ARPTalk – Issue 3 – Karl Barth, Gay Clergy, and the PCUSA Apostacy

 

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The third issue of ARPTalk contains the following:

A review of Dr. Peter Enns’ book, Incarnation and Inspiration, by Dr. William Evans, Erskine College, “Some Reflections by a Christian College Professor.” This review is found in the E-Magazine, Reformation 21. The link for this article can be found HERE.

This review is also part of the attachments, which may be downloaded via the link on the right.

FYI re Dr. Enns, his book and his position as a professor at WTS: In March he was suspended from his position; in May a special committed was formed by the Board to investigate the situation; in late July his resignation was received by the Board. Dr. Enns’ use of “Incarnation analogy” in order to say that the Scriptures were full of messiness, contradictions and problems was deemed to be inconsistent with confessional position of WTS.

FYI re Reformation 21: If you do not know about Reformation 21, it is a site you need to visit. These people do good work!

A short report on the PCA General Assembly by Rev. Henry Lewis Smith. Rev. Smith, a retired PCA (and former ARP) minister, was a delegate at the PCA General Assembly. Presently he is serving as Pulpit Supply for our yoked churches of Bethel, Camden, and Prosperity in our Tennessee-Alabama Presbytery. See the Attachments – ARPTalk(3), Attachment 1.

A report by Rev. Bryan Crotts on the activities of the First Presbytery Charlotte Area Pastors’ Lunch, July 7, 2008. See Attachments – ARPTalk(3), Attachment 2.

The Editor’s article, “Karl Barth, the PC(USA) General Assembly, and the ARPC,” is below.

I look forward to your responses.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Karl Barth, the PC(USA) General Assembly and the ARPC

For many of us who define ourselves as historically evangelical and Bible-believing, when we read and attempt to fathom Barth or one of his disciples, we have found the effort fruitless and unsatisfying. Their penchant to dialogue with philosophers over epistemological issues, their use of dialectic and their piling up of words like the ocean piles up waves are exasperating. Historical evangelicals are people of the Bible. We are not tortured by questions such as Is the Bible the Word of God? or When or how does the Bible become the Word of God? That which tortures us is Why haven’t I obeyed what the Bible says?

Barth’s impact on the North American church has been significant. While his influence seemingly faded after his death in 1968, we are now seeing a neo-Barthian resurgence. This is evident even among left-wing, postmodern evangelicals, who have grown tired of the traditional evangelical doctrine of inerrancy, finding it too constraining. Barth has even influenced how evangelicals think about the relationship between social issues and evangelism. My concern here, however, is how Barth and neo-Barthianism have influenced the North American church, especially the PC(USA), to think about the Bible regarding sexual ethics and ordination.

The maddening thing about Barth and those now venerating some of his theological emphases is their approach to the Bible. Unsophisticated evangelicals such as I am are not bold enough to confuse illumination with inspiration. Our premise is The Bible is the Word of God written. We seek to understand the Bible according to the Reformation guideline of the analogy of Scripture—i.e. testing Scripture by Scripture (Acts 17.11).

Barth as he interacts with Biblical data and the epistemological musings of post-Kantian philosophers imposes a theological/ontological template or grid of being and becoming over the Bible and begins asking where the Word of God is found in our encounter with the human and fallible words of the Bible. At first glance this seems impressive. However, a perplexing question dangles: Where did Barth get that template? Did he walk outside on a bright summer’s day and pull it out of the blue sky? And another question: What caused Barth to think that God wanted him to use such a template to measure the Bible?

The manner in which Barth uses his template results in a conflation of inspiration and illumination that, in turn, threatens the objective message and authority of the Bible by submerging it in a morass of human subjectivity. Regardless of the protestations of his followers, Barth exalted his reason above both the Bible and the God of the Bible he professed to honor.

Just as troubling is Barth’s interpretation of the Bible that uses a two-pronged dialectic. On the one hand, Barth speaks of the Bible as inspired, divine and authoritative; on the other hand, the Bible is a book of men only, faulty but perhaps suggestive. However as the Holy Spirit leads one to encounter the message, in hocus pocus like fashion, the Spirit empowers the words of the Bible, breathes life into the Word to establish the Word of God somehow witnessed by the Scriptures, authoritative, divine, powerful and holy. How does this happen? Who knows! Indeed, in many ecclesiastical circles it has become impolite to question such alleged spiritual and theological depths! These workings are shrouded in mystery and paradox, moving them beyond mere inquiry into the extra-spiritual realm.

Rest assured, my theological imprecision glosses over much. In fact, it smears over the jot and tittle of the Barthian dialectic like a Wagner spray painter. But have I really missed something? My conclusion is that Barth and his compatriots delight in approaching but never quite arriving at an objective standard of Truth—a Thus saith the Lord. 2 Timothy 3.7 is a warning against such methodology. For Barthians, evangelicals who point to a text of Scripture and say Thus saith the Lord are idolatrous in that they confuse the fallible words of Scripture with the dynamic Word of God. Evangelicals such as I am are viewed by Barthians as blessed possessors who deny the sovereign freedom of God to speak when and how God wills.

Does this Barthian conjuring up of the Word of God somehow contribute to the relativism and the moral laxity in the North American mainline churches today? The question my mother always asked about a pie she made was How does it eat? Is this not a fair question to be asked of Barth and his disciples?

In spite of Barth’s intellectual accomplishments and his supposed dedication to the church, it is interesting that for Barth the Bible might not have became the Word of God with regard to the seventh commandment. For 35 years Barth lived with his wife and with a former student who became his secretary in the same household. Even some of his sympathetic biographers have referred to this odd arrangement as troubling and painful. Forgive my cynical mind, but if this is not a violation of the seventh commandment, what would a violation look like?

Certainly Barthianism and neo-Barthianism are no longer the reigning theological perspective in the PC(USA). They have advance (or perhaps I should say degenerated) even beyond that. Yet one wonders whether Barth’s fuzzy and malleable ideas regarding how an authoritative Word of God is constituted out of the data of Bible have contributed to the moral confusion in sexual issues and the reconfiguration of church government so as to allow for the ordination of practicing gays and lesbians in the PC(USA).

At the most recent meeting of the highest court of the PC(USA) the General Assembly did the unthinkable, the unconscionable, and acted in a manner most unholy. On June 26th, reporter Eric Gorski (“Presbyterian assembly votes to drop gay clergy ban”) wrote, “The denomination’s General Assembly, meeting in San Jose, Calif., voted 54 percent to 46 percent Friday to drop the requirement that would-be ministers, deacons and elders live in ‘fidelity within the covenant of marriage between and (sic) a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness.’” Gorski also reported, “Of equal importance to advocates on both sides of the debate, the assembly also voted to allow gay and lesbian candidates for ordination to conscientiously object to the existing standard. Local presbyteries and church councils that approve ordinations would consider such requests on a case-by-case basis.” Accord to Gorski, “That vote was ‘an authoritative interpretation’ of the church constitution rather than a change to it, so it goes into effect immediately. The interpretation supersedes a ruling from the church’s high court, issued in February, that said there were no exceptions to the so-called ‘fidelity and chastity’ requirement” (emphasis mine).

Gorski writes, “The proposed new language would demand candidates ‘pledge themselves to live lives obedient to Jesus Christ the Head of the Church, striving to follow where he leads through the witness of the Scriptures, and to understand the Scriptures through the instruction of the Confessions.”

Lisa Larges of the pro-gay ordination organization That All May Freely Serve, stated, “This week the General Assembly voted from faith rather than fear” (Gorski). She also noted, “They voted for a vibrant future of our church. . . .” (Gorski).

Such news is shocking. These actions open to question the orthodoxy of the PC(USA). Within the General Assembly a supra-historical encounter of the Spirit with the data of Bible has lead to a dynamic Word of God witnessing a revelation of contradiction that countenances perversion. What the Bible inarguably identifies and church history confirms as a violation of the seventh commandment and sexual perversion, after some sort of encounter with the Spirit’s taking the church in a new direction of truth, has been redefined as normativeand permissible, if not celebrated, for clergy.

Is this sort of thinking the legacy of Karl Barth and many of his followers in the PC(USA)? I am sure there are other ingredients to this mess, but my question remains: Is this the legacy of Barth?

Sadly, I do not have much hope for the so-called conservatives in the PC(USA) either. Some have withdrawn or are withdrawing. Some will stay. The constant, however, is the theological perspective: a Barthian view of the Bible. The proof of my statement is in their allegiance to the 1967 Confession, which proposes a Barthian reconstruction of Bible so that there is disjunction between the words of the Bible and the Word of God.

Perhaps the key difference between the liberals and the conservatives in the PC(USA) is not theological but social. The conservatives are socially conservative and social conservatism in sexuality does not abide homosexuality. However, the theological hermeneutic of both is the same. The hermeneutical principles that justified the ordination of women to the office of elder years ago are the same hermeneutical principles that are used to justify the ordination of practicing homosexuals to the office of elder today. The only differences are in degree and social opinion.

Beware the leaven of the Barthians!

Some will read what I have written and say I have overreacted and become an alarmist. However, an article by Princeton Theological Seminary Barthian William Stacy Johnson in the Christian Century entitled Barth and Beyond seems to support my concern. Johnson writes:

“To reckon with Barth, then, is to encounter one whose theology later inspired liberation theologians in Latin America and antiapartheid theologians in South Africa — a theologian who felt that what you pray for, you must also work for. To invoke the mantle of Barth for the cause of a narrow doctrinal confessionalism, in other words, simply defies the record of history, as is happening today when ultraconservative activists appeal to Barth and the Confessing Church movement to justify their stands against such things as the full inclusion of people who are homosexual or against any sort of new thinking in theology. Not only is the birthright of the Confessing Church movement more ambiguous than they suppose, but Barth himself is more complex and his pronouncements more determined by his social situation than some would care to admit.” (William Stacy Johnson, “Barth and Beyond,” The Christian Century, May 2, 2001)

How does this impact on the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church? There are more, but let me share the following three (3) concerns:

Because of the size of the PC(USA) and the historical connections that the PC(USA) has with all the Presbyterian denominations in North America, the wake of the PC(USA), regarding social, ecclesiastical and theological issues is so great that all are left to navigate in those waters—calm or rough. The Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church is no exception. Erskine Theological Seminary has a modest number of PC(USA) students and four PC(USA) professors. The agency whereby the ARPC and the PC(USA) credential military chaplains is the same agency. The ARPC and the PC(USA) are in fraternal correspondence. In these matters, how do we respond without compromising our integrity? Has the PC(USA) crossed the line into outright apostasy, making these relations, in some cases, problematic and, in other cases, impossible?

At the 2008 General Synod three motions regarding the Bible were passed that affirmed the position of the ARPC on the Bible as clearly inerrant. One of the delegates who spoke in opposition to those three motions asked why there was a fierce urgency for passing those motions. Subsequent actions by the PC(USA) have answered the question regarding the fierce urgency. This illustrates our need to be urgent with such weighty matters. Our people need to be made aware of the issues at stake and the challenges before the church of the twenty-first century. Do we as a General Synod understand that there is always a fierce urgency to stand for the integrity of the Bible, lest it be lost?

There are three issues that need immediate and careful attention regard Erskine Theological Seminary and our relationship to the PC(USA).

1. Dr. William Stacy Johnson, Arthur M. Adams Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, author of the article Barth and Beyond and the book A Time to Embrace is an advocate in the PC(USA) for gay marriage and gay and lesbian ordination. He was a student of Dr. John H. Leith at Union Theological Seminary and Johnson and Leith co-edited two books. During his career Dr. Leith was recognized as a theologian who stood broadly in the neo-orthodox tradition of Karl Barth, Emil Brunner and the Niebuhrs. Indeed, in his last days, as Dr. Leith watched the decline of the denomination that he loved, some of his views seem to have moderated. However, all that we are left is the legacy of his written words. The catalogue description of the new John H. Leith Chair at Erskine Theological Seminary reads that the holder of that chair must represent the theological teaching of John H. Leith. Is this the description to be used regarding the Leith chair? This is puzzling and unsatisfying for those such as I am. If this chair is to have the respect of the ARPC, careful definition and refinement of language are immediately needed.

2. The Calvin Colloquium, now residing at Erskine Theological Seminary, presents serious concerns. In the past this organization drew much of its participation from the PC(USA). With frequent and notable exceptions, the Calvin scholars who present their papers espouse neo-Barthian positions. Many will acknowledge that it was the last meeting of the Calvin Colloquium that precipitated the debate and the actions that followed regarding biblical authority at the 2008 General Synod of the ARPC. What is the future for the Calvin Colloquium as it now resides under the oversight of the ARPC through the agency of Erskine Theological Seminary?

3. In what may be interpreted as a controversial business decision, made without formally informing the General Synod and asking the General Synod’s directions in this matter, it seems that Erskine Theological Seminary is maneuvering to develop a specific stream of students from the PC(USA) conservative and Confessing Church movements. New Professors with PC(USA) and Confessing Church credentials have been hired. Are they in place because they are prophets crying in the wilderness of the PC(USA) without a place to go or are they in place to make the teachings of Erskine Theological Seminary palatable to the leaders and students from the PC(USA) conservative and Confessing Church movements? No one I know in the ARPC opposes the teaching of Barth and neo-Barthians. Our seminarians ought to read these theologians and be able to articulate their arguments. The question we want answered is this: Is Barthianism or some form of neo-Barthianism being taught as a PREFERRED theology? We are delighted when all our seminary’s students are taught to defend the faith. We are horrified if they are confused and weakened. Whatever our seminary does, as it comes in contact with the elements of the PC(USA), needs to be carefully scrutinized and husbanded.

I have one final thought. Why does it seem that on the seminary or intellectual level we want, in some ways, to draw near the PC(USA), a denomination that is adrift in theological confusion and suffering significant division and decline? Why not draw near to our NAPARC brothers and sisters in the PCA or OPC, or even the Southern Baptist Convention? Each of those denominations is experiencing tremendous growth as they champion orthodox evangelicalism. Is there any connection between Westminster Seminary, the many sites of RTS, the many sites of the Southern Baptist seminaries, and Covenant Seminary’s success with boldly carrying the biblical and orthodox evangelical banner and the growth of these sister denominations which have so much in common with us?

These are my thoughts,

Chuck

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