About a year ago, in response to an article that appeared on The Layman Online entitled, “Newest Presbyterian Denomination Experiences Continued Growth”, a poster asked, “What keeps the ECO and the PCA from becoming one?” Another poster answered, “The role of women.” The following is the essay I wrote in response to the first poster’s question and the second poster’s answer.
The ordination of women is perhaps the greatest difference between the ECO: A Covenant Order of Presbyterians and the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), but it is not the only difference.
The ECO has adopted the entire Presbyterian Church (USA) Book of Confessions as its confessional standard, whereas the PCA recognizes only the Westminster Confession of Faith, together with the Larger and Shorter Catechisms, as its confessional standard. The PCA requires ordained officers to affirm, “Do you 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 do you further promise that if at any time you find yourself out of accord with any of the fundamentals of this system of doctrine, you will on your own initiative, make known to your Presbytery (or Session) the change which has taken place in your views since the assumption of this ordination vow?”
Similar to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church and unlike either the PC(USA) or the PCA, the ECO has adopted an “Essential Tenets” document, and it asks its officers to affirm, “Will you receive, adopt, and be bound by the Essential Tenets of ECO as a reliable exposition of what Scripture teaches us to do and to believe, and will you be guided by them in your life and ministry?” The ECO “Essential Tenets & Confessional Standards” document makes a distinction between “Doctrinal Progressives”, “Doctrinal Restorationists”, and “The Reformed understanding of the church’s confessional and theological tradition”. It says, “Doctrinal Progressives understand the church’s confessional and theological tradition as an evolutionary development of doctrine in which the church’s expression of the gospel becomes richer in each succeeding age. In this view, contemporary theology and new confessions of faith are more developed, better expressed, fuller apprehensions of truth than the faith of previous centuries. Our way is the way.” It is clear that the ECO is here referring to theological liberals in the PC(USA). The “Essential Tenets & Confessional Standards” document also says, “Doctrinal Restorationists understand the church’s theological and confessional tradition as a series of missteps leading to imperfect understanding and inadequate articulation of the gospel. In this view, a particular moment in the church’s confessional and theological tradition, such as … the seventeenth century Westminster standards, is the pure faith of a theological golden age. Their way is the way.” It is fairly clear that the ECO is here referring to the PCA and other Reformed denominations (such as the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, and the Reformed Presbyterian Church) that use only the Westminster Standards as their confessional standard and require their officers to take ordination vows similar to the PCA vow quoted above regarding the Westminster Standards without much room (if any) for expressing disagreement with the Westminster Standards. In contrast, the “Essential Tenets & Confessional Standards” document states, “The Reformed understanding of the church’s confessional and theological tradition sees contemporary Christians as participants in an enduring theological and doctrinal conversation that shapes the patterns of the church’s faith and life. Communities of believers from every time and place engage in a continuous discussion about the shape of Christian faith and life, an exchange that is maintained through Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. Today’s church brings its insights into an ongoing dialogue with those who have lived and died the Faith before us. Voices from throughout the church’s life contribute to the interchange – ancient voices that articulate the enduring rule of faith, sixteenth and seventeenth century voices that shape the Reformed tradition, and twentieth century voices that proclaim the church’s faith in challenging contexts. The confessions in the Book of Confessions were not arbitrarily included, but were selected to give faithful voice to the whole communion of saints.” In a nutshell, the ECO is defining two extremes—the “Doctrinal Progressives” and the “Doctrinal Restorationists”—and then charts what it perceives is a middle path between the two extremes, saying that the Reformed understanding of the Confessions is this; that is, “Our way is the Reformed way.” The PCA, I am reasonably sure, takes exception to the ECO’s definitions and its adoption of the PC(USA) Book of Confessions, making them a point of contention between the two denominations.
Another major difference between the ECO and the PCA is in how it perceives the Scriptures. The PCA requires ordained officers to affirm, “Do you believe the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, as originally given, to be the inerrant Word of God, the only infallible rule of faith and practice?” By “as originally given”, the PCA means the original autographs as penned by the prophets and apostles, and the PCA requires its officers to believe that these autographs were so inspired by the Holy Spirit as to be without error, and by implication that our modern translations are trustworthy and reliable to the extent that they accurately deliver the message of the inerrant autographs.
The ECO requires its ordained officers to affirm, “Do you believe the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be the Word of God, and, inspired by the Holy Spirit, the unique witness to Jesus Christ and the authority for Christian faith and life?” The ECO “Essential Tenets & Confessional Standards” document further expands on this vow, stating,
The clearest declaration of God’s glory is found in His Word, both incarnate and written. The Son eternally proceeds from the Father as His Word, the full expression of the Father’s nature, and since in the incarnation the Word became flesh all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are offered to His disciples. The written Word grants us those treasures, proclaims the saving gospel of Jesus Christ, and graciously teaches all that is necessary for faith and life. We glorify God by recognizing and receiving His authoritative self-revelation, both in the infallible Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments and also in the incarnation of God the Son. We affirm that the same Holy Spirit who overshadowed the virgin Mary also inspired the writing and preservation of the Scriptures. The Holy Spirit testifies to the authority of God’s Word and illumines our hearts and minds so that we might receive both the Scriptures and Christ Himself aright.
Remember that the ECO requires its officers to “receive, adopt, and be bound by the Essential Tenets of ECO as a reliable exposition of what Scripture teaches us to do and to believe, and (to) be guided by them in (their) life and ministry”, thus making the statement quoted here about “the infallible Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments” as the Word of God an extension of the ordination vow regarding the Scriptures themselves.
To be sure, the ECO vows do not preclude officers from believing the doctrine of inerrancy as required by PCA officers, but neither do they require them, as do the PCA vows. Notice also that the ECO “Essential Tenets” document declares that the Scriptures are “infallible”; it does not say that they (or the autographs) are “inerrant”. To the casual observer, this might seem like splitting hairs; after all, don’t the two terms mean that the Bible is not mistaken in what it says?
The difference is perhaps best spelled out in Positions 1 and 2 of a survey taken by the Presbyterian Panel in the summer and fall of 1979, the results of which were published in “Biblical Authority and Interpretation: A Resource Document Received by the 194th General Assembly (1982) of the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America”. Position 1 stated, “The Bible, though written by individuals, has been so controlled by the Holy Spirit that it is without error in all it teaches in matters of science and history, as well as in matters of theology.” This position is essentially the doctrine required of officers in the PCA ordination vows. Position 2 stated, “The Bible, though written by individuals and reflecting their personalities, has been so controlled by the Holy Spirit that it is trustworthy in all it teaches in matters of theology and ethics, but not necessarily in matters of science and history.” (emphasis added) The word “infallible” has been typically employed to say that the teachings of the Old and New Testament Scriptures regarding theology and ethics, though not necessarily of science and history, are exactly as intended by God, whereas the word “inerrant” has been typically employed to say that the actual words of Scripture are exactly as intended by God, and therefore everything on which the Scriptures speak, including matters of science and history and not just of theology and ethics, are exactly as God intended. Now, the immediate problem in saying that the Scriptures are inerrant in this sense is that there are minor contradictions in the Scriptures themselves, such as numerical discrepancies in the historical books (e.g., did David slay seven hundred Syrian charioteers under the command of Shobach, as in II Sam. 10.18, or seven thousand, as in I Chron. 19.18). For this reason, those who hold to Biblical inerrancy (as I do) hold that only the autographs were inspired by the Holy Spirit and were thus without errors, and that the later copies and translations of the same Scriptures are inerrant only insofar as they accurately reproduce the message of the autographs.
Now, even beyond this issue, there is a further stumbling block to many, in that some of what Scripture says is, to put it mildly, rather amazing—some would say incredible. For example, all the patriarchs in Genesis lived extraordinarily long lives by contemporary standards—Abraham lived to be 175 years old (Gen. 25.7), Isaac lived to be 180 years old (Gen. 35.28), Jacob lived to be 147 years old (Gen. 47.28), Joseph lived to be 110 years old (Gen. 50.22), and Abraham’s ancestors in Genesis 5.1-32, 9.29, 11.10-32 lived even longer still, with Methuselah living longest, dying at the age of 969 years (Gen. 5.27). For this reason, some will say that whereas the teachings of Scripture regarding theology and ethics are 100% reliable, the teachings regarding science and history might not be (after all, people don’t live more than 120 years at the most). The ECO ordination vows regarding the trustworthiness of Scripture allow ordained officers to take this position, whereas the corresponding PCA ordination vows do not.
In addition to the issue of the ordination of women, the differences in confessional standards and the requirements of officers regarding their beliefs about the reliability of the Scriptures are matters of serious contention between the ECO and the PCA and are the basic reason why these two denominations won’t “become one” anytime in the foreseeable future.