By: Thomas F. Booher
How is the Gold Become Dim chronicles the decline of the Presbyterian Church, U.S., from its original intention to be faithful to the Westminster Standards and Reformed faith. The book was first published when many conservatives in the denomination were enacting measures to form a Continuing Presbyterian Church, which would become known as the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). At its founding the Southern Presbyterian Church was committed to the spirituality of the church, but over time and due to war, it began to leave its true calling for a social gospel and political agenda which consequently lead the denomination away from its Constitution and the Word of God.
By the mid 1930’s the PCUS began to seriously depart from its distinctives (22). The Hay Watson Smith case of 1929 opened doors for the denomination to become more liberal. When the General Assembly ruled that the presbytery had the right of original jurisdiction, this set a precedent that refused the right to appeal to higher courts and allowed liberal ministers to continue to preach in their presbytery. Dr. E.T. Thompson was allowed to preach for similar reasons, and his teaching at seminary encompassed more than half of the student body during his tenure. Because conservatives did not send heretical preachers to trial in the 20’s and 30’s, it was impossible to do so when greater theological deviation occurred in the 60’s and 70’s (90-91). By 1966 the General Assembly had a liberal majority, evidenced by a Rev. Hart not being disciplined for denying the inerrancy of Scripture and historicity of Adam.
This is a sober reminder of the need for the church to exercise church discipline and labor for orthodoxy and purity. In less than forty years the PCUS went from a largely conservative and sound Reformed denomination to a denomination that openly contradicted (and altered) its confession and creeds. The 1972 General Assembly claimed that the Holy Spirit can give extra-biblical revelation and placed human reasoning and the testimony of the church on par with the Spirit’s witness. When a minority report was written to affirm sola scriptura and the infallibility of Scripture, it failed to pass. This same General Assembly said the ordinand does not have to actually affirm the standards, but merely acknowledge that this is the tradition from which he came. They said there was a broad interpretation of the fundamental and essential articles of the standards.
One wonders what the older conservatives in the denomination were thinking when all these changes emerged in the 60’s and 70’s. Undoubtedly the cultural changes that were ongoing in America at that time bled over into the church, but it should not have. The spirituality of the church was a hallmark of Southern Presbyterianism, but it caved in to those with a broader agenda, and in short time this turned the tide in the denomination away from the proclamation of the gospel and preaching of the Word to things as ghastly as not only allowing but funding abortion (63-64).
In fact the decline of the commitment to the spirituality of the church is traced back to the 1930’s. It started off innocently enough, with a Committee on Moral and Social Welfare forming in 1934. This committee affirmed that the spirituality of the church is still its primary role, but added that the Church must involve itself in society and politics within the nation (135). This was a compromise on Abraham Kuyper’s concept of sphere sovereignty and resulted in the church reporting on many matters not related to the church’s mission, including a pacifistic statement on war, the race problem, gambling, liquor, recreation, unemployment, jobs, labor, sharecropping, poverty, obscene literature, social disease, and more. Propositions were sent to the President in 1943 that urged the President to promote world peace and to control military establishments everywhere. A mention of the gospel was nowhere to be found.
By 1958 the General Assembly adopts a paper which said the Church should view itself as the prophets of the OT did, with similar authority and the duty to address the social ills of the day. Thus the General Assembly likened itself to inspired men of God. It also began to centralize power, giving the denomination more of a Roman Catholic feel than Presbyterian. Committees brought change to the Constitution, adding chapters on the Holy Spirit and the gospel which softened the language of Calvinism and allowed many of the Cumberland Presbyterians (who were essentially Arminian) to reunite with the denomination.
By the mid and late 1960’s the political and social agenda had clearly eclipsed any mention of the spirituality of the church and the need to proclaim the gospel. Astonishingly, the General Assembly said that since God had made everything and Christ was rejected in a political context and in part due to political reasons, the root of sin is in society and politics (165)! Capital punishment was discouraged, civil obedience was encouraged, and instructions were given to support all groups that feed the homeless and help the sick, regardless of religious affiliation since God is everywhere and salvation includes the whole man (164). The church was given a mandate that it must use its power of investment to bring economic justice for all people. It was recommended in 1968 that boards and agencies of the church extend leadership in areas of literacy, vocational and job training programs, family planning and birth control, and offer information about federal and state programs. It supported the women’s liberation movement, and in addition to supporting and funding abortion, proclaimed that man has a duty to limit the size of his family due to population increase. Private schools were also judged as undermining public education.
By 1970, the General Assembly gave a self-assessment of the denomination and was fully aware of its drastic changes and the diversity of beliefs within its own denomination. They advocated loose views of subscription, inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture, diverse expressions of liturgy and worship, and accused conservatives of internal bickering which harmed the body of Christ and disrupted the cause of advancing the gospel. Conservatives were painted as only wanting to reach out to middle class white folks, and saw salvation as nothing more than an abstract doctrine to mentally assent to. If conservatives could not co-exist with such diversity within the denomination, the assembly said withdrawal was the only option.
The bulk of this great decline in the Southern Presbyterian church happened in thirty years. This is a great warning to the PCA, because it could happen just as quickly again. I am struck with the importance of remembering my denomination’s past to help ensure its future. If just one generation is not taught its heritage and what Presbyterians subscribe to and believe, the result could be outright liberalism.
I see that danger in the PCA today. I did not learn the doctrines of grace, let alone the Westminster Standards, and I had attended a PCA church since I could walk. It wasn’t until I went off to a secular university, at the Baptist Student Union, that I learned about Reformed theology. I then briefly attended Covenant College, but left because I was so disgusted with how most of the students seemed to have no regard for the things of God (or Calvinism for that matter). In fact it was my experience at Covenant that God used to show me that I should study to go into the ministry. I realized there was real spiritual bankruptcy even in reformed churches, and by God’s grace I wanted to do something about it.
Dr. Smith’s book has reminded me of this chief motivation to preach. It’s easy in Bible college and seminary to forget that most other Christians out there (including those in Presbyterian churches) don’t understand or even know what Reformed theology is. Some that do know it so poorly that it has no impact on their life. The fault of this must first lie with the seminaries and ministers. It is their job to ensure that pastors will preach the whole counsel of God, and that is to be understood through the framework of the Standards.
Dr. Smith and others helped to found the PCA on the Reformed faith. It is a denomination that formed to combat liberalism and affirm the spirituality of the church and the crown rights of King Jesus. Its desire to decentralize power and keep the bulk of the work carried out at the congregational and Presbytery level is a preemptive step to try and prevent changes to its commitments yet again. But men are sinful, and spots in the love feast will come in (Jude 1:12-13) and take control if we do not keep watch. Jude, along with Paul, Peter, and Christ Himself, urges us to contend earnestly for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. It is only through defending and contending that purity can be maintained.
After taking Dr. Smith’s Intro to Reformed Theology class and this Presbyterian church history class, I know much more about the importance of the Westminster Standards and the history behind them. I am doing an internship at the church I grew up in in North Carolina, and will be traveling there every third week to do a Sunday school class on the confession of faith, starting this Sunday. Thanks to the books I have read for this class, I have some serious ammunition to present to the congregation, because I can tell them that this is our heritage, even though they do not know it. I can teach them the Reformed faith not as something that seems foreign and strange to them, but as something which they ought already to know since they are members of the PCA. It is my hope and prayer that, as they hear the history of their denomination and learn the theology not only from the confession but from the Scriptures, they will come to accept it and in so doing glorify God and enjoy Him forever even more.