“‘Things which Become Sound Doctrine’: Associate Reformed Presbyterian Confessional and Theological Identity in the 20th Century.” (Part 2)

[Editor’s Note:  At an ARP historical conference in 2003 I presented a paper on the theological and confessional history of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church in the twentieth century.  The material was then published in 2006 by the Haddington House Journal, and with the permission of that journal is now being serialized in three parts here on this blog.  These posts will be of interest not only to ARPs but also to those who seek a better understanding of how the ARPC differs from other American Presbyterian groups.  Though there has been a good deal of ARP water under the bridge since 2003, I’ve resisted the urge to update it, in part because I’ve dealt with more recent developments in extended internet posts here and here.

In the first installment of this three-part series we looked at the 19th-century theological identity of the ARP Church (then known as the Associate Reformed Church).  Here we examine 20th-century developments having to do with worship, ecumenical involvement, confessional subscription, and modifications to the confessional standards of the church.  In the final installment we will survey the debates over scriptural authority and ask what the future may hold.]

Bill Evans head shot

II. The Twentieth Century

The 20th century was a period of enormous religious change for the nation generally, and for the ARP church. During this century, every distinctive of the ARP church was to be challenged, overturned, or modified. This, in turn presented, and continues to present, a crisis of identity for the ARP Church. At the turn of the previous century, the defining principles of AR identity were reasonably clear. The same cannot be said a century later. In this section we will examine the ARP church in the 20th century by focusing on four issues that served to define the denomination’s theological center of gravity: psalmody and worship, church union and ecumenical involvement, confessional identity, and Scriptural authority.

A. Psalmody and Worship

For the AR church, the twentieth century actually began in 1899, when the Synod’s revision of the Book of Worship overturned the venerable AR practice of close communion. The same Synod, we will recall, also tightened the requirements regarding exclusive psalmody by explicitly prohibiting members from singing hymns under any circumstances of corporate worship. The complexion of the ARP church was changing, however, as the denomination grew substantially in the first three decades of the 20th century. For many of the newcomers, exclusive psalmody was not a treasured distinctive, and pressure mounted for change since exclusive psalmody was seen by many as an impediment to church growth.[1] In 1933, the language explicitly prohibiting ARP’s from singing hymns in other churches was removed from the Book of Government.[2]

Finally, the Synod of 1945 narrowly approved an overture allowing congregations to use hymns as well as psalms, and this overture was approved by the Presbyteries in 1946.[3] It is apparent that relations with other presbyterian churches, especially the PCUS, played a role in the psalmody controversy. Some proponents of change were concerned about loss of members to the PCUS, while others were intent on merger with the PCUS.[4]

The long-term results of this change in “distinctive principle” are still difficult to assess. The church almost immediately entered a lengthy period of controversy over church union, then the authority of scripture and the role of women in the church, and, most recently, worship style. In retrospect, it seems that the ARP church was “knocked off balance” by the abandonment of exclusive psalmody. Since its inception, the ARP church had been known as the “psalm singers.” Now another principle of identity, another raison d’etre would have to be found.

At the turn of the last century, the worship of ARP churches was remarkably homogeneous in its simplicity, and despite disagreements over psalmody, this basic consensus regarding worship continued well into the 20th century.[5] Today, however, that consensus has largely evaporated. A significant minority of churches have adopted “praise and worship” approaches emphasizing the use of  contemporary musical styles. Others, of a more “high church” bent, celebrate the church year with enthusiasm, while still others seek a return to the older “regulative principle.” There is, of course, no going back to the older homogeneous stance on worship; in fact, that is probably not even desirable. What is lacking, however, is a larger theological framework within which diversity of expression in worship can be seen as coherent and enriching rather than chaotic. It seems that much of the discussion currently revolves pragmatically around how the “worship experience” of the congregation can be enhanced rather than around what God might desire of us.

B. Church Union and Ecumenical Involvement

Proposals for uniting the ARP church with other denominations dominated AR conversation in the latter part of the 19th century. In 1866, union efforts with the PCUS ran aground on the psalmody issue. In 1881, 1885, and 1904 efforts at union with the UPCNA likewise failed for a variety of reasons (race relations, the UPC testimony regarding membership in secret societies, concerns about the fate of AR institutions such as Erskine Seminary, etc.).[6]

Merger with the PCUS or the UPCNA again became topics of discussion in the mid-20th century. Finally, the question of merging with the PCUS was put to the General Synod in 1951, when the overture failed by a substantial margin. Again the reasons for rejection were complex, but concerns about the presence of theological liberalism in the PCUS were an important part of the story.[7]

The twentieth century was a period of careful ecumenical involvement for the ARP Church. In 1892 the ARP became a member of the World Presbyterian Alliance (later the World Alliance of Reformed Churches), and it joined the Council of Reformed Churches Holding to the Presbyterian System in 1907. Later, the church would decline to join the Federal Council of Churches, and its successor the National Council of Churches. Again, concerns about the liberalism present in those bodies posed a roadblock. An attempt to join the NCC failed in 1959, and in 1966 the relationship between the ARP Board of Christian Education and the NCC’s Division of Christian Education was severed. Again, it is apparent that concerns about theological liberalism played a decisive role.[8]

By mid-century, the ARP church was unlikely to join an ecumenical organization it perceived as significantly to its theological left. In 1950, the church affiliated with the Reformed Ecumenical Synod (later the Reformed Ecumenical Council), and in 1982 the church became a member of the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council. The effort to join NAPARC lasted over half a decade and was complicated by struggles within the ARP over the “inerrancy” of Scripture.  Interestingly, Synod’s Inter-Church Relations Committee has studied the possibility of joining the National Association of Evangelicals for many years, but has not joined that organization. Finally, in 1997 the ARP church’s application to join the International Council of Reformed Churches was approved, despite questions raised by some of that organization’s members regarding the ARP stance on freemasonry.[9]

In the early 1990’s, the Synod also moved to withdraw from ecumenical organizations which it deemed had drifted into theological liberalism. In 1992, the relationship with the World Alliance of Reformed Churches was severed “due to severe moral/ethical/confessional differences with this organization.”[10] At the same meeting, the General Synod also withdrew from the Reformed Ecumenical Council because of the continuing presence in that body of the Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland, a Dutch Reformed Church which allows practicing homosexuals full participation in the life of the church.

As it entered the 1990’s, the ARP Church had perhaps the widest range of churches in fraternal relationship of any Presbyterian body. Churches in “fraternal relations” were the ARP Synods of Mexico and Pakistan, Presbyterian Church, USA; Cumberland Presbyterian Church, Cumberland Presbyterian Church in America, the Reformed Church in America; the Evangelical Presbyterian Church; and the churches of the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council (the Christian Reformed Church, the Presbyterian Church in America, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the Korean-American Presbyterian Church, and the Reformed Presbyterian Church in North America). In 1999, the General Synod approved a significant restructuring of its ecumenical relations by establishing two levels of ecumenical relationship—”fraternal fellowship” and “fraternal correspondence.” In contrast to fraternal correspondence, the category of fraternal fellowship entailed confessional criteria, specifying churches “which are Reformed as to confession (i.e., churches that adhere to the Westminster Confession and Catechisms, and/or the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Canons of the Synod of Dordt), polity, and liturgy, as determined not only by their formal standards, but also by their actual practice.”[11]

The history of ARP ecumenical involvement in the 20th century underscores the increasingly self-conscious theological and cultural conservatism that characterized a majority within the denomination. Not only was the ARP Church increasingly unwilling to join ecumenical organizations it viewed as tainted with theological liberalism, but it also disassociated itself from organizations it viewed as moving in a liberal direction.

C. Confessional Identity

After the confessional revisions of 1799, the ARP confessional standards were to remain essentially unchanged for over 150 years. This was to change markedly after the middle of the 20th century as extensive changes to the Standards were undertaken in 1959, with more following in 1976, 1984, and 2001. In order to understand the evolving confessional identity of the ARP church we must examine not only the confessional changes, but also the practice of subscription and the way the confessional standards functioned in the church.

We must recall that the ARP church does not have the 1729 Adopting Act as part of its heritage. That is to say, ministers and elders do not subscribe to the “system of doctrine” found in the Westminster Confession and Catechisms, but to the “doctrines . . . contained in the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms . . . as the expression of your own faith.” Controversy over “exceptions” and “scruples” to the Confession simply is not a prominent part of the ARP past. Moreover, the ARP Church never had an “adopting controversy,” in which the parameters of confessional “adherence” or “subscription” were worked out in detail. It was simply understood that ARP ministers accepted the confessional standards of the church. As long as the ministry of the church remained culturally and theologically homogeneous, this approach worked fairly well, but it was to be sorely tested by the challenges of the 20th century.

The ordination vows underwent some change during the 20th century. Interestingly, in these changes we see a progressive removal of a polemical edge from the vows. The earlier vows called for ministers and elders to adhere to the doctrines of the church “in opposition to all Deistical, Popish, Arian, Socinian, Arminian, Neonomian, and Sectarian errors, and all other opinions which are contrary to sound doctrine and the power of godliness.”[12] In 1899 this was shortened to “in opposition to all opinions which are contrary to sound doctrine and the power of godliness.”[13] Finally, in 1972, the opposition clause was removed completely. These changes were no doubt motivated by a desire to be pastoral and constructive in tone, but they may also indicate a decreasing concern to discriminate truth from error.

Another factor to consider is the rise of what may be termed “implicit confessionalism.”  Prior to the late 1960’s the vast majority of ARP ministers were trained at Erskine Seminary, and there is considerable evidence suggesting that the two-year instructional program at Erskine Seminary in the early 20th century was geared toward meeting the practical ministry needs of a small, predominantly rural Southern church with limited resources. The teaching of biblical languages had been discontinued and the theological instruction was more or less catechetical. Moreover, despite the increasing diversity of membership, the vast majority of ARP ministers were coming from traditional ARP families. That is to say, the denominational “glue” was as much sociological as it was theological. Anecdotal evidence from older ministers suggests that presbytery theological examinations of Erskine Seminary graduates were pro forma, and that candidates were not pressed on the details of the Standards. Candidates affirmed the standards, because that’s what “good ARP’s believe.” In other words, there was formal, implicit subscription, but one can ask how vital the Standards were to the everyday life and ministry of the church.

Given this “implicit confessionalism,” people in the ARP context could move in two different directions. Some would move in the direction of pietistic evangelicalism with its biblicism and concern for personal conversion. Others would move in the direction of a culture-Protestantism, in which Christianity was viewed as more or less coextensive with the best of progressive Southern, middle-class culture. The stage was set for significant theological controversy that would be joined in earnest after 1960. Many observers agree that the catalyst for this controversy was the evolving theological stance of Erskine Theological Seminary.

In 1957, a Committee on Changes to Standards, with membership of P. A. Stroup, Ebenzer Gettys, R. C. Grier, J. W. Carson, C. B. Betts, and George L. Leitze, was appointed by the General Synod. The Committee reported in 1958, proposing that two chapters be added to the Confession (Of the Holy Spirit, and Of the Gospel) and that a series of Addendum notes be appended to the Confession. These notes were designed to clarify the church’s understanding of the Confession. Both of these developments require examination.[14]

The new chapters originated in the PCUSA—they were added by the PCUSA in 1903, and, in almost identical form, by the PCUS in 1942 (the Committee on Changes to the Standards presented the PCUS form of the chapters for approval). The chapter “Of the Holy Spirit” was regarded by many as filling a void in the original Confession of Faith (which contains chapters entitled “Of God and of the Holy Trinity” and “Of Christ the Mediator). The second added chapter, “Of the Gospel,” consistently sounds a more universalizing note in contrast to the predestinarian particularism of the original document.[15]

The Addendum included, in addition to the two new chapters discussed above, a preamble which, interestingly, utilizes “system of doctrine” language in speaking of subscription. Close examination of this preamble reveals dependence upon the “preamble” approved by the PCUSA in 1903.[16] Then follow “declaratory statements” or “notes” regarding various aspects of the Confession. For example, one codifies the 1946 decision to permit the singing of hymns. Of particular interest is the statement relating to Chapter III of the Confession (Of God’s Eternal Decree), which again sounds a more universal theme in contrast to the particularism of Chapter III. The language of this statement is taken nearly verbatim from the PCUSA declaratory statement on the same chapter approved in 1903.[17]

On obvious question arises: Do these modifications change the teaching of the Confession? This is a difficult matter. As we have seen, the standard ARP interpretation is that they have not. It has also been suggested that the more universalizing tenor of the changes comports with the traditional Seceder emphasis on the free offer of the gospel. On the other hand, the original Sitz im Leben of these changes was the “broadening” PCUSA in which a growing number were uncomfortable with the Calvinism of Dordt and Westminster.[18] These changes inherited from the PCUSA were written so that they can be read in a Calvinist or an Arminian way. In that sense, the changes dilute the distinctive teaching of the Confession.

Another trend has been the removal of language deemed offensive to Roman Catholics. Changes to the ARP Standards along this line were made in 1959, 1976, and 1984. In 1959, addendum notes were added indicating that the ARP Church does not consider the Pope to be the antichrist, and recognizing a certain “coarseness of expression” in connection with confessional references to “papists,” etc., while continuing “to adhere to the sentiment herein expressed.”[19] In 1976, the reference to the pope as the anti-christ in Chap. 21 was removed, along with the now-vestigial addendum statement pertaining to that issue. In 1984, the word “papists” was removed from the list of sorts of persons one ought not to marry in Chapter 24.

Finally, in 2001 the ARP approved (following many other churches) a change to WCF 24.4 regarding the laws of affinity in marriage. Now a man can marry his dead wife’s sister, if he wants.[20]

In retrospect, the 20th century was a time of some “softening” of the church’s confessional standards as the Confession’s regulative principle of worship was relaxed, and as the sharper edge of predestinarian particularity was dulled. Moreover, the anti-Catholic sentiments inherited from the Reformation period seemed increasingly out of place in the 20th-century church. Today, one also notices considerable diversity regarding the parameters of confessional subscription. Some continue to follow the earlier approach of expecting in toto adherence, while not asking too many questions, while others assume the Adopting Act framework and press ordination candidates for exceptions to the Standards (even in instances, such as the regulative principle of worship, where the church has decisively moved away from the letter of the Confession). While we don’t (I trust) need to experience an “adopting controversy,” we do need to clarify our theology of confessional adherence.

[1]Ware and Gettys, p. 227.

[2]“We believe that it is the will of God that Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs contained in the Book of Psalms be sung in worship in His church and, therefore, they shall be used as the only manual of Praise in every Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church.” Quoted in Ware and Gettys, p. 228.

[3]The overture read: “Shall the Synod approve a Book of Praise comprising the Psalms and selected Hymns, the use of which is to be optional with individual congregations?” Minutes of the General Synod, 1945, p. 215.

[4]On the complex factors influencing this development, see the insightful treatment in Ware and Gettys, pp. 227-245. See also Lowry Ware, “What Can We Sing? The Praise Issue: Psalm Singers Allow the Introduction of Hymns,” in The Associate Reformed Presbyterian (July 1999): 18-20.

[5]In 1937, R. M. Stevenson could write, The Associate Reformed Presbyterian (October 20, 1937): “We maintain the simplicity of worship that characterized the fathers, but with some modifications. Our type of sermon is so distinctive as to be recognized easily, although it is much shorter and less formal than that of a generation ago. It is built on a carefully prepared outline, is distinctively scriptural and aimed at the hearts of the hearers.”

[6]See Ware and Gettys, pp. 87-107; Lowry Ware, “Merger Failures: A Little Church in a Large Land,” The Associate Reformed Presbyterian (February, 1999):12-14.

[7]See Ware and Gettys, pp. 246-263; Lowry Ware, “Unite with Southern Presbyterians?: Synod Answers `No’ to the Merger,” The Associate Reformed Presbyterian (August 1999), pp.7-9.

[8]See Ware and Gettys, pp. 276-277. They note, p. 277, that “affiliation with the National Council of Churches was to some degree an issue by which one might judge the general attitude of the ARP Synod.”

[9]Minutes of the General Synod (1998), p. 31.

[10]Minutes of the General Synod (1992), p. 100.

[11]Minutes of the General Synod (1999), p. 353.

[12]The Constitution and Standards of the Associate Reformed Church in North America (Philadelphia: William S. Young, 1874), p. 455.

[13]Constitution of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Synod of the South (Columbia, SC: R. L. Bryan, 1908), p. 39. [Identical text in 1937, 1953, 1958 eds.]

[14]The confessional changes of 1959 have received little detailed attention. Ware and Gettys devote one paragraph on p. 380 to the topic, and their account wrongly maintains that the PCUS had added these chapters in 1861. Likewise, Ray King treats the confessional revisions in a single paragraph on p. 100. Both works argue that the revisions of 1959 did not substantially change the church’s confession—a judgment that is open to question.  That the Committee was able to produce such an extensive report in only a year is itself intriguing. It appears that they drew extensively on the example of mainline Presbyterianism. As noted below, the two added chapters were taken verbatim from the PCUS version, while much of the language in the addendum notes was taken over from PCUSA declaratory statements. Most of the members of the Committee would have been familiar with the PCUS situation. R. C. Grier was acquainted with the Northern church context.

[15]On the history of the Westminster Confession in American Presbyterianism more generally, see John H. Leith, “The Westminster Confession in American Presbyterianism,” in The Westminster Confession in the Church Today: Papers Prepared for the Church of Scotland Panel on Doctrine, ed. by Alasdair I. C. Heron (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1982), pp. 95-100.

[16]The 1958 ARP Preamble reads as follows: “While the ordination vow of ministers, ruling elders and deacons, as set forth in the Constitution of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church (edition 1953), requires the reception of the Confession of Faith as containing the System of Doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures, nevertheless, seeing that the desire has been formally expressed for a clarification of the Church’s position in regard to certain statements and doctrines contained within the Confession, therefore the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church does authoritatively declare as follows:”  Compare the 1903 PCUSA language (Minutes of the General Assembly [1902]: 88): “While the ordination vow of ministers, ruling elders and deacons, as set forth in the Form of Government, requires the reception and adoption of the Confession of Faith only as containing the System of Doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures, nevertheless, seeing that the desire has been formally expressed for a disavowal by the Church of certain inferences drawn from statements of the Confession of Faith, and also for a declaration of certain aspects of revealed truth which appear at the present time to call for more explicit statement, therefore the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America does authoritatively declare as follows:”

[17]“[That c] Concerning those who are saved in Christ, the doctrine of God’s eternal decree is held in harmony with the doctrine of his love to all mankind, his gift of his Son to be the propitiation for the sins of the whole world, and his readiness to bestow his saving grace on all who seek it. [That c] Concerning those who perish, the doctrine of God’s eternal decree is held in harmony with the doctrine that God desires not the death of any sinner, but has provided in Christ a salvation sufficient for all, adapted to all, and freely offered in the gospel to all; that men are fully responsible for their treatment of God’s gracious offer; that his decree hinders no man from accepting that offer; and that no man is condemned except on the ground of his sin.” [Italics indicate language taken verbatim from PCUSA, Minutes of General Assembly (1902), p. 89]

[18]On the context of the 1903 confessional revision, see Lefferts A. Loetscher, The Broadening Church: A Study of Theological Issues in the Presbyterian Church since 1869 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1954), pp. 39-47, 83-89.  In 1906, the Arminian-leaning Cumberland Presbyterian Church merged with the PCUSA on the basis of the PCUSA’s revised confessional standards. See Loetscher, pp. 95-97.

[19]Minutes of the General Synod (1958): 420.

[20]On the history of this confessional issue in other Presbyterian churches, see Barry G. Waugh, “Revising the Westminster Confession: The Case of Near-Kin Marriage,” Westminster Theological Journal 63 (2001): 65-85.