Responding to Joe Small—2: Essential Tenets

December 14, 2011

Continuing in respectful dialogue with friend and colleague Joe Small, in response to his “Open Letter,” the second topic of note is essential tenets of Reformed faith. The Fellowship of Presbyterians has decided to embrace the current Book of Confessions as its theological basis. When asked my opinion, before the document was released, I signed off on this approach as the best way to keep continuity, since all of us elders had already agreed to hold these confessions and catechisms as instructive and guiding to our life together. It is, frankly, an easy way to make the transition, though I believe as time goes on the Fellowship will probably hammer out its own theological declaration. And I would affirm that move, too.

Joe articulates the reticence of the church to identify theological tenets as essential to the Reformed faith. Nevertheless, theological conservatives can be cheered by his statement: “there are also evident problems in assuming that we all know what they are without naming them, or that they can be whatever we want them to be.” We are seeing what happens when nothing can be pinned down as essential: anything goes. The up side of not naming any essentials takes up Joe’s point, that every single Presbyterian must do the work of studying the Scriptures, developing in discipleship, applying the Word of God to life, and owning a personal statement of faith. I get that, and it is not a point to be downplayed. How I long for an honest, deep look in my own presbytery at topics like “the Lordship of Jesus Christ” and “the Resurrection of Jesus Christ and its implications.” The fact is, most “Presbyterians in the pew” cannot articulate a reasonable, Bible-based faith or cohesive theology. They might be able to smell something fishy in a sermon or statement of faith, but they rely heavily on someone else more knowledgeable to correct an error. If the ones they trust are themselves corrupt theologically, all are led down a rabbit trail (at best) or the road to perdition (at worst). We currently have examples of both at work in our Presbyterian family today.

The Reformers used catechisms to distill the basics of the faith and to equip the saints with theological clarity. Those are in our Book of Confessions and worth the time to study, memorize, and install in the DNA of a congregation. Having said that, what is wrong with attempting to draft a 21st century catechism that covers the basics of our faith (the “essentials”) in a way that enables today’s Presbyterian to explain what Reformed Christians believe? As legitimate as it is to ask, “Why do we need a new confession?” we should be asking, “Why are we so afraid to write a list of essentials?” Why are we so reluctant to commit ourselves to paper? What is the harm in stating once for all the few statements that get to the root of our Christian faith and our Presbyterian distinctives?

The answer is this: Because there are, at this time, some in our number who do not believe the basics. They question whether God is sovereign, whether Jesus Christ’s conception and birth was a miraculous incarnation of God, whether he died on the cross for our sins, whether he was risen from the dead, or whether the Holy Spirit is one in substance with the Father and the Son and that the Trinity acts together as One God in Three. And these same people vote in presbyteries and are coddled through candidacy and are “needed” for their “creative,” “ground-breaking,” or “different” outlook in our inclusive denomination. Look where this has gotten us! We are being had, my friends, and unless we want the Holy Trinity to be replaced by the 21st century trinity of relativism, inclusivity, and tolerance, it is time to “conduct the serious, sustained theological work” amongst the saints as a matter of utmost importance. The situation will only get much worse if we do not establish a curriculum for doing so, and without that we will not know who we are any longer.

Tomorrow: perspectives—and regrets?— from history


6 Responses to “Responding to Joe Small—2: Essential Tenets”

  1. Collin Says:

    Alas that truly is the problem. I was just reading a “sticky faith” (fuller youth institute) article — the site appears to be down right now — talking about how a lot of youth leaders can’t say what the gospel is. A lot of parents either don’t know or don’t express it to their kids either — they do moralistic therapeutic deism instead as I learned last year at a (Presbyterian!) conference center

    The sad fact is that many church attenders are just that — we do not study the Scriptures for ourselves, we do not wrestle with questions like this — we don’t even know the basics…

  2. collin Says:

    Site is still down, but this is the article — I recognized the title

  3. Lee Says:

    As a teaching elder who came to the PCUSA 15 yrs ago, I’ve wondered about the lack of commonly held essentials. I’ve been afraid that some didn’t believe the basics, and we’re already seeing the postmodern trinity of relativism, inclusivity, & tolerance. Has this now gone on long enough, that we can’t go back & agree on any essentials? Is that why the nFOG foundational section is generic?

  4. John R. Kerr Says:

    The nFOG foundational section is more than just generic–it’s universalist! When we vote on a document because (as the sales pitches put it) we need to get to a smaller book, it becomes obvious that we are theologically ignorant. It’s right there in F-1.01: “The good news of the gospel is that the triune God–Father, Son and Holy Spirit–creates, redeems, sustains, rules, and transforms all things and all people.” What happened to election? What happened to those Scriptural passages that speak of those who do not believe? God help us!

  5. David Stearns Says:

    Is the problem we have with stating essentials really in agreeing on what is NOT essential (or maybe less essential)? Could we maybe agree on a “top 10” list?

    Or is there only one essential from which all others are derived – to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind”; and, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

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