Subscribing to Standards

October 27, 2011

After reflecting on “Convenient Confessionalism” in yesterday’s post, I got curious about the meaning of the word “standards” as used in the PCUSA constitution. Here are all the occurrences of the word in the Book of Order:

F-1.0302d:  The Church strives to be faithful to the good news it has received and accountable to the standards of the confessions.

F-2.02 The Confessions as Subordinate Standards
These confessional statements are subordinate standards in the church, subject to the authority of Jesus Christ, the Word of God, as the Scriptures bear witness to him. While confessional standards are subordinate to the Scriptures, they are, nonetheless, standards. They are not lightly drawn up or subscribed to, nor may they be ignored or dismissed. The church is prepared to instruct, counsel with, or even to discipline one ordained who seriously rejects the faith expressed in the confessions.

G-2.0104b:  b. Standards for ordained service reflect the church’s desire to submit joyfully to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in all aspects of life (F-1.02). . . . Councils shall be guided by Scripture and the confessions in applying standards to individual candidates.

G-2.0105:  It is necessary to the integrity and health of the church that the persons who serve it in ordered ministries shall adhere to the essentials of the Reformed faith and polity as expressed in this Constitution. So far as may be possible without serious departure from these standards, . . . His or her conscience is captive to the Word of God as interpreted in the standards of the church . . .

The usage, in proper context, points to the meaning of the word. From these data points, we can deduce the following about standards as they exist in the life of the PCUSA:

1. The church strives to be accountable to the standards of the confessions. By saying this, the PCUSA has indicated its intent to measure itself by its adherence to the confessions. Accountability indicates recognition of authority and expectations for performance in alignment with that authority. When an employee is hired and accountable for a work ethic and fulfillment of a job description, the employee’s authority is “the boss,” and the standards are those rules and descriptions to which the individual seeks to be faithful. So being accountable to the standards of the confessions means Presbyterians submit to their measurable expectations under the authority of Jesus Christ.

2. The Confessions are standards in the church, subject to the authority of Jesus Christ, the Word of God, as the Scriptures bear witness to him. Elaborating on Point #1 above, this usage of the term standards refers specifically to the Confessions, which. by virtue of their interpretive role, are subordinate standards to that which they interpret: the Scriptures. Namely, their authority is derivative of the Bible’s authority. To the extent the Confessions conform and consistently interpret Scripture, they are reliable expositions of what the Scriptures lead us to believe and do (W-4.4003c). The word of God is interpreted in the standards of the church.  We presume this to mean that when there are disputes about what the Scripture teaches, we can be confident that the Confessions on that subject are meant to elucidate the interpretation agreed upon by the church.

3. The Confessions are subordinate to the Scriptures, but they are still standards. We are reminded that the fact that the Confessions are supportive of the Scriptures in no way diminishes their role as standards. This concept is akin to the great affirmation of the Second Helvetic Confession that “The preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God.”

4. The essentials of the Reformed faith and polity are expressed in the PCUSA Constitution comprising both the Book of Confessions and the Book of Order. This point emphasizes the fact that our standards also include the Book of Order. There is some discussion about whether “the essentials of Reformed faith” and “the essentials of Reformed polity” are two sets of standards delineated, for example, by reference to the Confessions (faith) and the Book of Order (polity). An alternative would be to see “the essentials of Reformed faith and polity” as one set of standards comprising both the Confessions and Book of Order. Take your pick; I favor the second view.

5. And surprise, surprise: subscriptionism is not forbidden. See “they are not lightly . . . subscribed to, nor may they be ignored or dismissed.” “They” are the confessional statements. The assumption is that church officers who answer the constitutional questions for ordination (W-4.4003) are subscribing to the Confessions. Subscription in this usage means agreement with, support of, or endorsement of them.

Since the Confessions, all nine of them, comprise many pages, are in some ways redundant, and certainly cover a range of topics, is it not possible to identify some holdings in the Confessions as essential, as a “spot check” for the whole collection? What is wrong with identifying a few essentials, as some presbyteries are attempting to do, as an essential subset of the whole?  I took a stab a few weeks ago at naming a few I felt were biblically necessary affirmations. If we have already said yes to the whole kit ‘n’ kaboodle, why would we resist saying yes to a few well-chosen doctrinal statements as essential?

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One Response to “Subscribing to Standards”

  1. John E Says:

    It does seem odd that we insist we have “standards,” even Reformed “standards,” but adamantly refuse to say what they are.

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