When I posted “Let’s Talk First” on this page, I said that our next several commentary posts would suggest how we believe Reasoning Together can apply principles from the Bible and the PCA constitution to promote unity within our ranks. “Let’s Talk First” argued that we our unity is best served when, instead of trying to resolve our differences by rushing to legislation (amending the Book of Church Order to single out a particular disputed belief or practice and affirm or prohibit it) or litigation (using the judicial process for the purpose of declaring that a disputed matter is contrary to our Constitution) we should begin with conversation – listening to each other explain our positions and (hopefully) understanding each other better and learning from each other. As we said, we believe if we listened to each other better it would promote a deeper degree of unity among our ranks.
In this post I will discuss in more detail another principle at the heart of Reasoning Together’s point of view that we believe would promote our unity: responsible freedom. We introduced this concept in our first post; we’ll expand on it here. In that initial post we identified three elements of responsible freedom:
First, it is responsible – that is, it is a freedom that exists within definite theological boundaries. Those boundaries are expressed in the system of doctrine set forth in the Westminster Confession and Catechisms (in the version adopted at our founding). Every PCA officer at his ordination must receive and adopt those documents as containing the system of doctrine he understands the Scripture (our final authority) to teach. A clear commitment to Reformed theology is a requirement for ordination to office in the PCA. We should take the theological commitments of our officers seriously.
Yet we also believe that within these theological boundaries a significant measure of freedom exists – the second element of responsible freedom. That this freedom exists is implicit within the very vow that expresses our adoption of the Westminster Standards. That vow calls us to promise: “if at any time you find yourself out of accord with any of the fundamentals of this system of doctrine, you will on your own initiative, make known to your Presbytery the change which has taken place in your views since the assumption of this ordination vow” (emphasis added). To speak of the fundamentals of the system of doctrine taught in the Standards indicates that there are also matters in the Standards incidental to that system. Furthermore, it is assumed that the vow was originally taken with this understanding in mind (as is demonstrated by the italicized phrase). A few years back, we amended BCO 21 to reflect this understanding more clearly: “Therefore, in examining a candidate for ordination, the Presbytery . . . shall require the candidate to state the specific instances in which he may differ with the Confession of Faith and Catechisms in any of their statements and/or propositions. The court may grant an exception to any difference of doctrine only if in the court’s judgment the candidate’s declared difference is not out of accord with any fundamental of our system of doctrine because the difference is neither hostile to the system nor strikes at the vitals of religion.” Notice how this revision makes the seriousness of our commitment to the system of doctrine taught in the confession clear – doctrinal difference can be approved only if they are not fundamental to the system. Yet it also assumes that one can disagree with some things the Confession teaches without denying the fundamentals of the system it sets forth. In other words, the PCA is committed to Reformed theology, but also believes that theology is not so narrow as to allow only one orthodox expression of it.
Of course that leads us to a significant question – how do we decide if a particular candidate’s doctrinal differences have crossed a theological boundary, and deny a fundamental rather than an incidental of the system? We in the PCA have been reticent to enumerate the fundamentals of our system (rightly, I believe), but we have established a procedure for making a judgment about them in each specific case. The ordaining court, which examines the candidate thoroughly and hears in person the way the candidate expresses and defends his differences with the Confession, and has opportunity to question him at length about those differences, is charged with that responsibility. This is the third element of responsible freedom: the lower courts serve as the principal arbiters as to where the theological boundaries stand. Of course they are not the only arbiters – their decisions are subject to the review by the higher courts; but I would assert that as long as in their exercise of that review, those higher courts accord the ordaining court the great deference normally granted to lower courts as being the body “on the scene” and therefore closest to the facts (in this case, the candidate’s expression of his views), we can maintain a healthy unity without demanding a rigid uniformity while still protecting our doctrinal integrity.