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.
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.
And thank you.