Responding to Joe Small—4: What Could We Have Done Better?

December 16, 2011

Back in the day, when the controversy was over subscription to the five doctrinal Fundamentals (divine inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture, substitutionary atonement, the historical reality of Christ’s miracles, the virgin birth, and the bodily resurrection of Jesus), the Presbyterian Church duked it out at Princeton Seminary. The Fundamentalist/Modernist debate, represented by Harry Emerson Fosdick (the liberal) and Gresham Machen (the conservative), resulted in Princeton realigning its theological faculty toward the modernist view. Consequently, Machen’s group founded Westminster Seminary in 1929 to preserve the conservative view. In the 1930s, the divide particularly over the view of Scripture resulted in the formation of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

I have not read accounts or details of these splits, both academic and ecclesiastical, to know what individuals said and in what spirit they debated. So in once sense I am starting as a blank slate, with Joe Small’s question, “What is a (more) faithful way of expressing and living out our differences in conviction?”

General usage of the term ‘faithful’ takes on various connotations depending on which Presbyterian you consult, ranging from institutionally loyal to biblically consistent. For our purposes today, I am choosing to understand “faithful” (from the Greek pistos) to be “reliable” or “trustworthy” or perhaps “true,” as in aligning with a standard like true north. A person who is faithful would be one whose conduct is true to the Christian faith, reliably consistent with Scripture’s teaching, and shows oneself to be a trustworthy steward of God’s Word and its application in everyday life. If Joe meant something different that this with his use of the term, he can refine his point for our benefit. As I see it, though, faithfulness is expressed in a commitment to stand by something or someone (as faithfulness in marriage, forsaking all others).

The historical question I would have about the early 20th century debates, then, was whether the participants—in the way they conducted themselves—demonstrated trust and obedience to Scripture and lived out their faith in Christ-like grace and truth toward their opponents. In the heat of debate, did they express themselves in anger, bitterness, rancor, or derision? If so, they were not being faithful in the way they expressed their differences. Did they seek to tear down or destroy one another in the process? If so, they were not being faithful in the way they expressed their differences. Several professors lost their Princeton jobs to more liberal teachers. Was their firing an unfaithful act on the part of Princeton? Were the dismissed ones bitter and vitriolic in their departure? I do not know the answers to these questions, but these are the ones I would ask if I were evaluating “faithful ways of expressing our faith differences.”

Is it a sign of unfaithfulness that two factions separated into two seminaries and then ultimately two churches? Or could separation into two be considered the more faithful act among the options, allowing each the freedom to pursue their theological lines to their conclusions?

So far, I am only asking more questions, am I not? But here is a thought: true freedom in the Spirit of Christ—a vital New Testament call— is difficult to maintain by faith, and easily devolves to legalism when challenged by envelope-pushing actions. So one must ask, how faithful is it to push the envelope? How faithful is it to look for ways to skirt the law of God? True freedom of a divine sort is possible only when the free willingly maintain limits to their freedom. Adam and Eve were completely free to enjoy and eat anything from the Garden, except for the fruit from that one darn tree. That tree’s existence was their daily reminder that they did not and could not have everything, unless they wanted everything but God. In which case, they would gain the whole world but lose their soul.

So for us Presbyterians, what are the appropriate limits to our freedom, in order to fully enjoy and thrive in the freedom we are given?  This is where our dispute lies. Some might say that limiting sexual expression to heterosexual marriage is one such limit, or in another era it might have been agreement with the Five Fundamentals or refraining from eating meat sacrificed to idols. The test of such a limit is Scripture’s teaching; the test of how we assume that limit upon ourselves as a body is the Law of Love expressed in grace and truth.

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One Response to “Responding to Joe Small—4: What Could We Have Done Better?”

  1. Viola Larson Says:

    This is profound. What you have stated about wanting everything but God so many times, sadly, shapes all of our lives. And this is certainly the problem in our denomination to day.

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