Several weeks ago I posted my first article on the topic “Why I am a Presbyterian;” today’s post is a continuation and conclusion of those thoughts. Before beginning there I provided a few caveats, which will apply to this piece, as well. In short, what I am attempting is not a complete defense of Presbyterianism from a theological and biblical standpoint, but rather a brief discussion of the things that led *me* to join this part of Christ’s church.
6. The use of the ecumenical creeds and the Westminster Standards is both grounding and edifying.
While Southern Baptist churches officially hold to The Baptist Faith and Message as a broad confessional standard, in practice most of the churches of which I was a part were of the “no creed but Christ, no book but the Bible” variety. My experience in the SBC was uniformly characterized by the teaching that Holy Scripture is the inspired, inerrant, infallible Word of God, and for that I am grateful. The only problem is that absent an agreed-upon systematic and comprehensive statement of what Scripture teaches, the possibility exists of aberrant beliefs being taught—perhaps inadvertently—with out-of-context verses taken as proof.
Confessional standards—in the case of the PCA, the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms—provide a means of ensuring that our teachings can be confirmed not only by an appeal to isolated Scripture verses, but to a statement of the teaching of Scripture as a whole. The Westminster Standards are not infallible and are, of course subordinate to Scripture, but insofar as they accurately communicate the teaching of the Bible they provide a useful means of ensuring the teaching of right doctrine in the churches.
The Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds are not as detailed as the Westminster Standards, and not specific to Presbyterians—these broad statements of Christian doctrine have been confessed by believers in various types of churches (including many Baptist churches) throughout the world for centuries. The use of these ecumenical creeds speaks to our broad uniformity with Christians of all times, places, and denominational persuasions, while the recitation of them in corporate worship (when practiced) provides congregants with a regular and poignant reminder of the essential teachings of Christianity.
7. The covenantal framework in which Presbyterianism views and interprets Scripture “gave the Old Testament back to me.”
The emergence of the Left Behind series of novels in the late 1990s first brought the teachings of Premillenial Dispensationalism to the consciousness of many believers, but in reality this position was the default in most or all of the Southern Baptist churches of which I was a part. While in popular perception Dispensationalism is most often associated with its teaching regarding the “end times,” its way of viewing and interpreting Scripture extends beyond eschatology. Particularly damaging is its view of the distinction between Israel in the Old Testament and the church in the New. Without going into tremendous detail here, and recognizing that not all Dispensationalists hold this view in its most extreme form, this view holds that both the makeup and the way of salvation for the people of God are different in the Old Covenant and New Covenant eras. In effect, the Old Testament becomes of limited if any relevance to the modern believer, since its laws, prophecies, and promises were applicable only to God’s people in the Old Covenant era, the Jews. (One might also note that the expectation of a restored theocratic Israel—complete with Temple worship—is necessitated by this view, given some Old Testament prophecies that are viewed as being still unfulfilled, but I digress.)
One problem with this view is its novelty; no one had thought or heard of this before around 1820. In the context of a two-millennia-old faith, this should raise suspicions. Beyond that, Scripture itself disqualifies this view. In both Romans 15 and 1 Corinthians 10 Paul explicitly states that the Old Testament Scriptures were written for our instruction and encouragement. The Bereans in Acts 17 are commended for “examining the Scriptures,” meaning the Old Testament, since the New was still being written! Hebrews 11 provides an entire chapter of encouraging examples drawn from the Old Testament. Wherever people got the idea that the Old Testament is no longer relevant, it wasn’t from the New Testament.
Moreover, let us not forget that the promises of God in His Covenant with Abraham are still in effect. In Genesis 17 God said He was creating an “everlasting covenant” with Abraham, a promise that is not abrogated but rather expanded in Galatians 3 where Paul says that all that are in Christ are “Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.” Both time and space will fail me if I attempt to speak in detail about the covenants of works and of grace and their administrations in the Old and New Covenant eras. Suffice it to say for now that this view that the Abrahamic Covenant, as an expression of the Covenant of Grace, is still in effect, means that the Old Testament has not been superseded or rendered useless by the coming of Christ. Rather, “all the promises of God find their Yes in Him.” (2 Corinthians 1:20) Like I said, abandoning Dispensationalism—and particularly embracing the Presbyterian view of the enduring nature of God’s covenant with Abraham—“gave the Old Testament back to me.” To read of the dealings of God with the saints of old and of His promises to them, and to understand that many of these promises yet apply to the church today, is exhilarating.
(And, to those that would cite Jeremiah 31 in argument against this position, note that in verse 32 it is the covenant with Moses, not that with Abraham, which is viewed as broken and to be superseded. Again, the covenant with Abraham remains.)
8. The Rejection of the Dispensational View of the “End Times” Eliminates an Unhelpful Distraction.
While under the previous point I dodged the issue of the “end times,” I will address it here. Not only does Presbyterianism (as expressed in the Westminster Standards) reject the Dispensational bifurcation of the church in the Old and New Testament eras; it also rejects that view of the “end times.” Before launching into this, I should say that we by no means deny that Christ will come again. After all, Scripture teaches this repeatedly (John 14:3, Acts 1:11, 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17). However, the peculiar Dispensational notion of the “Rapture” of the church followed by a “Tribulation” period of fixed duration is not to be found in Scripture—at least, not without torturing certain passages to make this present. The Lord will return, but only once, ushering His own into eternal life, and leaving the rest to eternal punishment. But, Christians will be present for the duration; the teaching of a “pre-Tribulation Rapture” is perhaps a desirable escapism, but if the biblical data are true, then this teaching is excluded.
Moreover, in Scripture the totality of the time between Christ’s first and second comings is described as the “last days” or the “last hour,” or, if you will, the “end times.” (Acts 2:16-17, Hebrews 1:1-2, 1 John 2:18) While certainly there are perilous times ahead, there have been perilous times before in the past two millennia, all of which are included in the “end times” in which we now live. Even if in a time in the near or distant future humanity faces calamity unlike anything previously experienced, that still does not mean that we are to look forward to a time that is so categorically worse than that which has preceded that it must be classified as an entirely different period. We Christians are living in the “last days,” just as the apostles did, and we eagerly look forward to Christ’s return, whether in our lifetimes, or centuries and millennia in the future. Our calling is simple: “watch.” (Mark 13:37, KJV)
9. The Presbyterian View of Life “in the World” is both Healthy and Practical.
One undesirable consequence of the rise of Dispensationalism in the past two centuries has been the tendency of Christians holding to that system to withdraw as much as possible from the world, and thus failing to exercise any meaningful influence in the wider society. Certainly we are seeing the results of this today, where a meaningful and articulate Christian voice has been largely absent from academia, the media, government, the arts, and other realms of influence for decades. We whine and complain about this, but in a certain sense we brought about our own difficulties and lack of voice. And yet, those who led the charge for withdrawal were working out a logical extension of the view that the “Rapture” and destruction of “this old world” were imminent, and thus “wasting time” with worldly things was useless. Only now, with an almost thoroughly secularized society and still no “Rapture” are some beginning to see the fallacy of this.
Now, certainly we believe that Christ may return at any moment, but our calling until He does is not to withdraw but to press forward, not only with world evangelization, but with exercising our various callings as “salt and light” (Matthew 5:13-16) wherever we are. Indeed, Scripture dignifies all lawful occupations as service to the Lord (cf. Colossians 3:23-24) while decrying any tendency to sit idly by and wait for the end (2 Timothy 3). Perhaps the best description of how we as Christians should live in the world until the return of Christ is found in an application of the prophet Jeremiah’s command to the Jewish exiles in Babylon over 2500 years ago:
“Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” (Jeremiah 29:4-7)
I do not want to press this application too far, but the exiled Jews of Jeremiah’s day had been told by their “prophets” that their captivity would be short, and that they would soon return to the Promised Land, but the Lord had told Jeremiah that the captivity would be long, and that the Jews would do well to make the most of their lives in Babylon. They were even to seek, if you will, to “be a blessing” to those in the communities where they were placed. Likewise, there are Christians that would tell us to pay little attention to the world and its affairs, and instead to withdraw and wait for the coming of Christ. The message of Jeremiah to us is the same: “seek the welfare” of the society where you are. Live as Christians in the world, as “sojourners and exiles” (1 Peter 2:11), yes, but all the while seeking the benefit of those among whom you live. Seek their conversion especially, of course, but even seeking the temporal welfare of our societies is not beyond the Christian’s calling.
(See, the Old Testament is not irrelevant!)
Happily, many Christians in Dispensationalist churches are rediscovering this doctrine. It is a biblical one, and certainly not peculiar to Presbyterianism. I include it here among my reasons for becoming Presbyterian because while churches that embraced Dispensationalism have long neglected this doctrine, Reformed and Presbyterian authors such as Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920) and Francis Schaeffer (1912-1984) have long been developing it and applying it to the modern age. It is thrilling not only to labor amongst churches that descend from this great tradition, but also to see other individuals and churches rediscovering these great truths and the Christian thinkers that have brought them to bear in the modern world.
10. The PCA is full of perfect churches……NOT!
In many ways, I am an “odd duck.” Rather than first joining Presbyterian churches because of an invitation from a friend, or proximity to my home, or enjoying a particular pastor, I came to this position and these churches by extended study of Scripture, the confessional standards, and various theological books and articles. In some ways, this bred in my thinking a “Lake Wobegon” picture of what life in a conservative Presbyterian church would be like, and I was somewhat shocked to discover that, while these churches embraced the doctrines I have discussed in these two blog posts “on paper,” in reality they are filled with parishioners that have doubts, difficulties at home and work, confusion on theological issues, opinions that are contrary to Scripture and/or our confessional standards, etc. In short, our churches, like all churches, are filled with real people with real problems. Still, these doctrines and standards that I have described provide a biblical and theological standpoint from which to address the various “issues” that arise, and this makes fulfilling our responsibilities as Christians to each other, to society, and most of all to our Lord a more bearable task. At least we know where to begin….