Food for Thought

From a recent SJC decision:

The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church in America is of course subject to and subordinate to the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. We need to be able to affirm that the use of words in our Standards is faithful to Scriptural intent and meaning. However, we cannot now argue that because the Constitution uses a word in a single way, the church must restrict its formal use of that word to the manner in which it is used in the Constitution. To do so would be to subject the Scriptures to our Standards, and effectively sever the tie that allows for our historic understanding of semper reformata.*

Now, as we’ve rehearsed on here before, I’m not a “Federal Vision advocate,” but I did want to see that those who espoused those views received fair treatment. (If you’ve ever been treated unfairly yourself, this sort of becomes a big thing for you.)? One of the contentions of the Federal Vision proponents is/was, with regard to election, that while the Constitution of the PCA (the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms) use the term “election” in only one way, the Bible uses it in more than one way. Whenever they would bring up this argument, however, they were accused of being disingenuous or putting up a “smoke screen.”? Now the SJC has ruled in a case that revolves around this very issue: does the Bible sometimes use terms in a different manner from the Confession?? The SJC’s answer, in this case, is, “Of course it does.”

In the current case (quoted above), a mission church had designated someone as a “minister” who was not ordained clergy. This practice was opposed by some at presbytery, but the mission church’s decision to use the title “minister” for a non-ordained staff member was upheld by presbytery. Some within that presbytery complained. The SJC has denied the complaint, on the grounds quoted above.? The fact is, the SJC is saying, that although the Confession and Catechisms always use “minister” to denote ordained clergy, the Scriptures use it in other ways, and so we “cannot restrict the formal use of that word to the manner in which it is used in the Constitution.”

The decision goes on to say that the complainants “are properly forced to meet a very high standard” and goes on to cite BCO 29-1 in support of this assertion:

An offense, the proper object of judicial process, is anything in the doctrines or practice of a Church member professing faith in Christ which is contrary to the Word of God. The Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms of the Westminster Assembly, together with the formularies of government, discipline, and worship are accepted by the Presbyterian Church in America as standard expositions of the teachings of Scripture in relation to both faith and practice. Nothing, therefore, ought to be considered by any court as an offense, or admitted as a matter of accusation, which cannot be proved to be such from Scripture.

Last summer at GA, in reference to the Federal Vision situation, Joe Novenson displayed his irenic spirit when he made a motion that the PCA do just what BCO 29-1 tells us we ought to do:? bring the differing parties together, Bibles open, so that every accusation could be proved or disproved from Scripture.? His motion was soundly defeated when it was likened to inviting criminals to sit on their own jury, the “criminals” in question being ministers in good standing in the PCA who were not under any kind of censure.

The Federal Vision controversy is not over.? In the future, those who lead the charge against it need to be prepared to make their case from Scripture, as the BCO says we must, not only from the Confession and Catechisms.? All parties must also allow that the Confession does not have the last word: the Bible does.? To restrict the Bible’s use of language to the Confession’s use of that language would be, in the words of this SJC decision, “to subject the Scriptures to our standards.” It is possible that the Bible can use terms in a different way, or in more ways, than the way the Confession uses those same terms.? The SJC has, at least in this decision, now acknowledged that fact.

By saying this, I will probably be labeled a “Federal Vision sympathizer” by some.? That’s not the case, but even if it were, that’s beside the point.? The point is that, regardless of “who’s side” we’re on, we must all do things the right way.? We must prove these matters from Scripture.? We must not find someone guilty until proven innocent.? We must pursue justice and fairness for all concerned.? We must put an end to the climate of suspicion that makes a man reticent to speak what he believes to be the truth of Scripture because he fears being classified as belonging to one “camp” or another.? We must stop the sloganeering, stop the litmus tests, and get back to discussing the Scriptures.

*By the way, it’s semper reformanda, not semper reformata. Reformata is perfect passive (“having been reformed”); reformanda is future passive (“to be reformed”). Semper reformata doesn’t make sense.


About revjatb

I am a father of six who is trying to do his best! My interests are varied. I have one blog, KnowTea, that is primarily focused on liturgy and worship and another one, Bengtsson's Baking, that is about, well, baking! I hope you enjoy both of them, and if you have any questions, please contact me!
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9 Responses to Food for Thought

  1. Ed Eubanks says:

    I’m glad you pointed out that correlation. I thought the man who likened Joe’s motion to “inviting the criminals to sit on the jury” should have been ruled out of order (like that was going to happen).

    Wouldn’t Semper reformata make sense in a conversation in the New Jerusalem? “Yeah, it was solid seeing the church ‘always having been reformed.'”

  2. Ed Eubanks says:

    sorry about failing to close my tag…

  3. PaulB says:

    Because of the close ties i have with the situation in Denver, I’ve stayed away from a lot of the particulars. I think it’s been a case of “I just don’t want to know.” That’s lame, but I could see things heading in the direction that they have with a close personal friend, who has had as much to do with me in ministry as anyone, leaving the PCA.

    I know that the case made for using “minister” as City Pres in Denver chose to use it was arguable, since we also have “Youth Mnisters” “Children’s Ministers” and “Music Ministers” and most often they are non-ordained and no one pitches a fit.

    I’m glad to see the SJC stand with the Scriptures as our only authority and thus speak the way that they have. I agree that I thought Joe Novenson’s idea had great merit and was surprised and disappointed it did not pass. The problem with FV, in my opinion (and this is oversimplified) is that as soon as you start talking about differing views on something like justification, expect hysterical reactions. Some of this is for good reason, some obviously not.

    The same could be said for City Pres. Because the *hint* of women’s ordination comes up in the discussion, there’s an hysterical reaction and we’re naive if we don’t see that coming.

    Just my $0.02.

  4. RevJATB says:

    Thanks, Paul. I also should have said that I actually disagree with this particular SJC decision. I believe we should reserve the term “minister” for ordained clergy. But we don’t have a specific provision in our standards that requires churches to reserve that term for ordained clergy. If someone wants to propose such a change to the BCO, I’d be in favor of it.

    I also agree that the FV situation is highly charged. In particular, it’s views on perseverance/apostasy make me very nervous, as well as its views of “the obedience of faith,” which I do believe are at odds with sola fide. I’m not interested in a bunch of discussion on here on that point. I know there are plenty of people who could jump in at this point and try to convince me of FV theology, but I don’t want to get into all that here.

    To me, there is just the basic issue of fairness. When we disagree, we’ve got find a way to have a “sacred conversation” about issues without getting hysterical.

  5. RevJATB says:

    Ed, no worries about the tag: I fixed it!

  6. Jeff Meyers says:

    What is this recent SJC decision?

  7. RevJATB says:

    Sorry, I should have said. It’s a preliminary ruling by a panel. Here’s a link to the whole thing:

  8. Ever since I joined the PCA, I’ve been thrilled whenever I come across posts like this. Well-written. It was last summer that my wife and I decided to join, and just a week after that decision, the GA debacle happened, and I was so thoroughly discouraged. I’m not right in line with Doug Wilson et al on a lot of things… But I think N.T. Wright’s theology is more often on the mark than off, and I really do like Leithart’s work a lot. I’m more FV than I’d probably care to admit to, say, the WNY presbytery (which is why I’m still balking at the pursuit of ordination, I suppose).

    In any case, like I said, well-written and encouraging. Noveson was right on the mark.

  9. Boethius says:


    I’ve been reading a bit on the 16th-century lately and it strikes me that certain members of the PCA are behaving toward the “Federal Vision” folks as certain members of the Roman curia behaved toward Luther. (Perhaps not really listening, assuming the worst, allowing the desire to maintain power to trump caritas, etc.)

    Of course this analogy breaks down rather quickly, but it is striking how often history tends to repeat itself.


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