Thursday, January 27, 2011

Understanding the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church & Its Relation to Erskine Seminary

Last week, there were two news items released regarding The Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church (ARP) and Erskine College and Seminary (hereafter "Erskine") (see the first and second articles). As a Ruling Elder in the ARP, but also a relative newcomer to the denomination, I know it can be difficult to follow all the names, institutions, and organizations involved in the ARP and our internal workings. If it is difficult for me, a member of the ARP, to keep track of these things, I can only imagine how much more difficult it must be for my brothers and sisters in other denominations. With that in mind, I write today to give a brief history of the main issues involving Erskine and the ARP to date, then give a summary of where we stand today, and finally, offer some possibilities of what may happen in the future.

A BRIEF HISTORY (1770-2010)
The ARP, as it exists today, is the remnant of the old Associate Reformed Church that had its beginnings in the mid-seventeen hundreds. (For more on the history of our beginnings, read up on Ebenezer Erskine and the Marrow Controversy). In the 1820s, our old denomination broke into four synods, three of which were eventually absorbed into other Presbyterian bodies (eventually, these three, through a series of mergers, became part of the modern PC(USA)). The one remaining synod, the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Synod of the South, remained out of these mergers, and has, over the last 190 years, slowly grown. We’ve been known by a couple of different names over the years, but today we are known by the name, The Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church.

In 1839, the ARP started a college and then a seminary in Due West, South Carolina. The name Erskine was given to the school, to honor Ralph and Ebenezer Erskine, who had "seceded" from the Church of Scotland several years earlier.

Over the course of the history of the ARP, various parties have influenced the denomination. Beginning in the 1960s, a conservative resurgence began, which called the ARP back to its Reformed roots. In 1979, a statement on Biblical authority and integrity was adopted by the Synod. However, because the word "inerrant" was not explicitly used, those within the ARP who were opposed to the doctrine of inerrancy wrote a dissenting document titled "A Covenant of Integrity." It was not until 2008 that the Synod adopted a clearer statement on inerrancy. That statement read "that the Bible alone, being God-breathed, is the Word of God written, infallible in all that it teaches, and inerrant in the original manuscripts."

Partly because the 1979 statement had not been explicit in its use of "inerrancy" (though that was clearly the intent of the statement) and partly because the denomination did not enforce the 1979 statement, those who did not hold to inerrancy were allowed to remain in the denomination, and some of them came on staff at Erskine. When the 2008 statement was adopted, this caused some backlash from professors at Erskine who do not hold to inerrancy, as well as ministers who had been allowed to resist the 1979 statement. One such minister was Dr. Randall Ruble, who also had become President of Erskine. The 1979 dissenters, who had become entrenched at Erskine, had also ignored the Synod's directives for approximately thirty years. Rev. Charles Wilson (who blogs at documented the long history of Synod directing Erskine to do something. Erskine would then ignore the Synod's directives. In the following years, someone at Synod would then complain that Erskine had not obeyed the directives of Synod. Synod would then form an investigatory committee, who would look into the allegations of Erskine not following the Synod's directives. The committee would report back to a subsequent Synod, who would then direct Erskine to follow the directives of Synod. Erskine would ignore the new directives, and the whole cycle would begin again. To see Rev. Wilson's chronology of the interaction of Erskine and the Synod, see "A CHRONICLE OF THE LONG FAILURE OF GENERAL SYNOD TO OVERSEE ERSKINE COLLEGE AND SEMINARY, (1976 – 2008)" in the PDF available here.

Though I have highlighted the issue of inerrancy, other issues have arisen at Erskine, including open hostility to the Christian worldview, admission of non-Christians to our DMin program, and neo-Barthian professors in our seminary.

Last year, a called meeting of our Synod met in March. This was unprecedented in ARP history. At this meeting, our Synod reorganized the Board of Erskine to bring it more into line with the doctrine and teachings of the ARP. Three members of the Board then sued the denomination (two elders in the ARP being a part of the suit). In June of 2010, at the regular meeting of Synod, a compromise was reached between the church and those who had brought the suit. The compromise was that the suit would be dropped if the ARP revoked the resolutions (we call them "Memorials" in the ARP) it had passed at the Called Synod that had resulted in the reorganization of the Board. Another important development last year was that Dr. Ruble retired from his position as President of Erskine, and Dr. David Norman was hired to serve as Erskine’s fifteenth President.

Currently the Board of Erskine is chosen by the Synod of the ARP. Every year, five new members are appointed for a term of six years. In this way, the entire board (not including the four ex-officio members) rotates out every six years. In addition to the reorganization of the Board and the lawsuit last year, the former President of Erskine, Dr. Randy Ruble, retired and a new President was appointed. Dr. David Norman received the unanimous approval of the Board of Trustees of Erskine, which is quite an accomplishment, since the Board has been split between pro-ARP and anti-ARP sides--a division that was rather pronounced last year. Dr. Norman briefly presented his vision for Erskine at last year's Synod, and he is also writing a three part series in our denominational magazine, ARP Magazine, beginning with the January issue in which he will expand on his goals as President. I was able to meet Dr. Norman at Synod last year, and I have confidence that he will carry out the directives of the ARP at Erskine, while continuing to uphold the tradition of academic excellence that he inherited.

It may seem from my presenting of this history that all our problems in the ARP are resolved. Erskine has a new President and the lawsuit has been dropped. Sadly, this is not the end of our fight. I do believe we are moving in the right direction, but we aren't out of the woods, yet. Both from without and from within, we face challenges. From without, there are still plenty of people who want to see Erskine become completely independent of the ARP. Some of the alumni and even some of the faculty at Erskine fall into this category. From within, the ARP faces the same challenge of lethargy that many other Reformed and Presbyterian denominations have faced in the past and still face today. Constant vigilance is the required duty of the Church, and if we in the ARP wish to see our denomination and our college and seminary further reformed, we must remain vigilant. Thankfully, God has blessed us with men such as Charles Wilson and Dr. John De Witt (along with many others) who had the courage to sound the alarm and wake enough of us up from our slumber to do something before it was too late. However, even at last year's Synod I already saw signs of the old, laissez-faire way of doing business in the ARP coming back.

I anticipate that Erskine will still be a hot topic at this year’s Synod. Important things to watch for include who exactly gets put on Erskine’s Board. I am confident that the only way for Erskine to fulfill its purpose of being "the ARP in higher education" is to continually, year after year, ensure that godly, reformed men are placed on its Board. Another issue will most likely involve those who are elders in the church who brought the lawsuit against the ARP. Obviously, this cannot be tolerated and yet these men have been allowed to continue in their offices without consequence, and Scripture has been twisted to attempt to justify these actions by one of our very own seminary professors. So, as I have said, we certainly have our work cut out for us. I would ask those of you reading this who are not in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church to remember us in your prayers. And I would remind those of you reading this who are in the ARP to “Be strong and of good courage.” The road ahead is long and arduous, but, by God’s grace, our victory is assured in Christ our Lord.

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