Soundings, Think

Schism led to formation of Bible-Presbyterian Church

THE BIBLE PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH (BPC) began in the United States in 1937 as the result of a schism caused by the Modernist-Fundamentalist Dispute.

The origins of this dispute can be traced to the inaugural address delivered in 1891 by Charles Briggs, a minister of the Presbyterian Church of the United States of America (PCUSA) to supporters of Union Theological Seminary of New York City. In that lecture, Briggs shocked his audience by questioning and challenging many tenets of the Church, from its understanding of God’s revelation to the authority of Scriptures. This lecture precipitated what is known as “The Modernist-Fundamentalist controversy” that raged for the next 50 years in PCUSA.

Those who were unable to accommodate the alleged theological liberalism of PCUSA left the church to form a new church which treats certain tenets of the Christian faith as non-negotiable while embracing the Presbyterian and Reformed heritage.

Since its inception, the BPC has stood for “ecclesiastical separation”: the view that believers should not join or assist an apostate church. If they are already members of one, ecclesiastical separation teaches that believers should leave that church. Writ large, this principle also maintains that churches should not join denominations or organisations that are not true to Christ or the Bible. It is through “ecclesiastical separation” that Christians, local churches and even denominations strive to remain holy, in obedience to Scripture.

Put differently, “ecclesiastical separation” enables true believers to individually and collectively strive to “earnestly contend for the faith which was once for all entrusted to the saints”. (Jude 3). Article 6 of the Constitution of True Life Bible-Presbyterian Church in Singapore spells this out in concrete terms: “We are opposed to all efforts to obscure or wipe out the clear line of separation between these absolutes: truth and error, light and darkness … We refer to such efforts by New Evangelicals, Charismatic Christians, promoters of ecumenical cooperative evangelism and of the social gospel, and all churches and other movements and organisations that are aligned with or sympathetic to the Ecumenical Movement.”

In Singapore, the BPC movement had its official beginning in 1955 when the English congregation of Life Church, under the leadership of the Rev Timothy Tow and Elder Quek Kiok Chiang severed ties with the Presbyterian Synod. The schism came about because the English congregation opposed the perceived liberalism of the Presbyterian Synod, based on the latter’s affiliations with the Ecumenical Movement and the World Council of Churches.

As Elder Han Soon Juan put it so clearly in the Golden Jubilee Magazine (1950-2000), the leaders in question were “determined that the Life Church English Service be raised as a Polemical Witness for the Faith”. The BPC grew steadily, spawning a number of churches and even establishing a theological institution, the Far Eastern Bible College, in 1962.

However, in October 1988, the Synod of the BPC was dissolved mainly due to “strong differences in interpreting the Doctrine of Biblical Separation, Fundamentalism, and Neo-Evangelicalism”.

Although the BPC acknowledges the Westminster Confession as its doctrinal standard, it has adopted the strictures of fundamentalism. The theological conservatism of the BPC is seen, for instance, in its literal interpretation of the Bible, especially the creation narrative found in the early chapters of Genesis. Rejecting theistic evolution, it teaches that God created the world in six days, which are “not distinguished in length from the six-day work week”.

Accordingly, the BPC also teaches that the flood recorded in Genesis 7 is global, citing the thickness of rock strata found throughout the world as geological evidence. A third example is its view on the millennium. The BPC prefers premillennialism – that Christ, upon his return will reign on earth for 1,000 years – to other millennial views because it is “based on a plain and literal interpretation of Scripture”. According to Christopher Lensch, the BPC initially adopted some elements of dispensational theology, but has in recent years passed a synodical resolution disapproving dispensationalism.

ANOTHER FEATURE that once distinguished the BPC from other churches is its preference for the King James Version (KJV) of the English Bible. The privileging of the KJV is based on the supposition that this translation relied on the Hebrew and Greek texts that were closest to the original autographs of the Bible. There was therefore a period in which the BPC in Singapore used only the KJV in public reading, preaching and teaching. Those who privileged the KJV are also of the view that other versions of the English Bible (e.g., the NIV) are unreliable because they do not provide a literal and accurate translation of the original Hebrew and Greek texts.

Making the sharpest possible distinction between translation and interpretation, BP theologians Timothy Tow and Jeffrey Khoo maintain that because it has adopted the dynamic equivalent approach to Bible translation, the NIV is an inaccurate version that “has attacked the Written Word and the Living Word”. With the dissolution of the Synod of the BPC in Singapore, however, a number of BP churches now use the NIV.

The dissolution of the Singapore synod has brought about a more nuanced view of orthodoxy among some BP churches in Singapore. Perhaps it has helped in some ways to underscore the fact that the apostolic Church is also at the same time catholic, as the ecumenical creeds – the Apostle Creed and the Nicene Creed – profess. Insofar as the catholicity of the Church must be defined as “universality plus identity” and “universality plus continuity”, catholicity always presupposes apostolicity. And insofar as the idea of apostolicity is not static, but also signifies the Church’s dynamic witness, apostolicity always implies catholicity.

The continued presence of the BPC, however, will serve as a reminder to the churches in Singapore of our collective responsibility to faithfully hand down the Faith that we have received from the Apostles, and to courageously guard it against dilutions and distortions.

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity College. He worships at the Fairfield Preaching Point in Woodlands.