Friday, June 25, 2010

Globalism, The Westminster Standards, and The PCA Strategic Plan

Do we need to jettison or at least add to the Westminster Standards in order to participate more effectively in the global mission of the Church?  In order for the gospel ministry to be more effective, does it need to be freed from North American and European biases that result from a more rigorous Reformed theology?  Have the self-consciously confessional Presbyterians mistakenly equated confessional Reformed piety and practice with 16th century Swiss, Scottish or British culture?

In his recent article "Catholicity Global and Historical: Constantinople, Westminster, and the Church in the Twenty-First Century, in the Westminster Theological Journal, Robert Letham provides the historical and global make-up of the Westminster Standards and shows how the Divines purposely placed themselves in the stream of historic, orthodox biblical interpretation by allowing the ancient creeds to guide the Westminster Standards.  He notes how they saw themselves as continuing and perpetuating the insights of the Church fathers and the ancient creeds.

After laying out the ecumenical history and content of the Westminster Standards, he turns his attention to those who say that the Church needs to free herself from the influence of Western theology and practice in order to be more effective globally, and that the Church needs to allow the third world theologians to shape today's theology and practice.  He notes,
There are those who claim that we are entering an entirely new era requiring a massive paradigm shift in the church’s thought and action. In this case, historical theology is merely a curiosity. It may have a part in an ongoing conversation but the debate has moved on. The past is effectively sidelined since a conversation, as it progresses in subtle and dynamic ways, renders obsolete and irrelevant the comments made five minutes ago. Many voices praise the idea that the church will be freed from its captivity to Western Europe and North America. This misses the point that the foundations of the church were laid by Egyptians (Athanasius and Cyril), Turks (the Cappadocians, Maximus the Confessor), Tunisians (Tertullian, Cyprian, Augustine), and a Syrian ( John of Damascus), to say nothing of the apostles (Middle-Eastern Jews)—these hardly look like Western Europeans, let alone North Americans. This mantra is a coded message, indicating that its utterer wants to move away from the confining dogmas of the Reformation. . . . The ecumenical creeds cannot be reduced to conversation partners at a global round table. Insights there may and will be from various parts of the world. But the nature of the ecumenical councils was quite different—they simply confessed the truth and the church recognized what they confessed. They were acknowledging the apostolic faith, not bringing insights from their culture. The same principle applies to the teachings of the Reformation. (p. 55)
Letham's point is quite timely given the desire on the one hand to make church practice reflective of culture while on the other hand complaining about the cultural captivity of Reformed theology and practice.  Maybe what they mean to say is that we would be better served to be held captive to culture that is not North American or European.  Funny how the winds of politics seem to be shaping this conversation. But merely exchanging one cultural influence for another is not biblical, but is also not truly catholic or ecumenical.

If we are going to be more "global" it cannot be the result of leaving history behind, even Westminster history. Letham concludes, "Global Christianity in the twenty-first century, to be truly catholic, must be apostolic—grounded in Scripture and built upon the teaching of the church. It is worryingly evident that many who have leaped onto the bandwagon of globalism—mainly in this country—are ready to move beyond the foundations. (p.57)

As the Christian Church, who has been commissioned by Christ to take his gospel to all the globe, it is right for us to desire and spend ourselves in going global.  Yet, we need to pursue it wisely.  And the wise way includes retaining our history, especially our history of interpretation of the Bible.  This history is retained for us in the historic creeds of the Church including the Westminster Standards--both in doctrine and practice.  Let us not fall prey to bad practice as a result of a bad understanding of our Standards and of ourselves.  Yes we go forth as Americans subscribing to the Westminster Standards, which means but we go forth with a gospel founded upon, shaped by and explained in the creedal and confessional work of many nations.

1 comment:

  1. I quote Wendell Berry; "Global thinkers have been and will always be dangerous." Even the best pastors can't deal "effectively" with their corner. "We hold these things to be true......" is the best you're going to ever be able to do. Trying to create a template for "how" works of ministry are to be done or what place at the table they should have on a global scale is either the height of arrogance or ignorance or both.