“‘Things which Become Sound Doctrine’: Associate Reformed Presbyterian Confessional and Theological Identity in the 20th Century.” (Part 3)

[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).  Then we examined 20th-century developments having to do with worship, ecumenical involvement, confessional subscription, and modifications to the confessional standards of the church.  In this final installment we survey the debates over scriptural authority and ask what the future may hold.]

Bill Evans head shot

D. Scriptural Authority

 From the mid-1960’s until the early 1980’s, the ARP church was torn by persistent and heated conflict over the inspiration and authority of Scripture, and the role of the Bible in the life of the church. This “Battle for the Bible,” as it was termed, involved complex alliances of concerned individuals on both sides of the discussion.[1] Certain treasured institutions of the church were also deeply involved (the theological orientation of the faculty of Erskine Theological Seminary was a central bone of contention).

The complexity of this controversy is underscored by the varying interpretations of it. For some, it was simply a conflict between theological truth and error. Others propose more sociological explanations. It is explained by some as a struggle for power.[2] Others suggest that ARP’s had become less tolerant of diversity by the 1960’s,[3] and perhaps that the ARP struggles were a conflict between cultural conservatives and cultural progressives, the battle lines being initially set by the controversy involving the racial integration of Erskine College.[4] Missing from this discussion, however, has been a detailed theological analysis of the controversy.

Two terms applied to Scripture (“infallible” and “inerrant”) were frequently utilized to designate the warring camps, and so we shall refer to them respectively as “infallibilists” and “inerrantists.” The “infallibilist” position was closely associated with the faculty of Erskine Theological Seminary, and so it is necessary briefly to discuss the trajectory of the Seminary. In 1951, the Board of the Seminary purposed to move the institution toward full accreditation by the Association of Theological Schools (ATS). This process involved the hiring of faculty with degrees from mainline Protestant institutions, a development rightly seen by many as the root of later conflict.[5] In 1961, a new Dean of the Seminary was inaugurated, calling for engagement with the larger ecclesiastical and cultural context, and identifying Erskine Seminary with “the most influential force in contemporary theology”—a “constructive conservatism that would promote rather than hinder the cause of good scholarship.”[6] In context, it is rather clear that “constructive conservatism” denoted the neo-orthodoxy associated with Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, and others that was so pervasive in the mainline Protestantism of the day. As we will see, the contours of the “infallibilist” position closely follow key characteristics of generic neo-orthodoxy.

The infallibilist position entailed, first of all, a strong distinction between the terms “infallibility” and “inerrancy.” By infallibility, it was meant that the Holy Spirit uses the Bible infallibly to bring people to the knowledge of God and of themselves that is necessary for salvation. The Bible is not to be viewed as infallible or inerrant with respect to matters of history or science. In fact, the Bible is a human document and so it contains numerous errors. By contrast, the term “inerrant” is associated with a view of the Bible as a verbally and plenarily inspired text communicating propositional truth.[7]

Second, the infallibilist position affirms a view of inspiration and revelation as dynamic and christologically focused. The inspiration and authority of Bible does not reside in the static and fallible text, but rather in the fact that Scripture originates with God and in the way the Holy Spirit uses Scripture to bring people into encounter with God.[8] Revelation in Scripture, then, is not propositional truth, but an event in which people encounter the one true Word of God, Jesus Christ.[9]

Third, there is a strong emphasis on the subjective pole. As we have seen, the emphasis is upon subjective encounter rather than the objectivity of the written text. The internal witness of the Holy Spirit is stressed, and one’s confidence in Scripture is based on that internal, subjective witness rather than on external historical confirmation. Thus, the priority of faith over reason is emphasized.[10] In keeping with this subjective orientation, one also finds a deep concern for the role of the interpreter. Scripture only becomes authoritative as it is interpreted by the reader. The doctrine of God’s accommodation of his revelation in Scripture to human limitations of finitude and sin is emphasized, and in this interpretive process one also finds a tendency to pit the Spirit against the letter of Scripture.[11]

Fourth, the infallibilists adopted a decided “confessionalist” orientation. That is, the infallibilist camp was quick to make the argument that the Westminster Confession utilized the term “infallible” rather than “inerrant,” and that this confessional language allowed room for a variety of “theories” of inspiration in the church.[12] The doctrine of inerrancy was viewed as a declension from earlier Reformed thinking and as an historical novelty (i.e., a product of Protestant Scholastics such as Francis Turretin and the Old Princeton theologians such as B. B. Warfield and A. A. Hodge who were influenced by Turretin), and that this later thinking stands in considerable tension with Calvin and the early “Reformed confessions.”[13]

The inerrancy position likewise was vigorously articulated in the denominational publications. ARP proponents of inerrancy tended to regard their opponents’ distinction of inerrancy and infallibility as tendentious wordplay or “vocabularial gymnastics.” Moreover, if a distinction were to be made between the two, the one implied the other.[14]

Second, the inerrantists strongly affirmed the objective authority of the Bible as divinely inspired text. The inspiration and authority of the Bible are viewed as plenary (or complete) and verbal. That is to say, the Bible as a whole is divinely inspired and therefore reliable in all aspects, including statements regarding history and geography.[15] Also, this inspiration extends, not just to the ideas the text might communicate, but also to the very words of the Bible.[16]

Third, there is a certain suspicion of appeals to the subjective element of  “interpretation” that might seem to compromise the objective authority of the text. Suggestions that God had accommodated his revelation to the limitations of human finitude were viewed with suspicion.[17] Issues of authority and interpretation tend to be conflated, if not confused. For example, despite the fact that Scripture contains much figurative language, the Bible is seen as “literally true.”[18] Differences in interpretation, moreover, are said to reveal differences in the view of the Bible’s authority.[19] Such difficulties in interpretation are ascribed to human sinfulness, rather than to any lack of clarity in God’s Word.[20]

Finally, we also find in the inerrantist camp a tendency to identify with the broader conservative evangelical consensus regarding inerrancy, rather than with the confessional tradition. While not conceding infallibilist claims regarding the character of the Westminster Confession’s teaching on Scripture, they contended that the terminological struggle made the Confession insufficient by itself and that further definition was necessary.[21] They preferred instead to appeal to the words of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels.[22] They also identified with the work of  the International Conference on Biblical Inerrancy, a large group of evangelical scholars and churchmen who formulated the influential “Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy.”[23]

We are now some twenty years beyond the heat of this battle over the authority of Scripture, although the smell of gunpowder still lingers in some nostrils. In retrospect, we can say that the infalliblist position significantly compromised the objective authority of the Bible with its subjectivism and reduction of authority to only the “saving message” of the Bible. If the Scriptures are only in part authoritative, then we are free to contruct a “saving message” that is congenial to our cultural context. In fact, both Scripture and the Reformed tradition at its best have affirmed the objective plenary authority of the Bible. The Bible comes to us with an authority that stands regardless of our recognition or acceptance of it. Moreover, this authority is plenary or complete. Scripture affirms the ultimate redemption of all of life, and so what Scripture teaches about sexuality issues, gender relations, etc., must not be dismissed as peripheral. The recent history of other Reformed denominations (such as the PCUSA) provides a rather clear picture where the ARP would be today if the infallibilist wing had won the day.[24]

At the same time, while the inerrantist camp rightly affirmed the objective authority of the Bible, they sometimes did so without doing full justice to the human dimension of the text, and to the subjective and interpretive dimensions of the Bible’s appropriation by the church. In short, if the infallibilist wing had won, the church would have fallen headlong into liberal “culture protestantism.” If the inerrantist wing had won without qualification, the church would have moved closer to fundamentalism. Ironically, both sides needed each other in order to recover an authentically Reformed doctrine of Scripture that does justice to both the objective and subjective dimensions.[25]

Interestingly, that is exactly what ultimately happened. On February 16, 1979, the Committee on Reconciliation appointed by the 1978 General Synod approved the following wording regarding the inspiration and authority of the Bible:

We believe that the Holy Spirit reveals Christ to us through the Holy Scripture which is the Word of God written. While we do not have the original autographs as proof, we believe on faith that God’s Word in its entirety was accurately recorded by the original writers through divine inspiration and reliably transmitted to us.[26]

This resolution was then adopted by the 1979 General Synod (after changing the word proof to evidence).[27] Also adopted by the same Synod was a motion composed by Grady Oates: “Be it resolved that the General Synod of 1979 affirms that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the Word of God without error in all that it teaches.”[28] These two carefully worded statements (both of which were hammered out through extensive discussion between the parties) taken together express the substance of the inerrancy doctrine without using the term inerrancy itself.[29] The Oates statement, in particular, represents a balanced position which affirms both the objective authority of the Bible (“the Scriptures . . . are the Word of God without error”) and the subjective reality of the interpretive process (the phrase “in all that it teaches” raises the question of what is taught, and that is most definitely an interpretive question).[30]

III. What Does the Future Hold?

 By the early 1980’s the ARP church had decided what it did not want to be—it didn’t want to be “liberal.” A majority coalition of cultural conservatives, evangelicals, fundamentalists, and confessional Reformed joined together to oppose what was viewed as a “liberal” threat to the church. It has not yet decided what it does want to be theologically.

The church is now characterized by the presence of a diversity of theological perspectives on the more conservative end of the theological spectrum. Theonomy, the Lutheranizing Sonship theology of Jack Miller, a broad and pragmatic evangelicalism focused upon ministry to felt needs, Puritanizing Reformed thinking on worship, and a lot of congregational and even baptistic thinking are all present within the ARP Church.

Today the church stands at a crossroads where it is likely to go one of two ways—it can pursue a broad and pragmatic evangelicalism or a self-consciously Reformed identity. The former is perhaps the path of less resistance, but the contemporary identity crisis of American evangelicalism today suggests that this is not the best choice. Moreover, taking this path would also mean that the ARP Church would have nothing distinctive to contribute to the broader Christian community. Finally, it would be less than true to our heritage.

But what sort of Reformed identity should be pursued? There are those who would have us recapitulate the halcyon days of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but this is impossible. Theology is best understood as the creatively faithful application of God’s word to the challenges of today. Our forefathers in the faith sought, with rather remarkable success and at great personal cost, to be faithful to God in the situations in which He placed them. We must do nothing less. We must articulate a theology that draws on the riches of our heritage and which meets the challenges we face today.

Earlier, we described the ARP Church as “a rather unique example of biblicistic and confessional, non-speculative, praxis-oriented and ecclesially minded experimental Calvinism.” Today the older symbolic boundaries of praxis (exclusive psalmody, restricted communion, and strict Sabbath observance) have largely dissolved. The church remains (after considerable struggle) devoted to Scripture and serious (though perhaps not particularly learned) about its confessional standards. We remain decidedly non-speculative, with a rather limited tolerance for extended theological debate. Vital Christian experience remains an emphasis, although the church has never reconciled the older nurture-oriented piety with the methodological revivalism that has been imported from the broader evangelical subculture. Finally, it continues to have a distinctively ecclesial ethos. ARP’s love their church and care deeply about its welfare.

But what is distinctive about the ARP Church in the larger American Presbyterian and Reformed context? This is a question that we apparently have some difficulty answering—sometimes it is intimated that we are less contentious or “nicer” than some other churches! That may or may not be true, but it is not of much historical significance. I would like to close by suggesting that the potential distinctive contribution of the ARP Church to American Presbyterianism lies in the area of ecclesiology, the doctrine of the church. Unlike many other conservative Reformed and Presbtyrian churches in this country, the ARPC is not the product of schism—its mindset is ecclesial or churchly rather than sectarian. It is less concerned to differentiate itself from others and their problems, and more concerned simply to be faithful, to be the church.

But if we are to be the blessing we can be to others, we have work to do. There is  unfinished theological business. We need to think more carefully and deeply than we have about confessional subscription and what it means to be the church as confessing community. Perhaps it is time to look more carefully at the current shape of our confessional standards and how they function. We also need to think in a more principled manner about what it means to be the church as a worshiping community. In this connection we need to reflect more carefully on the relationship between Christian faith and culture—to think about meeting the challenge of being “in the world but not of it.” And finally, in anticipation of what God is yet to do through the ARPC, we need to give thanks to God for His remarkable preservation of this church over more than two centuries.

© Copyright by William B. Evans 2006

All Rights Reserved


[1]The controversy cannot be explained solely in theological terms. The more conservative wing of the church seems to have consisted of a broad coalition of evangelicals, fundamentalists, confessional Reformed, and cultural conservatives. The more “liberal” wing of the church included some principled neo-orthodox and “culture Protestants,” as well as many denominational loyalists who longed for peace and who were offended by attacks on the church’s institutions. In general, the “liberal” wing was more affirming of the broader culture, while the conservative wing was more critical of it.

[2]Zeb Williams, “Editorially Speaking,” The Associate Reformed Presbyterian (December 1978), p. 3; cited in Ware and Gettys, p. 309.

[3]Robert B. Elliott, “Concerns about the ARP Church and Its Direction,” unpublished paper presented at Meeting on Reconciliation, January 31, 1979, Due West, SC, p. 3; Ware and Gettys, p. 265.

[4]Ware and Gettys, p. 365.  The struggle over the integration of Erskine College did serve to mobilize a culturally conservative element of the clergy and the laity in the church in opposition to integration. Organizations spawned during this time, such as the Conservative Coordinating Committee and the Alliance of Loyal Laity (ALL) were to play an important role in the subsequent theological struggles, but the cultural conservative and the theological conservative impulses should not be simply equated. On this, see Charles W. Wilson, “The Changing Face of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, 1946-1996: A Short Study in How a Theologically Conservative Denomination Has Reshaped Its Conservative Identity” (unpublished paper, 1996), pp. 10-11.

[5]Ware and Gettys, pp. 289-290.

[6]L. M. Allison, “The Task of Erskine Theological Seminary in the Second Half of the Twentieth Century: Part II,” in Associate Reformed Presbyterian (March 8, 1961): p. 6.

[7]See Faculty of Erskine Theological Seminary, “Biblical Authority: An Introduction” The Associate Reformed Presbyterian (September 1977): 26-27; “The Bible’s View of Its own Authority,” in The Associate Reformed Presbyterian (December 1977): 12-14.

[8]Faculty, “Bible’s View,” p. 12: “When Christians say, then that God is the author of Scripture, most of them do not mean that God “penned” or “dictated” the Bible, but rather that He is the author in the same way that He is the author of life—that is, He is the source and ultimate creative power of Scripture.”

[9]Lonnie Richardson, “The Authority of the Bible: An Infallibilist View,” unpublished paper presented at Meeting on Reconciliation, January 31, 1979, Due West, SC, p. 4, writes: “Over against the verbal/plenary view of inspiration is the divine/human encounter view that sees inspiration as not being principally centered in the text but in the dynamic relation between the interpreter and the Holy Spirit. The humanness of the Bible is recognized, that is, Holy Scripture remains a human book, the words of human and fallible men, until the Holy Spirit enables the reader to respond in faith to the Living Word, Jesus Christ, of whom the sacred writers bear witness.” On revelation as event, see also Faculty, “The Bible’s View,” pp. 12-13.

[10]See Richardson, p. 2; see also letter to editor from Meridith Cavin, Joe R. Blevins, and Robert P. Brawley in The Associate Reformed Presbyterian (March 1978), p. 7.

[11]See Richardson, p. 4; Faculty, “Bible’s Own View,” p. 13.  Certainly, the Bible and the Reformed confessions emphasize the internal testimony of the Spirit regarding the trustworthyness of Scripture. However, in this emphasis on subjective witness over against objective authority, the “infallibilists” evidence the influence of the post-Enlightenment context, with its refusal to recognize any locus of authority outside the self.

[12]See Faculty, “Biblical Authority,” p. 27; Richardson, p. 13.

[13]See Richardson, pp. 10-11. See also Faculty, “Biblical Authority,” p. 26. Richardson and the Erskine faculty relied heavily on the historical analysis of Jack B. Rogers. Both cite his “The Church Doctrine of Biblical Inspiration,” in Jack Rogers, ed., Biblical Authority (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1977), pp. 17-46. Rogers’ historical argument is more fully developed in his Scripture and the Westminster Confession (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967); and in Jack B. Rogers and Donald K. McKim, The Authority and Interpretation of the Bible: An Historical Approach (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1979).  In brief, Rogers and McKim contend that in Calvin’s view of Scripture one finds a concern for its saving function rather than a preoccupation with a text that is accurate in all respects. Calvin’s general theological method and that of the early confessions, they argue, is that of Augustine and Anselm—faith seeking understanding. Thus, one’s confidence in Scripture is rooted in the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit rather than in external proof (pp. 89-127). The rise of Protestant scholasticism saw the replacement of the Augustinian principle of fides quaeres intellectum by the Aristotelian/Thomist priority of reason over faith, with a resulting concern for external and internal proofs of the inspiration of Scripture, a process reaching its climax, they argue, in Francis Turretin of Geneva, for whom Scripture is a formal principle of theology (pp. 147-188). Rogers and McKim also take pains to distinguish between the continental Reformed scholasticism of Turretin and the British Reformed theology expressed in the Westminster Confession, the latter being viewed as a continuation of Calvin’s thinking (pp. 200-248). The rationalistic Continental model was then introduced into America by the Old Princeton theologians, whose theory of inerrancy in the “original autographs” then had a formative influence on American fundamentalism.

The thesis of Rogers and McKim is hampered by the failure to engage primary sources and is perhaps best understood as an attempt by “left-wing evangelicals” to provide themselves with a meaningful past. In fact, the Sitz im Leben of Rogers initial work was the controversy surrounding the adoption of the UPCUSA Confession of 1967. Rogers argued against adoption on the the grounds that the Wesminster Confession’s view of Scripture was sufficiently flexible.

Many of their arguments have come under serious challenge. For example, their general depiction of continental scholasticism as rationalistic has been implicitly challenged by the careful work of Richard Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1987), I: 93. Their theory of a marked difference between British and continental Orthodoxy has been challenged by S. T. Murphy, “The Doctrine of Scripture in the Westminster Assembly (Ph.D. diss., Drew University, 1984). In addition, their contention that the Princeton definition of inerrancy as applying to the original autographs was a startling innovation has been rightly challenged by Randall Balmer, “The Princetonians and Scripture: A Reconsideration,” Westminster Theological Journal 44 (1982): 352-365. See also John D. Woodbridge, Biblical Authority: A Critique of the Rogers/McKim Proposal (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982).

[14]See Gary W. Letchworth, “A Fundamentalist’s Answer,” The Associate Reformed Presbyterian (October 16, 1968), p. 9. See also Jim Coad and Charles Wilson, “The Inerrancy Position,” unpublished paper presented at Meeting on Reconciliation, January 31, 1979, Due West, SC, p. 4.

[15]See James T. Corbitt, “Christ’s View of Scripture,” The Associate Reformed Presbyterian (January 1978), pp. 22-23.

[16]See Corbitt, “Christ’s View,” p. 23; Coad and Wilson, p. 1; Letchworth, “Fundamentalist’s Answer,” p. 9.

[17]Corbitt, “Christ’s View,” p. 23.

[18]E. Reynolds Young, “Concerns about the ARP Church and Its Direction,” unpublished paper presented at Meeting on Reconciliation, January 31, 1979, Due West, SC, pp. 6-7.  Of course, there is much figurative language in the Bible, and the term “literal” is better reserved for questions of interpretation.

[19]E. R. Young, “Concerns,” p. 5, wrote, “We all affirm that we believe the Bible and follow the Bible and yet when it comes to matters of interpretation it’s quite apparent that there is wide diversity among us. To me this suggest [sic] strongly that our basic premises regarding scripture are not the same.”

[20]Coad and Wilson, p. 2: “That all men do not understand the same, or teach the same is because of man’s sinful nature not totally yielded to the Author and Teacher of Holy Scripture. Our problem, not GOD’s.”

[21]E. Reynolds Young, “Identity,” The Associate Reformed Presbyterian,” (June 1978), p.4: “Simple affirmation of our confessional stand in adherence to the Westminster standards is not sufficient because the definition of the word infallible has been changed. Our seminary made this clear in their official statement and in the articles in the church magazine.”

[22]See Corbitt, “Christ’s View,” pp. 22-23. Coad and Wilson, p. 3.

[23]See Young, “Concerns about the ARP Church,” p. 7.

[24]For example, more recently both Jack Rogers and former ARP minister and Erskine Seminary professor Thomas G. Long have been strong supporters of the ordination of practicing homosexuals in the PCUSA.

[25]Following Calvin, the tradition at its best has sought to hold the objective and subjective aspects of religion together. See John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2 vols., ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960): I.1.1: “Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But, while joined by many bonds, which precedes and brings forth the other is not easy to discern.”

[26]“Resolution on Biblical Authority,” Minutes of the General Synod (1979): p. 78.

[27]Minutes of the General Synod (1979): p. 76.

[28]Minutes of the General Synod (1979), p. 23. This statement was reaffirmed by the 1980 General Synod. Minutes of the General Synod (1980): p. 283.

[29]Early the next year, a group attempted to argue that the Synod had not committed itself to inerrancy doctrine. See “A Covenant of Integrity,” The Associate Reformed Presbyterian (February, 1980): pp. 16-17. However, the Synod’s action was generally interpreted outside the denomination as an embracing of inerrancy, and this paved the way for the reception of the ARPC into NAPARC in 1982.

[30]The relationship between biblical authority and interpretation are briefly explored by this writer in William B. Evans, “The NAPARC Churches and the Peculiar Challenges of Our Time,” Presbyterion: Covenant Seminary Review 27 (2001): pp. 2-4.