PCA Report- R.C. Sproul and some penultimate thoughts

I have now heard a large part of the audio of the General Assembly concerning the vote to adopt the report on the FV/NPP. My comments on the decision and the mp3 can be found here. After hearing the 90 minutes or so, I came away with some observations.

It appears that the majority of the discussion centered on the issue of “justification by faith.” R.C. Sproul jumped in to warn all the brothers that this is a crucial issue. He then quoted Luther and Calvin regarding the centrality of justification for the church. R.C.’s stature and eloquence drew applause from the people. Simply, he stated that justification was a central issue of the Reformation and we dare not deny it.

As far I know, no one denies justification by faith alone. By “no one” I refer even to N.T Wright (Wright is the most conservative voice spousing the so-called New Perspective; in N.T. Wright’s writings he has made it clear that the idea of justification has to do more with ecclesiology than with soteriology, nevertheless, I have not yet heard a clear denial of the doctrine that we are saved by faith in Christ) and Federal Vision proponents. There is some natural nuance in how some of these scholars understand jusstification, as there has been throughout the Reformed history. Some authors have said that the idea of justification is present in the Pauline corpus, but that it is not the center focus of all Pauline theology. But what R.C. and others implied was that there was a blatant denial of justification by faith alone. I have never heard anyone clearly deny it in the fashion R.C. proposed.

Sproul has been seen throughout the years as a Reformed icon. Truly, no one denies his influence in bringing many people into the Reformed faith. He was certainly instrumental and continues to be instrumental in my thinking (I am particularly indebted to R.C.’s vision of the good, the true, and the beautiful and restoring the arts into the church). Nevertheless, after participating in many conferences and after hearing R.C. many times, and even interacting with him personally, (R.C.’s church is only 20 minutes from my house) the obvious impression is that he has read very little written by N.T. Wright (He appears to depend exclusively on the insights of his southern presbyterian friend, Ligon Duncan. To be fair, Sproul did read and review N.T. Wright’s book: Evil and the Justice of God. In the end, he concludes with a positive review when he writes: “Despite the concerns that his doctrine of God raises in some of the passages I’ve mentioned, I find in the main that N. T. Wright has made a valuable contribution to our understanding of the problem of evil.” Perhaps R.C. would find the same benefits in reading Wright’s other works as well. I think R.C. would find Wright’s preterism compelling among other things). His followers are very content in hearing the oft heard dogmatic statement that justification is the article by which the church falls or stands (This is quoted by Luther). But was the church fallen before Luther? Is the Apostolic Creed not a suitable document to declare orthodoxy? Will R.C. admit that the Reformation shared new insights never seen before since the first century? If so, then his dogmatic assertion must be challenged, for who can deny that this 21st century is a century where the Reformed church needs to be reformed?

This in my opinion is the reason there was no exegetical treatment. Some have said that the divines already provided the exegetical treatment in the Confession. Fair enough, but the Confession is not exhaustive, in fact, some in the Federal Vision claim to be faithful to the confession (Wilkins claims to take a few exceptions, but not with the clause on justification). Furthermore, the divines disagreed with each other on certain issues. Do we take apart each divine and analyze their exegesis of certain confessional clauses? Beyond that, since the divines were not all united, did they then begin to adopt reports that condemned some for denying the covenant of works or a particular view of creation?

The PCA in my estimation has lost its chance to deal with these issues in a more charitable and careful manner. In my estimation it was precipitous. Why was not any one invited to defend their position before the entire assembly? Handing a microphone from the floor does not establish a proper forum.

My final observation relates to the nature of the report. I, too, find myself in disagreement with Bishop Wright in many issues (Political, Women in ministry and so on) and I also have some disagreements with Federal Vision proponents, (There is no monolithic group, so it is hard to say there is a disagreement unless it is with a particular proponent) however, what is the purpose of putting both theologies into one report? My conclusion is that since both were put together, those who knew more about one (NPP, for example) would immediately associate it with the other and hence throw both groups into the pile of senseless rhetoric and anti-Reformed. This tactic succeeded much to my dismay. The correct way to handle this matter would be to deal with the New Perspective in one year and then deal with the Federal Vision the following year (if this had taken place, the Assembly would have adopted the report on the NPP, but I am certain that after another year of careful analysis, the report on the FV would not have been adopted). The first debate centers around the Presbyterian tradition and an Anglican minister who probably has never read the Westminster Confession. The other debate is between differing interpretations of the Confession. This is a monstrous difference! By placing both together into one report, the desired conclusion was met.

By placing both groups together, the General Assembly missed an opportunity to deal with significant issues that are stressed in the Federal Vision. Instead, we spent the entire time debating justification by faith, a doctrine the FV does not deny (I realize that the definition of justification has been expanded by some; this is perhaps where the confusion lies. It is not a denial, but an expansion on the rich nature of the term itself). But how about the baptistic nature of the PCA? Why did the assembly pass over that one? How about the memorialist nature of the sacraments practiced once a month (maybe) in a large portion of the PCA? Why not find out what Luther and Calvin thought about that? How about the diminishing of the covenantal idea in the church of Christ? How about dealing with the neglect of covenant children in PCA churches where they are treated as second-class citizens? How about the anti-expository nature of PCA preaching? How about the mega-church mentality of some in the PCA who take more heed to Rick Warren than our Reformed forefathers? How about the blatant departure of a Reformed eschatology (I know a few examples of Ruling Elders in the PCA that are strongly committed to a Dispensational Eschatology)? How about the lack of theological training of our Ruling Elders? How about the refusal of PCA churches to expose their people to the richness of the hymnody or Psalter? How about stressing a higher view of the law as opposed to the conspicuous anti-nomian tendency of many PCA ministers? These are all in some way or another Federal Vision emphases. Why were none of these issues brought forward? Why? I truly am embarrassed with this entire process and only hope to see sanity, charity, and a closer analysis of the things that will truly destroy our beloved denomination.

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About Uri Brito

I am the Pastor of Providence Church (CREC) in Pensacola, Fl.
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19 Responses to PCA Report- R.C. Sproul and some penultimate thoughts

  1. Rob Somers says:

    Hi Uri,

    I was wondering how you do your footnotes – is it part of the wordpress software, or do you use MS Word, or something else? The reason I am asking is that I wonder if you have found a nice way to do it. Currently, if I want to use a footnote on my blog, I have to do it manually, which tends to limit my enthusiasm for using footnotes. Your liberal use of footnotes makes me suspect that you have a better way of doing it than manually entering the html code or whatever.

    Rob

  2. Rob Somers says:

    Ack! I found the plugin for footnotes. I apologise for cluttering up your blog comments. Please feel free to delete both.

  3. ryan garner says:

    Uri,

    I normally do not post any responses here but wanted to support. I wrote shortly on my own blog about traditionalism (in response to the proposed document). I find it ironic that an authoritative body (PCA with no official headship structure…unless you count a 400 year old document and some voices with charismatic swagger) is appealing to traditionalism as grounds to over-rule a theological threat (FV) which would it in itself would lend to a higher view of tradition (that being a tighter and more concrete attitude towards the covenants with the visible church)than the supposedauthority that condemns it . This is not a valuative judgment, only a somewhat comical observation.

    secondly, I find it short-sighted to acknowledge WCF without examining the historcial conditions that provided its doctrinal language. You alluded to this. But even if we shed light on its authors and their disagreements, we will neglect one more important piece of scrutiny. That being, the use of WCF over the last 400 years. It has been used (apologetically, I suspect) in a variety of eccessial settings as a traditional document that justifies church forms and structures. Noted here, these are variegated ecclessial structures throughout 400 years, not one monolith of church behavior. This indicates that the language of WCF is not suprahistorical or can simply be appealed to without some care, wisdom, or consideration of confessional hermenuetics. It would be an endorsement of a particular time-sensitive interpretation if we did not browse WCF’s history alongside the current nuances of “confessional language”. I don’t find that the document submitted exhibited such care, wisdom, or consideration(at least in view of WCF).

    Lastly, let us hope that the scriptures will be heard. Let us hope that the church’s resistance to change will be honoring and not merely an arrogant circling of wagons that neglects extended traditions by appealing to truncated ones. May it be that we align ourselves with the wisdom of the scriptures. Hopefully we never give way on the primacy of the text. Prayerfully, in five years we will be much more comfortable in hosting this discussion.

    -Ryan

  4. J.Kru says:

    At one point, Sproul addressed the idea of putting FV proponents on the study committee. He said, “You don’t put the accused on the jury.” But that’s exactly the problem. Nobody was accused, and at the time of the study report, there was no guilt to be had. It proves to me that the results were predetermined…

    “We’re going to see if FV is heresy.”
    “Let’s put some FV guys on the committee, then.”
    “No, we can’t do that. FV guys are heretics! You can’t have a heretic on a committee!”

    A sad day for the PCA.

    Say, when did Sproul join the PCA, anyway? His church doesn’t show up on the PCA website church finder.

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  6. Uri,

    You write: “Nevertheless, after participating in many conferences and after hearing R.C. many times and even interacting with him personally,3 the obvious impression he gives is that he has never read anything by N.T. Wright.”

    That you don’t agree with Sproul’s assessments is not an indicator that he is unfamiliar with Wright’s work. For example, R.C. recently reviewed Wright’s book: “Evil and the Justice of God” which is available on the Reformation 21 website.

    Like you, I have some problems with the PCA report. Yet many good and thoughtful men supported and voted in favor of it. As a seminary student it is easy to be tempted into thinking that you have almost all of the answers, yet life is actually quite complex, so be careful about how you judge those who have gone before you.

    Your brother in Christ,

    David

  7. Uri Brito says:

    Hi David, for a moment I thought you were Randy Booth. David, what I was referring to was reading pertinent to the subject of New Perspective. If you have evidence that R.C. has read on this subject, please let me know. I will be glad to delete and edit my comments.
    David, I certainly don’t have all the answers. I will admit that anywhere, nevertheless, it does not take too much life experience and wisdom to look at this entire discussion and find the many flaws in this report and decision.
    Furthermore, you should not despise my youth as a future minister of the gospel. Remember the young Greg Bahnsen in seminary wrote: Theonomy and Christian Ethics and my professor Richard Pratt wrote: Every Thought Captive when he was 23. I hope you will respect my assessment and my present sentiments in this matter, which, as you may already have noticed are and have been very strong for the last 3 years.
    In Christ alone:
    Uri Brito

  8. Uri Brito says:

    Jared.
    R.C. received permission from the Central Florida Presbytery to start St. Andrews outside the PCA jurisdiction. An unfortunate decision in my estimation. Now, he pastors an independent church, which is another serious problem both historically and biblically. The only great benefit from his church is that he has been able to maintain a high liturgy and build a church that truly is beautiful to look upon. Perhaps he wanted that liberty to do so. Just my speculation. You should visit; you will be in awe at the paintings and the structure thereof.
    I hope you finished Hebrew well.

  9. Uri Brito says:

    In light of Mr. Booth’s comments,I have developed a bit further Footnote #4 including a helpful link to one of R.C. Sproul’s review of Bishop Wright’s book: Evil and the Justice of God.

  10. Uri,

    1. Greg Bahnsen was the most brilliant Christian mind of my generation. If you think that you are that smart – well, we all look forward to your published works. Also, Greg wrote after he had achieved a pretty strong grasp of Greek, Hebrew, Systematic Theology, and Philosphy.
    2. Richard Pratt, while also brillant (and one of the best OT professors ever), produced a rather sloppy book at 23. He should have waited.
    3. You wrote: “Nevertheless, after participating in many conferences and after hearing R.C. many times and even interacting with him personally,the obvious impression he gives is that he has never read anything by N.T. Wright.” When I pointed to the fact that he had recently reviewed one of Wright’s books – you changed the subject. It would be better to simply disagree with Dr. Sproul’s conclusions rather than making the speculative leap to how he came to those conclusions. Certainly, R.C. can be wrong while you are right – but show some respect.
    4. Please note that fine men, who also had troubles with aspects of the report, voted for it and explained their reasons. For example, see the Bayly brothers – who have regularly defended Doug Wilson in print: http://www.baylyblog.com/
    5. Governing the church involves a great deal of wisdom. Part of that wisdom is the realization that I might be wrong and my brothers might be seeing things more clearly than I do.

    Your brother,

    David
    p.s. Randy and I have no relationship that I’m aware of other than having the same Father in heaven.

  11. Uri,

    Thanks for adding to footnote #4. You are a good man!

    David

  12. John Rogers says:

    I have to plead guilty to being one of those who has read a few articles by and about N.T. Wright without having read a single book by him in its entirety. My first impression of him was that he was a liberal because he qualifies and equivocates on almost everything he says and writes. Then I realized that he is actually one of the champions in the fight against liberal scholarship and especially groups like the so-called Jesus Seminar.

    But isn’t it strange that I mistook him for the enemy?

    My M.O. when it cmes to issues of orthodoxy is to first rely on gut instinct and then look deeper. Basically a hallmark of heresy is that it provides complicated, esoteric answers to profound questions. Orthodoxy proposes simple and elegant answers. I also emply the maxim: “If a doctrine is new, then it probably isn’t true.”

    The fact that there is so much confusion on the New Perspective is a red flag and I admit I have to still look deeper. If someone like me has trouble getting the basic gist of what Wright is saying, especially that we need to read all the New Testament as “the Big Story” and what not, then that also raises a red flag.

    I’ve met various Reformed people who love him to the point of adoration. And others such as R.C. Sproul who think he is a grave threat to the Reformed faith.

    My biggest concern about Wright is that he refuses to endorse the idea of biblical inerrancy as defined in documents such as The Chicago Statement and recently dismissed a question about inerrancy at a conference at the Auburn Avenue Church as “a North American controversy.” That worries me, and even the people who endorse Wright note some serious misgivings.

    So you are right, we don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Sproul, who often quotes Thomas Aquinas, gets out of sorts when the New Perspective on Paul is mentioned. The criticism is that the FV and the New Perspective (as well as the Auburn Avenue folks) are preaching a view on the forensic aspect of rightousness that is more “works” oriented than pre-Reformation Catholicism. And he seems to be doing so out of a desire as an Anglican to move beyond the great divide of the Reformation.

    When a noted Reformed theologian attacks his view on justification, it doesn’t mean that we discard everything else Wright is right about. Again, I am not an expert on Wright, but although I respect him for gaining a standing as a champion some basic orthodox issues in a very liberal country, I have to defer to the fact that his greatest defenders do so with a caveat.

    When we meet, maybe we can make it a point for you to give me a primer on Wright from your perspective.

  13. John,

    In fairness to Wright, one of the reasons why he qualifies so much in his teaching is because he is busily engaged in actually defending orthodoxy within a rather liberal academic environment. I think much of the complexity of his work stems simply from the fact that he is shoving footnotes down the throats of those scholars who dismiss the Bible.

    If you, for some reason, were to become more familiar with those whom Wright is interacting with in the academic sphere – you would probably appreciate just how conservative he is.

    David

  14. Uri Brito says:

    Thank you gentleman for your thoughts. I learn much from your thoughts and have no problems correcting or editing any of my comments.
    By the way David, believe me, I am not nor ever will be as brilliant as Bahnsen; on the other hand, I will not be as brilliant as my mentor Richard Pratt. My point wasn’t to say that I am at equal stature to both of those great scholars; my point was that you should not set aside a conclusion on the basis of man’s age.

  15. Erik says:

    I am not as aware of the rules of the GA as some may be. Can anyone explain why if St. Andrews is outside the PCA jurisdiction that RC is given a voice at a PCA General Assembly? Why does that make sense?

  16. Uri Brito says:

    Erik, it appears that the Central Florida Presbytery (the presbytery R.C. was ordained in) gave R.C. special permission to start this independent church. As for the reasons they would do such a thing, I am not sure, nor do I agree.

  17. Steve Dornan says:

    Gentlemen,

    My understanding is that it is not uncommon for a PCA minister to work “out of bounds” while maintaining their status in the PCA. It does seem an odd choice to bring in a minister who has chosen to distance himself from the PCA by planting an independent church to come and speak on such an important matter at the GA.

  18. Uri Brito says:

    Steve, I think you are right…but remember that R.C. and Duncan are close friends…and with R.C. defending your cause, you are sure to get many others on your side.

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