My friend and colleague Dr. Sean Michael Lucas, Associate Professor of Church History at Reformed Theological Seminary and Senior Pastor, First Presbyterian Church, Hattiesburg, MS, has just made a major contribution to the history of Presbyterian and Reformed denominational life in North America. His book For a Continuing Church: The Roots of the Presbyterian Church in America (P&R, 2015) is the fruit of more than a decade of careful historical research and reflection.
It was my privilege to write the foreword to this book, which I include here to whet your appetite for this feast of historical Presbyterian self-understanding.
In just over forty years, the Presbyterian Church in America has grown to be the largest conservative Presbyterian denomination in the English-speaking world. From a small evangelical splinter group who left the declining PCUS, the PCA has survived and continued and expanded and matured despite the early predictions of both enemies and friends. And while it is still relatively small in comparison to a body like the Southern Baptist Convention, the PCA exercises a theological influence in the evangelical world, and a cultural influence in the United States, disproportionate to its size.
From the beginning, the PCA was committed to the inerrancy of Scripture, the Reformed theology of the Westminster Standards and to the fulfillment of the Great Commission. The founders of the PCA envisioned a conservative mainline Presbyterian denomination characterized by biblical authority, doctrinal orthodoxy, experiential piety and missionary zeal. Unwittingly, they forged a body that has played a significant role in the resurgence of Calvinism at the end of the twentieth century and in the beginning of the twenty first.
Yet from the outset of its history, the PCA has struggled with its identity. Early on factions self-identified as “thoroughly reformed” or “broadly evangelical” with one group claiming that the PCA had been started as a revival of Old School Presbyterianism (and thus they were opposed to evangelistic and missionary cooperation with non-Calvinist evangelicals) and the other viewing the PCA as a Calvinistic denominational entry in the late twentieth century neo-evangelical network (and thus were favorable towards missionary cooperation with non-Calvinist evangelicals). These perspectives were not entirely mutually exclusive, nor did these groups represent the only constituencies in the PCA, but their juxtaposition characterized many of the early debates in the young PCA.
This is, of course, not the only taxonomy that has been used to describe the PCA. The PCA has, for instance, also been depicted as tripartite, with doctrinalists, pietists and transformationalists making up its ministry with competing visions of what it is and should be. And there have been specific issues that animated discussion at the General Assembly and highlighted very different ways people conceived of the PCA (and indeed of the mission of the church): the role of spiritual gifts (continuationism and cessationism); Christian Reconstructionism (Theonomy); marriage, divorce and remarriage (especially the matter of biblical grounds for divorce and remarriage); Freemasonry; creation and the days of Genesis; paedocommunion; the validity of Roman Catholic baptism; confessional subscription; women in the military; the Federal Vision controversy; the “Insider Movement” (dealing with contextualization issues especially in relation to Muslim mission work and Bible translation) and more. The joining and receiving of the RPCES into the PCA in 1982 added another layer of complexity to the PCA identity issue, and another historical experience.
Meanwhile, the PCA in its young history has lived through a cultural mega-shift. Today’s judicial rulings about the definition of marriage were inconceivable in the world in which the PCA was born. During the early years of the PCA, which coincided with an era of unprecedented evangelical political influence, the “Moral Majority” aspired to cultural dominance. Bible-believing Christians today hold no such illusions, and frankly wonder how long they will even be allowed a place at the table.
There have been happy societal changes as well, though. Perhaps the most significant is in race relations. Though 2014 saw new disappointments and tensions in America, we are a world away from the era in which the conservative movement began in the old Southern Presbyterian church. In those days Jim Crow and segregation still haunted us, then came the Civil Rights movement. The PCA’s Founders explicitly and officially stated their desires for a denomination that would include all races, but the PCA began overwhelmingly white. The children and grandchildren of the PCA Founders, however, are part of a denomination that has witnessed and participated in a Reformed awakening in the African American community, and that is planting multiethnic congregations, establishing campus ministries at HBCUs, which has a very substantial Asian membership, is deliberately reaching out into the Hispanic communities, and is intentionally and happily committed to a PCA that is increasingly multiethnic.
These cultural and societal changes have had a massive effect upon the PCA, and are especially reflected in very different generational perspectives on how the church ought (or ought not) to address social issues. Those differing viewpoints and approaches have brought their own challenges to the formation of a coherent, compelling denominational identity.
Representing one’s own denominational history, at point blank range, with all of these factors and perspectives, is a challenge, to say the least. Add to that the fact that presbyterian history in general, and the history of conservative presbyterianism in the twentieth century in particular, are subjects that are not well known, even by presbyterian ministers, and you have a real interpretive conundrum.
This is but one reason I am so grateful for and excited about Sean Michael Lucas’ new history of the PCA, For a Continuing Church. Dr. Lucas is a recognized church historian, an expert in American presbyterianism, a respected pastor, a widely regarded churchman, a veteran theological administrator and a master teacher. He brings a rich experience and profound historical insight to the task. This book itself, well-researched, even-handed, generous-spirited, offers a pathway to denominational self-understanding and on into the future of a presbyterianism that is true to the Bible, the Reformed faith and obedient to the Great Commission.