Those not going to Nashville for the PCAâ€™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 PCAâ€™s identity. For those who want to know what Keller is going to say, no reason to fret. The PCAâ€™s website provides a link to the pdf copy of Kellerâ€™s paper, entitled â€œWhatâ€™s So Great About the PCAâ€ (or â€œWhy I Like the PCAâ€).
Most of this elaborates Kellerâ€™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. â€“ the doctrinalist, the pietist, and the culturalist. (As someone who regularly writes for oldlife has said, whereâ€™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), â€œbig tent Presbyteriainismâ€ where the PCA is grounded in biblical inerrancy and Reformed soteriology and open to social activism. Reading Kellerâ€™s description of the big tent I was reminded of Leffertâ€™s Loetscherâ€™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 pastorâ€™s communion. I even wondered if this kind of diversity, and Kellerâ€™s case for letting sessions decide how to use womenâ€™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 cleannessâ€”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 â€˜contextualizeâ€™ 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 â€” 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 â€˜infectionsâ€™) 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 canâ€™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 PCAâ€™s antagonists might avoid judging othersâ€™ motives and look at their own. Last, Keller advises not changing the original boundary markers of the PCA â€“ inerrancy and Reformed soteriology.
In other words, Kellerâ€™s counsel is â€œrocky, as you go, but letâ€™s rock on.â€ The PCA needs to keep the contending parties but as long as the controversies donâ€™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 Kellerâ€™s response to the idea of pruning the branches is that such lopping off of limbs wonâ€™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 donâ€™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 â€“ eliminating the small acts of indecent and disorderly behavior which in turn cultivated an atmosphere where big crimes became less plausible. Why wouldnâ€™t a â€œbroken windowsâ€ 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 Kellerâ€™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 Kellerâ€™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 whatâ€™s either right or true are even more pressing for Kellerâ€™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 McIntireâ€™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 Kellerâ€™s version of the PCA. All of the branches need each other because they are all flawed. That may be Kellerâ€™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 PCAâ€™s conflicts because the communionâ€™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, Kellerâ€™s understanding of the PCAâ€™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, Kellerâ€™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.