Barton Gingerich, Calvinism, catechism, confessions, creed, General Assembly, General Assembly 2012, Helvetic, heterodoxy, Institute on Religion and Democracy, IRD Blog, marriage, orthodoxy, PCUSA, Presbyterian, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Reformed, theology, Westminster
Here I offer what I hope will be the last depressing analytical post from the Presbyterian Church U.S.A.’s 220th General Assembly. On Friday, one of the core problems plaguing the PCUSA reared its ugly head. The plenary assembly began a discussion regarding the constitution. Part I of the PCUSA’s constitution is the Book of Confessions while Part II is the Book of Order. The controversy pivoted on Part I’s relation to the constitution and its authority, especially with regard to redefining marriage.
One gutsy commissioner (I will keep commissioner names anonymous) petitioned GA Moderator Rev. Neal D. Presa: “Recommendation 13-04 [which redefined marriage away from one man and one woman] would amend the Book of Order…but conflicts with the Book of Confessions, which is part one of the Constitution, in at least three places—the Helvetic Confession, the Westminster Confession of Faith, and the Confession of 1967, all of which say that marriage is between a man and a woman. Therefore, Mr. Moderator, I would like to ask you to rule Recommendation 13-04 out of order.” As shocked whispers rumbled through the auditorium, Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons called on Paul Hooker of the Advisory Committee on the Constitution. Mr. Hooker noted the two different sections of the constitution. When discussing Part I, he added, “This collection of statements spans a vast selection of theological perspectives, and there is no small amount of difference and conflict, within the Constitution itself.” He then asserted, “But more specifically, it is important to understand that because it is a large sweep of history, and a fairly broad representation of theology, it ought not to be treated as though it were a rule book. It is, in fact, a document from which we draw our basic theological views.”
Mr. Hooker described Part II as follows: “It contains the standards by which we operate. We have been asked occasionally if it is necessary to amend the Book of Confessions in order to amend a similar provision in the Book of Order. The answer is no.” Finally, he asserted, “The Confessions are deliberately broad, and allow us to draw different ecclesiological conclusions on the basis of our theology. It would be the Advisory Committee on the Constitution’s opinion that a statement in the Book of Confessions might not pose a conflict with a proposal to amend the Constitution.”
Rev. Parsons recommended that the moderator accept the ACC’s recommendation and rule Recommendation 13-04 in order with the constitution. Dauntless, another commissioner appealed the rule of the moderator. And thus began a legislative battle to either accept or overturn the chair’s decision by simple majority vote.
Opposing sides approached the microphones. Declared the appealing commissioner, “Today, the motion is related to the Book of Confessions. I, as a Christian, for whom Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior, has been instructed to guided by the Confessions and to be obedient to the polity of the Church. Surely what is said repeatedly in the Book of Confessions is of more weight to our charter from Jesus Christ (to use Roberts’ language) than in the trust clause which is in the form of government.” Another contended, “While there are minor variations in the Book of Confessions, there are no variations on this subject. It speaks uniformly on its understanding of marriage. And secondly, while Mr. Hooker has made a distinction between part one and part two of the constitution, Robert’s Rules of Order, make no such distinction. It is one constitution.”
These statements were not left off without debate. One young lady festooned in a rainbow stole quipped, “If our concern is that our Book of Order never conflict with our Book of Confessions, I should not be standing here as a teaching elder.” Here she received vigorous applause from her revisionist allies. She then offered grounds for her right to her position and status: “Our Book of Confessions has been said to represent the faith of God’s people throughout the course of our human history, and it carries great wisdom in speaking to that. But it is a guide for faith, it is not a rulebook, and I hope we remember that.” The commissioner following her feared that “anything that anyone could possibly construe has any kind of connection whatsoever to the things in the Book of Confessions” would be proved and tried by a confessional filter. Then another commissioner approached the microphone to favor the chair. I had seen this gentleman at the PARO luncheon, where it was revealed that he was on the board of the pro-abortion organization. He now pontificated to his peers, “Many years ago, in the 1920s, there was a famous sermon preached, called ‘Shall the Fundamentalists Win.’ To me, a fundamentalist reading of the Book of Confessions wants to make it a totally unified set of rules, but as it was interpreted for us, it is a multi-century application and exposition of what Scripture teaches us to believe in…If the objection were to stand, as it was pointed out, we could never amend our Form of Government.”
Finally, it came down to a vote. Those supporting the chair’s decision to allow for contradiction with the Book of Confessions? 70%. That’s right: almost three quarters of PCUSA commissioners are willing to ignore the confessions for the sake of novelties. This merits a question from anyone familiar with church history, regardless of denominational affiliations: “How are you Presbyterian again?”
Let’s back up and look at what the confessions were all about. Calvinism—like Lutheranism—is an incredibly confessional faith tradition. It had to find a way to protest the Roman Catholic Church’s claims and teachings while not descending into chaos, anarchy, and heresy. As the reformers began to interpret the Scriptures differently than the Roman hierarchy, they also realized they needed to somehow keep within the historic Christian faith and its teachings (perhaps narrowly or locally defined). The Presbyterians and their Continental Calvinist cousins (all of whose confessions are included in Part I of the PCUSA constitution) had to prove they could reject a pope and bishops—all without damning one’s soul or bringing the church to naught. Thus, the Reformed elders reasoned out their faith in the confessions, by which they would keep themselves accountable. Now, there are different scholars that fight over what this all means, especially with regard to Scripture. The overwhelming consensus of old Reformed thinkers was that the confessions derive any teaching authority from the Bible: they are merely Scripture applied to specific beliefs as contrasted with other differing theologies. Reformed thinkers are all about sola Scriptura…or at least they used to in a clearer day.
The histories are filled with stories of bold Calvinists who would not renounce the confession in the face of threats, tortures, and even death. The Presbyterians were especially notable for their fierce theological convictions and fiery opposition to anything that smacked of “popery.” This, of course, included even the Anglican Church and thus presents an entertaining portion of British religious history. More importantly, it points to a very key concept: if you aren’t confessional, you aren’t Presbyterian. And it wasn’t because they thought “it was a good idea at the time.” They held their Biblical beliefs to be eternal truths.
So why the ho-hum attitude of the revisionist delegates? I’m sure no one reason will suffice. They don’t agree with the faith of their fathers—that much is clear. They obviously don’t like rules being enforced when they are breaking said rules. Most if not all are universalists: what Chesterton described as reverse or “soft” Calvinist, where no one has free will and everyone is predestined for heaven. Therefore, church discipline as well as the soteriological emphases in the confessions upsets their progressive sensibilities. Likewise, those icky absolutist creeds and confessions are merely historical niceties in an antiquarian performance that gives depth to the social club and morally-superior political advocacy group called “church.”
There could and should be several thorough responses to such heterodoxy and heteropraxy. Due to lack of space, I will conclude that this is the fulcrum point from which spring rampant pansexuality, progressive partisan politics, and radical feminism. Dealing with those theological particulars, I imagine, would soon separate the sheep from the goats.