OPC’s Doctrine of Assurance Blamed for Bergdahl’s Religious Uncertainty
In this day when America is, for better or worse, trying to wind down its war against radical Islamist jihadists, Skidmore College Professor and Director of Religious Studies, Mary Zeiss Stange, opines in a USA Today piece that we don’t think enough today about how religion can be a source of evil as well as good. Just let that sink in for a moment. But Stange’s focus is not on radical strains of Islam. Hers is on the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. You know, that “hyperconservative offshoot of the mainstream Presbyterian Church USA” which she calls “Calvinism on steroids” because it “sees the world in stark either/or terms” in which you are either “saved and bound for heaven. Or you are a sinner, treading a one-way path to the fiery pit of hell.” She characterizes the struggle to discern one’s eternal destiny as “making extraordinary demands on a sensitive young person’s conscience and conduct.” Having painted this dramatic portrait of my denomination with such colorful brush strokes, broad as they may be, she then proposes the possible diagnosis for the “chaotic mood swings” which lead to Bowe Bergdahl’s “transformation from gung-ho warrior to pacifistic deserter”: “The Orthodox Presbyterian Church compels followers to feel the inner spark of absolute certainty of one’s own God-given righteousness.” This is what we hyperconservative Calvinists on steroids call “assurance of salvation.” But Stange’s description of this teaching is overly simplistic, and with the use of the phrase “absolute certainty,” she is associating the OPC with that predominant flaws of the fundamentalist movement. In the doctrinal standard of the OPC, the Westminster Confession of Faith, we find a little more nuance in what we confess about the Bible’s teaching on assurance. Chapter 14, “Of Saving Faith,” section 3, reads,
This faith is different in degrees, weak or strong; may be often and many ways assailed, and weakened, but gets the victory: growing up in many to the attainment of a full assurance, through Christ, who is both the author and finisher of our faith.
Likewise, in Chapter 18, “Of the Assurance and Grace of Salvation,” the doctrine is treated more fully. Section 3 again demonstrates our allowance for degrees of assurance which may often fall far short of Stange’s portrayal of “absolute certainty.”
This infallible assurance doth not so belong to the essence of faith, but that a true believer may wait long, and conflict with many difficulties before he be partaker of it: yet, being enabled by the Spirit to know the things which are freely given him of God, he may, without extraordinary revelation, in the right use of ordinary means, attain thereunto. And therefore it is the duty of everyone to give all diligence to make his calling and election sure, that thereby his heart may be enlarged in peace and joy in the Holy Ghost, in love and thankfulness to God, and in strength and cheerfulness in the duties of obedience, the proper fruits of this assurance; so far is it from inclining men to looseness.
These excerpts indicates that not all will come to “absolute certainty” regarding their assurance of salvation, but this lack of absolute certainty does not necessarily entail the absence of faith. A weak faith, maybe, but a saving faith nonetheless. Since 2012, the congregations of the OPC have been praying that Bowe Bergdahl would come to faith in Christ, if he truly does not believe, or, if he does, that the Lord would strengthen that faith, that he might grow up “to the attainment of a full assurance, through Christ, who is both the author and finisher of [Bowe’s] faith.” We are careful to point out that assurance is a goal, yet it is not a constant, unwavering quality of the genuine Christian life. For those who find this assurance of faith elusive, it is our desire to comfort, encourage, and point them again to the imputed righteousness which Christ procured by his humble, sinless life, propitiatory death and glorious resurrection in the Word of God preached, and signified and sealed to them in the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Each of these are ordinary means of God’s grace which can develop an assurance that is not contingent upon the strength of one’s faith, or the quality of his works. So it’s not as if those of us who believe in assurance of salvation strive to keep the heat turned up on people to make sure they get some “feeling” of certainty, or else they’re in trouble. That is mischaracterization of the doctrine of the grossest sort on the part of Professor Stange.
Yet it is just such a one-dimensional view of the doctrine of assurance which Professor Stange would have us believe makes my religion a “source of evil.” The idea that moral absolutes and the search for assurance of salvation are bad is consistent with the contemporary religious and philosophical culture in Western civilization, where secularism and relativism are the virtues of our time. I can’t help but see the climactic light saber duel between Obi Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, in which the latter paraphrases Jesus (and George W. Bush) by declaring the ultimate either/or proposition, “if you’re not with me, then you are my enemy,” to which the former replies, “only a Sith deals in absolutes.”
That’s right, dear reader, if you affirm the Ten Commandments, and believe that only through repentance of sin and faith in Christ can one find assurance of salvation from eternal conscious torment, then to liberals like Mary Zeiss Stange, whose kind of view is currently in favor, you have embraced the Dark Side, and your form of religious extremism is what makes people want to kill the innocent and take over the world, and it may even be what stresses our kids out when they can’t “feel” this “absolute certainty” and makes Bowe Bergdahls of them. I never cease to be amazed by the logical leaps which liberals make about orthodox Christianity. It’s positively fundamentalistic.
But Bergdahl’s woes cannot be the sole responsibility of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, because, from what I’ve read, the Bergdahl family were members of two different OPC congregations in the past, neither of which exist today. I’ve heard that it is possible that they may remain under the oversight of their regional presbytery, and Bob and Jani do retain an ongoing relationship with pastor turned missionary Phil Proctor, but the OPC does not seem to be as solely influential in the life of the Bergdahl’s, Bowe least of all, as it may appear.