Tim Keller's Big Tent
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.
– II TIMOTHY 3:16,17
Christianity is so much more than getting your doctrine right, but it is not less.
– KEVIN DEYOUNG
By Tim Keller:
So the PCA has fair representation of all the historic branches of Presbyterianism. There are some Old Siders, a lot of classic ‘Princeton’ Old Schoolers, a lot of conservative New Schoolers, and some interesting combinations. Consider the Federal Vision, which is (to my mind) doctrinalist and (conservative) culturalist, combined with a strong anti-pietism. Most strongly opposed to them is the Old Side (doctrinalist, very anti-pietist, very anti-culturalist) approach of Westminster, California. Also, in the last two decades, a social reformist branch has grown up that combines the ‘high church’ emphases of Reformed thinkers of the Mercersburg School (essentially Old Side in its communal sensibilities) with the social justice impulses of the New England revivalists. Despite a similar commitment to church tradition and the sacraments, its members are more politically liberal than those sympathetic to the Federal Vision.
TIM KELLER’S widely circulated and much applauded “big tent” paper was presented at the 2010 General Assembly. (The paper is actually titled “What’s So Great about the PCA.”) In that presentation, Dr. Keller diminished the importance of Presbyterian doctrine in the Presbyterian Church in America. Here’s how that was done:
Dr. Keller diminished the importance of Presbyterian doctrine by demoting “doctrinalist” priorities to the same level as “pietistic” and “culturalist” priorities. This is a confusion of categories. When the PCA began, sound Reformed doctrine was considered the overarching priority, providing Biblical, confessional boundaries within which and under which pietists and culturalists pursued their priorities. Using the “big tent” analogy, Reformed doctrine was the tent under which Presbyterians were encouraged to pursue their internal (pietistic) and external (culturalist) priorities. Both pietists and culturalists were accountable to Scripture and the summary of Scripture found in the Westminster Standards, the doctrinal “big tent” that defined the boundaries and overarching priorities of the denomination. But Dr. Keller confuses categories by demoting PCA’s doctrinal priorities from an overarching “big tent” role, to a role as just one of three interacting PCA priority groups labeled pietists, culturalists, and doctrinalists.
Dr. Keller diminished all three priorities by reducing these priorities to “impulses.” Describing all three priorities, he uses “impulses” on the first page of his paper where he writes, “there has always been a tension between what George Marsden calls ‘the Reformed branches’–the doctrinalist, pietistic, and culturalist impulses.”(Note) And Dr. Keller uses “impulses” again on the last page of his paper where he writes that “Professors such as Archibald Alexander and Charles Hodge only came to their combination of impulses by long and appreciative listening to and reading of different sources.” (We doubt Alexander and Hodge would agree with that statement!) In fact, Dr. Keller uses “impulse” or “impulses” twenty-five times in this short paper, occasionally using “branch” or “emphases” as well. (The terms “branch” and “emphases” are used in Dr. Marsden’s article cited by Dr. Keller on page one of the paper. However, the word “impulses” was not used by Dr. Marsden anywhere in the article quoted by Dr. Keller. Dr. Keller has added that word.)
Note: Here’s the full quote: “Within the Reformed churches, there has always been a tension between what George Marsden calls ‘the Reformed branches’–the doctrinalist, pietistic and culturalist impulses.” The impression given, perhaps unintentional, is that Dr. Marsden uses the word “impulses” in his article, justifying Dr. Keller’s use of it as well. But a careful review of Dr. Marsden’s article confirms that Dr. Marsden did not use the words “impulse” and “impulses” anywhere in that article. We will further note that there is a properly placed footnote number that, if carefully considered, would exclude “impulses” from the Marsden quote. But during an oral presentation of the paper, that exclusion would not be evident.
By labeling our PCA priorities “impulses,” it seems Dr. Keller is implying that doctrinalist priorities, as well as pietist and culturalist priorities, are subjective, emotive, and optional, rather than objective responsibilities mandated in Scripture for all believers. Some may not agree with that conclusion, but consider the Merriam-Webster definition of impulse: “1a : a sudden spontaneous inclination or incitement to some usually unpremeditated action. b : a propensity or natural tendency usually other than rational.” Because Presbyterian doctrinal priorities have long been considered objective, rational, and binding, the use of the words “impulse” and “impulses,” as we normally understand and use them, obviously diminishes our Presbyterian doctrinal priorities. Consequently, demoting the PCA’s overarching doctrinal commitment to an “impulse” opens the door for some in the PCA to redefine sound doctrinal priorities in terms not intended by our founders and not consistent with Reformed doctrine.
Dr. Keller diminished Presbyterian doctrine by prescribing, for the present and future PCA, a denomination that maintains an equilibrium between three equally important priority groups, each with its own “impulses.” Dr. Keller asserts this has been the case since the beginning of the PCA. However, in the first paragraph of his book on the PCA, Sean Michael Lucas states that “those who led in forming the PCA were concerned with doctrinal and ecclesiastical issues…” The PCA’s founding leaders would never have agreed to demote our doctrinal priorities. And those leaders prescribed a PCA for their children and grandchildren defined by an overarching doctrinal commitment to the Westminster Standards. This prescription is stated clearly in the last chapter of Lucas’s book where he writes that our founders “wanted this new Presbyterian church to pass these truths and values on to the next generation so that those not yet born would love the Bible and the faith of the fathers.” All leaders and congregants in the PCA, including those with pietistic priorities and culturalist priorities, were intended by our founders to function under the overarching and limiting authority of scripture and Presbyterian church doctrine as summarized in the Westminster Standards. For these men, a commitment to sound doctrine was never an “impulse.” It was a Biblical responsibility.
In his paper, Dr. Keller diminished the overarching role of Presbyterian doctrine prescribed by Scripture and summarized in the Westminster Standards. And by diminishing the overarching role of those doctrinal standards, Dr. Keller prescribed for this and future generations a Presbyterian Church in America that is no longer Presbyterian and Reformed in its worship, edification, and witness. Even while making a case for peaceful coexistence, Dr. Keller launched our denomination on a trajectory leading in the direction of a New Liberalism that encourages internal crisis and further division.
The FIRM FOUNDATION PARTNERSHIP proposes:
that PCA leaders ensure proper doctrinalist, pietist, and culturalist priorities be properly labeled and properly understood as Biblical imperatives for us all, rather than “impulses;”
II Timothy 4:1,2: I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.
that PCA leaders return to properly ordered Biblical priorities characterized by close cooperation between those with internal pietistic priorities and those with external culturalist priorities functioning under and within the overarching doctrinal boundaries set by Scripture as summarized in the Westminster Standards;
Titus 2:1,2: But as for you, teach what accords with sound doctrine. Older men are to be sober-minded, dignified, self-controlled, sound in faith, in love, and in steadfastness.
that PCA leaders, present and future, follow the lead of our founders, prescribing a Presbyterian Church in America for ourselves, our children, and their children that is strictly faithful to the doctrines of Scripture as summarized in the Westminster Standards.
Deuteronomy 6:6,7: And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.
II Timothy 3:14,15: But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.
Upholding Sound Doctrine, by David McWilliams
Doctrine in the Dock, by Sinclair Ferguson
But God be thanked, that ye were the servants of sin, but ye have obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine which was delivered you. Being then made free from sin, ye became the servants of righteousness.
– ROMANS 6:17,18
Please note that by offering these observations and recommendations, the Firm Foundation Partnership is not assigning motive. We are asserting, however, that Dr. Keller has taught and promoted error that has undermined the worship, edification, and witness of the Presbyterian Church in America.
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