The struggle in the PCA over confessional identity is a microcosm of the macrocosm. The current discussions reveal that the PCA is on track to be another denominational domino to topple along with the mainline churches who have embraced theological liberalism. The Social Justice movement, along human sexuality redefinition, is escalating things quickly.
Often, it’s hard to appreciate in the moment exactly what is happening, especially when denominational leaders who are advancing the trajectory mock the “slippery slope” narrative as crying wolf. But Scott Clark is correct in saying we should use the right categories of analysis. Clark writes,
One way to avoid the same outcome in the PCA is to use the right categories of analysis: confessional v. non-confessional rather than “liberal v. conservative.” It is possible to be generally theologically conservative but non-confessional. Of course theological liberalism is also non-confessional but it is easy to assume that the theological “conservatives” in the PCA are confessional, even when they are not.
This is really helpful.
It’s the non-confessional category that we need to think about. What does that mean? I was struck by something Greg Johnson said in an interview by Preston Sprinkle. Consider Johnson’s words,
In the midst of suffering God would meet me very personally…I could count on one hand the number of times I actually felt loved by God, I knew I was loved by God cognitively but I never felt it. I can’t say that anymore…I know my father in heaven loves me, anyone who wants to mess with me is going to have a talk with him eventually.
Here’s the question: What if you are advancing something theologically that is not true, does one’s feeling and “meeting with God very personally” triumph over confessional truth? To be clear, Johnson’s emphasis on religious feeling as triumphant is what non-confessional language sounds like. It’s all about feeling, reaching a status of knowing God consciously and personally that becomes the basis of how reality is defined. And don’t you dare mess with someone who has achieved this personal feeling of acceptance with God, lest God himself come after you.
This approach has huge implications for our present moment. What place do the objective truths of our theological tradition have in this scenario? The dogmas of the church and the confessional basis for how a denomination lives together in harmony becomes subservient to the subjective consciousness of one’s feeling. One can know God immediately apart from the truth of what has been confessionally embraced. One can know that God loves them, even when their practices stand over and against the objective truth of their own theological tradition.
This is why ideas like side-B Christianity find a way, that one be gay and still be a Christian. I was struck in the interview mentioned above, that the host scoffed at those who would bring charges against a man who was not practicing homosexuality, without ever really addressing the most important theological issue of whether Greg Johnson is repenting of these specific sinful desires that originate from the heart.
We have to appreciate that none of this is new. American Christians generally assume that they are carrying forward classic Protestantism; something vaguely connected to the Reformation that broke us free from Rome’s tyranny. But we forget that other movements happened along the way that have created our present moment.
The Father of Modern Theology
Johnson’s language is taken from the play book of the father of modern theology, Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834). On August 6, 1791 Schleiermacher wrote to his father explaining his conversion. He wrote, “Here my heart is properly nurtured and need not wither under the weeds of cold erudition and my religious feelings do not die under theological speculation.
First, a bit of history. Friedrich Schleiermacher was born on 1768 in Breslau, Lower Silesia. At age 10, he studied under the Moravian Brethren and was said to have gone through a “deeply emotional renewal of the Christian faith.” Although raised by a Reformed military chaplain, Schleiermacherexpressed skepticism over some of the essential doctrines of the Christian faith, and was said to have become a Morovian both outwardly and inwardly. In 1794, after graduating from Halle, and sustaining two theological examinations, he was called to a Reformed pulpit in Berlin.
Schleiermacher found reality in feeling, immediate experience, and spiritual illumination. He believed that many of his Romantic friends had abandoned religion because the rationalists had wrongly reduced the essence of knowledge to propositions and dogmas. As Roger Olson observes, Schleiermacher believed that religious experience is primary; theology is secondary and must constantly be reformed in relation to the changing aspects of Christian communities.
For Schleiermacher, every doctrinal form is bound to a particular time and no claim can be made for its permanent validity. It is the task of theology in every present age, by critical reflection, to express anew the implications of the living religious consciousness.
Any confessional approach to Christianity should not hinder any man from developing “a religion suitable to his own nature and his own religious sense.” Creeds and confessions, dogmas, propositional statements, belong to the religious experience of the community at the time of their origination. God’s revelation doesn’t just take a back-seat to feeling, but is, in fact, entirely derived from what is experienced when one achieves what Schleiermacher calls the feeling of absolute dependence.
Schleiermacher went as far as to say, taking these ideas to their logical conclusion, that the Bible is not the inspired and infallible word of God, it is simply the religious experience of the early church. Schleiermacher wrote, “In our exposition, all doctrines properly so called must be extracted from the Christian religious self-consciousness, the inward experience of Christian people.” Religion then is the “feeling of absolute dependence.”
Schleiermacher believed, therefore, that feeling is the immediate consciousness of life, and results from an interaction between the individual and the immediate environment. God is given to us in feeling in an original way. This is known as the “God-consciousness.” Religious sentiment enables the revelation of God in a person. This is the greatest state of blessedness and every doctrine must be a correlate to the God-consciousness of the Christian community.
The function of the church was to be a “self-renewing circulation of the religious self-consciousness” by which God is in a person strengthening their God-consciousness.
This is what Scott Clark is saying when he encourages the right categories of analysis. One can be conservative, but the question of being confessional is the issue. If religious feeling makes confessional truth subservient to the changing aspect of our communities, then it should be no real surprise that what we are seeing happen in the “current” sexual revolution is redefining of what it means to be confessional based on the religious experience of the moment. This is what the PCA is up against and, well, all of us together as believers in Christ.
Until we appreciate that there is only one deposit of truth given to the church, and that our sinful desires do not define our reality, and must be repented of according to an unchanging divine standard, we will continue to watch the denominational dominoes fall over. Contending for this faith is hard business, but we have to give ourselves to this noble task. If there is anything that church history proves it is that people are never quite unhappy with an unchanging God and his revelation to us that was once for all delivered to the saints. Religious feelings are not sovereign when it comes to what is true.