Ash Wednesday is as good a day as any to reflect on what God is doing in one’s life, and anything that tends toward “examination of conscience” is particularly fitting during Lent. Lent for some is seen as a period of self-imposed “downward mobility” during which one denies oneself in order to follow Christ. This concept is taking on new meaning for me, as I examine the contours of my life and Christian service with an eye to reshaping my ministry life. Since it has been awhile since my last blog, and inertia must be overcome, today I am going to share some random thoughts that may perhaps point the way for a more sustained reflection in the next few days. [I’ve recently learned never to promise a blog “tomorrow,” because life has been a little unpredictable lately, and tomorrow turns into “next month.”]
I attended the Orlando meeting of Fellowship of Presbyterians (FOP) and ECO two weeks ago, and was gratified that several of my readers went out of their way to affirm Bringing the Word to Life and thank me for helping them sort through issues. You must know how much these greetings blessed me, and I want to extend my gratitude to every one of you who put your name to a face. Thank you for reading my posts. I trust that you will use my blog for God’s glory and Kingdom purposes whenever a topic touches on something going on with you or your church.
My reflections today do not fall into any PC(USA) category, and maybe that is part of the news of this post. I am finding so much of what is going on—or not going on—in the denomination to be of little consequence to me, irrelevant to my call, and admittedly boring. This does not mean that I am beyond grieving for the Presbyterian church or that I am out of touch. Rather, it is my perception that we are in a slow leftward drift following a 2012 Tipping Point, and there is not much that can be done to change that direction. And I am tired of talking about it. I have spoken my piece in the last eighteen months, and harping on old themes just doesn’t feel helpful right now.
Nevertheless, I feel called to write, and this blog is a daily discipline of reflection that allows me to test out ideas and learn from the comments that come my way. The Word always needs to be brought to life, so I want to continue to encourage your faith in our gracious Savior and his Word written. Probably less and less of it will relate specifically to the Presbyterian church, but you know that I am coming from a Reformed perspective, just trying to teach the faith and spur us all on to love and good works (Hebrews 10:25).
It would seem that God has been channeling me into a writing track for several months now. My role as an adjunct instructor for Fuller Northern California has diminished to almost nothing, due to policy and curriculum changes at the seminary. The Coalition leadership is on hiatus for a year, between Assemblies, though I remain Moderator of a small board. Every indication at both the local and national level is that I am an unsuitable candidate for pastoral ministry—lots of reasons for that conclusion, that have nothing to do with my gifts, abilities, energy, or passion for the gospel. I worked most of autumn on DOORWAYS: Study Guide for the Essential Tenets, which was finally put online two weeks ago by FOP but was downplayed at the Orlando gathering in favor of “The French Confession” (and Joe Small’s excellent introductory talk on the subject). So I do not think there is an ongoing role for me in the either the new denomination or the Fellowship.
What remains on my plate is a quarter-time parish associate position (they call me “teaching pastor”) at a large ELCA Lutheran church in my neighborhood. I preach every few weeks, teach weekly, preside at Communion every Sunday, and am on call for pastoral care needs. This has been a fantastic blessing all around, but it too will end when the new permanent executive pastor is identified and called, probably early this summer.
I am an almost-60-year-old female Presbyterian minister, with twenty-five years of pastoral experience, a Doctor of Ministry degree, and executive leadership skills. I am all dressed for a party, but have nowhere [organizationally] to go. I am sorely tempted to say, “There is something wrong with this picture,” but who is to say my life is not going exactly according to God’s plan . . .
Could it be that God is orchestrating a vanishing act, achieved by downward mobility, in order to put me in a place where I can write without interruption? After months of prayer, this is the conclusion upon which I am acting. I am turning over a new leaf and entering a new phase of ministry at home. As I say this, though, I see the tremendous emotional hurdle I have been [not] facing in the last several months, embodied in my inability to clean out my home office. Three lives (pastorate, seminary teaching, and denominational matters) are represented in the stacks and boxes and files that are now in gridlock. In response to this conundrum, one of my covenant group friends said last week, “Mary, it seems like you need to hold a funeral, and say goodbye to your old life.” That rings true for me, and I have adopted that as the primary task of this week.
Looking forward, I would like to know what approach or topics would be helpful to my blog readers. I am no longer sure where my particular value is, though I know that I have value in the Body of Christ as a teacher and perhaps a prophet. Don’t worry; I am not depressed or suffering from any sort of complex. It is well with my soul. I’m just looking for direction from my readers, and trust that your feedback can set me on a course of service as an observer and spiritual guide. I sure don’t want to waste your time blathering about stuff you prefer I keep in a private journal! So let me know what you are thinking and how you perceive my contribution to your spiritual journey.
We are on the home stretch now, in our tour of the essential tenets of the Reformed faith. It is the natural outflow of God’s grace, our election to salvation and service, and covenant community to consider how we shall live together to reflect God’s glory and enjoy him forever. We take some early cues from God’s chosen people, who in the exodus were walking through a great doorway into a new life defined by God’s gracious care.
In their period of formation, the Hebrews counted themselves very fortunate indeed, compared to the neighboring peoples of the ancient Near East whose gods did not show any personal interest like YHWH did:
See, I [Moses] have taught you decrees and laws as the Lord my God commanded me, so that you may follow them in the land you are entering to take possession of it. Observe them carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.” What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the Lord our God is near us whenever we pray to him? (Deuteronomy 4:5-7)
The Israelites received God’s law as a gift of his grace and the framework for the good life:
[God] brought us out from [Egypt] to bring us in and give us the land that he promised on oath to our forefathers. The LORD commanded us to obey all these decrees and to fear the LORD our God, so that we might always prosper and be kept alive, as is the case today. And if we are careful to obey all this law before the LORD our God, as he has commanded us, that will be our righteousness.” (Deuteronomy 6:23-25)
This phrase “careful to obey” represents a particular commitment made out of love and gratitude to God. By obeying God we are simply saying we are glad to be a part of his family and enjoy the benefits of “clean living.” Jesus made the connection between loving him and obeying his commands in John 15: “Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me.” So let’s unpack this notion:
Picture a time in your life when you lived within a framework that required you to obey someone else. Ideally, for the analogy to work, the person who comes to mind was patient, kind, loving, wise, and honest (because when we start talking about obeying God, it will be important to remember he has all those qualities). Let’s say that this person was a parent or guardian with whom you lived, so every aspect of your life came under the umbrella of that person’s care and concern for you. Your maturing process in obedience to parents may have included experiences like these:
• the famous “time-out” after you threw a temper tantrum
• being ushered back to the store from which you stole a candy bar
• repeated reminders to say please and thank-you
• learning how to drive a car
• The Facts-of-Life Talk
• the fallout after your folks discovered you were lying about where you were last night
• “I discipline you because I love you”
• the pained look on your mother’s face when you swore to high heaven
• exercises in delayed gratification
The list could go on and on, couldn’t it? But all of these teachable moments became catalysts for learning how to be a member of a family, a responsible citizen, or a team player. And if we learned the lessons well, we grew up to be responsible, moral, and independent adults who were able to contribute to society and even to guide the next generation. Under ideal conditions, our parents saw the process of raising us as a patient investment in a life they hoped would demonstrate maturity, godliness, and initiative. Were they successful?
Children rarely comprehend in the moment that obedience to parents may very well keep them in a safe zone. The reason we insist that the learner’s permit holder in the family stop at stop signs is to prevent her from crashing into another vehicle. The fact that there doesn’t happen to be another car in the otherwise busy intersection this time does not diminish the parent’s fear for her life on another occasion. What we’re teaching and learning here is a way of life that increases the chances a child will survive to adulthood.
That survival was God’s intent for the Israelites, and so it is with our spiritual growth.
Most children get their first practice at obeying God by learning how to obey their parents. It is up to their parents not to usurp God’s place, but it is up to parents to give their children practice at submitting to authority, obeying without requiring full understanding of the reasons, and taking responsibility for their own actions. As we grow and develop into adulthood, God also gives us opportunities to practice righteousness (not self-righteousness, but right living) by allowing dilemmas to surface, by remaining silent temporarily while we work out an appropriate answer to the challenge, by testing our honesty. As we show ourselves to be faithful in small things (with God’s help of course!), God entrusts us with bigger things, until doing the right thing becomes second nature and we wouldn’t dream of choosing a path contrary to God’s will.
So where do we start this life training, to discover God’s will in order to follow it? A very good place to begin is with the Ten Commandments, found in Exodus 20. The first four commandments address the parameters for a good relationship with God, the last six define the limits for good relationships with others. The Fellowship Theology Project recasts the “thou shalt not” list with a positive focus on what godly life looks like.
It is important for us to embrace the life of obedience because we are God’s children, invited to call him “Abba” (Papa). His discipline and instruction are for our good (Hebrews 12:7-11), and we will get the most out of it if we will listen, watch, and follow where God leads. This is living in obedience, an essential tenet within our Reformed faith.
Stewardship seems to be a particularly Presbyterian emphasis. Your personal experience of this word may be annual, during your congregation’s fall “stewardship campaign” designed to invite your financial pledge for the coming year. You may be familiar with the idea that Christians are called to steward “time, talent, and treasure,” which in common usage refers to the giving or sharing of all three with the church. But the concept of stewardship is far richer and more encompassing than these interpretations. There are at least two catalysts for a broader view of stewardship:
The first scenario goes back to the Garden of Eden, in which God gives Adam and Eve the charge to be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it, tend “the garden,” and have dominion over creation (Genesis 1:28, 2:15). As representatives of the Creator, human beings are charged with managing everything God possesses (which is the entire earth, Psalm 24:1), enacting God’s will for creation’s benefit, and sustaining God’s resources. If God owns everything and even we are his, then as stewards we are entrusted with our children, our homes, gardens, workplaces, and neighborhoods. These people and things are not ours, but God’s, and that is going to make a big difference in how we relate to them.
Take our children, for instance. When our first daughter was born, my husband and I were overwhelmed with the gift God had given us. In fact, within minutes of her birth, Andy lifted the baby high and presented her to God, even as we gratefully took her into our care. Who would know that within eight days her health would be threatened by a condition that needed immediate medical intervention? As I sat in the hospital cafeteria exhausted and weeping, the only true consolation was the knowledge that this infant was truly in God’s hands and we were doing everything in our power to take care of her.
The next scenario is the Church, where stewardship implies that even our ministry calling is a gift and a charge, to enjoy what has been given and to use it faithfully according to Christ’s call. The ministry of the church is not shaped by our imaginations or organizational savvy, but by Christ’s own ministry and commission to us. Christ ministered as prophet, priest, and King. If we are to represent Christ in our community and world, we too are going to engage in ministry that is prophetic, priestly, and Kingdom-centered. This would move us to exercise our stewardship in the world by telling the truth about God and humanity, by demonstrating compassion amidst the world’s suffering, by shepherding people and movements toward obedience to God, and by standing for justice and righteousness in all things.
Going back to the post on Election, we were reminded that the church does not exist merely for its own well-being. We are “blessed to be a blessing.” That blessing takes many forms in the life and ministry of the Church. A study of stewardship certainly invites us all to consider how our congregation’s ministry might embody Christ’s three-fold ministry more comprehensively.
But the plot thickens. To do this requires heart, mind, soul, and strength. By committing ourselves to loving God with all that we have, we are taking the first step toward this kind of all-inclusive stewardship. But we also realize that unless our hearts, minds, souls, and wills have undergone the thorough overhaul of the Holy Spirit, our oversight of God’s creation can degenerate into tyranny or exploitation. Presbyterians are quite clear on this: every aspect of human existence—body, mind, emotions, spirit—is in need of God’s redeeming power.
But just think, the more we experience the gracious work of Jesus in our midst, the more we have to share as a blessing to others. The Apostle Paul put it this way: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4). In other words, we are good stewards of the blessing we have received when we pass those blessings along to the next person who needs them. Have we been blessed with the word of truth? Then we proclaim it with conviction. Have we been met with the tender mercies of God’s forgiveness? Then we forgive others and foster reconciliation. Have we experienced the healing release characteristic of God’s kingdom? Then we advocate for justice. Anything is possible when the Church exercises its prophetic, priestly, and Kingdom service in humble reliance upon Jesus, Lord of all, Head of the Church, and Shepherd of our souls.
As we continue our consideration of the great doctrines of the church and essentials of the Reformed faith, we now broaden our exploration of Incarnation to ask, “For what purpose would God become a man?”
One of the mysteries of the Incarnation revolves around the question of why God would go to such lengths to identify with his creation. It is a legitimate question and its answer must be consistent with God’s nature, which includes love, hope, holiness, and purposefulness. God created human beings to receive God’s gracious love, to bask in his glory, and to represent God as stewards of his creation. But when they rebuffed God’s grace, second-guessed God’s intent, and patronized their own desires (the fateful story told in Genesis 3), they were alienated from God. A great chasm caused by sin was created. God knew there was nothing mere mortals could do to restore the relationship: no “trying harder to do better next time,” no payment, no exemplary life on its own could bridge the gap. Not that human beings haven’t tried, but even the best long-distance swimmer is unable to paddle from San Francisco to Hawaii. And human beings cannot leap across the spiritual Grand Canyon created by our sin either.
So God had to do it. God wanted to do what was necessary to restore right relationship with him. God came in the flesh for a purpose, to redeem creation.
But why crucifixion? Because Jesus accomplished something on the cross that could be gained no other way. He offered himself up to death in order to free us from the mundane irreverence and the profound slavery to sin that permeate our lives. What exactly Christ accomplished on Calvary is described through many so-called theories of atonement, illustrations of the divine act of redemption. They surface under names such as ransom theory, substitutionary atonement, legal justification, and even Christ the Victor (over sin, death, and Satan). What helps us appreciate each of these and evaluate other attempts to describe the significance of the cross is a central truth: that God did for us what we could not do for ourselves. He did more than offer a good moral example of obedience (though his sacrifice was certainly that), he died in our place so that we would be reconciled to God and gathered in Christ before the throne of grace.
This is where prepositions become important. Our approach to God is made possible because our life is hidden in Christ. We are clothed in Christ, and our sin, forgiven and released, can no longer be seen by God, who judges the worthiness of all people to stand in his presence. In Christ, we have access. In Christ, we have our introduction and endorsement. In Christ, we are clean and whole. Our union with Christ is sealed by the Holy Spirit, who, very practically, grafts us into Christ and helps us express faith as a way of life. As a result of this gracious initiative on God’s part, we are embraced by the Father as children, loved and protected and set apart for holy living.
Several years ago, for Christmas a friend gave me a beautiful wrought iron cross which stands upright. I set it on the kitchen table and left it there until I could decide its permanent place in our home. Something very interesting began happening: the cross got in the way.
Andy got up first in the morning and spread the daily newspaper on the kitchen table to read while he ate breakfast. So the cross was moved to the edge of the table where it wouldn’t disturb the paper. Then Katy and Judy came to the table for breakfast and moved the cross to the opposite side of the table to make room for their meal. This shuffle continued the rest of the day. As homework was spread out on the table after school, the cross was placed as far away as possible to give a clear workspace. When the table was set for dinner, it was moved once again, and the unfortunate dance continued.
In exasperation one day, a family member who shall remain nameless burst out, “Can’t we put this thing somewhere where it won’t always be in the way?”
At this moment, the symbolism of that humble cross took on new meaning. Its presence was uncomfortable, because it named personal sin and spiritual need. It became a constant reminder that God paid the price charged to us, in order that we might be saved from the consequences of our sin. It spoke of our natural desire to push spiritual things to the edge of our lives rather than to keep Christ at the center of our awareness and activities. It shouted its pain, when we want to feel comfortable and undisturbed. And this cross was definitely in the way of our defiant assumption that we could save ourselves without help.
And so, the wrought iron cross found its permanent home right there in the middle of our kitchen table. We still move it around, continue to touch it, and allow it to remind us of our human weakness and God’s strength. It is placed where it can have its greatest power: at the center of our daily life, visible at all times, a challenge to our assumptions about life—especially life that insists the cross is in the way.
For many, embracing the Cross of Jesus Christ is really, really hard. The stumbling block is admitting that we need what Christ did for us. But once we get over that hurdle, the truth of the matter overwhelms us: Only the one, perfect, sinless human being could absorb in his person the sin of the world. Only God himself had the strength to withstand the weight of it. Our only hope is God’s grace, poured out for us and available in Christ alone.
The next essential tenet, affirmed by all Christians, is the Incarnation: the act by which God became a human being in order to position himself to redeem humanity.
For Jews of Jesus’ day, “Our God is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4) was the banner cry of faith. For the Greco-Roman culture, many gods populated the heavens and earth, as illustrated by Paul’s observation of their monuments in Athens (Acts 17). So you can imagine how Jesus’ claims recorded in the gospel of John would be controversial: “Before Abraham was, I Am” (John 8:58) “The Father and I are one” (John 10:30); and “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but by Me” (John 14:6). In one breath, Jesus identifies himself as YHWH (“I am”) and the only way to God. And yet, was he not Mary’s son born in Bethlehem and raised in Nazareth? How could this one who taught us, ate with us, and died on the cross, be God? Unthinkable! But after his resurrection, what other conclusion could we come to? And then, Jesus promised the Father would send the Spirit, in Christ’s name (John 14:26, 15:26).
Thus the appearance of Jesus of Nazareth, Immanuel, God with us, prompted the beginnings of a Trinitarian understanding of God. Before the miracle of the Incarnation (another word, like Trinity, that does not appear in the Bible), humanity could not grasp the idea at all that God was three-in-one and one-in three. So we turn now from discussion of the Trinity to the particulars of the Second Person of the Godhead, who begged the question of God’s very nature. This is the one who relinquished the perquisites of glory and descended into our world, was conceived by the Holy Spirit within God’s faithful servant Mary, to be born, live a full human life, teach and announce the Kingdom, and then die on the Cross, only to rise again from the tomb, and ascend into heaven to reign forever. Wow. What just happened here?
C. S. Lewis, in his book Miracles, describes the dynamic of Christ’s coming this way:
The central miracle asserted by Christians is the Incarnation. They say that God became Man. Every other miracle prepares for this, or exhibits this, or results from this… every particular Christian miracle manifests at a particular place and moment the character and significance of the Incarnation.
In the Christian story God descends to re-ascend. He comes down; down from the heights of absolute being into time and space, down into humanity…But He goes down to come up again and bring the whole ruined world up with Him. One has the picture of a strong man stooping lower and lower to get himself underneath some great, complicated burden. He must stoop in order to lift, he must almost disappear under the load before he incredibly straightens his back and marches off with the whole mass swaying on his shoulders. . . .
Christians are not claiming that simply ‘God’ was incarnate in Jesus. They are claiming that the one true God is He whom the Jews worshipped as Jahweh, and that it is He who has descended.
—C. S. Lewis, Miracles, chapter 14
This image of descending into our world and ascending to the right hand of the Father gives us a helpful picture for understanding the Incarnation. Jesus’ travel from one world to another and back again shows us that a gap, a chasm, exists between God and us. We acknowledge this sad state of affairs was introduced as a consequence of the fall. But Jesus, sent by God, pierced through that gap to become the mediator between God and his alienated creation. Fully God, Jesus reliably represents the Father to us and demonstrates God’s kingdom through his life and ministry. We could not get ourselves into close enough proximity to God to see him, because of the veil that went up between us after Eve and Adam’s sin. But God has always wanted to be known, seen, and believed; and so he took it upon himself to come our way and dwell within the confines of human experience in order to restore us to fellowship.
Fully representing God, Jesus also took on full humanity in order to “bring the whole ruined world up with Him.” As a real human being, acquainted with all our temptations without falling into any of them, Jesus embodied complete humanity perfectly responsive to God. He in fact represents the human race to God, the very best God’s creation can offer. We need his representation desperately for reasons that will unfold in the next tenet.
In the meantime, we are invited to grasp as fully as we can the drama, the sacrifice, the patience, and the love of God fully expressed in God-come-in-the-flesh, Jesus! His entry into our world is as close and real as a guest on our doorstep, seeking admission into our lives and hearts. Once within, he invites us to rearrange even our corporate church life around the reality that the Savior dwells in our midst and deserves to be the center of our attention. Our life together finds order as every activity and every thought, every strategy and every plan, revolves around Jesus Christ. And Jesus here present with us reigns as Lord of all and Head of the Church and redeems us for God. We Presbyterians, along with all Christians, confidently affirm the full divinity and full humanity of Jesus Christ revealed in the Incarnation.
Are you one among many who have made a New Year’s Resolution to read the entire Bible in 2013? If so, and if you actually carry through on the resolve, you are in a very good place to build your faith. For through the Word of God written, the Christian becomes acquainted with God, who turns out to be remarkably open with those who seek him this way. According to The Fellowship Theology Project, the paper giving an exposition of “the essential tenets of the Reformed faith,” the first essential has to do with God’s Word as the authority of our confession. It is the starting place for any consideration of the foundations of our faith. By the Holy Scriptures, God’s Word written, we are introduced to Jesus Christ, God’s Word incarnate and our Savior. That introduction is a very long story, involving cosmic forces and a tiny nation, featuring exemplars of the faith and notorious sinners, and employing many different genres to tell it. But reading the whole narrative is worth the effort!
As we ring in the New Year, the new movie Les Misérables starring Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, and Anne Hathaway has just been released. It brings back warm memories of the amazing, fast-paced stage musical production that opened in London in 1985. I had been told before seeing the touring production in San Francisco that the words and action moved very quickly and it would be a good idea to watch a movie to get familiar with the story. My husband and I checked out a copy of the black and white 1935 Charles Laughton version because it was the shortest. The story focused tightly on the moral dilemmas of Jean Valjean and his adversary Inspector Javert. On a roll, we decided to check out a later movie, in color this time, and shot on location. We were astonished that this version highlighted the love story as an emotional epic. Now thoroughly acquainted with the basic story line, we saw an entirely different slant in the musical production. But it made us curious: what was the real, complete story? The only way to answer that was to read Victor Hugo’s 1800 page novel, which hubby did. And his verdict: “The story is just too big to be contained in one three-hour rendition.”
Why do we have four gospels, for instance? Like Les Misérables, the story of Jesus is too multi-layered and rich to be contained in one version of his life story. The Bible is a big book, because it tells a long story from the vantage point of many witnesses through biblical history. The story amazingly hangs together, despite the many contributors who, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, submitted the next installment of God’s unfolding plan and purposes. The gospel writers were part of this great cloud of witnesses, unveiling Jesus and making known the person and work of our Savior, that we might have life in his name (John 20:31).
Despite this inherent unity within the Bible, centered on Jesus Christ, the book can also be confusing and even controversial. Somewhere in the past couple of centuries the authority of Revelation was replaced in the minds of many by the authority of Reason. But when reason becomes a standard as well as a tool, clouds of moral confusion and spiritual ignorance appear. It is at this point that some dismiss the Bible as a discredited book. So just to be clear, you need to know that I don’t dismiss or discredit the Scripture of the Old and New Testament. I embrace the Bible because it is the Word of God, divine in inspiration even while humans were involved in its authorship. We have no other way of knowing God’s view of himself, of us, of history, or of the great calamity he came to redeem. We have no other way of knowing Jesus or what he taught or did, other than through the testimony given from the many vantage points in this book. There is something very exciting about the fact that God, in a sustained project over millennia, sought to make known what would otherwise be complete mysteries. How fortunate we are to have a God who wants to be known and to be active among us!
The beliefs encoded in our Book of Confessions are wonderful expressions of the faith we have inherited. But the Book of Confessions is not the source of our beliefs. Only the Bible claims that distinction, and anything the church might create—any drama or worship video it might produce, any song it might write, or confession it might detail—is a faithful rendition only so long as it conforms to the Word of God, the Scriptures, “our only rule of faith and practice.” Many people have attempted to whittle the story down into manageable pieces, but the Bible is the full story and the authority for our confession. We do well to embrace it and receive it as God’s gift of self-disclosure.
So are you ready to read the Bible in 2013? Are you ready to mine its riches and discover other essential tenets of the Reformed faith in it? In the next few days, I will be exploring some of those themes as a way of introducing a soon-to-be-released study guide for the essential tenets.
October has turned out to be an intense month of preparations, and my blog has gotten short shrift as a result. Aside from preaching every Sunday this month (an unusual schedule in my current context), I am giving a series of theological lectures on the topic “It All Started in the Garden: Theological Themes Arising Out of Genesis 1-3” and presenting three talks at the California Wee Kirk Conference next week (a plenary address, a sermon, and a seminar—all on different topics). Behind-the-scenes, I have been working with a colleague on a study guide for ECO’s “Essential Tenets” (ET) paper, and it is this project that prompted me to write today.
My personal calling to “bring the Word to life” engages me regularly in teaching, for the purpose of helping Christian disciples know, understand, and apply their faith to everyday life. “The faith” is explicated in an impressive corpus of Scripture and confessions. Not only are the Scriptures rich in thematic material relative to Reformed doctrine; our confessional heritage brings many edifying and relevant explanations to our attention. The bottom line is this: “There’s too much stuff to cover!” It is this dilemma and its implications that I would like to highlight today.
Whenever a session or a pastor feels the need for an adult class on major themes, the parameters are set with the hope that people will participate with sustained interest. In the forty years I have been teaching adults, however, some dynamics have changed:
• People have a much harder time committing to a lengthy class; six weeks is now the classic limit, and even then, folks duck out for other commitments or vacations.
• People’s attention spans have shortened significantly. Ten minutes of lecture, without introducing a discussion question or audio-visual interruption, is about the limit. It becomes a huge challenge to unpack a complicated doctrine or study a long book of the Bible.
• Folks have limited capacity for nuanced discussion. They want the highlights, “executive summaries,” or the pros and cons in bullet-format.
• The question of relevance comes up more frequently, especially among the young: “Why do I have to know this? This stuff is old and outdated.”
The task seems so overwhelming, the ordinary Christian is tempted to revert to the default setting, “As long as the church holds tight to the essentials of the faith, I myself do not need to know them in any great detail.” Twenty years ago, this was not an issue for me, but as time has passed I now see why the inclusion of nine creeds, confessions, and catechisms in a Book of Confessions only made this problem worse. There is just so much there, and it is repetitive, so why does an ordinary Presbyterian Christian need to study it? Isn’t it enough to trust that the theologians have done a good job compiling our doctrine, and all I have to do is concentrate on living a good life?
The trouble, as I see it, is that people may be aware that a deep well of biblical and confessional material is available, but they bring only a thimble with which to drink. Too many limits are placed on the teaching/learning dynamic to make sustained investigation possible. I am finding that people, left to their own devices, are satisfied with discussion that merely scratches the surface of content and moves quickly to controversies and feelings. But without a solid grounding in the content, subsequent discussion can quickly veer off into speculation and experience-based redefinitions. I have realized in a new way this month that our inattention in this area is a prime reason why the denomination is losing its theological moorings, and why a curriculum on marriage or a curriculum on the Essential Tenets is more necessary than ever.
And yet, we are stuck with the limited time people will give to the task. In a 50-minute Sunday school class or even a 90-minute midweek class, how can a teacher present, say, the doctrine of the Trinity, explain its very interesting historical development, identify the relevance of robust Trinitarian understanding to one’s Christian life, and give the participants a chance to process and apply it? The options for the teacher are to 1) very briefly summarize the doctrine and let questions from the participants drive the discussion, 2) lecture on the subject thoroughly and hope the folks get it, or 3) take more than one class session to cover the subject, and hope people come back with sustained interest.
My “It All Started in the Garden” class is scheduled for twenty-one weeks; we’re on week six today on the topic of God’s Self-revelation and Word. It’s counter-cultural to go this long, I know, but I do not know how else to do justice to the material. My ET colleague is teaching “The Incarnation” in 90-minutes tonight, week three of six on essential tenets. Neither of us will feel we covered our topics thoroughly, but this won’t stop us from trying. If we can whet the appetites of our learners, perhaps we can convince them to adopt a discipline of personal study. If they do not take this responsibility, and congregations continue to be satisfied with a watered down approach to doctrinal teaching, the emerging generation of Presbyterians will be ill equipped to discern the will of God.
In lieu of a blog post of my own writing today, I commend to you a Journal of Reformed Thought: Perspectives interview of the Rev. Dr. Laura Smit, found here.
Laura is steeped in the scenes at Fellowship of Presbyterians (FOP) and Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians (ECO), because she served on the theology draft team which she references in the interview. She is associate professor of religion at Calvin College (Grand Rapids). I do not know Laura personally, but based on this article I would enjoy making her acquaintance. Her comments about schism, a term being bandied about rather carelessly these days, are particularly insightful and helpful. “I couldn’t say it better myself,” so I won’t try!
As we compare the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC) and the emerging Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians (ECO), the most important consideration seems to be the doctrinal foundations of each. The EPC rests on the Westminster standards (the Confession, Larger, and Smaller Catechisms); the ECO retains all nine Confessions currently in the PCUSA Constitution. In addition, the EPC has listed “essentials” to which every member subscribes. The ECO has launched a Theology Project to identify the essential beliefs of Presbyterians in that fellowship. In the meantime, the ECO statement addresses the great themes of the Reformed Tradition found in F-2.05 as prime identifiers of our stream of the Christian church.
The PCUSA embraced the nine confessional statements in the late 1960s, celebrating this milestone with the addition of the Confession of 1967 (C67). Conservative/evangelical churches were greatly concerned about the implications of many rather than one confession and split off in 1973 to form the Presbyterian Church of America. They, too, as the EPC would do later, reaffirmed Westminster alone and, as a key part of that choice, they re-emphasized the inspiration and authority of the Scriptures.
In my conversation with many long-time Presbyterians in the PCUSA, this shift to a more diffuse elaboration of the faith is still troublesome. The proof that the move disturbed the peace, purity, and unity of the church is before us now, in our inability to identify and enforce essentials especially among our clergy and church officers. So far, it has not been demonstrated in actual practice that a candidate who holds heretical views can be barred from ordination. In my personal experience, judicial commissioners plead “It’s not my job; I’m not a theologian” when asked to adjudicate controversies that have bad theology at their root. In the present case, Parnell et al v. San Francisco Presbytery, the Synod decision we are appealing actually stated Because there is a “vast diversity” of views and biblical interpretations regarding sexuality, we cannot pick one as “essential,” and therefore cannot interfere with a council’s ordination decision.
Those who welcome the nine confessional statements view them in one of the following ways:
1. Emphasis on the historical setting in which each was written, underscoring the possibility that they are culturally bound and maybe not applicable today.
2. Emphasis on an emerging, evolving (‘always Reforming’) movement toward a superior understanding more likely to be found in the later confessional statements.
3. Emphasis on the inadequacy of any one statement to cover all the pertinent topics, instead focusing on the (new) topics the church must address as history unfolds.
4. Emphasis on the overwhelming consistency of some statements at the core of our faith.
Those who regret the adoption of nine instead of the one confession hold views such as these:
1. The more confessional statements we have, the less important or definitive any one of them is. The whole Book of Confessions loses its impact as its contents are watered down by additions.
2. There are now contradictions within the Book of Confessions that befuddle doctrinal clarity and undermine believers’ confidence in them and in “essential tenets of the Reformed faith.”
One might jokingly say, this is enough to make one want to become a Baptist (who espouses no creeds, “only the Bible”). But those in the Reformed Tradition have experienced over centuries the positive benefits of doctrinal statements. They have been used as teaching aids, devotional guides, and liturgical elements. Children and adults have found in them encouragement for their faith and a guide to the development of their consciences.
The question now is whether we are best served by our nine confessions and/or the 17th century Westminster confession; or would we find it a fruitful exercise to develop a new, comprehensive Confession (with accompanying catechisms, like Westminster) that can reliably and thoroughly explain what the Scriptures teach us to believe and do? The idea fascinates me; as a teacher, I am deciding “What is essential for these people to learn” all the time. If I were to write a full-scale Christian standard, what would I include? How would I state it? Would I address current issues such as Postmodernism? Technology? Sexuality? Globalization? I have, in fact, written a statement of faith for a Presbyterian preschool, an exercise that was edifying and clarifying for me as I considered, “What do little children and their teachers need to know?” I recommend the exercise to all, as a starting point to a comprehensive statement of faith you can share with your session, your family, or your classmates. It is, in fact, the Theology Project undertaken by the ECO.
As conservative/evangelical Presbyterian congregations and sessions discuss their options for responding to the liberal trends in the PCUSA, a question is voiced about the “leaving” option. Why do we need a new denomination (the future ECO) when we have the EPC in place now? What is the difference between transferring membership to the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians (ECO) and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (the EPC)? I understand that the folks at Fellowship of Presbyterians are working on a comparison chart that goes into some detail about the various elements to consider, and it is going to take them awhile to make this public (probably months). This suggests to me that the matter is complicated and detail-ridden, so I am humble in my offering some general ideas in this post. Yes, that was a disclaimer.
The Evangelical Presbyterian Church affirms the Westminster Confession of Faith and its catechisms as its only system of doctrine. In general, it subscribes to a list of essential tenets, but offers each other liberty on matters it does not deem essential, such as the ordination of women and the exercise of charismatic gifts. The essentials, however, are listed as these:
1. All Scripture is the true, infallible Word of God, uniquely and fully inspired by the Holy Spirit and the supreme and final authority on all matters on which it speaks. Sola Scriptura.
2. God is sovereign Creator and Sustainer of all things, existing in three Persons. Soli Dei gloria.
3. Jesus Christ, fully God and fully man, was incarnated by miraculous conception and virgin birth, died on the cross a sacrifice for human sins and rose bodily from the dead to ascend into heaven where his reigns. Solo Christo.
4. The Holy Spirit glorifies Christ and applies the saving work to human hearts, convicting of sin, indwelling, empowering, instructing, gifting for service, and sealing believers for the day of redemption.
5. Human beings in their natural state are estranged from God and rely solely upon the work of God’s free grace for salvation, justification by faith, and the regeneration by the Holy Spirit. Sola fide, sola gratia.
6. The true Church is found in congregations where the Word is preached in its purity, the sacraments are administered in their integrity, and scriptural discipline is practiced in loving fellowship.
7. Jesus will come again personally, visibly, and bodily, to judge the living and the dead, to consummate history and God’s eternal plan.
8. The Great Commission requires all believers to proclaim the gospel and make disciples.
According to the EPC website the denomination is small, with approximately 115,000 members in approximately 300 congregations, organized into eight presbyteries plus the PCUSA transitional presbytery. However, doing the math, an EPC church has an average of 383 members, compared to the PCUSA average of 191. The median size of congregations in the PCUSA is now 95 according to denominational reports. (A similar statistic is not available from the EPC).
The ECO embraces the witness of the entire Book of Confessions now held by the PCUSA, which includes Westminster standards but ranges from the Apostles’ Creed to the Brief Statement of Faith adopted shortly after the 1983 reunion. Its Theology Project enumerates essentials in perhaps more nuanced language than the EPC list (more on that tomorrow). While the EPC is inconsistent on the matter of accepting women’s ordination (it is “local option” by presbytery), the ECO makes it a hallmark. Further, the EPC has a more developed structure than the ECO, which seeks to stay “lean and mean” for missional movement and flexibility.
If you are interested in a very similar governing style, are flexible on the matter of women’s ordination, are more at ease with a single doctrinal confession, and want to join a body that is already up and running, it would seem that the EPC is ready to receive you. If you do not want to be shackled with a lot of governing red-tape and perceive yourself to be more missional in spirit than perhaps the EPC can accommodate, the ECO may be for you. The ECO retains the Book of Confessions in its entirety, which to some is problematic, but if you want continuity with the PCUSA, ECO will retain the spirit without as much regulation.