In the past 200 years of American Presbyterian history, there is a notable trail of theological decisions that consequently led to further and further doctrinal compromise. Put simply, there is a slippery slope to observe.
That said, appealing to the dangers of the slippery slope has become a canard in the PCA. Typically, the metaphor is deployed by so-called “conservatives” against so-called “progressives” on the floor of presbytery or General Assembly. And, predictably, those singled out as the mere simpletons, skirting along the edge of disaster, receive the words with eye-rolling exasperation. The appeal is, then, rarely edifying.
So, what are we to make of the slippery slope argument? Is it helpful? Consider the following observations about the slippery slope and how it works.
As we face new
circumstances, we do so
with prayerful dependence upon the Holy Spirit.
First, theological commitments become dangerous (or slippery), not when they differ with the Westminster Standards or Book of Church Order per se, but when our theological conclusions are informed by an impoverished theological method. In other words, the way we arrive at our theological conclusions determines whether there is a slope on which we can slide.
When we fail to recognize that theological method is the key to the discussion, we settle into one of two ghettos: (1) we enshrine a theological tradition alongside of Scripture and foreclose on the continued reformation of the church under her living Lord, Jesus Christ, or (2) we expose ourselves naively to contemporary readings of Scripture that confuse the voice of our culture for the voice of God. To ignore theological method, even where orthodox conclusions are maintained, fails to honor the Reformed tradition’s commitment to reforming under Scripture.
Second, it seems important to sharpen our logic and rhetoric with regards to the slippery slope, applying it to all forms of doctrinal compromise. After all, the slippery slope is simply a metaphor used to depict the cause and effect relationship between the theological commitments of today and the doctrinal developments of tomorrow. Considering this, the slippery slope cannot apply to only one party in the denomination. As noted, the theological method behind a theological commitment determines the slipperiness of the slope. Bad theological method that arrives at good theological conclusions today does not hold that same promise for tomorrow. This applies to the entire theological spectrum of the PCA.
To follow Jesus is to traverse a narrow mountain ridge surrounded by multiple perilous faces. On this journey, we can slide into a godless traditionalism funded by a romanticized historical ideal. Or, we can fall into a worldly syncretism driven by concerns of cultural relevance. The former sets tradition over Scripture; the latter supplants Scripture with culture. Therefore, when deploying the slippery slope metaphor, we must always recognize that the slope slides many ways, and the key to faithfulness is found in theological method.
So, what does good theological method involve?
Good theological method involves an active dialogue between at least three components: (1) rigorous exegesis of Scripture, (2) reading and respecting the Reformed tradition, and (3) reflecting prayerfully on the contemporary situation.
God’s Word is the ultimate judge of our faith and practice. Therefore, good theological method requires sound exegesis. We submit to our sovereign Lord by sitting under, not over or alongside, the Word of God. That said, good method operates with self-awareness, especially when our exegesis yields various interpretive options. When ambiguity exists, it is incumbent upon us to hold our interpretation with humility and less dogmatism. In the absence of clarity, we operate with charity. Such humility honors the Westminster Standards. In WCF 1.7, the divines recognize: “All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all.” Of course, the divines acknowledge that those things necessary for salvation are clearly stated in one place or another. However, it is crucial to own that Scripture does not speak with equal clarity on every matter.
Therefore, we must expect diversity on certain matters and recognize that Christians, even those in our confessional tradition, will come to different conclusions about things on exegetical grounds. Disagreement, when driven by sound exegetical argument, need not trigger the alarm bells about another minister’s orthodoxy.
Further, as we submit to Scripture alone, we also recognize that we never read Scripture alone. The Reformed tradition is a gift—a human endeavor, empowered by the Spirit, that offers us guidance in reading the Bible today. Like our parents, we honor our theological forebears by consulting their works and learning from their insights. In these works, we encounter Christians of different cultures, colors, and concerns who sought to hear God in their cultural moment. With the Westminster Standards, we go even further by granting these documents confessional status, limiting the system of our theology to the boundaries defined there. That said, we do not worship any part of our tradition; we do not believe these theological conclusions are infallible (WCF 31.4). The tradition is an invaluable gift and a guide to reading Scripture.
And, when we discover divergent voices on an issue within the Reformed tradition, this, too, is cause for humility and charity. Such diversity signals complexity, demanding careful reflection and judgments of charity. We should not rush to conclusions over matters that have long been debated within the tradition. In sum, there is much to learn in understanding how and why our theological forefathers reached their various theological conclusions. And, a sound theological method will always be conversant with the interpretations offered within the tradition.
Finally, it is important to recognize that our cultural moment requires a fresh theological task. As John Frame writes, “Theology is the application of Scripture to life.” Therefore, theological work never ceases as we await our Lord’s return. As we face new circumstances and situations, we do so with prayerful dependence upon the Holy Spirit to lead us into all truth through the Scripture (John 16:13). That said, given our sinful weakness, we must ask the Spirit, not simply to illumine the Scriptures, but also to examine our hearts, exposing any sinful motives and desires that cloud our theological judgment. Engagement in the theological task of today is a spiritual exercise, and requires awareness of the role sinful affections can play in shaping our theological commitments.
So, for the sake of clarity, let’s consider a test case.
Some within the denomination believe that the ordination of women into the diaconate is a slippery slope that will ultimately lead to the ordination of female elders and further theological compromises. This view asserts that Scripture clearly limits ordination to males only (Acts 6:1-7; 1 Timothy 2:12, 3:8-13). Therefore, to ordain a female deaconess undermines the authority of Scripture. Once Scripture is undermined, further doctrinal compromise will be inevitable. For a case in point, simply follow the progressive theological decline of the PCUSA. Many of the same arguments used to justify women’s ordination were also deployed years later in support of approving same-sex marriages. Therefore, it is argued, women’s ordination is a slippery slope to be avoided.
However, others posit, on exegetical grounds, that ordained deaconesses operated in the apostolic church (Romans 16:1; 1 Timothy 3:11, 5:9-10). While it is difficult to make a definitive argument, there is a plausible exegetical case. And Calvin, along with others in our tradition, recognized women in this office. Fellow NAPARC denominations, like the RPCNA, have long recognized women deaconesses. For these brothers, there is no slippery slope toward the ordination of women elders because Scripture limits that office to qualified men. Rather, they are simply affirming what they believe Scripture affirms — women in the diaconate.
So, how are we to proceed?
When confronted with such cases, it is essential to evaluate a position based on the theological method informing the conclusion, not the position’s agreement with our personal conclusion. Even if we don’t buy the conclusion, we should ask, “Are the exegetical conclusions plausible, does the position have any resonance in the Reformed tradition, what contemporary problem are they seeking to solve, and is there anything sinful within me clouding my personal judgment?” Rather than assuming ill motive, we should charitably interact with positions that meet these criteria, especially when the tradition does not speak unanimously and there is a lack of exegetical clarity.
To make agreement with one interpretation of a controverted issue the determination of one’s fidelity to Scriptural authority is a massive failing. Unfortunately, this is the direction of many comments involving the slippery slope. And, rather than engaging in sincere discussions about Scriptural interpretation, agreement with a view becomes the litmus test for orthodoxy. This is not a healthy way forward. However, paying attention to theological method allows us to respect brothers even when we disagree with their conclusions. This humble and dependent path is the only viable way forward, offering a way to avoid the slide into godless tradition or cultural compromise.