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Review: On Being Presbyterian

D. G. Hart

On Being Presbyterian: Our Beliefs, Practices and Stories, by Sean Michael Lucas. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2006, xv + 271 pages, $14.99, paper.

How can I recommend a book that shows believers how they can join a Presbyterian church other than the Orthodox Presbyterian Church? This is more than the impasse of a book reviewer. It is the dilemma of reconciling the general with the particular, Presbyterianism in the abstract with Presbyterianism embodied in a particular denomination.

To understand this predicament readers need to know that Sean Michael Lucas's new book, On Being Presbyterian is a welcome addition to the idea of Presbyterian identity. As the subtitle indicates, the book comes in three sections, devoted to beliefs, practices, and stories. The first covers divine sovereignty, the doctrines of grace, the high points of covenant theology, ecclesiology, and the sacraments. In the section on practices Lucas devotes attention to the characteristics of Reformed piety, Reformed worship, and Presbyterian ecclesiology. The last part on stories is a fairly brief survey of Presbyterian history from the time of Knox's Scotland to the present. (Lucas examines the history of the OPC even-handedly in one of these chapters.) This division of the subject is not without difficulty. An editor might well have suggested that Lucas put ecclesiology and sacramental theology in the section on practices. To separate the sacraments (beliefs) from worship (practices) could be confusing.

Even so, Lucas's larger point is well worth considering. He is concerned to recover Presbyterianism as an identity, not merely as a denominational label, system of theology, or form of church government. As such he argues that in addition to theology, history and religious practices define Presbyterianism. But his argument is much more personal. Lucas is not trying simply to identify the Presbyterian branch of western Christianity; his purpose is pastoral because he wants this Presbyterian identity to stick in real people, for it to become a way of life. Our personal stories and family histories have a great influence in defining us. So do our practices or habits, certain things we do simply because of who we are. Lucas does not diminish the importance of theology, and the section on doctrine is the longest part of the book. But for too long conservative Presbyterians—probably since the fundamentalist controversy—have regarded doctrine as the glue that would hold them together. They paid insufficient attention to the place of history as well as the relation between faith and practice in either passing on the faith to their children or enfolding new members into the Presbyterian way. As Lucas explains in the preface, American Presbyterians are facing an identity crisis. "Many of our church members, and even some officers, do not have a solid understanding of what it means to be Presbyterian. In exchanging one church for another, they have not yet learned the narratives, distinctives, and practices of their new spiritual home. As a result, our members often find themselves somewhat at a loss to explain to their friends and family why they belong to a Presbyterian church . . ." (xi).

This book would be highly useful to hand to new members or those seeking membership in an Orthodox Presbyterian congregation. Except that the book winds up instructing readers how to join the Presbyterian Church in America. "Now, perhaps you have been reading these pages," Lucas writes in the epilogue, "because you are considering membership in a Presbyterian church, particularly in a church that belongs to the PCA." From here Lucas goes into procedures from the PCA's Book of Church Order and the specifics of membership vows. Then he concludes in the following manner: "I would invite you to join us on the journey of becoming Presbyterian." The first person plural here clearly refers to the PCA. Now, of course, the PCA is the OPC's sister denomination and joining her would not be a mistake. But by concluding this way—Lucas also begins the book with the admission that he writes as a pastor in the PCA—he has significantly limited its usefulness to denominations like the OPC. In fact, by highlighting a specific denomination within Presbyterianism, Lucas likely hurt the chances that his book would be read and recommended by Orthodox Presbyterians. The point is not that the OPC is better than the PCA. It is that no church would allow representatives from another denomination to recruit its members to join another church.

Why did Lucas write his book this way? One reason is the admirable one that he is a churchman and wants to assist the life and witness of the PCA. Another, less commendable, is a certain confusion about the relationship between the abstract and the concrete. In his introduction Lucas writes something different from the desire he expresses in the conclusion. "The most important thing is not that your identity is Presbyterian," he explains, "but that your identity is shaped by Jesus Christ." [11] This is indeed a seemingly noble sentiment, but it abstracts Christianity in two unhelpful ways. First, it isolates church membership from being united to Christ, a dangerous move if the Westminster Confession of Faith is right when it affirms that the visible church is the "kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation." Second, and in a similar way, Lucas's notion of identity in Christ being more important than Presbyterian identity abstracts Christianity from Presbyterianism. If Presbyterianism (or Reformed Christianity) as the OPC has long contended is the most consistent and fullest expression of Christianity, to suggest that the generic faith is as good as the particular ironically misses the genius of Presbyterianism. Perhaps if Lucas had sorted out the relationship between Christian and Presbyterian identities he might have seen a way to describe Presbyterian identity without favoring one denomination over another.

D. G. Hart
Intercollegiate Studies Institute
Wilmington, Del.

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