One Confession, or Many?

February 20, 2012

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.



3 Responses to “One Confession, or Many?”

  1. I will take you up on that. What a great exercise. Thanks!

  2. Dennis Evans Says:

    I like having more than one statement of faith. I have favorite phrases in various ones that I don’t want to lose by demoting some of them. It would seem impoverishing if we said we couldn’t write, in our own time, something with authority. I also don’t like it when a collection of statements made over time is used to suggest something like “progressive revelation”. I do not plan to join the ECO but they have chosen the wisest way between these two poles.

  3. Carl Pelz Says:

    Thank you, Mary, for this wonderful distillation of the doctrinal foundations for ECO and EPC! Your comment about making “one want to become a Baptist” made me chuckle and yet… While doctrinal statements have provided positive benefits to the Reformed Tradition over the centuries, that no longer seems to be the case. Within our culture, there is almost a celebrative atmosphere that any Presbyterian can answer any of the following questions in a myriad of ways and that is somehow a good thing.

    1. What makes someone a Christian?
    2. How does someone become a Christian? What role does the Holy Spirit play in conversion and after?
    3. How do we know if we are a Christian and can we know if anyone else is?
    4. Are “regenerated”, “born-again”, “born from above” useful terms or not?
    5. Does reformed theology including the 5 points of Calvinism (TULIP) and the confessions (particularly, the Westminster) offer correct and useful distillations of what scriptures teach?
    6. What does scripture say about homosexuality, marriage, divorce, abortion, pride, gossip, overeating, self-righteousness, impatience, anger, infidelity, fantasies, and pornography?
    7. What does scripture say about engaging our culture or not? What is and where is the truth/grace balance? When do we judge and not judge (e.g., I Cor 5:12, Matt 18:15-17)? How do we love God and our neighbor?
    8. Does science, evolution, or sociobiology better explain reality and even religion? If not, why not?
    9. How was the canon of scripture put together and how reliable is scripture? (e.g., is it inspired, inerrant, or something else, and why?) What hermeneutical principles should be applied and why? When can scripture be dismissed as only applicable to the culture it was addressed to (e.g., slavery, gender roles, church leadership, homosexuality)?
    10. What’s the difference between ceremonial laws (e.g., clothing, dietary) that no longer apply and moral laws that do?
    11. What is the church universal vs the corporate church? What is the relevance Jesus’ parable of wheat and tares for a congregation (Matt 13:24-25)?
    12. Do we have a personal relationship with God the Father, Jesus the Son, or the Holy Spirit; or all three? Why? Who do we address in our prayers and why? How should we pray?

    Why is it that Baptists seem to be clearer and more consistent on what Scripture teaches than us Presbyterians? Thus, the wariness some of us feel about efforts to reformulate and clarify doctrinal statements…

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