Presbyterians committed to theological orthodoxy should consider a special vow, akin to special vows taken by members of various Catholic orders, Fuller Theological Seminary President Richard Mouw told the Fellowship of Presbyterians at its Aug. 25-26 gathering here.
In a wide-ranging and free-wheeling address and question-and-answer session, Mouw said, “Historically, when Catholics felt the church had gone astray, they didn’t leave, they formed special orders who took special vows according to their commitments. The commitment to theological orthodoxy for many of us should take the form of a special vow, to witness to the essential tenets and the power of the Reformed faith.”
Mouw commended to the 2,000 Presbyterians gathered here the essential tenets and “Reformed distinctives” developed by San Diego Presbytery, but cautioned against “word-for-word subscriptionism.”
Some statements in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Book of Confessions ― such as the declaration in the Westminster Confession that the pope is the anti-Christ ― “are historical statements we don’t want to subscribe to,” Mouw said, “but we don’t want holes big enough to drive a truck through. There are essentials.”
For instance, he continued, “We have to make a choice about the authority of Scripture, the inherent lostness of human beings and the need for the atoning salvation of Jesus Christ as our only savior.”
Also central, he said, “is our Reformed conviction that election [by God] is for both salvation and service ― to involvement in a covenant community that demonstrates the sovereign rule of God over all of human life … that covenant community is central ― gathering in (worship) and sending out (service).”
Essential tenets make us missional, Mouw said. “We’re elected to participate in the life of a community that seeks to perfect God’s plan here and now, bearing witness to God’s mission in the world.”
It’s not easy “to get a good grasp on what God is doing in the world and our place in it,” Mouw conceded. “We need a lot of dialogue, because it’s very hard to learn from each other when all of our speeches and conversations are geared to winning votes. It’s important for us to discern together what it means that we have received this Reformed tradition and what it means to apply it in our new context.”
Presbyterian officers, when they affirm that they will “be guided by the confessions,” often get caught up in a “Catch-22,” Mouw said. “We don’t want a line-by-line subscriptionism, but attention to whole body of confessions,” he said.
“We need guidelines on how to read the confessions ― we’ve slipped into a historical museum approach to the confessions,” Mouw said. “ What does it mean to be ‘guided by’ the confessions? Those who have developed essential tenets at presbytery levels are rightly concerned with putting flesh on the bones of [that question].”
Asked about seemingly intractable debates in the PC(USA) about what the authority of scripture means, Mouw responded: “If we can have honest conversations about the authority of Scripture rather than all the acrimony of debate and voting, our conversations would be much more productive.
“The Bible trumps everything else,” he said, “but we need solid agreed upon hermeneutical principles for interpreting Scripture.”