The Downward Hermeneutical Spiral: The PCUSA—A Model of the Downward Spiral

Having examined the roots of the downward hermeneutical spiral in the Enlightenment of 300 years ago in Europe and England, author Dennison now examines the American PCUSA in which the Enlightenment has triumphed virtually completely. The Editors

In one American denomination in particular, the Enlightenment model has triumphed virtually completely. I am referring to the Presbyterian Church United States of America (PCUSA)—the so-called mainline Presbyterian church, oft times referred to as the big, liberal Presbyterian church. The mainline Presbyterian church was started by immigrants in the 18th century. They came from Scotland, Ireland, England and Wales. They came wholeheartedly committed to the infallible Word of God and the system of doctrine taught in the Westminster Confession of Faith. The Enlightenment model made little impact upon them until after the Civil War. But between 1865 and 1880, American Presbyterianism began a pilgrimage which eventually produced the broad church.



Modernist-Fundamentalist Controversy

As the broadening church entered the 20th century, American Presbyterians learned of seminary professors, seminarians, pastors and lay persons who did not believe the words of the Bible-the very words of God; who did not believe in the virgin birth of our Savior; who did not believe in the bodily resurrection of Christ as a fact of history. American Presbyterians in the 1920’s and 1930’s began to learn that the antithesis had been unleashed in their midst—while they slept! A great battle was waged between the liberals and the conservatives. It was part of what was called the Modernist-Fundamentalist Controversy. Some of the conservatives, notably J. Gresham Machen, were suspended and ejected from the Presbyterian Church. They united in 1936 to form what we know today as the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Some conservatives hoped to reform the church from within. They remained until they died, or grew weary of relentless liberalism, or were driven out by still more progressive views. For you see, after a while, liberalism is no longer pacific and tolerant; after a while, liberalism becomes tyrannical and oppressive.

These conservatives began to realize that the old Calvinism of the Westminster Confession of Faith had been abandoned by the mainline Presbyterian church. Ever so gradually, ever so deliberately, the doctrines of grace had been modified by 19th century liberalism and its progressive 20th century offspring—the new modernism (so-called because it was a new form of the old liberal modernism of the 19th century). This new modernism is also called neo-orthodoxy because it claims a “new” use of old orthodox doctrines and language, but radically redefines those old orthodox truths. Neo-orthodoxy is also sometimes called Barthianism for the Swiss theologian Karl Barth (1886–1968) who was its greatest proponent.

The Confession of 1967 By 1967, the mainline Presbyterian church no longer affirmed the historic Reformed faith. It had replaced the orthodox tradition with anew, contemporary statement of faith called the Confession of 1967 (or C-67 for short). This Confession explicitly stated the liberal principle: no statement, not even a Biblical statement, can claim final validity. Continued C-67, new situations demand new approaches to truth, new attempts to understand how the Spirit speaks to the church in its present cultural context. Fifteen years later, the General Assembly (equivalent of a synod in Christian Reformed polity) of the Presbyterian Church adopted a report on the authority and interpretation of the Bible (“Biblical Authority and Interpretation”). This very significant 1982 report confirmed the doctrine of Scripture found in C-67. The inerrancy of Scripture was explicitly rejected as an outmoded view of the Bible. The church admitted that the hermeneutical spiral (to which I alluded earlier) was the dominant view of Biblical interpretation in the mainline Presbyterian church. Said the report, cultural changes force the Bible to speak in a new way. The only safe guide for interpreting the Bible is thus the current “consensus” of the church.

But as the consensus changes, the meaning of the Bible will change. The downgrade controls the view of Scripture in liberal Presbyterianism. In spite of all the sophisticated language, in spite of all the learned seminary professors, scholars and pastors who defend this denigration of the Word of God, the fact remains that in the mainline Presbyterian church, the Bible is a wax nose—it can be shaped to affirm any cultural movement or deviation.

Beginning in 1967, mainline Presbyterian conservatives began to realize that the Bible was viewed very differently from an inerrant, inspired document by denominational seminaries, books and articles by denominational seminary professors, Sunday School materials and official documents from denominational headquarters. What the Bible says was not necessarily what God says, the liberals told the church. Modern methods of interpretation must be used in order to properly understand the meaning of Scripture. After all, modem liberals said, the Bible is not a supernatural work; it is human, only human, nothing but human.

During the 60’s, mainline Presbyterian conservatives also began to realize that the liberal, progressive view of the Bible had affected the witness and ministry of the church. The church became vigorously involved in the celebrated social causes of the 60’s: the anti-Vietnam War movement, the civil rights movement, voting rights campaigns, Third World liberation movements. Conservatives complained that the primary role of the church was the gospel and evangelism. Their cries fell on deaf ears: social and political relevance was “in”; evangelistic Bible-preaching and missions were “out.”

Ordination Denied

Conservatives were increasingly marginalized, isolated and ignored. Then, in 1975, they were persecuted. Liberalism had gained sufficient hold on the seminaries, presbyteries and congregations that in 1975, a conservative and orthodox seminary graduate was denied ordination in the mainline Presbyterian church. Why was this man denied ordination? Did he fail seminary? No, he had virtually all A’s at a liberal, denominational seminary. Did he profess heresy? Well, not what one would call doctrinal heresy. He was guilty, in today’s vernacular, of being “politically incorrect.” This conservative seminary graduate respectfully refused to ordain women to the office of ruling elder or pastor. He was not obnoxious about his position-he launched no crusade on his own behalf. He simply said that he did not believe the Bible permitted women to be ordained as pastors or ruling elders, and his conscience would not permit him to participate in an action that he believed was contrary to Scripture. For his scurples, he was refused ordination by the highest body of the mainline Presbyterian church—the General Assembly.

To put this case in perspective, we need to review the history of women’s ordination in the mainline Presbyterian church. In 1930, the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA) permitted the ordination of women to the office of ruling elder, allowing that those who felt only men should be ordained to the office of ruling elder should be tolerated in the denomination. In 1956, the PCUSA extended the right to ordination to women seeking the pastoral office. Again, those who opposed women’s ordination to the office of pastor were to be tolerated. But in 1975, for the first time, a person Biblically opposed to women’s ordination was refused toleration. Notice what the majority in the mainline Presbyterian church had accomplished: first, it gained admission to the office of elder for women on the grounds that tolerance for women in office ought to be the mark of a modern, progressive church; second, it extended the office of pastor to women one-quarter of a century later, again on the grounds that pastoral ministry for women ought to be a mark of a modern, progressive denomination. Then, in 1975, it ruled that anyone opposed to women’s ordination was not to be tolerated. Since 1975, no persons opposed to women’s ordination for Biblical reasons can be admitted to the ministry or eldership of the mainline Presbyterian church. How fickle liberalism is; or should I say how intolerant liberalism is! It shouts inclusivism and pluralism, while excluding and barring conservatives.

Mandatory Women Elders

After 1975, the mainline Presbyterian church declared that agreement with the ordination of women to the office of ruling elder and pastor was essential to Presbyterianism. If you did not agree with women’s ordination, you could not be ordained an officer in the mainline Presbyterian church. But the story is not over. In 1978 , the mainline Presbyterian church passed a rule that every congregation in the denomination was required to have women on its session (equivalent of an elder board in Christian Reformed polity). This was, in essence, a quota system based on gender. Congregations which refused or failed to elect women to the eldership were summoned before commissions of the Presbytery (equivalent of a Classis in Christian Reformed polity) and instructed to correct this alleged inequity. In other words, liberalism moved from peaceful coexistence to oppression and intolerance of those who disagreed with women’s ordination. Once the position was in place, the denomination moved more and more to enforce compliance with women’s ordination. In less than fifty years, the historic Reformed position—the Biblical position—of male headship in ruling office was repudiated and those who maintained that Reformed and Biblical position were barred from office in the denomination. How quickly things change!

The matter of women’s ordination was only one piece of the liberal mainline Presbyterian church’s agenda to bring the denomination into the mainstream of contemporary culture. Liberalism, having jettisoned any final authority in the Word of God, now began to adjust the denomination to the prevailing mood of the time.


In 1970, the mainline Presbyterian church declared that it was the inalienable right of every woman to choose an abortion. Again, liberalism denies that the Bible speaks with any finality on the matter of fetal life. Hence the elevation of personal choice above fetal rights was declared the Word of God for our times. The General Assembly of the mainline Presbyterian church has repeatedly affirmed the pro-choice, pro-abortion position of the denomination. Every challenge from pro-life members of the denomination has been denied with a ringing reaffirmation of the 1973 US Supreme Court decision, Roe versus Wade.


Again in 1970, the mainline Presbyterian church released a report called “Sexuality and the Human Community.” In that document, commended to every congregation for study, the legitimacy and acceptance of the homosexual lifestyle was strongly suggested. Three years later, the Presbyterian Gay Caucus was organized. Primarily a group of gay and lesbian Presbyterian pastors and lay persons, the Presbyterian Gay Caucus was organized to provide education and illumination on the gay and lesbian lifestyle in order to move the denomination towards acceptance and approval. In 1976, the General Assembly of the church ruled that while the ordination of practicing homosexuals was “injudicious,” nevertheless the denomination should study the issue for two years so that in 1978 the General Assembly could provide definitive guidance on the matter. In 1978, the General Assembly met in San Diego and voted to reject the ordination of practicing homosexuals by a vote of 600 to 50 (a margin of12 to 1 against). But while refusing homosexuals ordination, the General Assembly did declare that they were to be tolerated as members of local congregations. In other words, the denomination could have practicing gay members, but not practicing gay ministers—surely an explicit contradiction. In 1979, the Presbyterian Gay Caucus took a new name—Presbyterians for Gay Concerns. The organization was also granted recognition by the General Assembly as an unofficial, but approved organization within the mainline Presbyterian church (a so-called “chapter 28” organization). This recognition meant that the Presbyterians for Gay Concerns would have access to all Presbyterian congregations for purposes of disseminating its educational and informational materials. By a process of careful gradualism, the Gay Concerns organization was gaining acceptance within the denomination.

Human Sexuality

In 1991, the mainline Presbyterian task force on sexuality produced a document called “Keeping Body and Soul Together: Sexuality. Spirituality, and Social Justice.” In this document, the task force gave approval to pre-marital, extramarital and homosexual sex. Argued the task force, to deny that such acts were “loving” was to be guilty of: patriarchal oppression (in the case of those who objected to lesbian sex); heterosexism (in the case of those who disapproved of homosexual sex); gender oppression (in the case of persons who disapproved of gay and lesbian sex); and sexual oppression (in the case of persons who disapproved of premarital and extramarital sexual intercourse). To insist on sexual abstinence before marriage was sexual discrimination, said the task force. To insist on sexual faith fulness after marriage was sexual injustice. To insist on heterosexual sex only within the marriage bond was sexual oppression.

Recent Developments

While the 1991 General Assembly of the mainline Presbyterian church rejected this report in Baltimore, Maryland, the next stage of the liberated sexual agenda was underway. In 1992, practicing lesbian Jane Spahr was nominated as the pastor of the Downtown United PreSbyterian Church of Rochester, New York. She was supported by numerous ministers, ruling elders and lay persons in the Presbytery and throughout the denomination. The Moderator of the General Assembly even stumped the country in her defense. These progressively-minded persons called themselves “More Lights” advertising that they sought more light on the practice of the gay and lesbian lifestyle than was provided in the Bible, the confessions of the church or the law of nature. Ms. Spahr’s nomination was denied by the General Assembly, but once again the liberals had convulsed the denomination with a consciousness-raising issue. This past summer, at Orlando, Florida, the General Assembly of the mainline Presbyterian church once again rejected the ordination of practicing homosexuals to the eldership and pastorate. The vote: 396–155. In fifteen years, the homosexual lobby had gained 100 votes; those who opposed the ordination of homosexuals had lost 200 votes. The margin of opposition to the ordination of homosexuals had gone from 92% (1978) to 72% (1993). The margin of support had increased from 8% (1978) to 28% (1993).

As the older, traditional members of the church die; as the seminaries graduate more men and women properly sensitized to the homosexual cause; as waves of educational information pour into the living rooms and studies of the denomination, the church will gain the proper, culturally conditioned sensitivity to gay and lesbian members. Eventually, the mainline liberal Presbyterian church will ordain homosexuals to the office of pastor and ruling elder. It must—progress demands it! No authority—not even the Bible—forbids it!

All of this progressive liberalism has been supported and inspired by the foundational document I mentioned earlier—the Confession of 1967. C-67 was a summary of the prevailing theology of the mainline liberal Presbyterian church in the 60’s. C-67 continued the liberal tradition of the broadening church from the late 19th century and the modernist-liberal triumphs of the 1920’s and 1930’s. In true progressive fashion, C-67 captured and documented the liberal, enlightened spirit of the mainline Presbyterian church. The Confession of 1967 defined the Bible as “the words of men, conditioned by the language, thought forms, and literary fashions of the places and times at which they were written.” This statement is a perfect, modernist summary of the liberal view of Scripture. The emphasis is upon the human dimension, not the divine inspiration of the Word of God. Notice that the Bible is contextualized—that is, subject to the prevailing views of the time in which it was written. As the context of culture changes, so the Word of God must change to accommodate the new prevailing conditions, thought forms and literary fashions of the new time and place. If the prevailing view of homosexuality changes, the Word of God changes to accommodate the new cultural context. If the prevailing view of abortion or women’s ordination changes, the Word of God obligingly changes to accommodate the cultural shift. With a liberal view of the Word of God, a view promoted by seminary professors, seminarians, pastors and progressively—minded laypersons, it was inevitable that liberal positions on abortion, human sexuality in general and homosexuality in particular, women’s ordination, even social and political issues would dominate the agenda of the mainline Presbyterian church.

Cost of Liberalism

But there was a price to pay. From 1966, when the Confession of 1967 was first presented to the General Assembly, to December 1992, the mainline Presbyterian church (North and South) lost 1,469,359 members. Total membership plummeted from 4,249,765 to 2,780,406. Please note that in every one of those 26 years between 1966 and 1992, the decline was steady. In not one of those years was there an increase in membership. During the same period, the denomination lost 1,548 congregations. Now, notice this statistic. During that period of membership and congregational decline, 3,500 ministers were added to the rolls. The trend is clear: loss of members, loss of churches, increase in professional clergy. Mainline Presbyterianism is a bureaucracy—an ecclesiastical bureaucracy—an increasingly top-heavy or hierarchical denomination whose professional clergy see themselves as an elite body destined to steer the church into greater and more radical liberalism.

Liberalism has practical consequences. Mark it down. When liberalism reduces the Bible to the mere words of man, it reduces the numbers in the church. In 1993, it is not the liberal churches that are growing; it is the Bible-believing (mostly Pentecostal) churches which are piling up the numbers. There is a correlation between your view ofthe Bible and your membership statistics. Church history demonstrates that when liberalism comes, people vote with their feet!

Rev. Dennison received the M. Div. and Th.M. degrees from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. He was pastor of the Pioneer and Pleasant Grove United Presbyterian Churches (UPCUSA), Ligonier, PA from 1970–1979. Currently he is a minister in the PCA. He is the Editor and Publisher of Kerux: A Journal of Biblical-Theological Preaching and is finishing editorial work on George M. Giger’s translation of Institutes of Elenctic Theology (3 vols., Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co.). Currently, he serves as Librarian and Lecturer in Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary in California.