WESTMINSTER PRESBYTERY’S RESPONSE TO AN OPEN LETTER FROM POTOMAC PRESBYTERY
Fathers and brothers, we greet you in the blessed name of our Lord Jesus Christ, and thank God for the mercy and grace in which we stand together. We rejoice that we have stood together through the years on many issues of common concern. We are grateful for the privilege of working together in, and for, the Kingdom of our Lord. Therefore, we desire to respond to your open letter concerning Westminster Presbytery’s declaration regarding the days of creation.
We received your letter in the spirit in which it was written and sent, as an expression of brotherly affection and concern. Please receive our response in the same way.
In your letter you call us to account for the language we used to communicate our assessment of the actions of the 25th General Assembly. You cite TE Grover Gunn’s language, that the General Assembly “voted not to make a 24-hour-day view of Creation a required interpretation of the PCA standards” as a preferable manner of speaking. We beg you not to distract attention from the issue at hand by arguing over terminology. We believe that the action of the 1997 General Assembly marked a dramatic departure from the doctrine and practice of the PCA. The issue was not whether an individual can hold to other views, but whether those contrary views are exceptions to the standards. Thus, the General Assembly by simple majority vote reinterpreted the Standards of the PCA, making what has been acknowledged to be an exception to the Westminster Confession now to be a teaching of the Westminster Confession. You, our brothers in Potomac Presbytery, have in the past resisted that approach in other instances. This act was not done in ignorance or haste. The majority at the 25th General Assembly did, in fact, and in the face of pleas from the floor of the General Assembly, refuse to uphold the truth of the historicity of the creation account in Genesis 1 and 2 as taught in our Standards. Our assessment was born out at the 26th General Assembly, when the majority adopted the majority report of the SJC. The minority report demonstrated that the majority report was at best a report containing errors of fact. In the face of the demonstrable errors of the majority report, the General Assembly voted to sustain the majority opinion by a margin of at least 2 to 1.
The issue of differences arising from sincere efforts to interpret the Scriptures is misleading. We believe that the Bible is the only infallible rule of faith and practice, and that men are duty bound to bring every thought captive to the Word of God. However, the PCA has a constitution which has already settled the issue. The Confessional position is that creation took place in 6 approximately 24 hour days. Not to insist that other views are inconsistent, and therefore exceptions to the Standards subverts the integrity of her officers in fulfilling their vows and changes the Constitution without due process.
With all due respect, the practice of Potomac Presbytery is irrelevant. Yet we would point out some items of interest from your own account. You state that your practice of accepting varieties of views on the days of creation arises from your corporate inability to arrive at agreement on what Scripture teaches on the question. Westminster Presbytery has reached agreement on what Scripture teaches on the subject. Why would you criticize Westminster Presbytery for having the same mind? Furthermore, your practice ignores the fact that the PCA does have a standard interpretation. Because some in your midst take exception to that standard you have chosen to say that the standard does not exist.
It is also the position of Westminster Presbytery, that though one might profess to hold to the Reformation’s hermeneutic, that does not necessarily settle the issue. We would all agree that there are men in obviously unfaithful denominations who use the rubric of the reformation to promote unbelief and ungodliness. The distinctive of a reformed hermeneutic to which we refer is that science and reason are to be judged by the Bible, not the Bible by reason and science. While the Westminster Divines cited many evidences of the inspired nature of the 66 books of the Bible, they affirmed that the Bible is to be believed because of the authority of its Author. We do not believe that the ordinary reading of Genesis 1 and 2 will yield any kind of long day view unless one brings an extra-biblical presupposition and impose it on the text. It is significant that there does not seem to be any enthusiasm in the Church for variant views of the creation days until the 19th century. Douglas Kelly, in His book Creation and Change, says, “Probably the second major and unbridgeable gap between the biblical picture of reality and that of humanist philosophy is the question of time and, specifically, the age of the cosmos. Vast ages are necessary to make viable the secularist, impersonal alternative to divine creation; the theory of evolution. Owing to the intellectual shift by the early nineteenth century to the assumption of vast ages of the earth, first in geology, then in biology, and soon in history and every other field, those who took the Scripture seriously faced difficult questions in interpreting the days of the creation week.”
We, with you, are thankful for our fathers in the faith who have fought the good fight. However, we find your appeal to A. A. Hodge, and especially Mitchell to be most unfortunate. As much as we respect the solid scholarship of those men, we would do them disservice to repeat their errors. In seeking to accommodate the Scriptures to the changing world view of the culture at the end of the 19th century, they unwittingly admitted the Trojan horse that would wreak havoc on the Church that they loved and served. Their error can at least be understood from our perspective in history. They lived at the end of an age in which the Christian world view dominated the culture. They did not recognize the revolutionary nature of the new world view that has come to dominate the world and plunge it into such darkness and misery. Our descendants will not be so kind to those who sin against knowledge. As good as the character and scholarship of these men may have been, it is apparent that they were in error in asserting that the Confession does not require a 24 hour day view of the creation. We cannot repeat David Hall’s excellent treatment of this issue here, we simply refer you to it. It is especially puzzling that you use Mitchell as a reference to support the notion that non 24 hour day views are completely orthodox. In the Baird Lecture for 1882, Mitchell argues against the idea that the Confession requires a 24 hour day of creation. “It is quite true, as he (A. A. Hodge) has shown, that since the Confession was composed, many facts of science previously unknown have been brought to light respecting the changes through which our globe and probably the stellar universe had passed before the establishment of the present order of things, and that new arguments have thus been furnished against the interpreting of the days mentioned in the above passages of Scripture as literal days.” What is the hermeneutic he uses? Since 19th century science, i.e. evolutionary science, has developed the theory of evolution, which requires longer days than Scripture indicates, we are duty bound to abandon the literal day interpretation
This is not the only view which Mitchell would discard however. He goes on subsequently in the same lecture to suggest that pagans who do not profess the Christian Religion may, nevertheless, be saved. He objects to the wording of WCF X, 4 , “…Much less can men, not professing the Christian Religion, be saved in any other way, be they ever so diligent to frame their lives according to the light of nature and the law of the religion that they profess; and to assert that they may, is very pernicious and to be detested.” He believes that the Baptists improved on the subject in 1677 when they changed the word “profess” to receive. This would mean that those who have not had the gospel preached to them, and therefore have not believed, may still be saved apart from coming to Christ. While we do not want to totally discount the scholarship of Mitchell, it should at least be taken with a grain of salt.
We believe Dabney’s approach to be the better. While a son of his age, as Hodge and Mitchell, we believe the Lord gave him good insight into the so called “science” of the age.
“On the other hand, the attitude and temper of many of the eager defenders of inspiration towards the new science have been most unwise…. They should be neither too eager to repel and denounce, nor too ready to recede from established expositions of the text at the supposed demand of scientific discoveries…. Especially to be deprecated is that shallow and fickle policy, which has been so often seen among the professed defenders of the Bible, in hastily adopting some newly-coined exposition of its word, made to suit some supposed exigency of a new scientific discovery, and as hastily abandoning it for some still newer meaning.”
“Our wisdom would be to commit the credit and authority of God’s Word to no theory except such as is absolutely established by the laws of sound exegesis; and when we have thus taken a well considered opinion, to maintain it firmly against all mere appearances.”
Significantly, there were other men who charitably were considered to be orthodox, though they were of a different mind than those defending the views of the Confession. In the light of history their orthodoxy must be questioned. Even at the time there were indicators that all was not well among the teachers in the church. Dabney wrote a response to Woodrow who insisted on teaching “natural science” at Columbia Seminary. Dabney had charitably excluded men living and teaching from the full force of his arguments. “To show that I was not insinuating any doubt of any living man, I added: `The undoubted soundness of all our present teachers and clergy, and their unfeigned reverence to inspiration, now blind us to their ulterior tendency of such attempts. It may be two or three generations before the evil comes to a climax.’” Woodrow subsequently attacked Dabney for his dissent from the practice of having natural science taught in the seminary, which caused Dabney to state, “I carefully remove all provocation, by making, as I have recited, a most express and honorable exception in favor of him and all his colleagues and pupils. It will appear in the sequel as though he were bent upon excepting himself from the benefit of my exception, and verifying in his own case the caution which I was too courteous to apply to him.” Indeed, history demonstrates that Woodrow, and his infamous namesake, Woodrow Wilson, would lead the way in taking the Presbyterian Church into liberalism. This despite the apparent orthodoxy of those arguing for compromise.
We would encourage you to take the advice of Dabney in this same article to heart. “Now we do not regard our Confession as infallible; but it is our doctrinal covenant, and we are surely right therefore, in expecting, at least, thus much, that those who believe they have detected positive error in it, ought candidly to move the church to agree together upon the correction of that error; and they are the proper persons to show how to correct it, if they can.”
We rejoice in your labors for the Lord, and the faithfulness He has given to you in your stand for the faith though you maintain a broader view than do we on the days of creation. We have counted it a privilege to stand and work with you on those issues to which we have a mutual commitment. This, however, does not bind us to stand with you when we believe your position to be in error. We are also grateful for the grace of God that does not cast us off for our sins and failures. Indeed, if He should regard iniquity, who can stand. That does not release us from our duty to stand against what we believe from Scripture to be a grave error, and threat to the Church. We have great confidence for you, dear brothers, though we believe that you are inconsistent. We fear for succeeding generations who will be more consistent with the presuppositions of the hermeneutic you tolerate. We fear that they will not have the same tradition to maintain their loyalty. The test will come, not in our generation, but in that of our children’s children.
Our declaration holds forth the standard that we have vowed to receive and adopt in our ordination vows. As to whether those who hold varying views may remain in the PCA, we believe that the General Assembly has affirmed that you may. It is our contention that one must be held responsible, not only for his views, but for the necessary implications of his views as well. One’s view of the days of creation affects many other things as well. Our God in giving us the moral Law that is to govern all of life refers to the seventh day, which is denominated in the same fashion as the other six. There is no question as to what that means when our view is held. There are many questions that require a good bit of “creative theology” to explain it with other views. The Scriptures teach that death came into the world by sin, yet long day views hold to generations of life perishing before the creation of man. The list can go on, but we believe that we have made our point.
In days of general apathy and indifference, and an accompanying loss of integrity, strong action must be taken. If the General Assembly as a whole to were affirm that views other than a 24 hour creation day are exceptions to the standards, but may be acceptable in some situations, we might be persuaded to alter our stand. But when brothers who we love insist that not only can such views be accepted, but they must be accepted because they are totally consistent with the Constitution, then we must object in the most strenuous way. We cannot determine what you do in Potomac Presbytery. Neither can we determine what the General Assembly will do, especially since these matters have been relegated to the Standing Judicial Commission. So we will do what we are able to do. Those who do not embrace the Confession at this point will not be permitted to promote their views within the churches of Westminster Presbytery.
We fear that the efforts to maintain unity by broadening the standards over the last century has been a remarkable failure. As the definitions of truth are widened the result is less unity as others with even more radical views clamor to recognized as orthodox. The ground for fellowship in Christ's Church is a common confession of the faith once for all delivered to the saints. The introduction and toleration of new views of old doctrines into confessional churches is the cause of strife, not the insistence that we hold to the common confession held in simplicity. Why is it that we, who hold to what the writers of the Confession believed and set forth in writing, are the ones accused of disrupting the peace of the Church? Why is it not those who insist that their views be accepted as normative, contrary to the Confession? Why is it that we must abandon our commitment to defend the historical faith we vowed to defend, in order that others may be free to propagate that which we, and our spiritual ancestors, believe to be in error? Those who hold to the new views gain everything in that compromise, while those who hold to the doctrine of the Westminster Divines lose everything.
We make no apology for doing what all parties to the controversy assert we are able to do. That is to determine what view of the Confession is acceptable and what is not. For too long many in the Church have wavered and been embarrassed by the clear reading of Scripture. With God’s help, we will stand where the great cloud of witnesses from the church has stood for centuries.
We thank you for your concerns. We thank you for your brotherly love and counsel. Be assured of our love for you as well. God has been pleased to give Westminster Presbytery virtual unanimity on this issue. We will not squander that unity which is based on our common confession just because others have done so out of necessity, indifference, or conviction.
Kelly, Douglas F., Creation and Change, (Mentor: Ross-Shire, Great Britain, 1997), 107.
Dabney, R. L., Discussions of Robert Lewis Dabney, Volume 3, “Geology and the Bible”, p. 130, Banner of Truth, 1982
Ibid., p. 131
Dabney, R. L., Discussions of Robert Lewis Dabney, Volume 3, “Cautions Against Anti-Christian Science Criticized by Dr. Woodrow”, (Banner of Truth: Carlisle, PA, 1982), pp. 175, 176
Ibid., p. 176