White Water Ahead—What Is Stirring Up the Waters

August 1, 2011

The present controversies in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) [hereafter and forever referred to as PCUSA] have developed along a continuum for decades, starting with the Fundamentalist/Modernist debates of the 1920s. At the time, the church decided not to require ministers (teaching elders) to subscribe to the five fundamentals (you know: the bodily resurrection of Jesus, the virgin birth, miracles, etc). It was an unfortunate adjustment 1° off of True North. The long-term significance of this change of course went unrecognized during a time of fairly homogeneous agreement about the essential tenets of the Reformed Faith.

However, as Presbyterian history has unfolded over time, that fateful 1° adjustment has widened to a huge gap between the PCUSA and the Bible. For many, a symbolic moment occurred in the mid-1960s when the Westminster Confession and Shorter Catechism were replaced with a canon of nine confessions, comprising the Book of Confessions. Theological focus diffused, and consensus became more elusive.

The debates regarding homosexual practice and ordination have demonstrated how strained the connection between the church and the Bible has become. That original 1° tilt has produced a wide gap between current thinking and True North orthodoxy. Biblical exegesis—both method and outcome—has taken some shocking turns, and these are reflected in the arguments we heard on Friday.

During the course of the Appeal Hearing last Friday, in the Parnell et al v. San Francisco Presbytery case, a number of debatable statements were made by the presbytery’s representative. In the next few days, I will share the comments with which I rebutted them before the GAPJC. Mind you, I had only ten minutes to refute five false or questionable claims, so the posts here will fill out the points I made more completely. These are shared not to deride a colleague in ministry representing an opposing viewpoint, but to engage in some theological exercise of our own. It’s all part of our apprenticeship to Jesus, who was the Master at responding to challenges.

The five statements I rebutted were these:

1. Change is inevitable. Though the Scriptures have not changed, our understanding of them has. We now see new truths.

2.  God alone is Lord of the conscience, and this freedom of conscience is to be maintained in the interpretation of Scripture.

3. Our consciences are held captive to the Word of God, as interpreted by the church.

4. Mutual forbearance is to be exercised as the Presbyterian way of settling our differences.

5.  Amendment 10-A took an ordination standard out of the Book of Order. The standard is no more.

Tomorrow will probably include two posts: rebuttal to one of these claims, and a posting of the GAPJC’s Decision and Order. We’re in for a wild ride, my friends! Let us hold tight to our Anchor, Jesus Christ and his Word, who will keep us oriented as we travel the white waters ahead.

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5 Responses to “White Water Ahead—What Is Stirring Up the Waters”

  1. Robert Dooling Says:

    Mary:

    Only one little quibble … I’d put the beginnings of our current problem about 30-40 years earlier than you do.

    Thank you for your faithfulness and your articulate defense of the historic faith of the church.

    Bob

    • revmary Says:

      Yes, Bob, I do not disagree with you! Thanks for the reminder that our “issues” are long-standing, and unfortunately will continue.

  2. rickcarter Says:

    An important clarification on the five fundamentals that were at issue in the 1920s. The General Assembly did not disavow those fundamentals, nor did they declare that Presbyterian ministers could disavow them. Rather, they stated that requiring allegiance to the fundamentals was not appropriate because they are already included in the Westminster Confession. In the minds of many church members at the time, this refusal to select these five beliefs for special affirmation amounted to making them optional, and in practice that is what began to happen. But it would be misleading to imply that the Presbyterian Church began to change its doctrine in 1925.

    • revmary Says:

      Thanks for this Rick. Your correction is right on target and helpful in the current discussion. Appreciate having it spelled out. The fallout of those critical, nuanced decisions then is still descending upon us now.

  3. Truth Tolife Says:

    While Rick’s observation–that the Presbyterian Church did not begin to change its doctrine in 1925–is undoubtedly true, its equally the case that doctrine did begin to shift from that point forward. The nuanced fallout of the Fundamentalist Crisis introduced obtuse language and concepts into the lexicon that are now used to reject not only the Five Fundamentals, but the right of the church to set standards at all. That the report that ended the Fundamentalist Crises in 1927–The Swearingen Report–is cited by presbyteries and judicial commissions alike in support of unbiblical ordinations shows the lasting consequences of loose words.

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