Maintaining Unity in the PCA
The Usefulness of the Westminster Standards
In his short essay, “Is the Shorter Catechism Worthwhile?” B.B. Warfield told the following short story about the importance of loving the teaching of the Westminster Shorter Catechism:
A general officer of the United States army…was in a great western city at a time of intense excitement and violent rioting. The streets were over-run daily by a dangerous crowd. One day he observed approaching him a man of singularly combined calmness and firmness of mien, whose very demeanor inspired confidence. So impressed was he with his bearing amid the surrounding uproar that when he had passed he turned to look back at him, only to find that the stranger had done the same. On observing his turning the stranger at once came back to him, and touching his chest with his forefinger, demanded without preface: “What is the chief end of man?’”On receiving the countersign, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever”—”Ah!” said he, “I knew you were a Shorter Catechism boy by your looks!” “Why, that was just what I was thinking of you,” was the rejoinder.
My initial exposure to the Westminster Standards (i.e., the Westminster Confession of Faith, and Shorter and Larger Catechisms) was a significantly less advantageous experience. As a new convert, I was surrounded by a number of seminarians who seemed to principally appeal to the Standards in order to critique and correct the erroneous theology of others. This fostered in me the perception that the Standards were fundamentally polemical in nature. I began to view the Westminster Confession of Faith as a restrictive and contrarian document—as something akin to legal documents rather than a theological document full of spiritually rich expositions of biblical truth. Additionally, I have met numerous ministers in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) who have expressed almost a sense of embarrassment when speaking about the Standards on account of their antiquated origin and language.
Over the years, however, I have come to view the Westminster Standards, not through the lens of early pejorative experiences but through the lens of ongoing Christian experience and pastoral ministry. I now have a deep love for the Standards as being a succinct exposition of biblical truth and articulation of the doctrines of the Protestant tradition. The Standards are a doctrinal outline of the Christian faith—full of both doctrinal and experiential truth.
The Westminster Standards have long served as the doctrinal standards to which ministers and churches in Reformed Presbyterian churches adhere. While the Standards have been a staple of Reformed Presbyterianism for centuries, they were first and foremost ecumenical documents—the product of 120 of the greatest theologians in all of church history. The members of the Assembly, who themselves served in different ecclesiastical fellowships (having quite a number of differing theological opinions among themselves!) sought to walk together as far as they could for the sake of biblical fidelity and doctrinal unity. Meeting over 1,130 times in 6 years, the members of the Assembly have given us one of the most careful articulations of the Christian faith even written.
In Reformed Presbyterianism, the Westminster Standards are just that—the standard by which we vow to test our doctrinal formulations. Ministers and members alike are to appeal to them to express what we believe to be biblical teaching and to reject what lies outside the bounds of confessional orthodoxy. They are not inspired and inerrant documents. God has reserved those categories for His breathed-out Word. The Standards can, by proper process, be amended by our denomination—a process to which God’s Word may never be subject. While we acknowledge that the Westminster Standards are human documents—subject to revision—one old Southern Presbyterian professor stated so well the importance of the theology of the Westminster Standards when he said, “The theology of the Confession of Faith is not perfect; but, it’s better than yours; and, you can have your theology corrected by a diligent study of it.” That sentiment captures the high regard that Reformed Presbyterian ministers have had for the Westminster Standards.
The Usefulness of the Standards
Despite the fact that the Standards have always held a uniquely important place in Presbyterian church history, many American Presbyterian ministers have either denied their teachings, ignored their usefulness, or simply given lip service to the vows that they took to uphold and teach their truths. Downplaying the importance of the Westminster Standards lay at the root of the Old School/New School division in the 19th Century—a division that resulted in the toleration of doctrine and practices that opposed the clear teaching of Scripture and the Standards. Additionally, it was a neglect of confessional orthodoxy and a denial of the integrity of the vows that Presbyterian ministers took that led to an embrace of theological liberalism at the turn of the 20th Century in the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America and at Princeton Theological Seminary.
There will always be those who deny the teaching of the Confession, ignore its usefulness, or give lip service to the vows that they have taken to uphold and teach its truth. The last of these dangers is perhaps the most subtly pernicious. J. Gresham Machen explained that those who tolerated the shift towards theological liberalism in the Presbyterian Church, in the name of unity, were more dangerous than the theological liberals who were pressing for the diminution of doctrinal fidelity and confessional orthodoxy. In Christianity and Liberalism, Machen wrote:
Many indeed are seeking to avoid the separation. Why, they say, may not brethren dwell together in unity? The Church, we are told, has room for both liberals and for conservatives. The conservatives may be allowed to remain if they will keep trifling matters in the background and attend chiefly to “the weightier matter of the law.” And among the things thus designated as “trifling” is found the cross of Christ as a really vicarious atonement for sin.1
The tendency for ministers to utilize the subtlety of arguments that press for unity as over against truth (or, unity as being “weightier” than truth) ought to alert us to our own need to be diligent in defending confessional integrity in the PCA. Real and lasting unity is rooted in truth. We are far from immune to a shift toward theological liberalism. To think otherwise would be the height of foolish self-confidence.
This ever-present danger is intensified by the fact that we live in a day and age when men and women treat the vows that they have taken before God with little to no solemnity. Individuals throw away their marriage and walk away from local churches over the most inconsequential issues. The Scriptures are clear about the seriousness with which God deals with the vows that we take before Him. In Ecclesiastes 5:4–6, Solomon explained,
When you vow a vow to God, do not delay paying it, for he has no pleasure in fools. Pay what you vow. It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not pay. Let not your mouth lead you into sin, and do not say before the messenger that it was a mistake. Why should God be angry at your voice and destroy the work of your hands?
Both ministers and members of PCA churches take vows to “maintain…the purity and the peace of the church” (BCO 5-9 (i.3), 21-5 (6) and 57-5). Those of us who have taken ministerial vows must seek to keep those vows with the utmost seriousness. If we treated the quest for unity in our marriage as being more important than the quest for truth, duplicity, deceit, and infidelity would run rapid and ultimately destroy any and all unity. It is unimaginable that any Christian would desire anything less than loving unity in truth with his or her spouse. How equally zealous ought we to be for loving unity in truth in the Church of God, the bride of Christ which He purchased with His own blood! After all, ministers in Christ’s church have been entrusted with the great stewardship and principle task of maintaining the peace and the purity of the bride of Christ.
A consideration of our own experiences, the nature of the Standards, the history of American Presbyterianism, and the biblical teaching on vow-making should help awaken in us a desire to pursue confessional integrity in our own lives and ministries. Here are four ways that we, as ministers in the Presbyterian Church in America, can pursue such confessional integrity:
- Incorporate the Westminster Standards into our regular devotional and theological diet. We do ourselves an enormous disservice by failing to read the Standards regularly and devotionally. Whenever I have recognized such a deficiency in my own life and have returned to a meditative study of the Standards, I have come away sensing the enormity of the benefit derived. There is almost no theological subject upon which they do not touch. Additionally, the Standards have experiential warmth that is meant to stir the hearts of men and women unto a greater love for Christ and a deeper commitment to seeking after God.
- Assimilate the Westminster Standards into our regular preaching ministry. There is no better source of theological definitions than those we will find in the Westminster Shorter and Larger Catechisms. For instance, if we are preaching from the Scriptures on the subject of regeneration, justification, sanctification, adoption, faith, or repentance, we will find no more careful and succinct definitions than those which we find in the Shorter Catechism.
- Integrate the Westminster Standards into the ministries of our congregations. While some will have an initial reversion to it, one of the best things that we can do in our children’s ministries is to have our children memorizing the Shorter Catechism. A systematic approach enables us to cover nearly every precious doctrinal truth of Scripture with our covenant children. This is not to say that it should be a replacement to Bible memorization or teaching. However, there is no better supplement. After all, as Warfield expressed, we want our sons and daughters to grow up to be Shorter Catechism boys and girls.
- Defend the Westminster Standards in the courts of our denomination. We who have taken ministerial vows to the Standards should be diligent to defend their teaching in the courts of our church. This means that if we serve on theological examination committees (i.e., committees appointed for the examination of men for licensure and ordination) we should test all theological answers against the clear teaching of the Standards we have vowed to uphold.
- J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdman’s, 1923), 160.