Responding to Joe Small—3: Getting to the Root of Our Divisions

December 15, 2011

Finishing this three-part reflection on Joe Small’s “Open Letter,” the third topic of note requires an historical perspective. Joe writes, “I believe that the current differentiation and likely separation is a tragedy. Could it have been avoided? Maybe . . . but only if decades ago we had found more faithful ways of expressing and living out our differences in conviction.”

As I have explored the arguments and counterarguments for change in the PCUSA (especially in ordination standards), a few historical references repeatedly come up. They link to each other like a daisy-chain, with implications that a radical change of course now would be perceived as a sudden shift from historical Presbyterianism. Therefore, some conservative/evangelical proposals for correction may turn out to be naïve, reversing only the most recent developments following a centuries-old string of events. Nevertheless, I believe that it has been a misrepresentation and misunderstanding of some historic documents that have contributed to the sad state of affairs now.

So now, some groundwork. Working backward, the milestone events of interest to the current debate are these:

• Adoption of Amendment 10-A, now G-2.0104b that omitted the “fidelity/chastity” requirement for ordained officers—2011.
• The Knox Overture, Authoritative Interpretation of 2008, that claims the right of any candidate to declare a departure from any provision of the Book of Order, both in matters of belief and behavior and permission for a presbytery to accept such a departure—2008.
• The founding of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC), where ordination of women would be a “local option”—1981
• The requirement that all officers of the church be willing to ordain and serve with women also ordained to office (the Maxwell case, in the matter of Walter Kenyon)—1975
• The formation of the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA), in response to the adoption of the Book of Confessions and (in their view) a diluting of doctrine of Scripture—1973.
• Adoption of a Book of Confessions to replace the Westminster Standards as the only confessional statement of the church—1967.
• The establishment of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) after conservative professors and pastors were kicked out of the Presbyterian Church for forming an independent foreign missions board—1933.
• The reorganization of Princeton Seminary to include liberals on the faculty, motivating Machen and others to establish Westminster Seminary—1929.
• The Modernist/Fundamentalist Debates of the 1920’s between Fosdick and Machen, which ultimately produced for the Presbyterian Church the Swearingen Commission Report, which denied that a particular set of beliefs was required for ordination—1927.
• The Adopting Act of 1729 which provided the creedal basis for the Presbyterian Church in the Colonies (the “system of doctrine” found in the Westminster Standards) while emphasizing church governance free from civil intrusion (scruples allowed for chapters 20 and 23).

The particular problem I see in the daisy-chain is the dependence upon a redefinition of words over time and taking paragraphs of reports out of context to justify a new Presbyterianism. This new thing lifts up the 21st century trinity of relativism, inclusivity, and tolerance over theological clarity and a desire for doctrinal purity. But even into the 1930’s when the Fundamentalist/Modernist controversy was shaking out, enumerated in the reports were theological/biblical doctrines that were not in dispute, including the Virgin Birth and the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. Substitutionary atonement, as another example, was unquestioned. The statements then, allowing variants in “non-essentials” did not presume to allow or condone the doctrinal heresies we hear uttered in some presbyteries now under the protection of “freedom of conscience” and “mutual forbearance.” The fact is that in the early 1900s and early 1700s, the Presbyterian Church enjoyed a general theological consensus, and in that context the cited documents were generated.

Now, of course, our reality is entirely different. Many have described our current plight as two churches with markedly different theologies living (and fighting) under the same roof. And yet liberals seek protection for unorthodox views from the Swearingen Commission Report and the Adopting Act of 1729, alleging that these reports promote forbearance over theological accuracy. I believe that Mr. Swearingen et al and the framers of the Adopting Act of 1729 are rolling in their graves to be so misinterpreted.

So, in light of our history and in light of the serious theological divide that has been widening since the 1920’s, what would have been “more faithful ways of expressing our differences” then? I will answer tomorrow!

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6 Responses to “Responding to Joe Small—3: Getting to the Root of Our Divisions”


  1. Thank you, Mary, for this series – not only is it edifying for me personally, but it will be very helpful in explaining “how we got here” to the Session

  2. Ron Says:

    I seconded that thought.
    It’s amazing to finally begin to see the light of how conflicts are the very essence of the Presbyterian Church.

    Today’s issues are really rooted in our history 100 years ago.

    As I’ve mentioned before Christianity and Liberalism (1923) ISBN 0-80281-121-3 is still a great read and applies equally today as it did when written.

    For an overview of history (Not that it’s a source I would always recommend), I did find some useful background at: Fundamentalist–Modernist Controversy: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fundamentalist%E2%80%93Modernist_Controversy

    Maybe a good first read for those of us not familiar with the history. Please correct me if the data mentioned are incorrect.

    And, I also found:

    The collapse of the Swearingen Compromise
    Written by Edward Koster
    Monday, 10 September 2007 12:00
    http://www.pres-outlook.com/opinion/guest-commentary/5585.html

    Finally, I’m not sure if it’s proper to mix Bethel Concepts with Orthodoxy….but I keep hearing an echo in my mind about separation as not a bad thing.

  3. frsank Norment Says:

    How does the so called Auburn Affirmation fit into the discussion

  4. Frank Norment Says:

    Corrected spelling of name

  5. L. Lee Says:

    There is another element to this latest history – the sweeping over haul of the BOO and acceptance of the N-Fog. Theology matters greatly, but the N-Fog creates a lack of trust and a feeling of being on the shifting sand
    that will cause the further erosion of the theology. It undermines the aliegence people had to be connected under the PC(USA). Do you think this N-Fog has any affect on the direction churches are taking?

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