Considering Exceptions

It is not uncommon for ministers in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA)--the denomination in which I pastor--to lament a lack of doctrinal uniformity among fellow pastors in our denomination. It is also not uncommon for ministers in the denomination in which I minister to lament the lamentations of those who lament a lack of doctrinal uniformity. At the center of these expressions of grief are the stated differences that ordained men either do or do no have regarding the doctrine set out in the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms (i.e. the Westminster Standards). Many of those who have no stated differences with the Standards look with suspicion at those who have stated difference-and vice versa. Each group of ministers wonders if those belonging to the other group has ever carefully read and studied the Confession and Catechisms. 

A candidate for licensure, ordination, or transfer must state their differences in their own words for all to read and examine. In these instances there is usually no doubt as to their depth of understanding. The candidate for ministry must define and defend their understanding of the Standards to the degree required by the Presbytery and/or its examining committee. Yet, for many Presbyteries, there appears to be no process for examining a man with no stated differences on a number of those doctrines on which others frequently state differences. For instance, I have yet to witness a man with no stated differences examined with regard to his view of such portion of the Standards as WCF 7.4 (regarding "the covenant of grace frequently set forth in Scripture by the name testament."), WCF 21.5, WLC 109 (regarding "the making any representation of God, of all or of any of the three persons, either inwardly in our mind, or outwardly in any kind of image"), or WLC 123-133/WSC 63-66. These issues only ever seem to arise in an examination if a man has brought up an issue that he had with the wording or substance of the doctrines set out in the Westminster Standards. Assuming most theological exams are at or below the level I have witnessed (a dangerous assumption, to be sure), the questions tend to focus on major points of doctrine and rarely get to some of the issues about which many elders state differences. Examining committees ask questions about days of creation, who can and should take communion, and the role of women to the various ordained offices;  but, these other issues rarely come up.

Some ministers in the PCA will suggest that it is prima facia evidence that a man has not carefully read or studied the Standards since he does not state a difference with any of these sections. How--the argument usually goes--can any thinking man, with the benefit of all the theological and biblical study of the past 350 years, not find some place or point of the Westminster documents to be lacking, if not in error? And yet sometimes those who do not state such differences provide more than merely prima facie evidence: they are unprepared to defend their position on these issues. Certainly, they are trained and prepared to defend the major points of contention within Christendom, such as the five points of Calvinism, the deity of Christ, or substitutionary atonement. The continuing validity or helpfulness of 17th century British social structure? Not so much.

Therefore, I'd like to put the commonly stated and frequently overlooked doctrines in the Standards under examination in a short series of posts in order to encourage all of us to read and study them. As one who happens to have no stated differences, I want to define and defend why I believe these doctrines to be worthy of our defense - both in terms of their inclusion in a document, and in terms of our assent to them. To that end, in the forthcoming series of posts I want to take up a few statements in our confession and catechisms that are more rarely considered - but which might be a larger cause of the disunity that we have experienced in the PCA.

At the outset, I want to be clear that it is not my desire to be unduly polemical. To that end, I am committed to refraining from attacking those who hold views contrary to my own and to discouraging others from doing so. Rather, I only desire to demonstrate why I believe that the Standards are biblically faithful in those places where there are often challenged. I sincerely hope that I can encourage brothers who may have stated differences on these points of doctrine to study them more carefully and to know that, at least, some who agree with the Standards on these disputed doctrines have themselves carefully studied them.

Additionally, I am not and do not confess to be an expert on the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms. I trust that all of us are willing to admit that we do not know the theology of the Standards (as nuanced as it is) as we ought. Neither am I saying that I have thoroughly examined every debated issue, or that I could correctly capture every position. I too am seeking to grow in my understanding of and appreciation for the theology of the Westminster Standards.

Finally, it is my desire that everyone who read these posts will come away with a greater appreciation for our brethren and for our Standards. We can love someone with whom we sometimes disagree and we can love a doctrinal statement with which we sometimes disagree. That is something, I believe, that those of us who have no stated differences with the Westminster Confession and Catechism could benefit from remembering.


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