Is There a Problem with EPC’s Doctrinal “Essentials”?

February 16, 2012

 My readers continue to bless and amaze me, and I am grateful for the corrective comments to my blog post of earlier this week, comparing ECO and EPC.  I will not repeat them here, but want to continue the discussion, because, clearly, folks are thinking about “Where do I go?”

It reminds me of the encounter in John’s gospel (6:66-69):

Because of this many of [Jesus’] disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.  So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?”  Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.  We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”

To be clear, the PCUSA is not to be equated with Jesus himself, so the question for Presbyterians “Where else can we go?” does not lead us to the conclusion that the PCUSA is the only Body that “has the words of eternal life.” That humility is embedded in our Historic Principles of Church Order (F-3.0102, 0107), and, therefore, the question of dismissal to some other body is legitimate.

Since the EPC is one of the destinations of departing congregations, and ECO is rising as another alternative, I have been comparing the two and asking a few questions. My friends in the EPC have corrected a couple of mischaracterizations on my part regarding women’s ordination and organizational “red-tape.” On the latter topic, it seems to me, from the literature provided by the ECO, that the ECO aspires to be a looser association of churches than the EPC is. As is practiced in the EPC, ECO accountability will emphasize relational rather than regulatory form, although I suppose in some egregious situation even ECO could muster formal church discipline.

It would seem, then, that the greatest difference between the EPC and the ECO is in its doctrinal platform: Westminster-only (EPC) compared to the Book of Confessions (ECO). In my last post, I listed the EPC essentials. Would a person who accepts the Book of Confessions as containing the essentials have trouble with any of EPC’s list? The fact is that some liberals do; it was stated in a meeting of our presbytery the shocking news that the EPC believed in the personal, bodily return of Jesus Christ! My conservative colleagues and I looked at each other as if to ask, “And the problem is . . .?” So it might be worth the effort to cull our confessions for a sample of references that support the EPC list of tenets:

1. Scripture infallible, inspired, authoritative: Scots, BOC, 3.18, 3.19; 2nd Helvetic, 5.001–.003; Westminster, 6.001–.010.

2. God’s sovereignty, Trinity: Scots, 3.01; Heidelberg, 4.026; Westminster, 6.011–013.

3. Jesus Christ, Incarnation, virgin birth, substitutionary atonement, resurrection.: Scots, 3.06 & 3.07, 3.09, 3.10; Heidelberg, 4.016-4.049; Westminster, 6.043–.050; C67, 9.08–.11.

4. Holy Spirit: Scots 3.12; Heidelberg 4.053; Westminster, 6.051–.054

5. The human condition, sin, grace, faith, salvation: Scots, 3.02; Heidelberg, 4.003-4.015, 2nd 2nd Helvetic, 5.036–.037, 5.106–.110; Westminster, 6.031–.036, 6.043­.047; C67, 9.12–.13

6. Marks of the True Church (Word, Sacraments, Discipline): Scots, 3.18; 2nd Helvetic, 5.134–135; Westminster, 6.143.

7. Jesus’ return: Westminster Larger Catechism, 7:166; Barmen, 8:17; C67, 9.32, 9:52.

8. The Great Commission: Westminster, 6.046, 6.058, 6.190; Brief Statement, 10.4 (68)

It is safe to say, that everything the EPC holds up as essential is found in the Confessions of the PCUSA. One notices that all of these tenets appear in one form or another in the Westminster standards, but they also appear in  other creeds and confessions of the Book of Confessions.

For some people in my presbytery, the problem with the EPC is that it lists some doctrines (among many) it considers “essential.” It is as if the existence of such a list of non-negotiables is offensive and wrong. But when we PCUSAers refer to the essentials of the Reformed faith and polity that are contained in the Book of Confessions, what do we mean? Here are the choices:

• That there are some essentials (a subset of the whole) that all agree are basic and indispensable to one’s faith (basically the EPC position); OR
• That there are essentials contained in the Book of Confessions, but there can be no list because what is essential to one person (or presbytery) is not perhaps essential to another; OR
• The entire Book of Confessions constitutes essential doctrine.

 A pickle, is it not? In my next post, I’d like to explore the implications of having more than one PCUSA confession and why, for some, this is problematic.

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6 Responses to “Is There a Problem with EPC’s Doctrinal “Essentials”?”

  1. Ron Says:

    I’m firmly in the camp of those whole hold to the “old” historical confessions. I first came into an understanding of this when reading G. I. Williamson’s preface to the first edition of his study guide on the WCF 1964….where he clearly states that even in his early seminary days (~1950) he began to see that later confessions were less in accord with Scripture.

    When Williamson updated his preface in the 2nd edition 2003, he stated that even more today it is important to hold to the original WCF with little change.

    There is a difference in saying that the WCF and other older creeds are in the tenets of the church or book of order vs. actually holding to them and following them..

    From your discussion the more I hear about the EPC the more it is appealing. If they actually hold to the WCF then they can easily win my favor.

    The ECO may produce a nice fellowship forum to gather a lose variety of churches together…letting each follow it’s own ideas, but if this is done in a post-modern way the result might be just another Judges 21:25 era……..

  2. Michael Carey Says:

    An interesting difference becomes apparent when comparing the EPC and ECO stated “essentials.” The EPC essentials are Reformed but avoid language that would be deal-breaking for Arminians. EPC pastors must also declare and explain any scruples they have with the WCF, so to pass muster they clearly demonstrate their Reformed convictions. Yet many of my EPC friends have acknowledged that the same scrutiny isn’t always given in examinations of prospective elders and deacons–the main issue is whether laypeople agree to the essentials. In practice it is easier for laypersons with Arminian sympathies to become lay leaders in the EPC.

    In contrast, the ECO essentials are much longer and much more Calvinist. While the Limited Atonement phrase was (appropriately) dropped as an essential, as currently worded an pastor, elder, or deacon must be comfortable with 4 of the 5 “points” of Calvinism. As our congregation ponders the likelihood of being dismissed into ECO, we’re recognized an unintended consequence–some of our members who are very orthodox are too Arminian to affirm all of the ECO essentials…

  3. Whit Brisky Says:

    I notice Mary that not included in any of your citations to the EPC essentials was C67. Was that because you didn’t look, or because you didn’t find?

    And I suppose this may be part of your next post, but one of the problems with multiple confessions, rather than perhaps a single, integrated one, is that minor differences in language can be used to create apparent conflicts which tend to reduce the authority of the confessional statements.

    • revmary Says:

      Hi Whit—au contraire, I cited C67 in tenets 3, 5, and 7. My format makes it hard to sort all those out; sorry! But yes, your follow-up point is right on target. More on my next post.

  4. Linda Lee Says:

    Although the current PC(USA) would agree with
    the “essentials” as part of the Book of Confession, I see a willingness to set apart some of the Book of Confession. That is the part that talks about the Great Commission.
    My greatest concern with PC(USA) is an unwillingness to define mission as “evangelism”
    and disciple building in God’s word. Instead salvation is liberation and social justice. I see that the GAMC is organizing around these
    committees: Justice, Leadership, Finance, and Worship Communities. There is little about evangelism. Confessions are important because when you share the Gospel message, bring people to Christ, and to the “church” membership for discipleship – it matters what will be taught. For me, lately, this is the underlying issue of where the PC(USA) is no longer a place I can bring people to Christ and then a commitment to membership. I am waiting to see if the ECO will make evangelism key. Thanks for providing an edifying format in these pressing times.

  5. Joe Says:

    Jesus Lead Us! Amen.
    As a follower of Christ, I believe all Christians (and all must truly evaluate why they call themselves Christians) should be careful of placing trust in anything other than scripture. That includes any “mans” interpretation of scripture. We can embrace a confession but always be mindful it was written by man and not necessarily inspired by God. Paul tells us to be weary of men and always confirm what is taught with scripture.
    I resolve myself to not follow Paul, Apollos, Cephas,Calvin, Arminian, for according to scripture I would only be proving my human folly, for I am Christ’s and Christ is God’s..

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