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.
“’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.
In 2019 I started a series on confessionalism and the EPC. My initial post received a lot of pushback and interest. That combination led to some good friendships developing and a hesitation on publishing the rest. Now I’ve decided to get the remaining, written parts of the series out there.
All posts in that series can be found here. The first article focused upon the EPC’s amendments to the Westminster Standards and can be found here, something I’ve written about additionally and more accessibly here.
This is Part II, on the EPC’s modern language versions of the Westminster Confession and Catechisms. In summary, I argue that,
- The EPC never adopted the modern language versions of the Westminster Confession and Catechisms. At different points the EPC has approved them for use or publication, but never adopted as the official doctrinal standard of the church.
- The original language version of the Westminster Confession and Catechisms were the original constitutional standard of the EPC, meaning that they are the default standard, not the modern language. If the modern language versions are to be used as the doctrinal standard of the church they would need to be approved following the constitutional amendment process.
- There are significant differences in content between the original and modern language versions of the Standards. The doctrine of God, the imputation of sin, the nature of justification, the accomplishment and application of Christ’s redemptive work, and the nature of the church and its ordinances are all articulated differently in the modern language version. These are significant areas of theology with significant divergences from the constitutional and original version of the Westminster Standards.
- The modern language versions, whether or not they were formally adopted by the EPC, are functionally the confessional standards of our church. They are promoted, published, and used in ways that the original is not. With the differences between the two versions being significant, without proactive reinterpretation by pastors, the modern language version will mislead congregants. Their use should be ended, and if a modern language version is really desired, then a more conservative and less inventive alternative should be endorsed.
I’ve drafted a white paper as a proposal to guide a presbyterially strategized, congregationally executed approach to church health. It is tailored to the EPC’s Presbytery of the East, where I am and the congregation I pastor are members. But the principles apply to any connectional denomination. David Brooks recently in The New York Times highlighted Tim Keller’s 8-point plan for Christian renewal in the United States. Jake Meador today drew out some of the implications of this plan for institution building. That is what this paper I drafted is trying to capture: a fresh, rooted, and aggressive approach to concrete institution building oriented by the church as God’s institution for mission.
The paper can be found here. Below is an excerpt of the first section.
The church receives its life from Jesus. The church is united to him spiritually and mystically, and receives its life from him. He is the vine, we are the branches. No approach to church health, revitalization (i.e. literally “re-lifeing”), or mission can proceed biblically without this reality foregrounded.
Churches are alive and healthy insofar as they truly united to Christ and practicing the means by which that union is deepened. Any conversation about church life cycles, budgeting practices, change management, congregational outreach, effective small groups, etc. is all tertiary to the redemptive work of God in Christ and the means by which the church receives those benefits.
Assuming this or backgrounding it in conversations about church health and mission only results in unhealthy churches and mission unaligned with God…