What type of presbyterian are you?

Earlier this year ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians became the newest North American presbyterian denomination. John Ortberg introduced the new denomination in a compelling address that I’m thrilled to have experienced firsthand. Despite John’s great vision talk, the fact remains that it’s not entirely certain what ECO will become. Historian George Marsden identified three major emphases in American presbyterianism–doctrine, piety, cultural engagement. Which emphasis will predominate in ECO?

In a 2010 address to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America, Tim Keller applied Marsden’s categories to the PCA.* It’s a helpful schema for understanding some of the tensions that exist within our presbyterian family. To some extent, the splintering of presbyterianism over the last 10 years has produced multiple denominations each with a different combination of emphases (I have mapped them below).

Doctrinalists place a high value on creedal orthodoxy and working through the councils of the church rather than, say, through parachurch ministries. Uniformity is the name of the game–a common (regulated) way of worship, a common theological language (subscription to the Confession), and the maintenance of traditions in worship rather than innovation. Doctrinalists are suspicious of engagement with culture because of the risk of theological compromise.

Pietists place a high value on the personal and experiential. They do ministry through church courts yes, but also in partnership with parachurch ministries. While not atheological, they place the highest value on core or essential doctrines. The emphasis is more on personal holiness than confessional precision or uniformity. Many of these churches emphasize personal evangelism and church growth. Contemporary worship is typically a high value for pietists because of the emphasis on conforming the worship experience to something that is person and experiential–something that if perceived to be more difficult when the genre of music is one or more generation removed from the worshipper.

The culturalist approach values redemptive engagement with culture and theological reasoning, feeling an affinity with the Great Tradition that links the historic church. Many of these churches are more comfortable appropriating liturgy from the church’s liturgical tradition. They are more open to innovation than the doctrinalists although they tend to have a slightly higher view of music and the arts than the pietists. Additionally, they place a higher value on modern scholarship than either the doctrinalists or the pietists–they are eager to engage with new ideas. They monitor the culture and seek to interact with it in a constructive way, often avoiding overt evangelistic programs or emphasis on church growth.

Keller argues that each of these three streams is present in the PCA. It seems to me that those churches in the PC(USA) who most openly use the term “evangelical” to describe themselves fall into the category pietist. 

Will ECO be a pietist denomination? To what extent will it value a robust reformed theological identity? What will cultural engagement look like in ECO? These are important questions that are difficult to answer.

Personally, I identify primarily with the culturalist impulse. I’m an evangelical presbyterian who is a Westminster Confession Calvinist, but who deeply values the Great Tradition of the Church. I care about the arts and giving expression to the faith in ways that positively impact culture by being a redemptive influence in cultural institutions like the university, government, the courts. Some would say I should have been born Dutch Reformed!

I long for an evangelical church that values piety (personal holiness) without being exclusively pietist and that values doctrine without being doctrinalist. I long for a church that engages culture out of a strong, deeply rooted theological core that is faithful to historic Christian belief expressed in the evangelical movement.

So, what type of Presbyterian are you?

*George Marsden, “Introduction: Reformed and American” in Reformed Theology in America [ed., David Wells; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997].

**Doctrinalist denominations: Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Presbyterian Church in America, Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church; Pietistic denominations: Evangelical Presbyterian Church; Culturalist denominations: Presbyterian Church (USA).

9 Replies to “What type of presbyterian are you?”

  1. Great post. I will say that Keller’s talk was to show the complexity of the PCA and how to embrace it, so the second footnote sort of contradicts the point. He shared the stage with Ligon Duncan and they talked about the fact that PCA has doctrinalists like Duncan, pietists like Keller, and culturalists like Francis Schaeffer, and that instead of chasing homogeneity by leaving for other denominations, we should stay together.

    I have heard a few ECO people ask whether some pietistic PCA churches will leave for ECO, to which I’d like to remind them that there is beautiful thriving movement of church planting happening in the PCA. We are not just trapped in doctrine-land waiting for a new group to form. I cannot be ordained in the PCA because of some theological views, but I will stay in the PCA as a member, because I want to stay together and I love my church locally AND at-large.

    Of course, you have not said that at all, this was a great post. I thought I’d throw that comment in addition to your great thoughts.


    1. Austin – you’re right about the second footnote. I found myself wanting to put the PCA in all three categories! Perhaps I’m surprised that Keller self-identifies as a pietist. Of the people listed as examples, he’s the person I most resemble theologically and in terms of what I value in ministry. Am I misdefining or missing something?

      I didn’t mean to suggest that the PCA is locked in doctrine-land. I love the emphasis on planting effective missional congregations in the PCA. It’s fantastic and I want to see it continue!


  2. Jeff,
    Great thoughts– thanks for highlighting Keller’s talk and Marsden’s work. Both are very helpful. I find my longing the same as yours- but practically fall into the pietist category. Perhaps the lesson is that there is no ideal church, only real ones, eh? Great stuff, thanks again!


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