An Open Letter to Our Brother Elders
of Westminster Presbytery
From Potomac Presbytery
Greetings in the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ. We have received the document entitled "A DECLARATION by Westminster Presbytery, Presbyterian Church in America" and are grateful for the opportunity to know of your deep concern about the threat you see as following upon the existence among us of elders who hold certain views regarding the teaching of Genesis 1. Having received your declaration it appeared to us that the responsibilities of brotherly affection, as well as our desire for the peace and purity of our part of the Church, required some brief and timely acknowledgement and reply. Thus, at our meeting on May 12, the following motion was adopted: that Presbytery "appoint the Committee on Credentials as a commission to reply to the Westminster Presbytery's declaration regarding its position on creation." [MPP (May 12, 1998), p. 366.] In what follows our Committee, acting as a commission, fulfills its assigned responsibility.
As the Committee on Credentials of Potomac Presbytery it has been our task to serve Potomac Presbytery by examining candidates for service and office according to our Constitutional Standards (which examination we suppose to be one of the most comprehensive in the PCA) and making recommendation to Presbytery concerning a candidate's fitness to serve. In this work we view with the utmost seriousness our responsibility before the Lord to uphold the confessional integrity of our part of the PCA, and have found our Presbytery to be entirely supportive of these efforts. Thus we take seriously the issues you raise and have considered carefully the expression of your concerns. That said, we want you to understand that we have come to very different conclusions from those expressed in your "Declaration", and have functioned for many years, faithfully in our view, without any of the dire consequences you suppose.
First, please understand that we share with you concern that "the culture in which we live has been permeated with evolutionary thinking which is unbiblical," and we marvel at the folly of the "antiscientific theory of origins" that so dominates the naturalistic "scientific" and "educational" establishments. We acknowledge with a conviction borne of considerable experience that "the veracity of God and His Word are under fierce attack in our day" and we are committed with you to stand against that attack without compromise. Heretofore we have counted ourselves comrades with you in this high calling, working with you for the cause of God and truth against the unbelieving world, and working with you for the preservation and advance of Confessional fidelity within the PCA.
Understanding how fierce the battle is, we understand how dismaying the thought of a weakening of the forces of good, and how fear of defection, when defection is so common, can cause one to look with suspicion even upon one's friends. Yet we must, our beloved brothers, call you to turn away from the grave charge you have brought against our Assembly. In the third "Whereas" of your "Declaration" you assert, without any citation, that "at the 25th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America, the elders refused to uphold the truth of the historicity of the creation account in Geneses 1 and 2." Absent specification we can only guess what may have occasioned such a serious charge: the action of the Assembly with respect to its review of Presbytery records and certain exceptions alleged by the reporting committee. We urge you to contrast your severe assessment with the rather benign account of the Assembly's action offered by TE Grover Gunn in response to Dr. Bryan Chapell's recent claim that the 1997 Assembly "voted not to make a 24-hour-day view of Creation a required interpretation of the PCA Standards." [Grover Gunn, The Presbyterian Witness, XII:2 (Spring 1998): 27. Note that TE Gunn was the Chairman of the Committee on the Review of Presbytery Records.] In our judgment the language you have chosen can only do harm to the purity, not to mention the peace, of the church. As brothers we urge you: maintain your zeal, judge righteous judgment, but offer freely the judgment of charity.
The focal point of your concern, however, we understand to be the "hermeneutic method that was condoned as an acceptable view at the 25th General Assembly." Without granting that a hermeneutical method was even before, let alone condoned by, the Assembly, we would urge you to consider the following:
1. In Potomac Presbytery there are elders who believe with as much conviction as you profess, that, for example, "the Bible . . . teach[es] a six day creation; with day defined as an approximately 24 hour period of time. . . ." We have other elders who are not persuaded that this is what the Scriptures teach, but who hold to what can be construed as varieties of the views you reprobate. Yet we all, so far as we know our own consciences before God, are committed to the "historicity" of Genesis 1-3. We offer one another the judgment of charity, finding that our disagreement is consistent with bona fide, though fallible, attempts to understand God's Word. Please notice: our practice does not imply that the Scripture has no teaching on this question, or that it has conflicting teachings, or that it does not matter what the Scripture teaches. Our view is simply that we have not been able to come to a complete agreement on what Scripture teaches on this question, and such agreement is not necessary for either our Christian or denominational unity.
2. In our view the disagreement we charitably live with is not grounded primarily in hermeneutical differences. We all, speaking broadly, follow the interpretive principles of the Reformation, as exemplified by Calvin (see the attached excerpt from his commentary on Genesis). Our differences lie more in our judgments about the text itself, than in the principles that guide our approach.
3. Concerning the supposed similarity in hermeneutics between our non-24 hour day brethren and those who deny cardinal doctrines of our Faith: without granting for a moment the claim of similarity, it simply does not follow that the false conclusions drawn from a set of interpretive principles invalidates the principles themselves, or taints anyone who shares the principles while rejecting the false conclusions. Conservative Protestants share in large measure the same basic hermeneutic, yet we differ widely on such interpretive questions as baptism, church government, the work of God in regeneration, etc. Surely our brothers do not mean to suggest that because Calvinists share the same basic hermeneutical approach with Arminians that the Reformed are on their way down the slippery slope? In any case, the radical hermeneutical principle of liberalism is philosophical naturalism, a faithless anti-supernaturalism that pre-determines what a text can teach. This principle we all (both solar and non-solar day adherents) utterly repudiate.
4. We do not believe that our practice compromises in the least our commitment to full and honest confessional subscription (to use Dr. Smith's language). We have acted under the guidance of our forefathers such as Beattie, A.A. Hodge, and Mitchell (see the attached excerpts concerning the relevant portions of our doctrinal standards). Though one may not be persuaded by their arguments, can there be any doubt that in fact such an understanding was maintained by many of the finest representatives of the "Old School" commitment to strict confessional subscription? So too today we find many of our "strictest" confessional men holding similar views. Such views are demonstrably not, in fact, evidence of confessional laxity or indifference.
5. For at least 15 years our Presbytery and its antecedent has allowed for the diversity you so roundly condemn and so profoundly fear, and yet, contrary to the consequences you so confidently allege, we have consistently played leadership roles in defending and advancing the PCA's Scriptural and Confessional commitments. We have produced Scriptural declarations against abortion that were not without significance in our Nation's Capitol; we provided for the Assembly what became its Scriptural declaration to the world on homosexuality; we have worked for years to defend and advance the wholesome exercise of discipline within the church, in several cases providing language for BCO amendments that were finally adopted by the denomination, overcoming what many saw as serious threats to our Scriptural Presbyterian polity; and in our doctrinal examinations of candidates for the ministry we have by God's grace only become more vigorous and more comprehensive in requiring Scriptural and Confessional understanding, commitment, and practical ability in ministry. We make this profession mindful of our own weakness and dependence upon the Lord to preserve us, but mindful as well that your confident assertions force upon us this unhappy manner of self-reference for the sake of witness to the truth.
6. Finally, we are dismayed by what appear to us to be the implications of your concluding declaration: that we will not tolerate these views in any teaching elder seeking admittance to this Presbytery, or any other man seeking to be licensed or to become a candidate for the ministry under care of this Presbytery. Furthermore, Westminster Presbytery considers that any view which departs from the confessional doctrine of creation in six 24 hour days strikes at the fundamentals of the system of doctrine set forth in the Holy Scriptures.
What would you have us make of this? Your assertion that there is nothing in the text to even hint at the views you condemn is surely too strong. "Strikes at the fundamentals"? How can this be so? Surely we can distinguish between faithfulness to the broad historicity of the text essential to the Gospel and the difficulty of construing certain Scripture texts in relation to statements of scientific cosmology. Are you really declaring that men such as C. Hodge, Shedd, Beattie, Adger, A.A. Hodge, Warfield, Bavinck, Machen, Schaeffer, and Gerstner, as well as many lesser but faithful servants here in Potomac, are not fit to be ministers of the Gospel in the PCA? (See, e.g., the attached statements of Shedd and Bavinck.) [Note: Not Available on the web at this time]
Your "Declaration" appears to us to suggest that you believe we cannot live together in the same ecclesiastical fellowship--that you would have those of us who hold the views you disagree with defrocked. We may also ask, And what of those of us who share your view of Genesis 1, but do not agree that other views deny the fundamentals of our system. Is this a denial of a fundamental as well? Must we go too? Must we all be put out of office, or would you have us resign? Is this what you intend? Our brothers, we plead with you to reconsider. Please reflect upon what appears to us to be the godly wisdom of Carl Henry, one of the chief defenders of the inerrancy of God's Word in our time. After nearly 100 pages summarizing in detail and comparing the arguments and counter-arguments of creationists, theistic evolutionists, gap and multiple gap theorists, big-bangers, naturalists, humanists, etc., Henry concludes:
"It would be a strategic and theological blunder of the first magnitude were evangelicals to elevate the current dispute over dating to credal status, or to consider one or another of the scientific options a test of theological fidelity. Faith in an inerrant Bible does not rest on a commitment to the recency or antiquity of the earth or even to only a 6000-year antiquity for man; the Genesis account does not fix the precise antiquity of either the earth or of man. Exodus 20:11, to which scientific creationists appeal when insisting that biblical inerrancy requires recent creation, is not decisive; while God's seventh-day rest sanctions the sabbath day, Genesis hardly limits God's rest to a 24-hour period. The Bible does not require belief in six literal 24-hour creation days on the basis of Genesis 1-2 nor does it require belief in successive ages corresponding to modern geological periods. . . ."
"Now as never before the timeless tenets of evangelical theism need to be affirmed and reaffirmed as the great central theme of the creation account, to wit: the First Adam or man is a creation supernaturally made in the image of God, an historical being divinely fashioned from the dust of earth and rationally, morally, spiritually, genetically and culturally different from any prior species of life. Irrespective of their disagreement over the antiquity or recency of Adam, all evangelical scholars insist on the special divine creation, historicity, distinctiveness and fall of Adam, and, moreover, that the hope of humanity lies in the divine promise and provision of redemption and in the relationship of renewed man to the Second Adam and King of the Cosmos." [From Carl F.H. Henry, God, Revelation and Authority, vol. VI, God Who Stands and Stays, part 2 (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1983), pp. 225-226, 227.]
For the sake of our Lord; for the sake of our past comradeship in the good cause of Scriptural and Confessional fidelity in the PCA; for the sake of our common participation in the Gospel: let not this "Declaration" be the final word.
Unanimously adopted, 6/12/98