Every year that I have served you as president of Covenant Seminary, I have placed our fidelity to Scripture as my highest goal. This year I have no higher goal, but I sense that this commitment increasingly calls us not only to say no less than Scripture says, but also no more. Our leadership position requires us to insist that we not go beyond Scripture in order to establish what (and who) is orthodox among us.
While our culture constantly tempts us to mute or warp the clear statements of Scripture, such secular challenges may also tempt us to add to the truths of God's Word what we wish it said to protect our particular opinions, practices, or preferences. In this we err just as surely as if we were to deny the truths of Scripture. By adding to Scripture what we wish it said, we attest that the truths God has given are not sufficient for our lives, and we necessarily undermine the authority of God over our lives. When man either adds or subtracts from the Word of God, he denies the Lordship of God over his life by making himself the lawgiver (Rev. 22:18-19). The temptations to add to the Word can be quite subtle and can even appear to be attempts to honor God, as Eve learned in the garden when she added to the instructions that God gave her and in doing so took the first step toward creating her own standard of holiness (Gen. 3:3).
The new standards of holiness that threaten the unity of our church, and call for the leadership of Covenant Seminary, seem to revolve around two issues at the moment - however, the voices pressing both issues are most often of the same sources. The first issue relates to our church's understanding of the creation accounts in Genesis, the second relates to the way in which the Westminster Confession of Faith will be used to maintain the orthodoxy and ministry of the PCA.
The creation issue, quite frankly, is surprising to us since for generations there has been an informed allowance for differences among Bible-believing Presbyterians about how best to interpret these accounts, so long as they were believed to be accurate and historical. Now there are those claiming that if one does not hold their precise view of how the universe was created then he cannot be allowed to minister in our churches. In a recent letter to a PCA elder (who was acting with great integrity in asking us precisely to state in our own words what our churches and Covenant Seminary teach), I responded this way:
... [D]iscussion of the historical background of Covenant Seminary also helps me answer the last subject that you asked me to address; i.e., our position on the length of the creation days. First, let me say that Covenant Seminary has not changed its position on this issue in its 40 years of existence. That position is that the Genesis accounts are entirely true, factual, and historical. No one here denies God's creation out of nothing, the historicity of Adam and Eve, the special creation of man, the reality of the Fall. No one here endorses Evolution. In fact, one of our professors currently works with the committee of 30 convened by Philip Johnson (author of Darwin on Trial) and Michael Behe (author of Darwin 'S Black Box) which is launching one of the most powerful intellectual assaults on Darwinism in the last half century.
All of our professors affirm that the first chapter of Genesis can be reasonably interpreted as teaching that God's creative activity occurred in six solar days. Not all of our professors, however, believe that this is the best interpretation. Please note that I have not said that any of our professors deny the facticity or historicity of the Genesis account. All of our professors have committed their lives to teaching the inerrancy of Scripture. Thus, what they are concerned to do is to make sure that they are translating the text as accurately as possible. For this reason, our professors honestly face the questions arising from such details as the sun not appearing until the fourth day of creation, the seventh day not having a designated evening (for which reasons theologians for centuries prior to any evolutionary theories have argued that we are still in the seventh day of God's rest and will be until the creation of the new heavens and new earth at the Consummation), the sixth day being so full of activity, the possibility of gaps between the days, the use of the Hebrew word "day" in some passages to designate an indeterminate period of time, and many more concerns. Note that these concerns, far from discounting the text, evidence the greatest desire to be faithful to the text and not misinterpret it. We faithfully and diligently address these concerns precisely because every one of our professors believes that while our interpretations may err, the Word of God makes no errors.
The consequence of seeking honestly and faithfully to deal with these concerns is that some of our professors hold to the six 24-hour day view of the creation activity. Others hold to longer day theories. One leans to a possible gaps- between-the-days view. This variety of perspectives has always been true of the faculty of Covenant Seminary, because this spectrum of views is not new. Despite some of the current debates in the PCA and the accusations of liberalism creeping into the seminaries, we now teach nothing at Covenant that was not taught here 40 years ago when the Seminary started, and was not also recorded in some form in the teachings of the ancient church. Men we respect who believed the Bible teaches a 24-hour day in Genesis 1 include such great theologians as Calvin (probably, but Warfield says he-was open to other views), Girardeau, Thornwell, Dabney, and Berkhof. However, giants in the faith who have taught Genesis was not necessarily (or definitively) limiting God's creating activity to 144 hours include: ancient church fathers such as Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas; the puritan, William Ames; the great 19th Century defenders of Presbyterian orthodoxy such as Charles Hodge, A.A. Hodge, and B.B. Warfield; major 20th Century advocates of Biblical inerrancy such as J. Gresham Machen, J. Oliver Buswell, E.J. Young, Donald Grey Barnhouse, and Francis Schaeffer; and, current men who have taught at each of the major Reformed seminaries including R. Laird Hams, Meredith Kline, Jack Collins, Willem VanGemeren, Nigel Lee, R.C. Sproul, Morton Smith, and Bruce Waltke.
I mention this last group of professors because they are the ones recognized in our ranks who have written most extensively on this subject over the last few decades. Further, my conversations with administrators at each of the other major Presbyterian and Reformed seminaries in the United States indicate that professors at their schools share such views. Please note also that our emeritus professor, R. Laird Harris, who chaired the translation committee of the original NIV after masterfully defending the inerrancy of Scripture in his book, Inspiration and Canonicity, also explained his views on the creation days in one of the books most widely used to defend the reliability of Scripture against scientific attack (i.e., Man, God's Eternal Creation, published in 1971 by Moody Press). This book was published more than a decade before he was elected Moderator of the PCA, and many more years before he chaired -repeatedly - the Theological Examining Committee of our General Assembly. It is simply a very sad misrepresentation to contend that all of these men who have given their lives to careful interpretation of God's truth have fallen into some form of liberalism or have kept their views under wraps. In fact, they have no higher concern than to interpret the Word of God accurately and they have widely published their views over many years.
There is currently a degree of debate about what the Westminster divines believed about the length of the creation days when the Confession was draft. It is unquestionable that the scholars of that era knew of the ancient debates regarding the creation days. The fact that they did not specifically limit the days to 24 hours in the Confessional statements is taken by most of the notable Confessional commentators and historians to indicate that the divines allowed a degree of latitude on this issue. Such notables include: Alexander Mitchell, a 19th Century Scotsman; J. MacPherson, a 19th Century Scottish minister with "useful commentary on the original version of the Confession" according to Ligon Duncan; Robert Shaw, another 19th Century Scotsman whose work in the modern edition is introduced by Sinclair Ferguson; Francis Beattie, a 19th Century Southern Presbyterian; and A.A. Hodge, the most historically honored commentator on the Confession. Other commentators disagree (e.g. Edward Morns, an early 20th Century Northern Presbyterian) and say that by using the wording, "God's making all things of nothing ... 'in the space of' six days," the divines meant to limit our beliefs to a literal week. Beattie equivocates a bit saying that "the framers of the Standards meant a literal day" but were cautious "in simply reproducing the Words of Scripture" so that the "door is open in the Standards to either interpretation (of the length of days)." At least one of the Westminster divines' mentors, William Ames, went on record with an opinion that the creation week was not limited to 144 hours. What seems most apparent, however, is that the timing of the creation days was not really an issue at the time of the Assembly, and so, clearly definitive statements were not made (and probably were not intended to be made) on this issue. Whatever view one currently holds, it is probably a stretch to insist that the Westminster divines definitely endorsed it.
Because of some current cultural issues and some struggles between persons of differing perspectives in our church, the issue of creation days has recently gotten "hot" in some PCA presbyteries. It is important that I assure you, however, that Covenant Seminary has not changed at all. We take great care to make our students aware of the spectrum of views that is, and has been, within orthodox Christianity for centuries. We also take care to inform students of the folly and falsehood of Evolutionary arguments. Not to do either of these tasks would be to fail to educate our students about important perspectives that are essential to know in order to understand the history of the Bible's interpretation and to know how to determine responsibly what the Bible says. The best way that I have found to consider these creation day issues is to compare them to the way we deal with millennial views. In the PCA we vary over the way we understand what the Bible teaches about the end times. Some of us are pre- millennial, some are amillennial, some are post-millennial. There are serious questions among us about the timing of the events that will end the world. Still, we recognize that people can differ over the timing issues and still believe the Bible is entirely true, and we accept these differences without accusing one another of being unorthodox. The same ought to be possible in the discussions we are having over the timing of the days at the beginning of the world. We ought to be able to recognize that a different perspective on timing does not necessarily mean that a brother has abandoned Scripture or has left the realm of orthodoxy. In order to determine if one is truly orthodox, we must ask about more than the timing of the days. We must ask what the man believes about how God created, how man was formed, how life progressed, how sin entered the world, etc.
[Added Post Script: ...Twice (in 1995 and 1997), the PCA General Assembly has voted not to make a 24-hour-day view of Creation a required interpretation of the PCA Standards.]
I have gone into this subject at some length with those of you on the Executive Committee of our Board [added note: knowing that our full Board and ultimately the GA Committee that reviews our minutes will see these words after our Board's approval of the Executive Committee minutes at the January 1998 meeting]. The reasons that I have done so are: 1) So that you will have no question about what we teach; 2) So that you will be prepared to deal with questions about our teaching if they arise; 3) So that you will be able to question me if you feel more discussion is needed; and 4) So that you will be prepared to consider with me what should be the voice of Covenant Seminary in this current debate if we really are to serve the PCA as a leader seminary. I do not feel that this matter will fade quickly in our churches and presbyteries because the issues are complicated and those who want to cast fear of "liberal drift" into our people can use this issue without explaining (or even learning) the complexity of the details and exegesis involved. Old Testament Professor Phil Long said to me once, "People sometimes ask me why I do not have a more definitive view about the length of the creation days since I know Hebrew so well. I tell them that the reason is because I do know Hebrew so well that I recognize that I cannot give simple answers and be true to the text." My concern is that we be as true to the Biblical text as is humanly possible. This does not mean that we forego definitive interpretation where it is possible (such as where the Bible contends God created all things by the word of His power, made man a special creation, and provided the grace of Christ for the fall of man that originated in Adam), but neither do we become more definite than Scripture allows. Even as we pledge not to fail to teach what the Scriptures say, we refuse to teach as authoritative what we cannot prove from Scripture. To do otherwise would be to add to Scripture what we wish it said, and ultimately to divide the Church over issues of personal preference rather than Biblical principle.
A recent magazine editorial representing some in our church who are raising concerns over the creation issue spoke this way of the great 19th and early 20th Century defenders of Presbyterian orthodoxy such as Beattie, Shedd, Warfield and the Hodges: "... though these men were sound on perhaps as much as ninety-nine and forty-four one hundredths percent of what they taught, this single departure was the seed from which has sprung up the bitter weed of apostasy." The statement that these men who gave their lives to defending the Word of God against liberalism somehow ushered in the demise of our church not only is a horrible injustice, it discloses unfortunate attitudes behind the current debate that must be identified. If we really cannot allow in our church those who agree with 99.44 percent of what we believe, then there is little question that our church will soon be rather small in size and even smaller in influence.
The attempt to make authoritative what one cannot prove from Scripture will ultimately undermine the unity of the church not promote it. Forced adherence to an imposed standard will never be as powerful a bond as allowing brothers of genuine faith to exercise freedom of conscience where the Scriptures are not definitive. We must not allow ourselves to believe that by creating fences where the Scriptures do not lay them we have secured God's flock. We may well find instead in this generation or the next that we have corralled the sheep in more treacherous terrain than we ever imagined. The Word of God is well able to establish the boundaries it requires, and we need not fear to let it do so.
I believe it is fear that is driving some in our church to be interpreting the Confession of Faith so narrowly that even small deviations openly discussed and freely explored for decades are now being taken as sufficient grounds for denying men ordination. While we should have no patience for liberalism (i.e., the denial of any portion of God's Word as absolutely and inerrantly true), neither should we believe that it will aid our church to deny men the opportunity to consider what have been deemed for decades, or centuries, to be legitimate Biblical interpretations that fall within our system of doctrine. Men denied the right to argue Biblically what does fall within historic Presbyterianism will either suppress their opinions for a time or will become facile at wording answers which are true but are nonetheless intended to blur distinctions.
At Covenant Seminary we have tried to keep man's words from ever becoming our rule of faith or practice by always giving primacy to Scripture. We have even said that we want to teach our people to learn to read the Confession through the lens of Scripture, not to read Scripture through the lens of the Confession. The Bible must rule above all else if we are not to create new standards of orthodoxy that do not have their origin in God's own Word. How does this mean that we will handle the Confession to which we have pledged our loyalty and lives? I recently wrote to an interested elder these words to explain:
All of our professors and Board members sign an annual statement affirming their commitment to the inerrancy of Scripture. We believe that every Word of the Bible is entirely true, and that we must interpret that Word faithfully (neither saying less than it says nor going beyond it) in order to be faithful to God, our Savior.
As to the Seminary's commitment to the Westminster Confession of Faith, let me quote from Covenant Seminary's academic catalogue: The Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms, which are subordinate to the Bible in their authority, nonetheless set forth our understanding of biblical faith in a consistent and reliable form.
Annually each of our faculty and Board members sign a statement committing themselves to these Presbyterian distinctives, and requiring each individual to notify the Seminary and Board if at any time he believes himself to be "out of accord with any of the fundamentals of this system of doctrine" (note the language is the same as that of our ordination vows in our Book of Church Order). We are very conscientious in the application of these standards. For instance, The Covenant Seminary Bylaws specifically rule out for faculty positions any person who belongs to a denomination holding any affiliation with the National or World Council of Churches regardless of that individual's personal convictions. We are very concerned that our teaching be self-consciously and specifically Reformed without any compromise.
Our concern to be uncompromised leads to a further answer to your question about whether we hold to a "strict" or "loose" position on the issue of Confessional subscription. In plain terms, I must tell you that we refuse to deal with the issues according to these terms which seemed almost designed to mark one position or the other as suspect. Our position is that of historic Presbyterianism. In terms that I confess are very brief but to the point, we believe what the Second Ordination Vow of the Book of Church Order requires. In short, we believe that one's subscription to the Confession requires one to "sincerely receive and adopt the Confession of Faith and the Catechisms of this Church as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures ... and promise that if at any time you find yourself out of accord with the system of doctrine you will, on your own initiative, make known to your Presbytery the change which has taken place in your views since the assumption of this ordination vow."
By the very wording of this vow, our Book of Church Order makes it clear that individuals are not committing to every word and punctuation mark of the Confession (In fact, the most "strict" of our leaders point out that the Confession has certain errors in it, such as its citation of the many references to the word "testament" in the Bible - when there are not actually many references to the word.). Rather, individuals are committing to the "system of doctrine" taught in the Confession. Debates naturally erupt as to what is so significant an exception that it takes one beyond the "system of doctrine." Historic Presbyterianism says that men are conscientiously to present such questions to presbyteries who have the responsibility to determine if the exception is so serious as to be beyond the "system of doctrine." In our church today there are widely divergent attitudes about how narrow or broad should be the "system," but historic Presbyterianism does not leave this decision to an individual or to a seminary, but to local presbyteries when they examine men coming into their ranks. There will obviously be varying decisions regarding the "system" because of the varying personalities of presbyteries, but we choose this kind of grass roots control rather than having the church be ruled by decisions from a bureaucracy or bishopric.
Some in recent years have claimed that once an exception is taken by an individual, and once that exception is allowed by the Presbytery, that the individual should not be allowed to teach his exception. We do not believe that this is the position of historic Presbyterianism whose Confession states that the councils of men err. The Church could not correct herself if men were never allowed to state in good conscience what they believed the Scriptures teach if it differed with a present statement of their church. Of course, there may be specific issues that a Presbytery might require a man not to advocate given particular circumstances or the man's own level of certainty, but we do not believe historic Presbyterianism automatically forbids a man to teach exceptions that have been allowed by a Presbytery. The summary of this is that Covenant Seminary teaches what most in the PCA believe regarding subscriptionism, what our church fathers have historically taught, and what the General Assembly of our church has repeatedly affirmed. Candidly we believe that most of the disagreements regarding subscriptionism in the PCA are not a matter of historical differences in fact or practice, but are more a matter of present differences in attitude.
Because we have obligated ourselves to these uncompromising commitments to Scripture, those of us who teach here at Covenant Seminary do not hesitate to say what we believe about the other matters you have questioned. Each of these matters I have addressed before individuals, presbyteries, and the General Assembly both in plenary sessions and in committees of commissioners. I am happy to do this because each time, while not satisfying all present, Covenant Seminary receives the hearty approval of the vast majority of elders in our denomination. The evidence of this, in part, I trust is the great growth of Covenant Seminary in recent years (we have grown from 135 students to almost 900 students in the last decade) as the churches of the PCA have entrusted us with their young people for the next generation of ministry.
I consider myself to be dealing with you members of the Executive Committee of the Board of Trustees as my closest confidants in the leadership of this Seminary and I want you to be aware both of what we are facing and what is on my heart. If I am wrong in my statements above, I hope you will feel free to correct me, but I do not want you to ever feel that you are unaware of what are the real issues and concerns of this place for which you are responsible. Further, if you feel it is time for us to speak plainly about these matters to our church that is trusting us for leadership, then I want to give you the opportunity to indicate this as well. [Added Note: The Executive Committee and later the full Board approved the statements above and urged their wide distribution.]