary student. He also related how he had watched a beloved grandparent descend into the night of Alzheimer's Disease (which, I gather, helped to convince him that consciousness is tied to physical existence). Most faculty and staff probably left the meeting a bit baffled, but an examination of Norman's published doctoral dissertation brings the issue into sharper focus (see David Norman, Brain, Mind, and Soul in the Theological Psychology of Donald MacKay, 1922-1987 [Lewiston: Edwin Mellen, 2008]). In brief, the Erskine President is an advocate of what is often called "physicalism" or "physicalist monism." That is, he views the human being as a psycho-physical unity and he denies that anything called a "soul" can exist independent of the body. The term he chooses to use for this point of view is "Comprehensive Realism."
Here again, some context is needed. To be sure, there has been a decided trend in philosophical circles toward anthropological monism. Many philosophers are atheists and metaphysical materialists, and anthropological physicalist monism is simply a corollary of such atheistic materialism. But there have also been Christian thinkers who have embraced monistic views of the human person in various forms, and for a variety of reasons. For example, some are convinced that anthropological dualism (the view that the spiritual soul can exist without the physical body) is fatally infected with Platonic dualism and thus leads to an undue denigration of the physical aspect of existence. Others regard anthropological dualism as overly speculative, and so on. Here I should note that my own thinking on this matter has been powerfully influenced by John W. Cooper's Body, Soul, and Life Everlasting: Biblical Anthropology and the Monism-Dualism Debate (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), a fine volume that I first encountered when it was published in 1989, and upon which some of this material is dependent.
A key question regarding such anthropological monism has to do with biblical passages (e.g., 2 Corinthians 5:6-9; Philippians 1:21-23) speaking of an "intermediate state" (a condition of conscious existence between physical death and the final resurrection). In the Philippians passage just referenced, the Apostle Paul draws a contrast between "life in the flesh" on the one hand, and physical death which entails a departure "to be with Christ" which is "far better" on the other. As Cooper notes, some (such as the Dutch Reformed theologians G. C. Berkouwer and Herman Ridderbos) affirm both a monistic anthropology and the reality of the intermediate state, and they just live with the apparent contradiction. Others (e.g., F. F. Bruce) affirm a doctrine of "immediate resurrection," holding that at death the person experiences an immediate bodily resurrection in heaven. Still others effectively deny the intermediate state completely and affirm what Cooper calls the "extinction-re-creation view." In other words, at death the person ceases to exist, but at the final resurrection God creates a new and improved version of the same person. This extinction-re-creation view was held by Norman's intellectual hero, the Scottish brain scientist Donald MacKay, and is defended by Norman himself.
Of course, there are a host of problems attending anthropological monism, especially in its more radical extinction-re-creation form. As John Cooper and others have demonstrated, there is a tremendous amount of biblical evidence in both the Old and New Testaments suggesting that a conscious existence of the soul continues after physical death, and this biblical witness is amply reflected in the confessional tradition of the Reformed churches (see, e.g., WCF 32.1, HC Q. 57). Furthermore, despite its current popularity, this model faces perhaps insuperable philosophical difficulties. For example, on monistic terms how does one account for continuity of personal identity between death and resurrection? Norman's strategy here is basically to appeal to the relativity of "time-for-us" as opposed to "time-for-God," a solution that may create more problems than it solves. Thus it is not surprising that quite a number of well-known Christian philosophers--Alvin Plantinga, William Hasker, C. Stephen Evans, and my former Erskine College colleague John Wingard (now teaching at Covenant College) for example--are staunch opponents of anthropological monism. Representative here is C. Stephen Evans of Baylor University, who recently wrote that "contemporary physicalism about human persons is in something of a crisis mode, in which most philosophers are sure that some form of physicalism must be true, but no one has a convincing account of how physicalism could be true. The time is right for a new look at dualism." I agree.
To bring matters back to the Church, the pastoral implications of this extinction-re-creation model are, in my judgment, highly problematic. For example, what is a pastor to say to bereaved family members when elderly Aunt Matilda or young Johnny is taken away in death? The best one can offer on this way of thinking is that the loved one is dead and gone, period, and that at some point in the future somebody very much like them (Norman would claim it is the same person) will reappear. Furthermore, if we hold that there is no distinct spiritual thing called the soul, do we have the conceptual apparatus needed for dealing with the spiritual dimension of human existence? In other words, does Norman's category of "mental poverty" go deep enough? His explanation of poverty suggests that the answer to this question is probably "No." Finally, in the absence of a robust appreciation of the spiritual dimension, will the current Erskine THRIVE initiative almost inevitably trend in the direction of the old "social gospel"? The lessons of history suggest that the answer to this question is likely "Yes."
Though David Norman and I clearly disagree on this particular issue, none of this should be taken as personal criticism of him. As far as I can tell, he has been transparent about his anthropological views, and he has winsomely sought to engage faculty discussion on the THRIVE initiative. Furthermore, he has the courage of his convictions and he has sought to frame the mission of Erskine in light of them. And after all, not only are these important matters that deserve to be explored in the context of a liberal-arts college, but the broader church stands to benefit from a careful discussion as well. Finally, he has shown considerable courage in making some tough decisions in the Erskine context, and credit should be given where credit is due.
That being said, there are issues to ponder. At issue here is a position regarding the constitution of the human person that many, if not most, conservative Christians would regard as odd, and which is open to serious objection on scriptural, theological, and philosophical grounds. This also suggests that the theological boundaries among those who self-identify as "evangelicals" have become broad indeed. In addition, all this again raises questions as to how much impact the ARP Church is likely to have on institutional direction in the future.