This is the second of a four part series. Part one can be found here.
The second major issue dealt with at this year’s General Assembly was a proposed resolution coming from three separate overtures (10, 26, and 29) to make an in thesi statement on the creation of Adam. An in thesi statement is a non-binding resolution passed by one particular General Assembly on a particular issue. These statements do not have the force of church law, and only express the opinion of one particular General Assembly.
The rationale given for passing an in thesi statement was motivated by concern for an increasing number of adherents to theistic evolution in broader evangelical circles. Theistic evolution is the view that, put simply, teaches that the earth is very old and the processes of evolution occurred more or less as modern sciences teaches, with the caveat that God sovereignly superintended and guided that process. There are some versions of theistic evolution that hold that Adam was created directly by God in an act of special creation, and others that hold to the standard evolutionary origins of mankind.
The three overtures were debated in committee and ultimately the committee decided to answer the three overtures by affirming a fourth overture, overture 26 from Potomac Presbytery. That overture stated that there was no need to pass an in thesi statement in the first place because the scriptures and the Westminster Standards are sufficiently clear on the matter. This overture passed the committee by a vote of 50-35, but there was a minority report and a substitute motion made by that minority coming from the committee to the floor.
I know this is all pretty boring so far, but bear with me and we will get to the importance of all this in a minute. The minority report given on the floor of the assembly argued that one of the purposes of the General Assembly is to weigh in on doctrinal matters, and that this issue was a sufficient enough of one for the General Assembly to weigh in on. They then moved to pass a statement that was the exact same as a statement that was passed by the PCUS General Assembly against evolution in 1886, 1888, and 1924. That statement is as follows:
The Church remains at this time sincerely convinced that the Scriptures, as truly and authoritatively expounded in our Confession of Faith and Catechisms teach:
-That Adam and Eve were created, body and soul, by immediate acts of Almighty power, thereby preserving a perfect race unity;
-That Adam’s body was directly fashioned by Almighty God, without any natural animal parentage of any kind, out of matter previously created from nothing;
-And that any doctrine at variance therewith is a dangerous error, inasmuch: as in the methods of interpreting Scripture it must demand, and in the consequences which by fair implication it will involve, it will lead to the denial of doctrines fundamental to the faith.
The General Assembly debated the substitute motion for about 45 minutes. There were plenty of speakers on both sides of the issue. It must be understood, however, that those who spoke against the substitute (including myself) were not speaking in favor of theistic evolution. I don’t recall that anyone stood up and argued that this should not be passed because they personally held to a different view. There were various reasons expressed against the substitute, the most common of which was that our Confession was already clear, and that in thesi statements in general are not helpful. Most of the argument for the passing of the substitute centered around the denomination needing to have a clear, contemporary statement to an important contemporary issue.
I was one of those who stood up and spoke against the substitute. I argued that it didn’t make sense for us to be answering a 21st century problem with a 19th century solution. The statement that we were presented with, in other words, was not contemporary at all. It contains archaic and unclear language that could be misconstrued as some kind of racism (I refer to the statement about “race unity”). Why in the world would we want to pass a confusing statement?
Furthermore, I argued that the PCUS passed the statement repeatedly (in 1886, 1888, and 1924) and this repeated in thesi fist pounding did nothing to stop the rising tide of evolutionary views in the old Southern church. By this same rationale, we should see that passing in thesi statements really does nothing to fix things, it only makes some people feel good about drawing a supposed line in the sand, as it were.
In addition to what I presented on the floor of GA, I am against in thesi statements in general based on philosophical grounds. We have seen that although these kinds of statements have no binding ecclesiastical authority, proponents have used these deliverances of the General Assembly as blunt objects to bully their opponents. We as pastors and elders in the PCA are required to give such deliverances (including the findings of study committee reports) due and serious consideration, but they are not a part of our constitution, and we are not required to submit to them.
The chairman of the Overtures Committee, Elder Jay Neikirk said it best, in my opinion. He argued that if we feel that the Westminster Standards are insufficient to address any particular issue, then we need to amend the standards. Now, that was a rare moment of sanity in the normal cacophony of parliamentary procedure. The problem with these in thesi statements is that they can easily be passed at any GA and then used as weapons with the force of law. We have seen this repeatedly in the case of the FV Study Committee report, which has no binding authority over any person in the PCA, yet is treated as if it is the second coming of Westminster.
In case you are wondering, the substitute motion failed, by a vote in the neighborhood of 475-325, a substantial margin. We will get the exact numbers of the vote eventually in the minutes of the GA because there was actually a standing count of the votes because the moderator initially ruled that the substitute had passed by his visual judgment.
In closing, I believe that the rejection of the minority substitute and the subsequent passing of the committee’s recommendation was a good thing. Though I am personally against theistic evolution, I do not believe that in thesi statements are the answer to the problem. I do believe that holding to the special creation of Adam is essential to preserve several of our fundamental doctrines (one of which being original sin), but I am not of the opinion that the best way to handle these issues is to beat our brothers into submission. Let us do the hard work to discuss these issues with our brothers and persuade them of the rightness of our view. There are certainly boundaries that cannot be crossed, but I do not believe that passing in thesi statements for the purposes of forming blunt weapons to be used in such battles is the way to go.
More on the 40th GA to come.