Tim Keller Should Join the OPC Where Fighting Is A Virtue

Those not going to Nashville for the PCA’s General Assembly may be interested to know that Tim Keller is appearing with Ligon Duncan at a mid-Assembly seminar for what looks like round two of their debate/discussion on the PCA’s identity. For those who want to know what Keller is going to say, no reason to fret. The PCA’s website provides a link to the pdf copy of Keller’s paper, entitled “What’s So Great About the PCA” (or “Why I Like the PCA”).

Most of this elaborates Keller’s views on American Presbyterian history and the various splits and debates that have marked the tradition since emerged in 1706. Here Keller applies the Nick Wolterstorff-via-George Marsden scheme for understanding the three ways of being Reformed in the U.S. – the doctrinalist, the pietist, and the culturalist. (As someone who regularly writes for oldlife has said, where’s the churchly way of being Reformed?) In this paper Keller spells out his dissection of American Presbyterianism in greater detail.

Keller asserts that the PCA has all the branches of Reformed Protestantism and that such diversity is a good thing. Never mind that such diversity in the past yielded splits such as those between the New and Old Sides, the New and Old Schools, fundamentalists and modernists, or the Orthodox and Bible Presbyterians. For Keller the constant bickering and complaining of each branch about the others is a sign of a healthy church. He calls this, following Sean Lucas (in the Nicotine Theological Journal of all places), “big tent Presbyteriainism” where the PCA is grounded in biblical inerrancy and Reformed soteriology and open to social activism. Reading Keller’s description of the big tent I was reminded of Leffert’s Loetscher’s book on the triumph of liberalism and the defeat of confessionalism in the PCUSA, called The Broadening Church. I also wondered if Keller is mistaking the Gospel Coalition or the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals for the PCA, since given the essentials to which Keller points a Baptist or Five-Point Pentecostal could well join the New York pastor’s communion. I even wondered if this kind of diversity, and Keller’s case for letting sessions decide how to use women’s gifts within a congregation, for instance, was a recipe for turning the PCA into the Southern Baptist Convention. (Mark Dever, I love you!)

According to Keller, the PCA is stronger, healthier, and more faithful for having all of these branches on its trunk:

I believe that all the critiques of the various branches are right. The doctrinalist branch can breed smugness and self-righteousness over its purity, and develop almost an Old Testament concern for ceremonial cleanness—namely, that we must not only not promote views that are suspect, but we must not associate with people who do. The pietistic branch is very pragmatic and results-oriented, and it is resistant to enter into processes of discipline or theological debate, even when that is what is required. The pietist branch also tends to give too much credence to pastors who grow their churches large. The culturalist branch becomes too enamored with modern scholarship, and there are plenty of historical examples of how the emphasis on social engagement and justice has led to the erosion of orthodox theology. Neither the culturalists nor the doctrinalists have a good track record of vigorous evangelism. When it comes to culture, the doctrinalists are deeply concerned by any effort to ‘contextualize’ yet are often blind to how accommodated they are to previous cultures (17th century British Puritanism or 16th century European Protestantism, or 19th century Southern Presbyterianism.) The pietists are often blind to how accommodated they are to capitalism and popular culture, while the culturalists are often unaware of how captured they are by elite, contemporary culture.

If you believe that all the critiques are right — then you should be happy (as I am) that the PCA has not thrown out one or two of the branches. If you believe critiques of the other two but you are in denial about the dangers and weaknesses of your own branch, then you will find the breadth of the PCA to be at best troublesome and at worst dangerous.

So the question for Keller is what to do about the diversity. He says first that pruning will not work. Even though pruning is a biblical metaphor, Keller prefers another biological one (remember the ecosystem):

Each branch of Presbyterianism needs the others in order to escape its own inherent blind spots and weaknesses. But the conflicts that arise between the branches often accentuate and stimulate those very weaknesses. Richard Lovelace used to say doctrinalists are like white corpuscles, that are better at defending the faith (against heretical ‘infections’) than propagating the faith. The pietists and reformists are like red corpuscles that in their pragmatism do a better job of propagating the faith and yet often lay it open to doctrinal indifference or decline. Too many white blood cells over red blood cells is leukemia; too many red blood cells over white blood cells is AIDS. We need each other. We can’t live comfortably with each other, but we are much less robust and vital apart from each other.

In which case, the challenge for the PCA is how to manage the pain from this red-in-tooth-and-claw gospel ecosystem. Keller recommends that contestants need to recognize how much controversy is one part theological and another part personal. By acknowledging the personalities involved, the PCA’s antagonists might avoid judging others’ motives and look at their own. Last, Keller advises not changing the original boundary markers of the PCA – inerrancy and Reformed soteriology.

In other words, Keller’s counsel is “rocky, as you go, but let’s rock on.” The PCA needs to keep the contending parties but as long as the controversies don’t get personal, the church should be okay. He does end by mentioning the desirability of spaces where ministers and elders can read common texts and discuss theological topics in the hope of achieving greater unity. But the overarching theme is diversity and controversy are signs of a broad, big-tent, healthy Presbyterian Church.

Since Keller’s response to the idea of pruning the branches is that such lopping off of limbs won’t work, one can return the favor by asking whether his proposal for keeping the peace through constant feuding will work. After all, if the PCA is facing problems of funding denominational programs and agencies, why will congregations in any one of these camps give to the PCA’s big tent when they don’t want a big tent. (Here Keller might want to take a page from his mainline Presbyterian professor, Richard Lovelace, about the problems of breadth under the big tent of the PCUSA.)

Another practical question is one that Keller could have readily learned from his urban experience in the Big Apple. Mayor Rudy Giuliani was allegedly successful in lowering crime rates not by being lenient on small matters and enforcing the big laws but by doing precisely the reverse – eliminating the small acts of indecent and disorderly behavior which in turn cultivated an atmosphere where big crimes became less plausible. Why wouldn’t a “broken windows” policy work better for the PCA than a big-tent? Why not clean up the abuses of the regulative principle, church office, charismatic gifts, and congregational autonomy so that the most important doctrines of inerrancy and T-U-L-I-P remain secure? In fact, it is not at all clear that in all of Keller’s ruminations on the history of American Presbyterianism he is willing to see how the New School culturalists’ inattention to the small items of Reformed faith and practice and eventually blossomed into the big problem of big-tent liberalism

Also, will Keller’s approach work for the PCA if it means that increasingly the decisions of General Assembly look arbitrary and simply the outcome of majority vote? After all, if only the core items need to be affirmed, then the peripheral matters are merely matters of preference to be determined by the shifting demographics of each Assembly. It is hard to imagine how any of the hard core doctrinalists, culturalists, or pietists, those who believe their understanding of Presbyterianism to be the right one, can abide the shifting sands of General Assembly votes.

Aside from practical questions, the ones concerning what’s either right or true are even more pressing for Keller’s analysis. First, a historical question is whether the big-tent of the PCA was actually open to the cultural transformationalism that Keller advocates. When the PCA was formed it was a deeply southern church and Presbyterian conservatives in the South were no fans of an activist church. Granted, Keller hails from the RPCES wing of the PCA, those descendants of the Bible Presbyterian Synod who grew tired of Carl McIntire’s antics but who retained much of his Christian America outlook. The southerners in the PCA were likely unaware that receiving the RPCES into communion would bring a form of religious social justice since they thought they had left such Protestantism behind in 1972 in the mainline church. But after thirty years of the Religious Right, most conservative Protestants in the United States are much less squeamish about calls to transform the nation. Still, the fact remains that the original boundaries of the PCA did not include social transformation or political activism.

Another normative question concerns where truth is in Keller’s version of the PCA. All of the branches need each other because they are all flawed. That may be Keller’s opinion but plenty of those within each branch believe that the doctrinalist, culturalist, or pietist positions is taught in Scripture and faithful to their Lord. This also means that their criticisms of the other position are intended not as a method of keeping the other side accountable but as a way to correct error and maintain a true church. In other words, the controversies in the PCA stem from real disagreements, both about what counts as core, and what the core is. These differences stem not from wrong motives or defective personality traits but from the nature of truth itself — that some ideas exclude others.

Keller would likely prefer to fudge the truth dimension of the PCA’s conflicts because the communion’s standards do not create much room for either the pietists or especially the culturalists. If the Confession and Catechisms are constitutional markers in the PCA, if they determine the boundaries of faith and practice, then either an emphasis on experience as the surest sign of true faith or a determination to employ the church in cultural activities are not within the bounds. This is not meant to scare culturalists and pietists. It is simply an attempt to read the Westminster Standards honestly and truthfully.

In the end, Keller’s understanding of the PCA’s boundaries is akin to the effort by the Auburn Affirmationists, another version of New York Presbyterianism, to circumvent the Westminster Confession. To be sure, Keller’s method is not liberal the way that the Affirmation was. But by redrawing the boundaries of core beliefs to something much narrower than the Standards themselves, Keller is, whether he knows or intends it, undermining the confessional basis of the PCA.

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33 Comments

  1. Jp
    Posted June 30, 2010 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

    Solid! Thanks. When are we going to hear a constructive proposal for the fourth category of American Presbyterianism (i.e., the liturgically Reformed)? Due to its scarcity, many of us cannot afford Recovering Mother Kirk and would appreciate being reminded of the fourth way to be Reformed in America.
    Aside from RMK, your future work in the area of LR Presbyterianism could help those of us who, according to the Marsden taxonomy, either get labeled or are forced to identify with the doctrinalist camp (read: TR) instead of one of the other two ways of being Reformed.

    Longing to wear the LR badge of honor and be understood,

    -Jason

  2. Eddie J
    Posted June 30, 2010 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

    Is Keller arguing then that the differences are merely a matter of emphasis, as opposed to method and theology? Or is he allowing greater differences than that?

  3. Posted June 30, 2010 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

    Dr. Hart,

    Thank you for the post. I am very interested to see what comes out of the PCA General Assembly this week. I am afraid that the Rev. Dr. Keller’s opinions are widespread in our sister denomination.

    Blessings,

    Everett
    sDg

  4. Posted June 30, 2010 at 5:55 pm | Permalink

    As a confessionalist, I find the (supposed problematic) characterization of “doctrinalists” interesting. As you quote Keller, he says doctrinalists can be overly concerned with ‘ceremonial cleanness,’ in thinking that “we must not only not promote views that are suspect, but we must not associate with people who do.”

    If by “suspect” views he means those contrary to our Confession, and if by “not associate” he means not admit to the Lord’s Supper, then Keller is saying he thinks there is a contingent of close communion or confessional membership advocates in the PCA. I doubt he is right. I don’t know of any practicing close communionists in all of NAPARC, except perhaps a few Heritage Reformed Congregations.

    Where are these doctrinalists?! I need to find them.
    Any help?

  5. Brad
    Posted June 30, 2010 at 8:10 pm | Permalink

    DuGnos, you hit this one over the fence! I’m at the GA. Why couldn’t you have come as an OP observer??

  6. Cris D.
    Posted July 1, 2010 at 10:45 am | Permalink

    Dr. Hart – Thanks for this, very interesting.

    Couple of questions: the Wolterstorff/Masrden 3 strands of being Reformed in America were originally spelled out as characteristics of distinct denominations, right? The old Southern Presby were the reformed pietists, the warmly evangelical Calvinists; Old School Northern Presbyterians the doctrinalists, etc. Is that correct? And then, is it correct to see all 3 present in the PCA?

    If so, would it proper to conclude if we embrace the 3-strands/1 organization (we are all valid and we need to correct each other), doesn’t that prepare the soil for the “Broadening Church” theme and results to just play out all over again in the PCA?

    I think Loetscher’s Broadening Church is a very valuable study. I’ve often wondered if I have seen it playing itself out again even within the OPC itself?

    Further insights? Future essays?

    -=Cris=-

  7. dgh
    Posted July 1, 2010 at 11:01 am | Permalink

    Cris, the way Marsden broke it down, the doctrinalist was most characteristic of the OPC, the culturalist of the CRC, and the pietist of the New School. But to combine all of them is to have a broad church.

    I think you’re right about a possibility for a broad church in the OPC, but that has been changing over the last 15 years, thanks in large part to an effort to reconnect with the OPC’s past. I have a history of the OPC in preparation for the 75th anniversary in 2011 that lays out this shift.

  8. dgh
    Posted July 1, 2010 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

    JP, not sure what to say about a sequel to RMK. Either way, the best way to be LR is to belong to a Reformed communion and be bound by its worship, teaching, and discipline. That’s not so hard, is it?

  9. Mike K.
    Posted July 1, 2010 at 10:01 pm | Permalink

    @Jp, how can the “LR” confessionalists be a fourth camp in the doctrinalist/pietist/culturalist taxonomy? One of the stated reasons for the position is to temper individual idiosyncrasies with a shared confession instead of hoping we just cancel each other out.

    If doctrinalists are aloof and smug, then sports fans yell and software engineers are pale. But confessionalists are harder to dismiss with a stereotype without having to channel the New Side.

  10. Darrell Todd Maurina
    Posted July 2, 2010 at 5:35 am | Permalink

    Cris wrote: “Couple of questions: the Wolterstorff/Masrden 3 strands of being Reformed in America were originally spelled out as characteristics of distinct denominations, right? The old Southern Presby were the reformed pietists, the warmly evangelical Calvinists; Old School Northern Presbyterians the doctrinalists, etc. Is that correct? And then, is it correct to see all 3 present in the PCA?”

    The distinction makes much more sense in the Netherlands where there were massive differences in the 1800s between the pietist tradition, the Reformed scholastics, and the followers of Abraham Kuyper who emphasized cultural transformation.

    While there may be a lot of parallels between Dutch Reformed scholasticism and the conservative American “TR” tradition (otherwise, the cooperation in the early days of Westminster Seminary would have been impossible), and there are some important similarities in emphasis between political and cultural reform-oriented men like Dr. Abraham Kuyper in the GKN and Dr. D. James Kennedy in the PCA, Dutch Reformed pietism is most emphatically **NOT** American evangelicalism.

    Even today, the churches tracing their roots to the 1700s pietism of the Dutch Second Reformation that led to the creation many years later of the Gereformeerde Gemeenten (Netherlands Reformed Congregations and Heritage Netherlands Reformed Congregations here in North America) and the Christelijke Gereformeerden (Free Reformed Churches here in North America) as well as the Gereformeerde Bond within the old mainline state church have very little in common with what might be called Reformed Scholasticism. An intense emphasis on not only doctrinal orthodoxy but also deep personal introspection simply is a different category from the churches that became the Gereformeerde Kerken, the Dutch equivalent to the Christian Reformed Church in North America.

    I’ve never felt the Wolterstorff/Marsden distinction, which does apply fairly well to the Dutch, was terribly helpful in an American context. Anyone who spends much time visiting a Canadian Reformed or Netherlands Reformed or Protestant Reformed church environment will see huge differences in personal piety, preaching, and church life — differences much greater than the typical American experience in church life. Where is there a PCA in which most all the members dress in black or dark clothing to come to church, where head coverings are standard for women, and where most of the professing church members do not come to communion out of fears of personal unworthiness? That’s pretty standard in the Netherlands Reformed and to a lesser extent in the Heritage Netherlands Reformed and Free Reformed. Where is there a PCA in which there is anything close to a Canadian Reformed emphasis on the “one true church?” Where is there a PCA where members are required to come to a central communion table with elders appointed as “table watchers” to make sure nobody participates in communion who has not a member in good standing or has previously been approved by the consistory? To ask those questions is to answer them; the Dutch distinctions simply don’t apply very well to the modern American Presbyterian experience, though they might have applied in the 1700s.

    New England Puritanism of the 1600s and 1700s, Scottish Presbyterianism in the same period, and its parallels in Ulster and North America combined all three emphases at the same time without the same level of bitterness felt by the Dutch, but by the time of the New School-Old School divisions of American Presbyterianism and parallel movements in American Congregationalism, the issues were much deeper and included the fight over Finney’s theology.

    I don’t want to cast stones at Tim Keller without understanding his reasons and motives, but even if the three categories apply fairly well to Dutch church life, I’m afraid he’s using them to cover up deeper differences in the PCA that are far more serious. Nobody in their right mind questions the commitment of the Protestant Reformed, Netherlands Reformed, Canadian Reformed, or Free Reformed to biblical inerrancy, catechetical memorization, Reformed worship, predominant psalmody, or other forms of very conservative confessional church life, despite all the differences between those denominations. Neither the PCA nor the OPC come anywhere close to that level of uniformity in church life.

  11. Zrim
    Posted July 2, 2010 at 7:32 am | Permalink

    Anyone who spends much time visiting a Canadian Reformed or Netherlands Reformed or Protestant Reformed church environment will see huge differences in personal piety, preaching, and church life — differences much greater than the typical American experience in church life/

    Darrell,

    To the extent that the PRC comes out of the CRC, might one who has also spent much time in the CRC chime in?

    Having spent the first few years of Christian faith in broad American evangelicalism, then the last 15 in Dutch Reformed enclaves, I would agree with you that there are important differences between Dutch Reformed piety and American evangelical piety, but they are finally differences without much distinction. Essentially, both are largely pietistic (concerned for personal holiness) and very interested in cultural impact and relevancy. Having myself come to the end of my rope with broad evangelicalism I thought I had found the embodiment of confessional Reformed Protestantism within the CRC, but it only took a couple of years to figure out that it was evangelicalism with a lot of confessional trappings.

    I will give the Dutch Reformed big props for starting out with a high and affirming view of creation (where the American evangelical, following his Anabaptist ancestors, seems to begin with a low, Gnostic and suspicious view), but things quickly turn south in their transformationalism.

  12. Posted July 2, 2010 at 8:13 am | Permalink

    As someone who relearned how to be a Christian at Dr. Keller’s feet, by attending Redeemer week after week back in the early 00s, I found this thorough examination of his perspective on the PCA fascinating.

    I originally found this blog because I was trying to find a way to contact you, Prof. Hart. Having been unsuccessful, I’m going to lay my question out here. I haven’t succeeding in finding a short historical narrative of the separation of church and state in America that was available online and which didn’t fall into one side or the other of the polarized Christian-America vs. proto-atheist-America divide. I know there are a number of books that provide a fairly nuanced story, but do you know of any briefer pieces – ideally, of course, something available online – that do a good job of suggesting some of the complexities?

  13. dgh
    Posted July 2, 2010 at 8:29 am | Permalink

    Mr. Draper, brevity is key. Phillip Hamburger’s book on church and state published by Harvard is very good and thorough. Several issues are at play in these debates. Some are constitutional and legal. Some are theoretical — philosophical and theological. I think you’d be wise to consult the on-line resources at the Intercollegiate Studies Institute’s online journal First Principles on the American experience: http://www.firstprinciplesjournal.com/index.aspx?theme=amexp&loc=p

  14. Posted July 2, 2010 at 8:58 am | Permalink

    Thank you for so helpfully pointing me in a fruitful direction. (And doing it w/ brevity, in obedience to your own advice.) I hope your Sunday worship this weekend is somehow appropriate to its convergence with Independence Day without veering into heresy. Or, to put it more carelessly, happy 4th of July!

  15. Cris D.
    Posted July 2, 2010 at 9:21 am | Permalink

    DGH – Thanks for the response. I will be interested in the works coming out in recognition of the OPC’s 75th anniversary.* Interesting to see your remark about a turn about in the last 15 years within the OPC. That largely overlaps with my 17-yr sojourn in the Canadian Reformed federation – and thus not yet caught up on all those intervening years. Since a variety of circumstances brought me back to the OPC a few years back, I would agree with your observation, and should have made by remark about a broadening OPC a tad more nuanced than I did.

    My old friend Jack Saywer is working on an essay for something 75th-Related.

  16. Walt S.
    Posted July 2, 2010 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    “I think you’re right about a possibility for a broad church in the OPC, but that has been changing over the last 15 years, thanks in large part to an effort to reconnect with the OPC’s past. I have a history of the OPC in preparation for the 75th anniversary in 2011 that lays out this shift.”

    Can you help me out on this one, DGH? To what are you referring?

    Other than that, this article was superb as usual.

    I wonder why Keller thinks the rest of us who want to be confessional even have the time or the energy to tranform the culture? It seems to me that working, raising and catechising my child(ren) and going to church on Sunday are more than enough to fill out my calendar but maybe childless urban SWPL hipsters have a lot more time on their hands.

  17. Ken Pierce
    Posted July 2, 2010 at 8:32 pm | Permalink

    So, Darryl, when will you be bringing the world-and-life-view OPCers up on charge to expel them from your denomination?

  18. Posted July 2, 2010 at 8:48 pm | Permalink

    I wonder why Keller thinks the rest of us who want to be confessional even have the time or the energy to tranform the culture? It seems to me that working, raising and catechising my child(ren) and going to church on Sunday are more than enough to fill out my calendar but maybe childless urban SWPL hipsters have a lot more time on their hands.

    Bingo. On top of those same duties where success is relative, I can’t even get my drive-through orders to not return to me void. What in thee heck makes anyone think I’ll be able to influence spheres of earth I’m not even ordained over?

  19. dgh
    Posted July 2, 2010 at 9:17 pm | Permalink

    Walt S., partly it refers to the reality that the OPC voted itself out of existence two times, once to merge with the RPCES and once to join the PCA. Both votes garnered a majority of commissioners but not the needed super-majority.

    Ken, Nov. 17, 2010, 10:45 am.

  20. Posted July 2, 2010 at 10:27 pm | Permalink

    Ken, I’m not sure what Darryl has in mind for 17 Nov… but, before a confessionally Reformed church prunes itself for (anti)”cultural” reasons, it should do so for (pro)doctrinal reasons. In other words, there’s no chance any one is getting disciplined for something extra-confessional, when the churches cannot manage to biblically discipline members for anti-confessional belief & practice.

    So… I guess no one has any leads on where those real doctrinalists are? I’m quite serious about finding some.
    Anyone?

  21. Brad
    Posted July 3, 2010 at 5:38 am | Permalink

    DuGnos: RPCES and PCA, two bullets dodged. And say that as someone just returned from the PCA GA.

  22. Walt S.
    Posted July 3, 2010 at 10:43 am | Permalink

    So… I guess no one has any leads on where those real doctrinalists are? I’m quite serious about finding some.
    Anyone?>

    I’ve been to a bunch of PCA churches and have yet to find one. Supposedly they exist. Actually, that’s not true. I’ve been to one in Boulder. The Keller model is pretty much all I’ve seen and, sorry, all I found is that the cultural mandate overwhelms the preaching of the gospel.

    Hate to sound harsh but I wouldn’t call these churches true churches.

  23. Posted July 4, 2010 at 12:31 am | Permalink

    WaltS, well I’m not asking only about PCA congregations. I mean anywhere.
    Does anyone know of an actual NAPARC congregation that has confessional membership (or “close communion”) ?

  24. Posted July 4, 2010 at 7:19 am | Permalink

    I am puzzled over Keller’s comments about maintaining the doctrinal markers of inerrancy an Reformed soteriology in light of Tim’s warm endorsement of the BioLogos Foundation and it tack on inerrancy ( which cannot be harmonized with Historicl Evangelicalism) as well as Redeemer’s recent sponsership of NT Wright who , despise his claims to be ‘reformed’, is hardly a confessional Calvinist.

  25. Walt S.
    Posted July 5, 2010 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

    Baus,

    Every URC I’ve been to in SoCal requires you to agree to the Three Forms of Unity to be a member. Communion is allowed if you talk to the elders beforehand and are a member in good standing of a NAPARC congregation.

    I’m not sure if this answers your question.

  26. Posted July 5, 2010 at 5:33 pm | Permalink

    WaltS, well you point out a problem of which I was suspicious. Even the congregations that have a sort of confessional membership among “vowing” enrolled members… they still open the table to visitors who may yet oppose some article of their confession.

    I’ve also heard that URCs are not actually uniform in their “enrolled” confessional membership, congregation to congregation. Some URCs have as open communion as the average PCA.
    I’ve been told the HRCs, FRCs, and CanAmRCs are the same.

    Anyway, if there was a given confessional Presbyterian or Reformed congregation that had genuinely close communion, I’d be interested in contacting the Session or Consistory.
    Thanks.

    All this just goes to say, Keller’s objection to the supposed “bad” tendency of doctrinalists is a fanciful fabrication. If only it weren’t.

  27. Posted July 5, 2010 at 6:39 pm | Permalink

    Baus,

    Part of the issue is that most confessionalists in the PCA are still not likely to practice close communion or call for member subscription. I don’t see this as a bad thing though, and this is where we are obviously going to disagree. Our standards do not require fencing the table, and our BCO does not require member subscription.

    The biggest issue I have with your position is not whether or not a congregation practices close communion, or employs some sort of fencing, that is the prerogative of the sessions is question, and I do respect this and wouldn’t raise a stink if I visited a congregation that wouldn’t commune me on this basis. However, requiring these measures in Reformed churches would leave many who a) are new to the tradition, and/or b) take issue with certain portions of the WCF without the means of grace, which are indeed God’s gifts to his people. I am of the opinion that if NAPARC took this sort of stance it would do more harm than good.

    It is the prerogative of each denomination to set its own communion policies, and where they allow individual congregations latitude, each session to set precedent for their own congregations. In my own limited experience, those who practice open communion have good reasons for doing so, and they would argue their positions are both biblical and confessional.

  28. Posted July 5, 2010 at 7:13 pm | Permalink

    Of course whether implementing close communion does more harm than good is “irrelevant” if the Scriptures require close communion. You seem to hint at recognizing this, but then you seem to suspend the normative question, and urge your view based on likely consequence.

    Hypothetically, it could be that close communion is either required by Scripture, forbidden by Scripture, or adiaphora and a matter of prudence… if it were merely a question about decency and order. But as it is a matter of faith and worship, it is subject to the Regulative Principle, therefore is either required by Scripture… or else some other boundary is required.

    Prima facie, a variable “session-controlled” policy in this matter is seriously problematic.

  29. Walt S.
    Posted July 5, 2010 at 9:12 pm | Permalink

    Baus, what can I say? The Reformed churches in the US are in a sorry state generally. At least, they’re off their confessional moorings.

  30. Posted July 5, 2010 at 9:56 pm | Permalink

    You’re absolutely right in setting the criteria within the confines of Scripture and the Regulative Principle. From where I see it, there is no sense in denying those who are baptized members of the visible church to be communed. I see no injunction in Scripture that gives ministers the authority to deny the means of grace to believers. The warning, with respect to communion is to the partaker, who is admonished to partake of the supper in a worthy manner, it isn’t to the minister to determine whether or not the partaker is qualified to partake.

    The open communion model upholds this, by emphatically stating who communion is for, what manner it is supposed to be taken, and the grace it confers upon the believer. In the open model, the minister acknowledges his own limitations, and allows God to deal justly with those who partake in an unworthy manner.

    I am open to being persuaded if it could be demonstrated clearly from the confessions and scripture that close communion is the way to go, but honestly, from where I sit I just don’t see it.

  31. Posted July 6, 2010 at 9:48 am | Permalink

    Jed, the rejection of pedocommunion is still coherent even upon non-close communion assumptions. In brief, it is not baptism but rather “discerning the Lord’s body” (ie, recognizing the sacramental nature of the meal, spec. the real Spiritual presence of Christ in it) that is decisive according to 1Cor.11:29.

    In any case, the responsibility of elders to admit or bar wouldbe communicants is not mitigated by the personal responsibility to judge oneself. And, in brief, the criterion for admission that elders are to apply is not restricted to mere “credible profession of the gospel,” but includes submission to their teaching to observe all that Christ has commanded, per Matt28:20.

    In sum, the biblical teaching of close communion can be understood clearly not only from the duty of the church in the Great Commission, but also from the exhortations to all “speak the same thing,” being of the same mind and judgment (eg, 1 Cor.1:10) and to stand firm in all the doctrine (eg, 2Thess.2:15), and that those fellow-believers who otherwise do have a credible profession of the gospel, and are thus to be considered “brothers,” nevertheless must not be admitted to the Supper whenever they fail to hold to what is taught (2Thess3:14-15).

    This clear biblical teaching is Confessionally affirmed, among other places in the WLC.
    #113 explains that “misinterpreting, misapplying, or any way perverting the word, or any part of it,… or the maintaining of false doctrines” are forbidden, and #173 explains that “notwithstanding their profession of the faith, and desire to come to the Lord’s Supper” those who maintain false doctrine “may and ought to be kept from that sacrament”.

    As it was for me, I am confident that studying the Rev.John Anderson’s work should be especially helpful to you (and all confessionally Reformed believers) who desire to recover genuine Reformed faith and practice.
    see here: http://honest2blog.blogspot.com/2010/04/recovering-reformed-communion-2.html

  32. Posted July 6, 2010 at 11:13 am | Permalink

    Baus, You make some interesting points here, and as in many of our conversations I have much to think on before I can offer a fuller response. However, one question still looms large, and that is the question of subscription: My communion (PCA) has historically allowed her ministers to take exceptions to various tenets of the confessions that they cannot hold and teach in good conscience (cf. WCF 20). These exceptions are approved in the church courts, which means that the PCA can hardly fence the table due to a lack of *quia* subscription. What level of subscription do you have in mind here, and is there place for those who take exceptions to the standards at the table?

    It seems that WLC 170 speaks to errors of a more egregious nature, exposing a lack of “reformation” that would be grounds for barring, even here, there appears to be an element of subjectivity where the session must make a judgment call based on the quality of the would-be communicant’s “reformation.”

  33. Posted July 6, 2010 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

    The sort of subscription would indeed have to be “quia”. Whether or in what way a church might, with integrity, provide for exceptions to “wording” is another matter.

    I should say too, of course the qualifications for ordained office (other than the same quia subscription required of all communicants) are those specified in Scripture that include a solid, mature understanding of biblical doctrine and ability to teach, which are not requisite for non-ordained communicants.

    It is true that elders exercise a “subjective” discernment when judging whether to admit or bar a wouldbe communicant. But the standard according to which they render judgment is (or ought to be) itself an “objective” standard. Of course secret hypocrites will remain, as the Scriptures warn us they will. Nevertheless, the church is able –according to the Word, by the Spirit– to exercise her duty, and conduct her ministry faithfully.

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