College Park, Georgia (March 4-5, 1999)-The Presbyterian Church in America's Standing Judicial Commission (SJC) re-heard two complaints at its spring meeting, both from James River Presbytery and both dealing with the same ordinand's views on the subject of creation. In both cases, the Presbytery was upheld. The net result is that Andrew Conrad's ordination was allowed to stand, as was the prohibition on his being allowed to teach his particular views on Genesis 1 and what has been called the "anthropomorphic day" approach.
By a final count of 15-6, the SJC supported the majority opinion of its three-man panel which had voted 2-1 to deny that the Presbytery erred when it ordained Mr. Conrad. By a vote of 13-8, the SJC rejected the majority opinion of the same three-man panel which had voted to sustain the complaint against the action of Presbytery prohibiting him from teaching his views. The vote on the second complaint has more than the necessary one-third votes to demand a final vote on the matter by General Assembly. According to an informed observer, the vote on the first complaint was 14-7, and so did initially have the requisite one-third votes; but, upon reconsideration, the SJC voted again, and this time one of the minority changed his ballot.
A Matter of Hermeneutics
The first complaint was brought by Byron Snapp, Associate Pastor of Calvary Reformed Presbyterian Church of Hampton, Virginia, and Editor of the Presbyterian Witness magazine. Mr. Snapp began his presentation by quoting from the "Message to All Churches of Jesus Christ Throughout the World," adopted by the first General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), to the effect that change in the Southern Presbyterian Church came as a "gradual thing." His concern was that the surrender of key principles of Scriptural interpretation will lead to further trouble down the line. His specific point was that Mr. Conrad's position, of ignorance about the length of the days of creation in Genesis 1, is a denial of the hermeneutical principle found in Confession of Faith I.9, viz., that obscure passages must be interpreted in light of the clear. "It is the hermeneutical principle that is my great concern," Mr. Snapp averred. "It is because I do not want the PCA over time to lose its gospel witness that I have spent so much time, prayer, and effort."
Creation was 'very good'
Besides marshaling Scriptural evidence which points to a literal understanding of "day" in Genesis 1, Mr. Snapp noted that, in his estimation, Mr. Conrad is not orthodox in another respect. "Mr. Conrad is also open to the possibility of animal death prior to the Fall"-a fact which, in Pastor Snapp's eyes, would negate the teaching that Creation is described as "very good" (Genesis 1:31) and that death is a great enemy.
Faulty Exegesis Not Necessarily Faulty Hermeneutic
Representing James River Presbytery were Messrs. Dan Carrell and Howard Griffith. Mr. Carrell, a ruling elder and an attorney, began by noting that appearing before so many "judges" sitting around tables was reminiscent of appearing before a federal appeals court; he added, "I take comfort in the fact that you are not in black robes, and that we are all brothers in Christ."
The lawyer maintained that there was a difference between a faulty exegesis and a faulty hermeneutic. He stated that the anthropomorphic day view "is really a very narrow point of view. All Andrew is saying in the final analysis is that Scripture doesn't instruct us as to how long the creation day is." He added that "this is a view that is widely held throughout the denomination."
The barrister appealed to the New Jersey case decided at the 1998 Assembly, in which the Presbytery was sustained in saying: "We deny that the 24 hour day creation view is the only exegetically possible view."
Mr. Griffith picked up on a theme from his fellow respondent, by saying that that the Complainant never cited an instance of Conrad's denial of Confession of Faith I.9. "Where does Conrad deny the analogy of Scripture?" The Richmond pastor said: "I would challenge the complainant to show" where Andrew Conrad denies the hermeneutical principle found in Confession of Faith, I.9.
Pastor Griffith stated that "Reformed interpreters have consistently stated that the Bible uses anthropomorphisms." He also said that since the Standards of the church "do not address animal death," that doctrine "cannot strike at the vitals of our faith."
Both respondents objected to Mr. Conrad's view being characterized as "non-literal" rather than "literal." Mr. Griffith said that "non-literal was being used as non-factual or non-historical," which was not an accurate rendering of the ordinand's views. Mr. Carrell maintained that, since the word "day" can have a variety of meanings, "they're all literal meanings. We have a word that gives rise to different literal meanings."
Days of Creation are Normative Days
Mr. Snapp, who had used twenty-five minutes of his allotted thirty in his opening presentation, used his last five minutes to say that Exodus 20 "speaks quite clearly that these days of creation are normative days." He contrasted his view with Mr. Conrad's. The complainant believes that the seven day week was God's pattern of work and rest, and that serves as the pattern for the six-and-one cycle for the work week; while Mr. Conrad believes that the pattern of work and Sabbath rest was read back into the creation account as a literary way of speaking of creation.
Conrad's View is Within PCA Mainstream
Presenting the second complaint was TE Harry Long, who pastors the Sycamore Presbyterian Church in Richmond, Virginia. Mr. Long contended that Mr. Conrad's views are not out of accord with the PCA's understanding; and he cited the fact that many respected ministers of the denomination-including Wilson Benton, Laird Harris, and current faculty members at Covenant Theological Seminary-have been allowed to teach similar views. The complainant averred that Mr. Conrad learned his views "at our own seminary, which has never been cited for teaching out of accord with our Standards."
PCA's Doctrine: Different from Westminster Assembly?
Mr. Long suggested that the doctrine of the Presbyterian Church in America might not be the same as that of the Westminster Assembly, which wrote the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms. He said: "It is one thing to argue . . . that the PCA is out of accord with the Westminster divines, and another thing to argue that Teaching Elder Conrad is out of accord with the PCA."
Courts May Restrict Only Contentious Teaching
In response to a question from SJC member Jim Smith, Mr. Long said that a court may exercise discretion how a man advocates his exception "only in regard to his contentious manner." He further stated that what's been disruptive has not been Mr. Conrad's views or advocacy of them, but "the flip-flopping of our Standards and their application." In Mr. Long's opinion, James River has been inconsistent in this matter. He noted that others have been received into the Presbytery without similar prohibition.
A Novice and a Novelty
Responding for James River, the Rev. Bill Harrell began by saying: "If abuse of discretion is at the heart of this complaint, then we are at a loss as to where it is found in the complaint." He added: "However, I dare not rely on a technicality."
According to Mr. Harrell, the difference between approval of Mr. Conrad's prior exam and approval of the more recent exam, was that he was now "coming as a candidate for ordination." Furthermore, as a new ordinand, "We're dealing with a man who is a novice." Moreover, he is holding to a "novel view." The respondent said, "We may say that it's been around for forty years, but I don't consider that to be ancient." The view of creation under consideration is part of a "family of views" which arose in the nineteenth century. Concerning the particular view of "anthropomorphic days" which Mr. Conrad was taught at Covenant Seminary, Mr. Harrell stated: "It's a new view, it's a novel view, and it is still in flux."
Furthermore, according to Mr. Harrell, "Our brother's view is not simply the anthropomorphic view. . . . His view changed before our eyes." On the issue of death before Adam, the respondent maintained that the ordinand at first defended the notion; then when challenged, said, "Well, I don't believe it, but it can be defended."
When in Doubt, Don't
Mr. Harrell urged that the higher court should not overturn the judgment call made by the Presbytery. He cited Case 91-4 (Hopper vs. James River), in which the 1992 General Assembly upheld the SJC judgment in prohibiting a minister from teaching his views on charismatic gifts: "The court of original jurisdiction has the authority," declared the SJC; the higher court "must defer to Presbytery" in such a matter.
He also appealed to the 1998 New Jersey case, in which the Assembly agreed with the SJC majority in upholding the "right of a church court to determine matters of doctrine." In that instance, the Presbytery had ruled that the Confession of Faith does not specify the length of creation days. Mr. Harrell argued that consistency with last year's case demanded that the SJC should defer to James River Presbytery in its interpretation of the Standards [in this case, in interpreting the Standards in a contrary direction-Ed.].
Mr. Harrell concluded his presentation by dramatically stating: "When in doubt, don't."
A Growing Consistency
SJC member Charles McGowan asked Mr. Harrell, "Would you deny that the history of James River Presbytery is arbitrary and unfair and inconsistent?" He replied that he would deny that "arbitrary" and "unfair" were applicable terms, and said that "there's a growing consistency" in James River's understanding and application of the Constitution. SJC Secretary Mickey Bolus wanted to know if Presbytery took the action it did because of the relative newness of the teaching elder as an ordained man. Mr. Harrell replied that that was a factor.
A Capricious Court
Mr. Long concluded his argumentation by stating that James River was exhibiting "capriciousness" in prohibiting Mr. Conrad from teaching his view, when others received by the Presbytery with similar views were not also restricted. "The issue is not, Can Presbytery prohibit, but, Should Presbytery prohibit in this case?", said the complainant.
Asked by SJC Vice Chairman Dominic Aquila what relief he was seeking, Mr. Long stated: "The best remedy would be for the Standing Judicial Commission to say that from the beginning of the PCA not holding to the views of the Westminster Assembly" on this matter did not constitute an exception to the PCA Standards.