I have already raised the question about whether belonging to a denomination like the OPC is a good thing. Now as I sit through a prolonged and valuable procedural debate at General Assembly, I wonder again why pastors who want big, contemporary congregations that appeal to Protestants without great biblical or theological discernment and who prefer up-tempo Christian songs led by praise bands (without brass instruments, mind you) — why do these officers endure the deliberations that consume sessions’, presbyteries’, and assemblies’ time and talents. What do you gain by being a minister in a Presbyterian communion like the OPC? It is not as if the OPC is a brand that attracts visitors and new members. You don’t put the OPC logo on your church signs to watch the parking lot fill. So why put up with the often baroque dealings of church courts and committee reports when you are not so particular about worship, the fine points of the confession, and the rigor of Reformed piety (e.g. Sabbath observance)?

I have come up with three reasons for people who come into the OPC and stay there.

1) Tribalism: Someone whose father or grandfather left the PCUSA in 1936 with Machen. The notion would be something like, “this is the church where my family has worshiped for three generations and so out of loyalty to my kin and I remain a true blue Orthodox Presbyterian.” Other Reformed communions, those with ethnic identities, like the CRC (Dutch-American) or RPCNA (Scots-American) have ethnic attachments that generally elude the OPC. But in some cases, you do see how family keeps some Orthodox Presbyterians Orthodox Presbyterian. (Of course, the nature of covenant nurture itself is a form of tribalism since a child baptized and nurtured in an OP family and congregation, who remains OP, does so in part as part of generational succession.)

2) The Cause: People who identify with Machen and the battle against liberalism in the church and who defend the authority of Scripture come to the OPC and stay there because the denomination is the embodiment of that cause that J. Gresham Machen led throughout the 1920s and 1930s. This was a big factor in my own joining the OPC and continuing to serve. This understanding of OPC identity has sometimes run up against a view of the OPC as a church committed to the Great Commission in which polemics and debate distract from evangelism and edification. The problem with this view is that you wouldn’t have the OPC without polemics and debate. So seeing the very pieces of the church’s DNA as antithetical to evangelism and mission is to be in denial about the denomination’s origins. For these OP’s, evangelism and edification occur in the context of polemics and debate.

3) The Reformed Faith is Pretty Good Great: Another way to identify with the OPC is to look at the central dynamics of the Reformed branch of Protestantism and try to find them in existing communions where you live. Then find and join the one that is most interested in a ministry reformed according to the word of God. Any number of communions could qualify as following in the larger footprints of the Reformation, but judging which one is most reformed according to the word determines which one you join. (Since having to think about the global history of Reformed Protestantism, I have come to regard and identify with the OPC on these grounds.)

I’m willing to lengthen my list.


Is It Too Much to Ask?

For honesty?

Why can’t Roman Catholic apologists be as realistic as Boniface (on Synod 2015)?

(5) Speaking of “failed marriages”, let us remember that marriage is a sacrament. Sacraments do not fail. Are there “failed” baptisms, “failed” ordinations, “failed” confirmations? One is either baptized or one is not. One is either confirmed or one is not. One was either ordained or one wasn’t. Similarly, one is either married or one isn’t. You cannot have a valid, sacramental marriage which has “failed” in the sense that the problems of one marriage can render it null and permit a person or persons to be subjectively convinced that they are now free to remarry. Sacraments do not fail. A marriage is a marriage. It is not an ideal that only the perfect arrive at. It is not “an authentic conjugal project.” It is a sacrament – a sacrament which more or less grace may be available depending on the disposition of the spouses, but a sacrament nonetheless – and it is brought into being in its fullness and immediacy by the consent of the parties before the Church’s minister. We must all be on guard against the subtle transformation of marriage from a fact to a mere ideal, and an excessive focus on its natural aspects versus its sacramental character. . . .

(8) The Kasperite Thesis is based on the theory that two people can be sleeping with each other whenever they want to without any intention to stop and not be responsible for doing so. This is what is mean by invoking “limitations on culpability.” The idea of the bishops who promote it is that people are oftentimes trapped in a situation where they do not wish to sleep with each other but find they have no choice–a kind of lack of consent. That’s rather demeaning to the couple, isn’t it? “Well, honey, we’re not really married, and, as a Catholic in the State of Grace, I love God above all things, but I am slave to our circumstances, unable to make a free choice, and so I am going to sleep with you, not as a free agent engaging in a personal act, but as an animal coerced by the unfortunate situation we find ourselves in.” Very romantic, huh? No. Actually, it’s pretty much rape. It is the old liberal talking point that sin is inevitable.

(9) The Pope may be moving towards permitting the question of absolution for those living in an adulterous second union to eventually be answered by episcopal conferences. He said:

“[W]e have also seen that what seems normal for a bishop on one continent, is considered strange and almost scandalous for a bishop from another; what is considered a violation of a right in one society is an evident and inviolable rule in another; what for some is freedom of conscience is for others simply confusion” (Papal Homily, 10/24/15)

This may in part be a reference to the fact that the African Bishops (and others, such as the American Bishops, for the most part) rejected the Kasperite thesis vociferously. . . .

(11) Though Synod I was a conservative “victory” and though Synod II did not incorporate the worst of the Kasperite heresy in its final document, we should not in any sense these Synods as successes. This 2014-2015 Synod on the Family was probably the most disastrous thing that has happened to the Church since Vatican II. It will take centuries for the damage to be undone – and the damage is already done, regardless of what the final document says, because it has given the impression that fundamental moral doctrines are up for debate. And either way, we should remember that in Synod I, the majority of bishops voted for the pro-homosexual passages; they were not included because the vote did not reach the requisite 2/3, but it did reach a simple majority. This should appall us. Similarly, the fact that one conservative commentator estimated that at Synod II not more than 35% of the episcopate would vote for the Kasper thesis should horrify us. for these numbers mean that between 1/3 and 1/2 of our global episcopate lacks the most basic understanding of Catholic moral theology. Our pastors. . . .

(13) However, while appealing to the memory of John Paul II and Familiaris Consortio may have helped save the day, traditionalist Catholics should not fall into the practice of opposing John Paul II or even Benedict XVI to Francis. Some Catholic blogs still like to paint Benedict as a traditionalist and compare the Benedictine “restoration” to Francis’ lio. But who appointed these Kasperite bishops? Who put these heretics in office? Blaise Cupich was appointed by John Paul II. Kasper was made a bishop by John Paul as well, years after his heretical views were known. Maradiaga was also a John Paul II appointment. Nunzio Galatino, the Secretary of the Italian Episcopal Conference – you know, the one who told the Italian newspaper La Nazione that “My wish for the Italian Church is that it is able to listen without any taboo to the arguments in favour of married priests, the Eucharist for the divorced, and homosexuality” – he was an appointment of Benedict XVI. Reinhard “Kirchensteuer” Marx, the arch-heresiarch of Germany, was appointed by John Paul II and elevated to the cardinalate by Benedict XVI. This nonsense about affirming the good things in homosexual relationships was started by Benedict XVI himself. If you are appalled at the apostasy of these liberals, blame John Paul II and Benedict XVI. They appointed or elevated them. The entire global episcopate – at least at its senior levels – is the creation of John Paul II. I know John Paul II and Benedict XVI look pretty good now compared to Frankie Uno, but John Paul II and Benedict XVI were innovators, too. Taking refuge from the chaos of Francis in the example of John Paul II will get us nowhere.

(all about) I feel Boniface’s pain. He understands he lives in a church militant. Bad things happen and Christians need to beware (even ones who think that papal infallibility solves everything or keeps Roman Catholics from being as inferior as Protestants).

I can’t feel Susan’s joy, Mermaid’s naivete, or James’ hyper-assurance. It doesn’t make sense of the real world.

If only the blogosphere had more voices like Boniface’s. We wouldn’t agree on the church or salvation. But we would agree about the importance and value of being circumspect.

Postscript: I listened to a very good interview with the person behind the pen-name and his experience as mayor of a small Michigan city. Turns out it’s hard to be an exceptionalist about the United States if your realistic about the church. But I’d vote for this guy. Augustinians all.


How soon the glory has departed. The streets department in Philadelphia has barely collected the porta-potties and barricades after Pope Francis’ glitch-proof visit (minus that Kim Davis ambiguity) and Father Dwight is embracing the suck:

Why are there so many Catholics who are down on Pope Francis, biting their nails over the Synod on the Family and searching the skies for signs of the world’s end?

To be sure we live in uncertain times.

Read history. When were the times certain?

To be sure the church seems to be under threat–undermined by corruption and heresy within and attacked by persecution and infidels without.

Read your history. When was it otherwise?

To be under attack, to witness our church’s life as “the long defeat” is par for the course. It’s the default setting. As it was in the beginning is now and ever shall be.

Its a sign of our authenticity, or were you forgetting that?

Where is the faith of the faithful? God is with his church. Did you really think the gates of hell would prevail against her? Did you really think she would be forgotten by the Holy Spirit? Did you really think he would abandon his bride?

Are you upset that Cardinal Kasper and others burble away on the fringes of heresy and schism? There have always been disputes in the church. Are you dismayed that a “liberal mafia” may have pressured Pope Benedict from office, schemed to put Pope Francis on the throne and is planning a progressive coup in the church? So it has always been. There has never been a time when the Vatican was free from political machinations, corruption, deceit, human pride and ambition.

So the reason to become Roman Catholic is, we suck as much as Protestants do? Now that’s audacious.

Called to Discombobulation

I wonder if Stellman needs some coaching from Mark Shea:

It was around here that I entered the Church (1987) and fairly quickly surveyed what I took to be the lay of the land. The Church, I gathered, was divided between the loopy left and what Peter Kreeft called “non-revisionist Catholics”, aka “faithful conservative Catholics” who accepted the whole of the Church’s teaching, including the inconvenient and difficult Pelvic Bits, and tried to live that out. Having endured numerous nutball Seattle liturgies (“in the Name of the Creator and the Redeemer and the Sanctifier, may God our Father/Mother bless you”) with edited scripture readings sanitized for my protection and commentary such as “This passage is a crock” from the Seattle priestly caste, as well as instructions to just feel free to blow off the Church’s more inconvenient teaching, I came into the Church ready to stick it out defiantly against the lefty Seattle fiefdom with its sneering contempt for orthodoxy and its naked disdain for the Holy Father (my DRE loved to mock the Polish accent for the benefit of the RCIA class and tell the newbies what a buffoon the pope was for upholding the Church’s teaching. It made my blood boil. Only silly ultramontanes believed all that junk JPII said, I was assured.)

So I entered the Church in 1987 and set out to seriously live by the profession “I believe all that the holy, Catholic Church, believes, teaches, and proclaims is revealed by God.” Found a great parish in Seattle (Blessed Sacrament) full of wonderful Dominicans who taught me that the key to happiness as a Catholic was what Sherry Weddell has come to term”intentional discipleship”. That means not merely getting the sacramental card punched once a week, nor figuring out strategies for doing as I pleased while checking off a minimum daily adult requirement checklist on bare minimum cooperation with the Holy Spirit when he doesn’t get in my way, but making a serious stab at asking “What do you want me to do today, Jesus?” In this, I assumed that the great secret underground of Faithful Conservative Catholics was my allies and that the mission was to infiltrate, undermine, and destroy from within the regime of liberal dissent I’d seen up close and personal here in Seattle. Seemed reasonable.

Consequently, I took the formulation of the Five Non-Negotiables (abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem call research, human cloning, and gay “marriage”) as common sense as, I have no doubt, did whoever formulated them. I can’t remember when I first ran across them (sometime in the 90s I think) and I have no idea who came up with them, but they seemed (and seem) to me to have a certain prima facie common sense to them: Here are five big issues that, at the very least, Catholics should agree on. The “at the very least” was always, for me, the key phrase. It never occurred to me that Catholics would insist that these are the only things Catholics should care about, much less that Catholics should seize on these things to attack other aspects of the Church’s teaching. That was, I assumed, what the Liberals did with their hyperfocus on protesting the Trident base over at Bangor while turning a blind eye to Seattle’s abortion mills. So I happily embraced the five non-negotiables as as a sort of quick and dirty summary of bare minimum adherence to the Church’s fundamental teachings about the dignity of human life, and the family. It didn’t and shouldn’t exhaust our understanding for the Church’s social teaching. But it sketched out the floor of that teaching, below which we cannot go. If you wanted a much fuller teaching, there was the Seamless Garment, which always impressed me as a fine, nuanced, balanced, and sane approach to articulating the whole of the Church’s consistent ethic of life. Indeed, back in the day, I once wrote a piece for the National Catholic Register, sketching out the sanity of the Seamless Garment and more or less naively assumed all Catholics agreed with this obvious, catechism-based, common sense.

At least conservatives in the PCUSA used to claim that their communion before 1967 had not changed its doctrine. An entire Christian tradition, from Augustine of Hippo to Zoe of Rome, boiled down to five moral claims?

I still wait for the Callers to acknowledge the discrepancy between their Call and their Communion. The former may have a certain logic, but the latter has all the marks of the Protestant mainline circa 1970. Here’s a piece of advice to Jason and the Callers — the Call needs to address the conservative Presbyterian opposition to modernism. How those converts got around the modernist trends in Roman Catholicism since Vatican 2 has to owe to the Callers’ divorce of history from truth.

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.