Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Elena Kagan and Presbytery Exams; Or, the Presbytery Exam Considered as a Confirmation Hearing

By Benjamin Shaw, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Hebrew & OT
Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary


In the May 11, 2010 issue of The Wall Street Journal, Neomi Rao, a law professor at George Mason School of Law, quotes a 1995 book review by Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan in which she calls the Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearings of prospective judges “a vapid and hollow charade.” In other words, since the 1987 “Borking” of Ronald Reagan's nominee Robert Bork, the Senate has largely been satisfied with the candidates mouthing legal platitudes without any real examination of their understanding of law, the Constitution, or how the candidate might actually approach dealing with a particular sort of case.

What has this to do with presbytery exams? It seems to be the case that presbytery exams are often treated as confirmation hearings. Those in the presbytery, like the senators, merely wish to hear “incantations of the right formulas without an examination of their actual beliefs” (Rao column, concluding paragraph). So what if a man doesn’t quite understand or cannot quite articulate the doctrine of sanctification? He’s a really nice guy. He has a seminary degree. He seems to be really sincere. Let’s approve him and move on with the work of the day.

We as presbyters need to be reminded that the solemn task given to the presbytery is much more significant than that given to the senators in the confirmation hearings. Their choices have only temporal consequences. The approval or disapproval of a ministerial candidate has eternal consequences. The men who come to presbytery for examination are responding to a high and holy calling—the shepherding of the souls of the congregation entrusted to them. If they do not believe the Bible and the constitution of their church; or if they do not understand the Bible and the constitutional documents; or if they are unable to articulate in an adequate fashion the doctrines taught in the Bible, they are simply unfit to be the shepherds of men’s souls. An inability to articulate the doctrine of sanctification can do serious spiritual damage to the church member coming for counsel regarding a struggle with indwelling sin. An inability to articulate the doctrine of justification can leave people at sea regarding what the gospel really is and what our hope is. An inability to carefully expound any particular text of Scripture can leave the people in the pews convinced that the postmoderns are right—the Scripture simply means whatever we want it to mean.

Gentlemen, let us not “bork” our ministerial candidates as a way of getting at those in the presbytery with whom we disagree. On the other hand, let us not simply wave them through with a pat on the back and a shake of the hand and a comment on their wonderful sincerity. The task to which they have been called is far too important.