Faith: June 2006 Archives

David Wayne, the Jollyblogger, has an interesting entry, "On Thinking New Theological Thoughts." He cites the late Presbyterian theologian John Murray, no liberal or modernist he, who writes of the need for each generation to deal with the issues of the day in the light of Scripture. While the ancient creeds and Reformation confessions are a rich heritage and are not to be set aside, we can't rest on our theological laurels. Murray wrote:

When any generation is content to rely upon its theological heritage and refuses to explore for itself the riches of divine revelation, then declension is already under way and heterodoxy will be the lot of the succeeding generation.... A theology that does not build on the past ignores our debt to history and naively overlooks the fact that the present is conditioned by history. A theology that relies on the past evades the demands of the present.

Note that he is not saying that we should regard the old confessions as mere historical curiosities, as most of the liberal mainstream denominations do, but we need to apply the truth of the Bible to modern concerns that weren't on the radar in 325 or 1647, while building on the foundation laid by those earlier generations. New problems, new theological movements, new technologies need to be addressed in light of the timeless Word of God. Principles that were held by all respectable members of society four hundred years ago, and thus did not need to be affirmed in a confession, are now up for debate, and the church needs to take a stand.

Occasionally a conservative denomination like the Presbyterian Church in America will adopt a position paper -- for example, on the role of women in the Church. (Here's a repository of position papers adopted by American Presbyterian denominations, including a fairly comprehensive collection of position papers from the PCA and from the RPCES, a separate denomination that merged into the PCA in 1982.)

Only very rarely, however, will a conservative denomination modify the church's basic confession. There are very high hurdles to prevent such an action from being taken lightly. In the PCA it amounts to an amendment of the denomination's constitution, and the process is analogous to amendment of the U. S. Constitution, requiring adoption by the General Assembly followed by ratification by three-quarters of the presbyteries. So while theological statements are issued from time to time on various subjects, rarely are they made a part of the denomination's standards and made binding on ministers, elders and deacons.

I appreciated this statement from David Wayne:

It is proper to examine the older statements to see if they erred in their exegesis. It is also proper to examine them to see if the framers brought presuppositions to the table that skewed their understanding. In my own Reformed tradition this has happened. A case in point is the change in the Westminster Confession's position on the pope being the anti-Christ.

I would add the unbiblical practice of infant baptism in Reformed churches as an example of a doctrine that was shaped by the political realities of the 16th century. The Reformation succeeded then where earlier reform efforts failed because of the support and protection of civil governments. Dukes, princes, and city councilors were deciding matters of theology. Reform could only go as far as the civil magistrates were willing, and they were not willing to abandon the idea that everyone within their jurisdiction was born into and subject to their established church. Once it was decided to retain the practice, it took about a century to develop the theology to construct a theological rationale for it which was more or less consistent with Reformed soteriology. (I need hardly add that this is an area where I take exception with the doctrine of the church to which I belong. It's my prayer that some day this will be revisited, but I'm not holding my breath.)

Ultimately, the infallible, inerrant Word of God is the standard by which all creeds, confessions, sermons, liturgies, and pious opinions must be judged. That's the meaning of sola scriptura. Semper reformanda means the work of "bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ" is never done.

BONUS LINK: The 1647 text of the Westminster Confession of Faith with notes showing amendments adopted by various presbyterian bodies in the United States. For example, most churches have dropped the "Pope is the Antichrist" clause, and take a different view of the involvement of government in church affairs than the Westminster Assembly, which was convened by the English Parliament in 1643.

The national assembly Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA) has authorized congregations to use alternative names for the Holy Trinity in worship:

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — The divine Trinity — "Father, Son and Holy Spirit" — could also be known as "Mother, Child and Womb" or "Rock, Redeemer, Friend" at some Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) services under an action Monday by the church's national assembly.

Delegates to the meeting voted to "receive" a policy paper on gender-inclusive language for the Trinity, a step short of approving it. That means church officials can propose experimental liturgies with alternative phrasings for the Trinity, but congregations won't be required to use them.

"This does not alter the church's theological position, but provides an educational resource to enhance the spiritual life of our membership," legislative committee chair Nancy Olthoff, an Iowa laywoman, said during Monday's debate on the Trinity.

Evidently not one to be content with half-hearted heresy, Josh Trevino has further suggestions, including:

  • Superman, Batman, and Green Lantern
  • Rock, Paper, and Scissors
  • Moe, Larry, and Curley

Pejman Yousefzadeh chimes in at Red State. Here's a sample:

  • Alvin, Simon and Theodore
  • Tinker, Evers and Chance
  • Dewey, Cheatham and Howe

He also suggests "Sonny, Michael, and Fredo," but I think "Vito, Michael, and Tom Hagen" makes for a better parallel.

Nearly all of the Presbyterian Churches in Tulsa are a part of the PCUSA. Christ Presbyterian Church is a congregation of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). I usually describe it as the Bible-believing Presbyterian denomination (as opposed to the liberal mainline denomination).

While the PCA (which has its General Assembly this week) has its lively theological debates, they are well within the scope of the Westminster Confession, the historic standard of Presbyterian belief. There are 27 overtures on the agenda -- many dealing with presbytery boundaries and committee structure -- but the big theological issue at this year's GA will be whether the Federal Vision / Auburn Avenue / New Perspectives on Paul understanding of covenants and justification are within the bounds of PCA doctrine.

I know a lot of good, devout Christian folk who belong to PCUSA congregations, and there are PCUSA congregations that are, by and large, faithful to the Scriptures. When the northern and southern mainline churches reunited in the early '80s, there was a period in which congregations could withdraw and align with another denomination, without forfeiting their church buildings, which are owned by the denomination, not the individual congregation.

That grace period has long since ended. It would be a huge sacrifice for a congregation to leave the PCUSA, but the level of nonsense seems to grow year after year.

UPDATE: Tom Gray, pastor of Kirk of the Hills in Tulsa, one of those faithful Bible-believing, gospel-preaching congregations in the PCUSA, has been blogging the PCUSA General Assembly. One of the commenters below mentions passage of the PUP report -- "Peace, Unity, and Purity." Gray says of the report's adoption:

The PCUSA rejected clear, important Biblical injunctions on sexual behavior in order to adjust to our culture’s standards. "Sola Scriptura" has become "Via Vulgaris."

A bit further on:

I had the chance, following the vote, to visit with many people in the various conservative renewal groups. Some are claiming "victory," since there was a minor alteration in one paragraph, and because the GA did not strike down G-6.0106b (the "chastity and fidelity" clause).

On the first they are, I believe, deluded. The whole point of the PUP report has been to start a new "experiment" in being the church; an experiment that allows for the ordination of practicing homosexuals and, inevitably, the encouragement and endorsement of same-sex marriages. On the second, retaining G-6.0106b is irrelevant since local option negates it.

His description of the committee that reviewed the PUP report will tell you a lot about the forces that have control of the denomination. Here are his notes of comments made by committee members about the notion of allowing local option ordination standards.

In a comment on that post, Gray echoes the concern I had (which, thankfully, didn't come to pass) about the commission that was reviewing Tulsa's City Charter. It's a common disease of committees:

What I find most frustrating here is that commissioners (some) tend to want to be "nice" and go along with what is presented to them. Because the average member (commissioner) is not highly Biblically literate, thery are vulnerable to "experts." Combine that with the "niceness" factor and we have a high speed slippery slope.

He elaborates on this in a later entry:

I have deep reservations about the committee process at General Assembly. When commissioners first arrive they are instructed as to how to work in the committee. This is done, in my experience, through a process where the commissioners are repeatedly enjoined to suspend their previous opinions. The upshot of this, particularly for vulnerable commissioners, is the sense that opposition to what someone else says is in bad taste.

He goes on to describe the "discernment" time that the Ecclesiology Committee went through before starting its work. Here is part of what the leader of that session said:

"One of the ways to know the opening of God is when there is energy; when there is freedom, openness and freshness. Another is in that neutral place, letting go of agenda or outcome. Imagine one of the options open to you and imagine going down that pathway." [Letting go of agenda is what the "standard" commissioner preparation tries to accomplish. Is it a bad thing to have a strong opinion? Why?—Tom]

I suspect that the experts aren't letting go of their agendas, but they want these lay people to feel that they are following the Holy Spirit by turning off their brains and letting themselves be swayed by emotional arguments.

(I can't help but think of the application of this to Tulsa's city government. Debate is called bickering by the Whirled and their allies. People with strong opinions are dismissed as naysayers. All of this is to clear the ground for their agenda to be enacted.)

Here is the result of that mental clear-cutting:

The committee members were asked to share what they felt during the discernment time. ...

Another young woman said an image of a music class came to her. "I’ve taken music theory this year, and we learned about dodecaphonic music... you basically throw the notes down on the floor to make your original theme, and then create a piece using only those themes. I personally disliked that part of music theory because I like to pick my pitches... We were all worried about it, but when I stepped back, the piece was beautiful. That is what we are going to do in this committee. It will come out as whatever God intends and we will go home happy because it all works out."

A convocation of evangelical PCUSA congregations, the New Wineskins Initiative will be held at Kirk of the Hills July 19 - 22. It looks like the embryo of a new Presbyterian denomination. They would do well to learn from the mistakes and successes of the PCA, which was founded in a similar way by existing congregations leaving what was then the PCUS (the southern Presbyterian Church).

About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Faith category from June 2006.

Faith: May 2006 is the previous archive.

Faith: August 2006 is the next archive.

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