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Nature of Confessions in the Reformed Tradition for the PC(USA)

A discussion by Neal D. Presa, Moderator of the 220th General Assembly about the nature of the confessions and the relationship of the Book of Order and Book of Confessions in the PC(USA). The full text is available below.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

I am Neal Presa, Moderator of the 220th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Today I wish to speak with you about the nature of confessions in the Reformed traditions. There was a parliamentary ruling of the 220th General Assembly last July 2012 that has raised questions and evoked commentaries about the nature of confessions in the Reformed traditions, the relationship of the Book of Confessions and the Book of Order, and the status of confessional authority. 

These are challenging times, no doubt. With a changing landscape in Church and society, and every corner of the Church seeking to be faithful to the continuing and enduring call of Jesus Christ for us to be Christ’s called out community that does what the six Great Ends of the Church so well articulate: the proclamation of the Gospel for the salvation of humankind; the shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God; the maintenance of divine worship; the preservation of the truth; the promotion of social righteousness; and the exhibition of the kingdom of heaven to the world.

As Presbyterians in the Reformed traditions, our fidelity is to the triune God alone. Discerning, discovering, and then doing the will of God as best as we can and as God’s grace provides, requires worship, prayer, and continual reflection and conversation in community. As Presbyterians in the Reformed traditions, we seek to listen to the voice and heart of God in the Holy Scriptures, which are the unique and authoritative witness to the triune God fully and finally revealed in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. The Book of Confessions are, in the words of our ordination vows, “reliable expositions of what Scripture leads us to believe and do.”  Reformed Christians from the 16th century to today have sought to respond to God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ for their particular time, location, and context through various confessions, catechisms, declarations and statements. We take seriously the authority of these confessions balanced with the freedom and obligation of communities to discern the will and mind of Christ for their time and their context. We have sought to subscribe not to any one expression of faith, but a multiplicity of expressions: 11 creeds, confessions, catechisms, declarations, and statements. We recognize these confessions to be authoritative, not authoritarian. For at the end of the day, those confessions don’t press the voting keypads in our assemblies and councils.

What they do, though, is provide the authoritative guidance of the living faith of our forbears, if we will listen and heed their teaching and admonitions. They are not to be regarded lightly. They are not to be ignored nor dismissed.

Why?

The Book of Confessions express our solidarity with our forbears, regarding their struggle as our own, taking seriously their own study of Scripture and the work of the triune God in their circumstances as in ours. In the words of the New Testament book of Hebrews, “…we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, and, as such, we are united to the communion of saints, being baptized into the one faith, in our one Lord.”

It’s no wonder, then, that part 1 of the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is the Book of Confessions, which the Foundation of Polity in the Book of Order describes as:

“The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) states its faith and bears witness to God’s grace in Jesus Christ in the creeds and confessions in The Book of Confessions. In these statements the church declares to its members and to the world who and what it is, what it believes, and what it resolves to do. These statements identify the church as a community of people known by its convictions as well as by its actions. They guide the church in its study and interpretation of the Scriptures; they summarize the essence of Reformed Christian tradition; they direct the church in maintaining sound doctrines; they equip the church for its work of proclamation. They serve to strengthen personal commitment and the life and witness of the community of believers.”

So as a confessional church with a multiplicity of confessions of faith, we trust in the triune God’s divine sovereignty and human responsibility, the interplay of confessional authority with community responsibility. As history and experience have continually shown, when that balance tilts one way or another, the Church’s faith is obscured and the Church’s witness to the Gospel is diminished. Idolizing the confessions prevents necessary critique, healthy engagement, and contextual appropriation at best; at its worst, it places the confessions in competition with the holy Scripture, which alone is the Word of God written. On the other hand, lifting too highly individual or even community freedom to determine and decide courses of action without due regard to the authority and guidance of the confessions places the Church at a precarious place, at the caprice of temporary majorities or even subject to parliamentary ordering and voting. 

The Reformed traditions follow a difficult, but an excellent way: when done well faithfully, and, yes, decently and in good order: it involves the serious study of Scripture. It’s a way that takes the voices of the confessions seriously. It takes the discussions and debates seriously. It takes people seriously and dignifies differences.

As the Book of Confessions AND the Book of Order, together form the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), any part is to be interpreted in light of the whole. Likewise, any action by any General Assembly must be consistent with the whole of the Constitution, both in its spirit, in its letter, and in the intent of its whole and its parts. As such, any perceived inconsistency or contradiction must be subjected to a careful and prayerful examination and analysis. What the Book of Confessions does not do is pre-empt, prevent, nor veto consideration of any measure, resolution, or overture by any General Assembly.

It would behoove us to recall the distinctive character and purpose of the Book of Confessions as well as the distinctive character and purpose of the Book of Order. The Book of Confessions is an authoritative guide to faith and life, declaring to the Church and world what we believe and what we intend to do. The Book of Order sets out foundational principles of our governing polity, the form and structures of that governing polity, the structures, rules and intent of discipline, and the principles of and responsibilities for ordering our worship life together. The Book of Confessions provides the foundation and scaffolding; the Book of Order is the architectural exoskeleton of a building that is reformed and always being reformed in accordance with the Word of God.

What the action of the 220th General Assembly demonstrates, and what we have all known for a long while, even before the 220th General Assembly, is that we as Presbyterians in the Reformed traditions need to re-engage that which we have seen and heard, the Gospel as attested to by the sacred witness of holy Scripture, and the Book of Confessions as they equip us and teach us about our faith. We need to take seriously what God has said in ages past while grappling and wrestling with what God is saying to the Church today and for generations to come. This requires an honest, sustained engagement with one another, with the gifts of God for the people of God, and with the very person of God revealed in Jesus Christ through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.

As we proceed with debates and discussions on civil unions and same-gender marriage, on ordination standards, or whatever might be the case now and in the future, let us do so with a commitment to remain in the conversation and in relationship with each other, to seek that which will edify the Church’s witness of the Gospel in the world, walking humbly in the sight of God.

Let us forgive and forbear with each other. And in all things, in all times and in every place, let us love one another as Christ loves the Church. 

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Amen.

And thank you.

  1. The clear implication of the Moderator's words ("What the Book of Confessions does not do is pre-empt, prevent, nor veto consideration of any measure, resolution, or overture by any General Assembly.") is that in his view there is no way in which we could ever amend the Book of Order – including (for example) denying the Trinity or the Lordship of Christ – which could ever a priori be ruled out due to conflict with our confessions. That is an amazing claim!! Clearly the higher threshold for amending our confessions meant that our forebears believed that foundational changes in our theology needed a super majority to implement. But by severing the two parts of the Constitution and making Part I in effect advisory only, Mr. Presa makes us a "Book of Order only" church. And a "Book of Order only church" does not protect minority rights by requiring a super-majority for foundational and fundamental changes in who we are. On his scheme, sadly, for our Moderator at least, the confessions seem no longer to be authoritative, no longer to be Part I of our Constitution. (Please see my article in the December 31, 2012 Presbyterian Outlook – "How the 220th General Assembly Almost Threw out the Confessions" – addressing this issue in more depth.) Winfield Casey Jones Pearland, Texas

    by Winfield Casey Jones

    April 15, 2013

  2. Dear Mr. Moderator, I think that your discussion of use of the Confessions fails to address the points raised at the General Assembly last year. First, the reason given by the ACC and others was that the Confessions conflict with each other. While there are some points, mostly minor, of which that is true, on the issues of monogamous heterosexual marrige and of sexual relations limited to husband and wife there are no disagreements. Second, on the procedural point that discussing an item that contradicts the constitution is out of order, your comments seem to indicate that anything goes as long as we "remain in conversation and relationship together." When parliamentary procedure is violated, the possible conversation and relationships are skewed unfairly. It is hard to feel that we are "together" when that happens. I do not think you have any valid basis for saying that the Book of Confessions can never rule out any item for Assembly consideration. The whole point of a confession and a constitution is to draw boundaries and saying that some things are out of bounds. It would certainly be refreshing to have a debate on these issues as they are found in the Confessions. That has been rare in the last 20 years of assemblies as well as in decisions of judicial commissions.

    by Mrs. James Hedden

    April 12, 2013

  3. I appreciate the Moderator's diplomatic tone and seeming balance. A close reading, though, reveals a something-for- everybody statement that falls short of a clear declaration of "Here I Stand " principles. Respectfully, Rev. Presa's understading of the PCUSA constituion is inadequate. It is symptomatic of an organization that has lost its mooring. In giving every part of the Book of Order co-equal authority with the substance of our faith as expressed in the Book of Confessions, his statement places the jots and tittles of the denomination's organization on a par with the content of its faith. When WHY you are a denomination gets demoted to the same plane as HOW you are a denomination, cohesion disintegrates and focus ( vision) is lost. You can't be everything to everybody.

    by Lloyd J. Lunceford

    April 12, 2013

  4. Mr. Moderator, I would not profess to be the theologian that most of these other writers are, but ask one theoretical question in response to your statement, "We need to take seriously what God has said in ages past while grappling and wrestling with what God is saying to the Church today and for generations to come." Is God telling us anything different now than he did before, or are we attempting to meld our societal wants and needs to harmonize with Scripture? May God Bless his church!

    by Doug Meiser

    April 12, 2013

  5. Mr. Moderator: You point to two dangers our church faces: "Idolizing the confessions prevents necessary critique, healthy engagement, and contextual appropriation at best; at its worst, it places the confessions in competition with the holy Scripture, which alone is the Word of God written. On the other hand, lifting too highly individual or even community freedom to determine and decide courses of action without due regard to the authority and guidance of the confessions places the Church at a precarious place, at the caprice of temporary majorities or even subject to parliamentary ordering and voting. " Many of us feel that the church is in far more danger from one of these than the other. It might appear that you think the danger is greatest from the first, since you label it as "idolizing" while describing the second danger as "freedom." But I do not wish to presume. Can you tell us, directly, whether you think the PCUSA is dangerously close to entering into an idolatry of the confessions, or is dangerously close to following the caprice of temporary majorities? Rev. James Ayers, Ph.D. Presbytery of Southern Kansas

    by James Ayers

    April 12, 2013

  6. Although many have weighed in on this discussion, I will add my voice to those who say, Mr. Moderator, you have dodged the real issue. To accuse of confessional idolatry misses the mark. You say our fidelity is to the triune God alone, but what does that really mean. We know the triune God through our only Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. He says "if you love me, you will obey my commands." John 14:15. We understand the confessions to be explication of the Scriptures and if the community comes to a new understanding of what Scripture commands, then the confessions must be amended. Nothing in our heritage allows us to jettison the confessions on the vote of an assembly. God forbid. The confessions either teach us what to do to obey Jesus or not. If not, change them. If so, obey them. Otherwise, you are idolizing our collective experience carried out at each assembly. Thank you.

    by jack sharpe

    April 11, 2013

  7. This is how apostasy happens. It doesn't jump up amid Biblical faithfulness like a sudden storm, surprising everyone with it's wickedness. Rather, it slithers in as we incrementally "reinterpret" Scripture so that it does not resemble the faith once and for all delivered to the saints; as we, in a purportedly small and natural move, demote the Confessions that have for so long served as faithful summaries of what the Scriptures teach and what we affirm to the world; and as we treat those who hold fast to the Biblical faith as though they are an aberration and somehow backwards and stiflers of truth. This is how apostasy comes in. It comes in with decisions and statements such as those represented by you, Mr. Moderator.

    by Wayne Bogue

    April 11, 2013

  8. "In these statements the church declares to its members and to the world who and what it is, what it believes, and what it resolves to do. These statements identify the church as a community of people known by its convictions as well as by its actions." Wouldn't that be nice. But we all know it isn't true. the Confessions have been abandoned incrementally be Presbyteries that refuse to engage in theological evaluation of ordinands, and now by the parliamentary action of the General Assembly. The PC(USA) is merely the memory of a Christian Church.

    by Michael Neubert

    April 10, 2013

  9. Mr. Moderator, if what you say is true, why do we have a Book of Confessions? Either we follow our full constitution, including Roberts Rules, or we amend it. Trying to avoid following the Constitution with sleight of hand tactics doesn't fool anyone--I imagine God sees through it as well.

    by Martha Leatherman

    April 10, 2013

  10. In reply to the moderator's statement, I would say of the third ordination question ("do you sincerely adopt and receive the essential tenets of the Reformed faith as expressed in the confessions of our church") the same thing writer Flannery O'Connor once famously said about Communion: "Well, if it's a symbol, to hell with it."

    by Andy Scott

    April 10, 2013

  11. I was there at GA when this first came down and I appreciate your attempt to aid us as we muddle through. Unfortunately, I agree with Commissioner Goodloe, Tim Thomas, Brint Keyes and others above, we must be clear and speak/act with integrity and wholeness, not back and forth. We are moving from Scriptural, and confessional faith to the contract of the community with a Constitution we can change at will. This is a dangerous move for many churchgoers.

    by emily mccoll

    April 10, 2013

  12. Presbyterians have long had to defend our polity when our non-Presbyterian friends smugly accused us of "voting on the Word of God." The checks and balances of sola scriptura and the Confessions have always been the counterpoint to such misunderstandings. God's Word is God's gift to the church and the Confessions are the church living out the implications of the Word. The Book of Order is merely a practice manual. It is fundamental that the church wrestle with the Word of God, codify its implications in our Confession and then require that the Book of Order conform to the Confessions and not the other way around. To allow the GA to rule the day with a vote that violates the spirit and historical practice of our belief through polity is not an act of God's church - it's merely democracy - perhaps even mob rule, if that's not too harsh a characterization. In letting this decision stand, we have let the GA cannibalize itself, and now there is nothing to moderate the growing appetite of the many.

    by Deborah Hollifield

    April 10, 2013

  13. My comments were misconstrued. Nowhere did I say, nor did I mean to imply, that I want to drive people out of the denomination. I was referring to the attitude among many of our brothers and sisters, who have not mourned the loss of one member or congregation due to the change in ordination standards. That attitude is exemplified in Christine Chacoian's "Benedictory" article in The Presbyterian Outlook, entitled, "I Was Wrong."

    by Stuart Gordon

    April 10, 2013

  14. Mr. Moderator, Jay Wilkins, thoughts on Westminster are exactly the point-both the Confession & the Directory of Worship were changed to conform to each other. One cannot change half of the constitution, particularly in this case, where all of the Confessions agree that marriage is defined as marriage between a man & a woman- we would then be a non-confessional church because our constitution would be in contradiction with itself. We should be guided by our confessions but in reality we are not.

    by Viola Larson

    April 10, 2013

  15. In response to Brint Keyes, a Constitution by its very nature is authoritative and can never be merely advisory. If the Constitution of the United States had been accepted as merely advisory, slavery would still have been in practice in many southern States after the passage of the 14th Amendment, and it's safe to say women would not have been given the right to vote in all states. All of this would have led to the disintegration of the Union, and today we would likely have had multiple independent nations in existence instead of the current U.S. In response to Stuart Gordon, I find your desire to drive all folks out of the denomination who do not agree with one particular view on ordination and marriage to be very disconcerting. It is one of the many reasons the Presbyterian Church is in its current state of demise, and will probably lead to the extinction of the Presbyterian Church (USA) within the next generation.

    by David McCann

    April 9, 2013

  16. I should not have implied that a coherent position is inevitable, even after more folks leave. There remains a great diversity of views even among folks who share the same vote on ordination and marriage.

    by Stuart Gordon

    April 9, 2013

  17. The point about amending the confessions is apt. Perhaps we err in seeking to amend the Form of Government regarding ordination and marriage without first endeavoring to amend the Book of Confessions. In effect, the ordination decision changed practice without grounding such a change in a shared theological conviction about vocation. If we change the Form of Government and Directory for Worship regarding marriage, without first amending the confessions, we will have repeated the error. Of course, the order isn't written in the stars; but the change of practice without the change of confession makes it clear that the church has not been of one mind, and cannot articulate a coherent position. It will be able to do so only when all the dissenters have left the building.

    by Stuart Gordon

    April 9, 2013

  18. Mr. Moderator, Thank you for leading the church to address these issues. We need to remember that we Presbyterians have edited the Westminster Confession on several occasions to address theological issues. In the early 1950s, the section on marriage and divorce was edited to respond to concerns about the appropriateness of officers who had been divorced and then married another person. Both the Directory for Worship and the Confession were revised to respond to the concern and to remain consistent with each other.

    by Jay Wilkins

    April 9, 2013

  19. I agree with Carolyn George's comment and would like to expand on it. The phrase "idolizng the confessions" created a straw man argument. Whether that was the intention or not, the effect was to present those who disagree with the moderator's ruling and subsequent GA decision as "Confessional fundementalists" or something of the sort. The implication there is that those who oppose the decision are somehow naive or ignorant. In fact I experience all the people engaged in this conversation as intelligent and competent, and I assume they are all motivated by faithfulness to Christ. To accuse those who disagree with us of a serious sin like idolatry was a pretty disappointing tactic. As we explore these sensitive issues guided by the love of Christ, we can do better. Let's expect better from one another.

    by Rod Pinder

    April 8, 2013

  20. It seems the Book of Order itself has a higher understanding of the confessions: F-2.01 The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) states its faith and bears witness to God’s grace in Jesus Christ in the creeds and confessions in The Book of Confessions. In these statements the church declares to its members and to the world who and what it is, what it believes, and what it resolves to do. These statements identify the church as a community of people known by its convictions as well as by its actions. They guide the church in its study and interpretation of the Scriptures; they summarize the essence of Reformed Christian tradition; they direct the church in maintaining sound doctrines; they equip the church for its work of proclamation. They serve to strengthen personal commitment and the life and witness of the community of believers. F-2.02 ...While confessional standards are subordinate to the Scriptures, they are, nonetheless, standards. They are not lightly drawn up or subscribed to, nor may they be ignored or dismissed...Moreover, the process for changing the confessions of the church is deliberately demanding, requiring a high degree of consensus across the church.

    by Rev Suzanne Zampella

    April 8, 2013

  21. I've thought about this, and I don't think it's an oversimplification to say that the issue at hand is whether governing bodies (now "councils" in the nFoG) shall regard the Constitution of the PCUSA as Authoritative or Advisory. Granted, if one says "authoritative," there are challenges in that the confessions were not uniformly written from a political perspective that now leads us to inspect all constitutional language for words like "shall" and "may." That said, the existence of challenges simply makes one's task more demanding -- it does not absolve one of the duty to faithfully and responsibly engage them. If we seek to treat the Constitution as merely advisory, then we should plainly say so and openly return to Sola Scriptura. If we seek to invest the constitution with authority (albeit sub-biblical) , then we obligate ourselves to act accordingly -- including the appropriate and loving use of discipline. But there is no integrity to be found in trying to have it both ways. Such a position is confusing, subversive, and corrosive to any community, but especially so to one that depends so heavily upon mutual trust as the Church of Jesus Christ.

    by Brint Keyes

    April 8, 2013

  22. Interesting comment when Neal says, "What the Book of Confessions does not do is pre-empt, prevent, nor veto consideration of any measure, resolution, or overture by any General Assembly." In other words, the Book of Confessions, Part One of the the Constitution of the PC(USA) can be completely ignored by General Assembly. This is a completely new understanding of our church's polity, and understanding that has become the law of the land because it was made by the GA Moderator. Now that the GA Moderator has the ability to declare what is authoritative for the whole of the PC(USA), it seems to me we have become very Roman Catholic. Maybe it's time to change the title from GA Moderator to Pope of the PC(USA).

    by David McCann

    April 8, 2013

  23. Dear Mr. Moderator: Thank you for leading the church in a discussion of the “Nature of Confessions in the Reformed Tradition for the PC(USA).” It is good to hold up and discuss our faith and our confessions. Do I understand correctly that you both affirm the authority of the confessions and yet also deny that they have the ability to restrain any action of the General Assembly? If so, does that not render their authority empty, and does that not create confusion in the church? The Book of Confessions is Part I of our constitution. The purpose of a constitution is to constitute a disparate group of people into a unified body. Thus the confessions not only say what we believe but also actually help to make us who we are. And as Part I of the constitution, The Book of Confessions has priority over the rest. It is the official statement of the faith of the church, of what we believe and, therefore, of what we are committed to doing. The Book of Order is Part II of our constitution. It is secondary. It is an agreed upon statement of how we are going to live out our faith practically in congregations and beyond. In that statement, we have agreed to operate by Robert’s Rules of Order, an orderly way for deliberative bodies to find and express their common mind. It is, by this reference, practically made an extended part of our constitution. According to Robert’s Rules of Order, it is out of order to adopt any motion, including a proposed amendment, that conflicts with the constitution (section 10, p. 111, lines 4–6). The proper way to effect extensive change would be to amend all relevant portions of the constitution simultaneously. To attempt anything less than that, such as to attempt only the easier amendment of Part II of our constitution, would an affront to the faith of the church and a violation of the Book of Order (F-2.01, “The Purpose of Confessional Statements”). The action of last year’s assembly declaring itself free to propose amendments to the Book of Order in conflict with The Book of Confessions, thus disallowing the confessions any say-so over the government and life of the church, was a knowing and willing rejection both of the confessions and of good order. It was a disavowal of the Reformed tradition and a dismantling of our constitution. For a body to vote against its own constitution is to vote against having a constitution and is therefore to vote against being constituted at all. That is to say, the assembly’s action rendered us a non-confessional and post-constitutional church! Organizations cannot sustain such massive contradictions. The assembly itself has created an unresolved constitutional crisis, known in parliamentary terms as a continuing breach. Must we not remedy this situation immediately? Dr. James C. Goodloe IV, Executive Director Foundation for Reformed Theology 4103 Monument Avenue Richmond, Virginia 23230 www.foundationrt.org

    by Dr. James C. Goodloe IV

    April 8, 2013

  24. I was at the 220th General Assembly, Paul Hooker stated in session that the Book of Confession is merely a historical document of our historical faith and does not provide authority in decision of the church. So the question is who is right, Neal Presa or Paul Hooker. Youtube has a video with Paul making this statement.

    by Tim Thomas

    April 5, 2013

  25. "Idolizing the confessions...." Please Mr. Moderator, this is quite the accusation. Please fill us in on who, what where and when. As for the rest of the article...that is enough doublespeak to last a lifetime.

    by Caroyn George

    April 5, 2013

  26. Thanks, Neal, for a wonderful, informative comment.

    by Ralph Garlin Clingan, PhD

    April 3, 2013

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