I recently became aware that J. Gresham Machen authored a counter-affirmation to the Modernist Auburn Affirmation (see Stonehouse’s biography of Machen, page 357). The second and fourth points neatly dovetail into the case I’ve been making about the EPC and confessional interpretation. While the doctrines under consideration in the EPC do not strike at Nicene Christianity, and thus the stakes are lower than in the 1920s, the contours of the debate are similar: Who should interpret the church’s doctrinal standards, and what should that interpretation be? Machen’s counter-affirmation, reprinted below, could be helpful.
A Counter-Affirmation designed to Safeguard the Corporate Witness of the Presbyterian Church to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
We the undersigned, ministers of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, having been made cognizant of an Affirmation signed by one hundred and fifty ministers in protest against the action of the General Assembly of 1923, and being convinced that the Affirmation will have an effect detrimental to the unity and corporate witness of the Church, desire to make the following answer:
I. The constitution of the Church, though it does not claim infallibility for itself, clearly does claim it (in the pledge required of all officers) for the Scriptures. This fact is ignored and in effect denied in the Affirmation.
II. The right of interpretation of the Scriptures and of the system of doctrine contained in the Confession does not mean that any officer of the Church may interpret the Scriptures or the system of doctrines described in the Confession as he pleases. Every interpretation must confirm to the meaning of the Scriptures and of the system of doctrine contained in the Confession where the meaning is clear. The interpretations for which toleration is asked in section IV of the Affirmation, on the contrary, reverses the plain meaning. Thus the Affirmation really advocate the destruction of the confessional witness of the Church. To allow interpretations which reverse the meaning of a confession is exactly the same thing as to have no confession at all.
III. In section IV of the Affirmation, the five points covered in the pronouncement of the General Assembly of 1923 are declared to be “theories” which some of the signers of the Affirmation regard as satisfactory but which all the signers unite in believing not to be the only theories allowed by the Scriptures. This means that the Scriptures allow the Virgin Birth, for example, and the bodily resurrection of our Lord to be regarded both as facts and not as facts. We protest against any such opinion. The redemptive events mentioned in the pronouncement of the Assembly are not theories but facts upon which Christianity is based, and without which Christianity would fall.
IV. We believe that the unity of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America can be safeguarded, not by a liberty of interpretation on the part of the officers of the Church, which allows a complete reversal of perfectly plain documents, but only by maintenance of the corporate witness of the Church. The Church is found not upon agnosticism but upon a common adherence to the truth of the gospel as set forth in the confession of faith on the basis of the Scriptures.
Last year I drafted an outline for what an intentionally, far-reaching strategy to support disenfranchised Christians could be. The inspiration comes in large part from Rod Dreher’s book Live Not By Lies, but with a practical focus on supporting Christians who lose their livelihoods and social resources as a result of staying faithful to Christian ethics.
If the church is going to urge Christians to choose suffering over conformity to the world, we should also be prepared to care for those who have lost out for the sake of Christ. That requires the standards of ethical behavior to determined in advance rather than being left up to individual consciences or corporate charity. The church needs to take the lead. Using the 10 Commandments as the jumping off point, I provide a sketch for ethical requirements alongside areas of current social pressure. While the tools for practical implementation have a slight EPC-bent, they should be amendable to most evangelical traditions.
We were required to read John Frame’s “Machen’s Warrior Children” in seminary. It was intended to be a warning against denominational quarrelsomeness, but had the effect of puffing us up: We’re charitable, winsome Presbyterians, not like these other petty “Truly” Reformed types who make everything a battle. Rereading the article, it is pretty clear that the most common denominator and antagonist in these debates is not Machen’s Warrior Children, but John Frame. Doctor, heal thyself.
Last week Jake Meador urged the PCA and the broader confessionally Reformed, Protestant world to move on from the human sexuality debates. He says,
[T]he best thing that could happen right now is if reformed protestants in the US treated those [the PCA’s and ACNA Bishops’] reports as consensus documents that are broadly representative of where we are on these matters. There’s no reason that pastors in the PCA, OPC, EPC, ECO, ARP, REC, and ACNA can’t begin using these two statements in their ministry as a way of helping church members and visitors understand where they basically stand on these matters. Collectively, those seven communions number over a million weekly attendees. Given the disastrous ways evangelicals have often discussed matters of sexuality in the past, it would be an enormous win if a critical mass of our reformed congregations began to use these two statements more regularly.
I think Jake’s impulse is right, but there are still several legitimate barriers to doing that. There is not unanimity, and sometimes there is silence, on the pastoral question of whether someone should repent of an LGBT/SSA orientation. I have written extensively on this subject, but my argument is that orientation and desire/affection are distinct (something many Side B proponents also argue), that LGBT/SSA orientation may be sin, but may also describe an externally inflicted propensity, that mortification sin and the flesh is the best pastoral category in addressing this subject, and that Westminsterian confessionalism bears this out…
“’The Essentials are set forth in greater detail in the Westminster Confession of Faith.’ These are the final words of the Essentials, present since its drafting in 1981. This states clearly what was reaffirmed throughout the EPC’s history: the Essentials is a summary of belief, with the WCF as the fuller account. For the Essentials to be set out in greater detail in the WCF implies that there is an agreement between the two documents, with the WCF’s meaning taking priority over and defining the meaning of the Essentials. The point of this quotation is to affirm that no matter how extensive the Essentials is, its full meaning is found in the WCF. In other words, the Essentials is not an expansion of the WCF that could be reasonably understood to contradict the WCF. Otherwise the WCF would be set out in greater in the Essentials! The Essentials is a summary, the true meaning of which is in the WCF. The position of the EPC, then, is that the Essentials mean what the WCF says.”
- The Essentials is the essentials of being an evangelical, but its use as an essential distillation of what it means to a Christian, or being orthodox, of the meaning of Westminster Confession of Faith, of what EPC officers need to believe, or the beliefs of the EPC, is common in the church. None of these alternatives are accurate or work.
- Deleting the Essentials takes nothing away from the doctrine of the EPC, while deleting the Westminster Standards would radically alter our character. In that sense, the Essentials contribute nothing to the EPC. However, it is common to hear people say that they are in the EPC because they can hold to the Essentials and not worry about Westminster. This produces confessional schizophrenia.
- Taking the Essentials at face value shows contradictions with the WCF. Yet, the EPC insists that there is contradiction. The only tenable conclusion is that the Essentials mean what Westminster says. This again makes the Essentials confessionally meaningless.
- The process for making the Essentials constitutional failed to reckon with the incompatibility between it and the Westminster Standards. The Essentials’ constitutional role is already ambiguous (not part of the Standards or the Book of Order, nor part of the ordination process), but the lack of due diligence on this point makes the legitimacy of the Essentials’ constitutional addition suspect.