Sometimes attendees at General Assemblies of the Presbyterian Church in America remark how discouraged they are by the animated debate they experience. I would like to offer a positive perspective on these debates, and in fact rejoice before the Lord for the vigor with which such debate takes place within the PCA.
Rather than being a negative thing, I believe the animated debate on the floor of our General Assembly is a necessary and blessed gift to us all.”
To explain my joy, I want to point to the helpful work of oft-quoted historian, Dr. George Marsden.
Marsden, a retired University of Notre Dame history professor, has delineated three trends or “currents” within the single stream of the self-consciously Reformed Church. The Reformed Church, like LMPC and the PCA, is committed to the Reformed Confessions (Westminster, Heidelberg and Belgic to name a few) and the theological convictions these confessions articulate.
These three currents can be equally convinced of, and wholeheartedly committed to, the infallible, inerrant truth of the Word of God, and yet disagree on issues because of the perspective from which they view life.
First, there is the doctrinal current. This is the perspective that interprets life and the application of the Word of God essentially in terms of knowing, stating, and embodying doctrines like justification, sanctification, and sovereignty. Dr. R. C. Sproul might be an excellent representative of this current within the stream of Reformed thinking.
Second, there is what Marsden has called the “evangelistic,” or what I would call the “pietistic,” current. This perspective sees life and the working out of the Word of God in terms of impact on the individual as a person. In other words, biblical application in life is measured by knowing whether a person or persons are born again, growing, and deepening in Christ-likeness. Dr. C. John Miller might be a good example of those who stand within this current of the Reformed tradition.
Finally, there is also the cultural transformation current of thinking. Here, faithful application of the Word of God is measured in terms of the impact one has upon the cultures and communities within which Christians currently live. Questions like, is the Word of God impacting the way we handle poverty, race relations, education, art, politics, and social structures? These are asked and answered as litmus tests for faithful application of the Word of God. Dr. Francis Schaeffer would perhaps be an excellent representative of this way of living and thinking.
Each perspective mentioned above brings a needed emphasis to the application of biblical truth, in my estimation. Clearly, no one is simply or exclusively in a single current without some influence from the others. Still, the dominance of a single current can be a defining factor.
In history, these three currents vigorously debate and interact with one another. At times, the vigorous debate has led these three currents to repel and exclude each other. Sometimes even entire denominations have been formed, it seems to me, to embody one current to the exclusion of the others.
I am of the opinion that the PCA is one of the few presently extant Reformed denominations that are made up of all three currents. As a result, every General Assembly is appropriately vigorous in debate on issues of biblical application as each perspective informs the thinking of the speakers that state their convictions.
Hence, rather than being a negative thing, I believe the animated debate on the floor of our General Assembly is a necessary and blessed gift to us all. I would go further and say that the PCA study committees (like the most recent one that produced the study on women’s roles within the church) are perhaps peerless within the Reformed tradition, when they are made up of all three currents of thought.
Few other denominations, if any, could create such a three-dimensional committee. And therefore, few denominations, if any, could produce a paper like the recent study on women’s roles within the church: anchored in infallible and inerrant truth and yet granting a measure of latitude.
I am so thankful to be a part of the PCA at this moment in history. My prayer is that the Lord keeps us faithful to him and his Word in all three dimensions of faithful application of his truth.