Book Review, Paul Cooper and David Burke (eds.). Principle & Principal: the other side of the Rev Dr Peter Cameron heresy trial. Stanhope Gardens, NSW: Eider Books, 2023. It can be purchased […]
Book Review, Paul Cooper and David Burke (eds.). Principle & Principal: the other side of the Rev Dr Peter Cameron heresy trial. Stanhope Gardens, NSW: Eider Books, 2023. It can be purchased at eiderbooks.wordpress.com for $28 plus $9 postage.
“Know Thyself”, inscribed in ancient times upon Apollo’s Temple, is a maxim that applies just as much to a Christian denomination as to the individual. If we are going to be at all true and effective then we must know who we are, why we exist, and what our mission is.
The Presbyterian Church of Australia (PCA) ought then to be very grateful to Paul Cooper and David Burke for their three edited books so far, devoted to the recent history and doctrine of our denomination: Burning or Bushed: the PCA 40 years on (2017); Read in the Light: the 1901 Declaratory Statement of the PCA (2019); and now Principle & Principal: the other side of the Rev Dr Peter Cameron heresy trial (2023).
Principle & Principal is a major exploration of a defining moment in the history of the PCA since the 1977 Union: the 1993 trial of the Rev Dr Peter Cameron, Principal of St Andrew’s College in Sydney, for public statements he made disowning and disparaging the inspiration and infallibility of Scripture.
It was a defining moment because if the denomination had refused to prosecute Cameron, or had failed in its prosecution, then the PCA as a whole might well have drifted into a similarly low view of Scripture or, at best, would have learned to accommodate such poisonous teaching in its seminaries and pulpits. In which case the PCA would have looked very different today: manned more by theological liberals and cultural appeasers than spirited guardians and exponents of Reformed Confessional orthodoxy.
Cooper and Burke’s book contains twenty-two (mostly) short essays from nineteen contributors. With its quaint punning title, copious duplicative material, and idiosyncratic formatting, it is a rough-hewn but nonetheless solid and nourishing piece of work: more shepherd’s pie than soufflé au fromage.
The book builds a careful historical context to the Cameron trial, describing the doctor’s history and the Church of Scotland from whence he came, as well as the theological and organisational state of the PCA at the turn of the 1990s. John McClean carefully explains the nature and purpose of theological confessions and the various kinds of false teaching that a confessional church may have to deal with, heresy constituting the most dangerous and consequential form of false teaching. The case itself and the trial and appeal are thoroughly and carefully described. It is all very interesting and compelling and the reader benefits from a lot of patient research into the minutes of various presbyteries and assemblies, into Cameron’s copious books and articles, and into an abundance of contemporary church and newspaper articles and media reports.
Bruce Meller’s expert description of the trial and appeal processes, “A Court of Kangaroos or a Court of Owls”, is for me the highlight of the book. Meller helpfully explains that the Confession describes instead of prescribes our doctrine: office-bearers sign the Confession as a statement of the faith that they themselves own and intend to propagate and defend. Meller shows us how useful and important our statements of doctrine and polity are; we must labour to know them and to learn to use them well. May this chapter be required reading for all students of PCA theology and polity.
David Burke’s answer to the question, “Why Prosecute Dr Cameron?”, shows how vital it is, and always will be, for the church to actively defend its doctrine from false teaching. Our Lord promised that false teachers would come, and it is the pastor’s core duty to both teach the flock the Word, and to defend the flock from error, with loving diligence.
A number of essays describe the immediate public response to the trial (predominantly blind disgust), and the long-term result (an orthodox and steadfast PCA).
Three things struck me from Principle & Principal:
First, Cameron’s arrogance and dishonesty. He never hid his contempt for what he thought was the backward, uneducated, and unsophisticated “fundamentalist” doctrinal commitment of the PCA. By his own admission he entered the church with a mission to change it from within, to save it from its knuckle-dragging obscurantism to (his own idea of) enlightened liberalism. Yet, no guns were held to heads. No one compelled Cameron to come to Australia and to sign the Formula as one who owned and pledged to defend the Confession. It amazes me that a man who delighted to excoriate the church for its “dishonest or stupid” fundamentalism could at the same time be so blind to his own dishonesty as to sign with pen and ink documents that he, inwardly, fully intended to undermine. “There but for the grace of God go I.” May the Lord deliver us all from such hypocrisy.
Second, the mountain of patient preparatory work undertaken by Bruce Christian, who agreed to be Cameron’s prosecutor, and Paul Cooper, who agreed to be spokesman for the PCA – to publicly defend the church’s actions to an inevitably hostile media. Not to mention their bravery. Thank God for these men who stood, like Horatius on the Tiber bridge before the Etruscan horde, to defend the church from such dazzling enemies at a critical time.
Third, it is only a matter of time before we are called to mount a similar defence. I can picture pastors bowing before our nation’s near-and-present anti-conversion laws, by refusing to help a same-sex attracted church member who comes to them for help and prayer; or by refusing to preach from the Bible against homosexual conduct without fear or favour. Will we be willing to lovingly correct and support such a negligent brother in our own midst? Will we be willing to prosecute him if he forsakes his vow “to the utmost of [his] power” to “assert, maintain, and defend the doctrine, worship, and government of this Church.”
Church discipline is an act of love; may I be surrounded by a strong and diligent band of brothers who will love me and Christ’s church enough to keep me true and faithful to my own confession, teaching, and pastoral work – by correcting me, admonishing me, or even, if needs be, by prosecuting me.
Right now we are entering into a new storm of challenges: challenges of an even greater and more insidious severity than those faced by our faithful brothers in the 1990s. May the Lord raise up men with like diligence, conviction, skill, courage, and love.
We can be very grateful to Paul Cooper and David Burke for Principle & Principal. I feel certain that it will be an important tool as we prepare and equip to face the storms ahead.
– Campbell Markham