There are three phrases in our Constitution that every presbytery applies frequently: “fundamentals of our system of doctrine”, “ hostile to the system”, and “strikes at the vitals of religion.” They are found in Chapter 21-5 e. and f. of our Book of Church Order, and we apply them almost every time we examine a candidate for ordination or a man seeking to transfer into the presbytery. If he expresses a difference between what he believes and what the Confessional Standards teach (as most do), we are charged to judge whether that difference places him “out of accord with any of the fundamentals of our system.” which is the case if his difference is “hostile to the system” or “strikes at the vitals of religion.”
This is the grid we are to use to determine if some’s theological beliefs “fit” in the PCA – yet we never talk about that grid itself. Not once in all the years of regular attendance at the meetings of the presbyteries where I have served have I heard a presbytery discuss what these phrases mean. I would suggest this is a conversation we need to have.
I’m not suggesting that our presbyteries should strive to come up with some sort of abbreviated “List of Reformed Essentials,” though I’ll admit that my natural inclination is to be drawn to such lists. Lists like that erase ambiguity, they make decisions clear cut, and I’m a fan of unambiguous, clear cut decisions. But I think such a list would be a mistake for a couple of reasons. For one thing, it would create a sort of Confession-within-the-Confession, and we end up subscribing to our list rather than our Confession. But second, and even more importantly I think, if I were examining a candidate according to a list, I might be quicker to categorize his opinions according to the list, and less inclined to listen carefully to what he’s really affirming – and informed judgment requires careful listening.
But some would argue that if a presbytery discussion like the one I’m proposing doesn’t produce some sort of authoritative conclusion, it won’t solve anything and is therefore useless. I disagree. Apart from such a discussion, we will have as many different grids as there are members of presbytery. I will have my own ideas about what might be hostile to our system of doctrine or what strikes at the vitals of religion, and I will apply them whenever I vote on someone’s exception – and you will have yours and do the same.
I would assert that we need to have those ideas challenged by each other. Maybe I consider something to be fundamental or vital that shouldn’t be, or perhaps there is something I should consider fundamental or vital but don’t, and the same may be true of you. Our discussion can help us learn from each other and as a body come to a better appreciation of the contours of our system of doctrine and how our Standards reflect those contours. I believe this discussion would make our process of handling exceptions more in keeping with our polity, as it would help us make judgments according to the wisdom of our entire presbytery rather than just our own individual opinions.