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.

 

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 My readers continue to bless and amaze me, and I am grateful for the corrective comments to my blog post of earlier this week, comparing ECO and EPC.  I will not repeat them here, but want to continue the discussion, because, clearly, folks are thinking about “Where do I go?”

It reminds me of the encounter in John’s gospel (6:66-69):

Because of this many of [Jesus’] disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.  So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?”  Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.  We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”

To be clear, the PCUSA is not to be equated with Jesus himself, so the question for Presbyterians “Where else can we go?” does not lead us to the conclusion that the PCUSA is the only Body that “has the words of eternal life.” That humility is embedded in our Historic Principles of Church Order (F-3.0102, 0107), and, therefore, the question of dismissal to some other body is legitimate.

Since the EPC is one of the destinations of departing congregations, and ECO is rising as another alternative, I have been comparing the two and asking a few questions. My friends in the EPC have corrected a couple of mischaracterizations on my part regarding women’s ordination and organizational “red-tape.” On the latter topic, it seems to me, from the literature provided by the ECO, that the ECO aspires to be a looser association of churches than the EPC is. As is practiced in the EPC, ECO accountability will emphasize relational rather than regulatory form, although I suppose in some egregious situation even ECO could muster formal church discipline.

It would seem, then, that the greatest difference between the EPC and the ECO is in its doctrinal platform: Westminster-only (EPC) compared to the Book of Confessions (ECO). In my last post, I listed the EPC essentials. Would a person who accepts the Book of Confessions as containing the essentials have trouble with any of EPC’s list? The fact is that some liberals do; it was stated in a meeting of our presbytery the shocking news that the EPC believed in the personal, bodily return of Jesus Christ! My conservative colleagues and I looked at each other as if to ask, “And the problem is . . .?” So it might be worth the effort to cull our confessions for a sample of references that support the EPC list of tenets:

1. Scripture infallible, inspired, authoritative: Scots, BOC, 3.18, 3.19; 2nd Helvetic, 5.001–.003; Westminster, 6.001–.010.

2. God’s sovereignty, Trinity: Scots, 3.01; Heidelberg, 4.026; Westminster, 6.011–013.

3. Jesus Christ, Incarnation, virgin birth, substitutionary atonement, resurrection.: Scots, 3.06 & 3.07, 3.09, 3.10; Heidelberg, 4.016-4.049; Westminster, 6.043–.050; C67, 9.08–.11.

4. Holy Spirit: Scots 3.12; Heidelberg 4.053; Westminster, 6.051–.054

5. The human condition, sin, grace, faith, salvation: Scots, 3.02; Heidelberg, 4.003-4.015, 2nd 2nd Helvetic, 5.036–.037, 5.106–.110; Westminster, 6.031–.036, 6.043­.047; C67, 9.12–.13

6. Marks of the True Church (Word, Sacraments, Discipline): Scots, 3.18; 2nd Helvetic, 5.134–135; Westminster, 6.143.

7. Jesus’ return: Westminster Larger Catechism, 7:166; Barmen, 8:17; C67, 9.32, 9:52.

8. The Great Commission: Westminster, 6.046, 6.058, 6.190; Brief Statement, 10.4 (68)

It is safe to say, that everything the EPC holds up as essential is found in the Confessions of the PCUSA. One notices that all of these tenets appear in one form or another in the Westminster standards, but they also appear in  other creeds and confessions of the Book of Confessions.

For some people in my presbytery, the problem with the EPC is that it lists some doctrines (among many) it considers “essential.” It is as if the existence of such a list of non-negotiables is offensive and wrong. But when we PCUSAers refer to the essentials of the Reformed faith and polity that are contained in the Book of Confessions, what do we mean? Here are the choices:

• That there are some essentials (a subset of the whole) that all agree are basic and indispensable to one’s faith (basically the EPC position); OR
• That there are essentials contained in the Book of Confessions, but there can be no list because what is essential to one person (or presbytery) is not perhaps essential to another; OR
• The entire Book of Confessions constitutes essential doctrine.

 A pickle, is it not? In my next post, I’d like to explore the implications of having more than one PCUSA confession and why, for some, this is problematic.

Since writing the post comparing ECO and EPC the other day, I have had a flood of comments and over 800 hits, so apparently this subject is of interest! Meanwhile, my “day job” has been intensely demanding this week.

I am working on a post that compares the essential tenets of the EPC and the Book of Confessions and hope to have it done tomorrow. For now, though, the brain is spent and it’s time to call it quits for the day. Since I addressed the topic of  Sabbath last Sunday, I kinda feel like I should practice what I preached.

Hey, if my readers want to make this an interactive exercise, I invite you to collect all the references in the BOC to one of the EPC tenets, like Christ’s second coming or the Great Commission mandate. Or, alternatively, thumb through one of the creeds or confessions and note where it addresses any of the nine beliefs on the EPC list. I’ve been through Scots and Heidelberg already. Just send your input to me at mary@presbycoalition.org and I’ll give you credit in my post!

As conservative/evangelical Presbyterian congregations and sessions discuss their options for responding to the liberal trends in the PCUSA, a question is voiced about the “leaving” option. Why do we need a new denomination (the future ECO) when we have the EPC in place now? What is the difference between transferring membership to the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians (ECO) and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (the EPC)? I understand that the folks at Fellowship of Presbyterians are working on a comparison chart that goes into some detail about the various elements to consider, and it is going to take them awhile to make this public (probably months). This suggests to me that the matter is complicated and detail-ridden, so I am humble in my offering some general ideas in this post. Yes, that was a disclaimer.

The Evangelical Presbyterian Church affirms the Westminster Confession of Faith and its catechisms as its only system of doctrine.  In general, it subscribes to a list of essential tenets, but offers each other liberty on matters it does not deem essential, such as the ordination of women and the exercise of charismatic gifts. The essentials, however, are listed as these:

1. All Scripture is the true, infallible Word of God, uniquely and fully inspired by the Holy Spirit and the supreme and final authority on all matters on which it speaks. Sola Scriptura.
2. God is sovereign Creator and Sustainer of all things, existing in three Persons. Soli Dei gloria.
3. Jesus Christ, fully God and fully man, was incarnated by miraculous conception and virgin birth, died on the cross a sacrifice for human sins and rose bodily from the dead to ascend into heaven where his reigns. Solo Christo.
4. The Holy Spirit glorifies Christ and applies the saving work to human hearts, convicting of sin, indwelling, empowering, instructing, gifting for service, and sealing believers for the day of redemption.
5. Human beings in their natural state are estranged from God and rely solely upon the work of God’s free grace for salvation, justification by faith, and the regeneration by the Holy Spirit. Sola fide, sola gratia.
6. The true Church is found in congregations where the Word is preached in its purity, the sacraments are administered in their integrity, and scriptural discipline is practiced in loving fellowship.
7. Jesus will come again personally, visibly, and bodily, to judge the living and the dead, to consummate history and God’s eternal plan.
8. The Great Commission requires all believers to proclaim the gospel and make disciples.

According to the EPC website the denomination is small, with approximately 115,000 members in approximately 300 congregations, organized into eight presbyteries plus the PCUSA transitional presbytery. However, doing the math, an EPC church has an average of 383 members, compared to the PCUSA average of 191. The median size of congregations in the PCUSA is now 95 according to denominational reports.  (A similar statistic is not available from the EPC).

The ECO embraces the witness of the entire Book of Confessions now held by the PCUSA, which includes Westminster standards but ranges from the Apostles’ Creed to the Brief Statement of Faith adopted shortly after the 1983 reunion. Its Theology Project enumerates essentials in perhaps more nuanced language than the EPC list (more on that tomorrow). While the EPC is inconsistent on the matter of accepting women’s ordination (it is “local option” by presbytery), the ECO makes it a hallmark. Further, the EPC has a more developed structure than the ECO, which seeks to stay “lean and mean” for missional movement and flexibility.

If you are interested in a very similar governing style, are flexible on the matter of women’s ordination, are more at ease with a single doctrinal confession, and want to join a body that is already up and running, it would seem that the EPC is ready to receive you. If you do not want to be shackled with a lot of governing red-tape and perceive yourself to be more missional in spirit than perhaps the EPC can accommodate, the ECO may be for you. The ECO retains the Book of Confessions in its entirety, which to some is problematic, but if you want continuity with the PCUSA, ECO will retain the spirit without as much regulation.