Tuesday, August 30, 2005

PC(USA) News Release Number 05446 -- Task Force

PC(USA) News Release Number 05446 -- Task Force

John Filiatreau has issued a lengthy analysis of the recent report of the Task Force on the Peace, Unity and Purity of the Church. His take on the early response is that the majority of reactions seemed to have skipped over the initial theological reflections and cut to the recommendations:

"....As soon as the report was released, however, Presbyterians both liberal and conservative started “spinning” it. Interestingly, left and right spun it much the same way, suggesting — liberals with satisfaction, conservatives with horror — that it would open the door to the ordination of gays and lesbians in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

This is exactly what the task force members feared: that most Presbyterians would skip past the “theological reflection” portion that opens the report; pay little attention to the section describing the group’s own “transforming” experience; go right to recommendations, looking to take offense; and skip the first and most important one — that the church’s unity be preserved at all costs — to the fifth, the AI, the one that most directly addresses the hot-button issue of homosexuality and church office...."

I agree, having read most of the quick responses (and having posted one of my own). I have a quibble with the "preserved at all costs" part. Do we not each have a point beyond which we could not cross?

I have to wonder if we Presbyterians are spending far too much time on sexual issues.

The first part of the report provides the basis for our Peace, Unity and Purity: The Lordship of Jesus Christ and the testimony of Scripture, coupled with our willingness to listen to one another. We are not going to agree on every point, but we ought to be able to worship together and approach the Lord's Table as fellow sinners in need of redemption. Too much of our time and too many of our resources are being spent in fighting over issues where the only outcome seems to be further divisiveness. Let's concentrate on what unites us.

Kruse Kronicle: Science and Christianity (Part 7)

Kruse Kronicle: Science and Christianity (Part 7)

Here is another thought-provoking essay on Science and Christianity in which Michael Kruse shows how Darwin drew together all the unconnected threads that had accumulated over the years into a theory of how species might have arisen.

He points out the tensions between differing world views:

"....The two major challenges for me are about the participation of God in the natural world and why a loving God would create a world with such violence and destruction. For others, Darwin’s model raises issues about the authority and reliability of scripture. There is also the issue of evolution as a model for scientific research versus Darwinism as an ideology for interpreting all physical and metaphysical issues. Many Christian scientists have little problem embracing the former without the latter...."

Many people fail to see a difference between science and technology, or between Darwin's theory and Social Darwinism.

One fascinating historical quirk is that library of the Brunn monastery, where Gregor Mendel performed his experiments on inheritance in peas, had a copy of The Origin of Species (1859) with handwritten notes in what was believed to be Mendel's handwriting. Darwin conceded that he had no explanation of the inheritance of traits, and this remained a major gap in the evolutionary model. Mendel published his paper on inheritance in peas in 1865 and it was essentially unnoticed until 1901 when it was "rediscovered". What did Mendel think about this? Did he realize that he filled Darwin's gap with his observations on inheritance? If so, why did he remain silent?

Another distinction I would like to make here is between the general theory of evolution that Darwin proposed in The Origin of Species, and the specific theories that have grown up around it (i.e. single-cells to human beings). Even many creationists accept most of what Darwin wrote; they call it "microevolution."

I look forward to seeing where Mike is headed with his series.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Mission is the Heart of the Church

Mission is the Heart of the Church

Marj Carpenter, who seems always to have something substantive to say to the the Presbyterian Church, wrote this in the August 29th issue of Presbyterian Outlook:

Once I visited a presbytery in Mississippi. Presbyterians there had just completed a mission trip to Mexico. Several of them rose and gave detailed reports of helping with construction, Bible school, and other projects. A young teenager was the last one to speak. He rose and quickly and simply said, “I found out while on this trip that Americans have too much stuff,” and he sat down.

It was one of the best mission talks I ever heard.
The lesson this young man learned is one we could all take to heart. The congregation to which I belong has made 4 trips to the San Luis Valley in Colorado since 1999. There is much beauty in the San Luis Valley, and much poverty. The fact that 10-12 adults can take time off from work and travel the 800 miles or so to Alamosa, CO indicates that we are blessed with resources that many do not share.

The late Mike Yaconelli, in his book Tough Faith, suggests that it is not the "givens" of our lives that define us, but how we live within our givens. What I am still struggling with is just how I am living within the givens of my life.

In Marj Carpenter's article she makes mission personal as she relates moving stories of joys and tragedies that are a part of serving the Lord in the world. She speaks with the authority that flows from personal contacts she has made -- 583 mission stations in 126 countries. She pays special tribute to those missionaries over the years who lost their lives as a direct result of following God's call, thus showing the greatest love one have.

To close this posting, Marj Carpenter exhorts us to remember that mission crosses generational boundaries:
But we cannot forget, or be unfaithful to our generation’s responsibilities. They [our predecessors] planted seeds all over the world, and Presbyterians today are using a variety of means to carry on, taking the gospel into all the world.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Further Reflections on the Task Force for Peace and Purity

Looking over various groups' initial reaction to the Task Force Report, it seems that many believe that "“local option"” is being promoted, including The Washington Post and The Presbyterian Layman. While this report passed unanimously, the members of Task Force were given an opportunity to make statements as reported by Presbyterians for Renewal. ” Not all were completely happy with the outcome, although many were pleased with the theological underpinnings of the report.

Here are several of my observations:
  • The Task Force's definition of the theological basis for our unity in Christ is well-grounded in Scripture, and provides a solid basis for their deliberations.
  • The art of listening is not particularly evident in Presbyterian debate. The Task Force made it a top priority to listen to each other and to build fellowship, setting an example for the wider Church to follow.
  • The Washington Post (free registration required) seems to have gotten it wrong in its headline “Church Panel Urges Gay-Clergy Change.” In fact, the Task Force made no recommendations for such change.
  • The mention of local application of constitutional standards seems to be interpreted as "local option", although the report explicitly states that "“local option"” is not viable in that the whole Church sets the standards. To depart from that is unpresbyterian.
  • In my opinion, there is already a de facto "local option"” in that some presbyteries have adopted a "don'’t ask, don'’t tell" approach.
  • Does continuing to fight over issues, where there is no realistic expectation of changing people's minds, build up the Body of Christ? The final section of the Task Force's report summarizes how people can be united in Christ while holding differences of opinion about some issues.
  • Can we divert the resources and energy spent in fighting among ourselves to furthering The Great Ends of the Church?
"The great ends of the church are 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."” (The Book of Order G-1.0200)

One final observation: The first of the 7 recommendations the Task Force proposed was to (1) stay together as a denomination and to live in harmony with one another and (2) to urge that all levels of the PC(USA) remember their covenant relationship with one another. I agree wholeheartedly.

Task Force on Peace and Purity -- Impressions

After reading the Final Report of the Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Church, my first impression is that is little different than what we already acknowledge through Scripture, Book of Confessions, and Book of Order.

After reading the proposed Authoritative Interpretation I believe that it neither promotes nor discourages "local option." Elsewhere in the report it is clear that that it is not intended that anything in the report should be inferred as supporting "local option", and I am willing to accept that.

The charge to the task force encompassed four areas:
The task force was charged to lead the church “in spiritual discernment of our Christian identity in and for the 21st century.” Four issues were named for specific attention: Christology, biblical authority and interpretation, ordination, and power. The task force was not asked to resolve all the controversial issues in the church or to relieve the church of all conflict. Rather, the task force was asked to help the church deal with current and future conflicts more faithfully. (emphasis mine)
The sections on Christology and Biblical Authority seem fairly orthodox, although people with different perspectives may find different ways they would have preferred it to be written. I thought the following section on Biblical interpretation was pretty close to my own views:
We also reviewed classic guidelines for interpretation that Presbyterians share despite diversity of perspective on the nature and authority of Scripture. These include:
  • The centrality of Jesus Christ
  • The priority of the plain sense of the text
  • Interpretation of Scripture by Scripture
  • The rule of love
  • The rule of faith
The final section of the report is worth quoting in its entirety:

VI: A Final Word

This entire report has as its premise that a season of discernment is due in the church, one that all the task force’s recommendations are intended to support. We have
  • recommended that the church remain united and strengthen its internal partnerships;
  • suggested that Presbyterians form and support communities of discernment;
  • offered a Theological Reflection that is the result of our own search for Christian identity;
  • urged governing bodies to use a variety of methods, the better to discern the will of God;
  • recommended a return to traditional methods of making ordination decisions that put discernment at the center; and
  • suggested that if these measures are adopted, the church seek to create new patterns of interaction and to increase mutual understanding before engaging in processes of constitutional change.

Life together in a discernment mode has the potential to be more constructive and less difficult than our current pattern of head-to-head confrontation over issues. The purpose of discernment, however, is not to minimize critical issues in order to get on to other matters, much less to make life more pleasant. The purpose, rather, is to know, in our very being as a church, the peace, unity, and purity that have been given to us in Jesus Christ, and to show that peace, unity, and purity to the world we have been commissioned to teach and serve.

Therefore, our denominational struggle to live into the fullness of the gift we have in Jesus Christ is not a diversion from our true mission, as some would claim, but integral to our vocation to proclaim the truth of the gospel. On the night before he died, in the longest prayer recorded in the Gospels, Jesus prayed for us, the church of the future, lifting our names and our troubled church before God in prayer. And chief among his petitions in our behalf was his prayer that we “may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me….By this everyone will know that you are my disciples [he said], if you have love for one another” (John 17:21; John 13:35). How is the world to be challenged to know the truth about God? The world needs not only to hear our witness to the gospel, but also to see and experience the embodied witness of a community joined in love of one another.

Jesus does not, it should be noted, pray that we may all be the same or that we all agree. Indeed, one of the most compelling reasons to continue to hold on to one another is to persuade one another of the truth as God has given us to know it. Another is to strengthen and support one another, different as our vocations and life circumstances may be, in personal holiness and in service to a world riddled with suffering and injustice. Nevertheless, even as we differ and even as we contend with one another, Jesus prays that we may all be one, that we might love one another despite many differences that threaten to divide us. At a time when people readily kill one another over their differences, a church that lives and works for that kind of witness will capture the attention of a polarized world. What besides the mystery of divine love could give us the capacity to love those whose goals and views differ from, even contradict, our own?

The task force is convinced that the world is watching the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and other denominations as we engage in highly publicized debates. To be one is not to say that we will be the same, that we will all agree, that there will be no conflict, but as the church listens to Jesus pray, all its members are reminded that the quality of our life together—our ability to make visible the unique relationship that is ours in Jesus Christ—is compelling testimony to the truth and power of the gospel we proclaim.
I have heard it said, that with all the Presbyterians involved with the formation of our nation, the greatest gift we gave the newly formed United States was its form of government. In my more cynical moments I have expressed the opinion that in return, we took on the US Congress' style of debate. Maybe this report, especially the last section, can help us to show that we follow the Risen Lord by honoring his prayer that we all be one, and that we love one another -- even in our diversity.

Friday, August 26, 2005

PC(USA) - Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Church

PC(USA) - Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Church

Presbyweb had this as "Breaking News" when I returned from Presbytery. The Final Report of the Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Church is available as a pdf file.

I will finish reading it later, but Presbyweb's take on it seems to be that "Local Option" is a possible outcome of the "Authoritative Interpretation" it proposes. The proposed Authoritative Interpretation does not call for the repeal of any part of the Book of Order, nor does state that any ordination standards should be removed. In fact, it appears that is is a strong endorsement of the historical standards of our Church. It does, however, point out that everything is subject to judicial interpretation (which is no different than it is now).

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Growth and Evangelism

Today the Missouri Union Presbytery met, and since I was an elder-commissioner, I took a personal day and attended with our pastor. As synchronicity would have it, the Mission Yearbook of Prayer for August 25 featured our presbytery. The entry looked fairly informative to me, but a friend mentioned that it was just a little depressing. “How so”, I asked. He pointed out the statistics tell a story of a presbytery woefully underserved by pastors. 8,199 members in 77 congregations are being served by 30 ministers of Word and Sacrament. This statistic is mitigated somewhat by the many retired clergy who serve as supply pastors and commissioned lay pastors who serve many smaller congregations, but the ratio of called pastors to congregations continues to go down in Missouri Union Presbytery.

In the worship service, the executive presbyter reviewed the history of the presbytery and its predecessors, and painted a picture of declining influence of the Presbyterian Church in Missouri over the last 180 years. He challenged the congregations to renew their historical commitment to evangelism and to seek to increase our numbers over the next years.

The Presbyterian Panel has summarized the February 2005 panel and in it were some questions on personal evangelism. The data suggest that members are more willing to meet the needs of current members, and to contact people whom they knew, than to make visits to people newly arrived in the community or speak to people in the workplace. (n.b the graphs show pastors opinions about the members in their congregations). More than half the members (59%) and elders (68%) have invited at least one person to church in the past year. The percentage rises when the panel was asked about other church functions: 61% of the members and 77% of the elders have invited someone to a function other than worship. 19% of the clergy report spending no time inviting people not affiliated with a church to attend services, and 10% report spending 10 hours or more per month in such activity. The median monthly number of hours pastors spend in outreach contacts is 2.

The usual separation of clergy into pastors and specialized clergy was not evident in this panel summary, yet over a third of the clergy responses were from specialized clergy.

I will leave it to others who are better attuned to the nuances of statistics to make sense of the data, but it does appear that we have much to improve on.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Scientists Speak Up on Mix of God and Science - New York Times

Scientists Speak Up on Mix of God and Science - New York Times

"At a recent scientific conference at City College of New York, a student in the audience rose to ask the panelists an unexpected question: "Can you be a good scientist and believe in God?"

Reaction from one of the panelists, all Nobel laureates, was quick and sharp. "No!" declared Herbert A. Hauptman, who shared the chemistry prize in 1985 for his work on the structure of crystals.

Belief in the supernatural, especially belief in God, is not only incompatible with good science, Dr. Hauptman declared, "this kind of belief is damaging to the well-being of the human race."

But disdain for religion is far from universal among scientists. And today, as religious groups challenge scientists in arenas as various as evolution in the classroom, AIDS prevention and stem cell research, scientists who embrace religion are beginning to speak out about their faith..."

Interesting article. It sounds like the Kruse Kronicle was prescient in initiating the Science and Christianity discussion on Sunday. It is nice to see The New York Times (you'll need to register, but it's free) present a more balanced view of how Christians can be scientists without compromising either their faith or their effectiveness as scientists. It is a little shocking to hear how a Nobel Laureate could hold such a narrow view as to declare belief in God "damaging to the well-being of the human race", but this illustrates the problems you encounter when you start stepping outside your area of expertise, and try to evaluate something you have not experienced.

I expect this discussion will be stimulating and enjoyable.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Kruse Kronicle: Science and Christianity (Part 1)

Michael Kruse over at Kruse Kronicle is starting a series on Science and Christianity which should prove interesting.

The late Steven J. Gould wrote a book called Rocks of Ages, which points out that Science and Religion have non-overlapping magisteria, and thus should not come into conflict -- yet they do. Among Gould's conclusions are that scientists should not be making dogmatic assumptions about the existence or nonexistence of God, and religious adherents should not be making pronouncements about the physical universe. When I took freshman biology in 1970, my text had a section on science and religion warning about stepping too far outside one's realm. On statement in particular has stayed with me: If one bases one's faith on some aspect of the physical universe that is open to observation and analysis, then one risks having science destroy faith.

Magisterium is a term used more in an ecclesiastical sense, and refers to the Pope and bishops who are under his authority. To the Roman Catholics, it is the only authority that can define or interpret the truth. To Protestants, the magisterium consists of the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, and interpretation is left to the reader.

To scientists, the magisterium consists of the Scientific Method -- A means of acquiring knowledge by observation, generalization, developing hypotheses and theories, and experimentation. A good theory will generate predictions, which can then be experimentally tested. It is a dynamic process, and theories can shift over time as new knowledge is acquired.

If the predictions of a theory can be tested, then it under the umbrella of science. If not, then it cannot properly be called science.

Religion is truth that is revealed by God; Science is truth that is sought after using the scientific method. Can one live in both worlds? Of course. I do, and many others do as well. Job, in chapters 38 and following, was asked by God to expound on many biology and physics topics. Job could offer no reply and learned how little he actually knew. Today we know more about the world around us, yet this does not cheapen faith. Rather, it underscores the wonders of life and the universe around it.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

An Eye for an Eye

MercuryNews.com | 08/19/2005 | Presbyterian Church is unfair in targeting Israel for divestment -- free registration required

"...As a Presbyterian clergywoman with missionary roots in the Middle East, a strong commitment to human rights and peace, and a deep love of interfaith dialogue, I am dismayed and heartbroken by my denomination's actions regarding divestment. Not only has divestment, even "selective divestment,'' contradicted and undermined a half-century of the church's commitment to a two-state solution, it has seriously eroded a much-valued relationship with the Jewish community..."

The Rev. Rebecca Kuiken, Moderator of the San Jose Presbytery, makes a good point here. I have been increasingly uncomfortable with the disproportionate response of the PC(USA) to the violence in the Middle East. The quick condemnations of Israel for retaliating to terrorist attacks on their civilian population stand in stark contrast to the near silence when it comes to condemnation of the perpetrators of such terror.

It saddens me to see the "tit-for-tat" that characterizes the violence between Israelis and Palestinians, especially when Jesus offers a better way:

38"You have have heard that it was said 'Eye for eye and tooth for tooth'. 39But I tell you Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40And of someone wants to sue you and take you tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you."

"43You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' 44But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45that you may be sons of your Father in Heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans to that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, even as you heavenly Father is perfect."

-- Matthew 5:38-48 NIV

In these two paragraphs Jesus mentions two things that were known to to the disciples and the others who were listening to what is commonly known as "The Sermon on the Mount". The first -- "Eye for eye and tooth for tooth" is found in Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy. The second -- "Love your neighbor and hate your enemy" is nowhere to be found in Scripture, yet it was a commonly known saying of the time. James H. Charlesworth, in his book Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls (Doubleday, 1992), notes this, and suggests that it was an Essene teaching. A similar passage occurs in the scroll called The Rule of the Community. The Essenes in their day rivaled the Pharisees and Sadducees in their influence on Jewish thought, and Jesus may well have been countering Essene attitudes in this passage.

Jesus is not only removing revenge as an option, but is telling us to seek out those whom we hate, or those who hate us, and be reconciled to them. When one looks at the way Christians treat each other, this is one of many areas in which we all need to get our house in order. If we could accomplish that, we could be far more effective in setting an example to the world around us.

Blogging from within Microsoft Word

Blogger has recently made available a Microsoft Word add-in that allows one to edit, save as drafts, and publish posts from within the Word application. This short post is being created in just such a way.

NOTE: This application is supposed to allow you to open and edit the last 15 posts, but this does not seem to be the case. It may be a configuration issue with Word, or perhaps a firewall issue. I'll do some more exploring, but for now it seems that once posted, subsequent edits and corrections will need to be made from within Blogger.

Friday, August 19, 2005

When in doubt, try Google....

In the previous post I refered to a quotation for which I could not give attribution: In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, tolerance; and in everything, love"

It turns out that something very similar was used as the motto of the United Presbyterian Church in North America: "In essentials unity, in nonessentials forbearance in love."

Source: "BEING CONSIDERATE", an exposition on Romans 15:1-13 by Max Forsythe.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Moving Forward

In the previous three postings (What is Reform?; Liberty, Conscience, and God’s Word; and Here I Stand?) I have highlighted three phrases often quoted out of context, and attempted to put them into context. In all three, the missing context illustrates the Reformers’ reliance upon the Word of God for their illumination.

As Reformed Christians, the Word of God must be our first and last stop when dealing with issues that confront us. With the Word of God we can act as a beacon of hope for the world and allow ourselves to be reformed according to the Word of God. Without God’s Word we allow ourselves to be molded by the values of the world, and too often these are in conflict with that the Lord expects us to do.

So with all the issues confronting the Presbyterian Church today, and all the different ways we approach and understand Scripture, how can we survive as a denomination? Here a few suggestions:

  • Study the Bible, preferably in a group where you can trade insights and gain the benefit of different points of view. Seek ways in which we can apply these insights to problems we face as individuals and as a denomination.
  • Avoid drawing “lines in the sand”. These do little to build fellowship, and make it difficult to have meaningful dialogue. Use “Here I stand, I can do no other!” sparingly, if at all, and remember what Luther said before that.
  • Realize that there is far more that unites us than divides us. Spend more time in fellowship and less time in trying to convert others to your particular point of view. A good place to start is what all members have in common – faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.
  • When it comes to essentials, Unity; to non-essentials, Tolerance; and in everything, Love. (I have heard this often, but I have no idea who said it)

“The Mission of the Church is Mission!” Or as former moderator Marj Carpenter so eloquently put it “Mission, Mission, Mission!” If we could only concentrate on our unity and our common mission, how much more could we accomplish, with God’s help?

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Here I Stand?

How many times have we, or someone in our hearing, dug in our heels at some point in a vigorous discussion and said “Here I stand!” I think it is safe to say that most of us have felt at one time or another that we could not budge from our position and have been tempted to use Martin Luther’s words.

It seems to me that, with the various debates that confront the Presbyterian Church, the “Here I Stand!” moments are a bit more numerous than they really need to be. When I feel the words “Here I Stand” bubbling to the surface I try to take a step back and ask myself “Is this really worth breaking fellowship over?” Or is it possible for me to accept that an honest difference of opinion exists, and move on? What should the threshold be for digging in and risking schism?

Remember that Martin Luther not only risked schism, but his very life with his words. But what was it that impelled Luther? Let’s look at Luther’s words in a wider context:

“Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe.”

“Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen.”

-- Wikipedia article on Martin Luther.

It is a matter of scholarly debate as to whether Luther, in ending his speech before the Diet of Worms, actually spoke the final line, but “Here I Stand” is so inextricably tied to Luther that we might as well accept it.

Luther’s point was one that was taken to heart by the Reformers, and we see it enshrined in our Confessions and Book of Order: “God alone is Lord of the conscience and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in anything contrary to His Word, or beside it, in matters of faith and worship”.

We Presbyterians have three choices when dealing with issues that have been decided by the Church at its various levels: (1) to actively concur; (2) to passively submit; or (3) to peaceably withdraw. (The Book of Order, footnote to G-6.0108b)

Most issues which divide us can be dealt with using the first or second option. Option 3 (the “nuclear option”) should only be used for the rare instance where one’s understanding of Scripture leads to a deep and uncompromising view that the PC(USA) is terribly wrong and that he or she cannot stay within the fold of the Presbyterian Church. Passive submission does not require that debate cease. In fact, ongoing debate coupled with scriptural study resulted ultimately in the ordination of women in the Presbyterian Church. This reform might not have taken place had people “peaceably withdrawn.”

Monday, August 15, 2005

Liberty, Conscience, and God’s Word

“God Alone is Lord of the Conscience” is used quite often in Presbyterian conversations, especially those which are on the topic of what we are to believe and do. The intent of this phrase is to recognize that there can be differences of opinion, but it was never intended to justify rejection of God’s Word. The seven words “God Alone is Lord of the Conscience” are followed by many others which are almost never quoted:

God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in anything contrary to his Word, or beside it, in matters of faith or worship” – The Book of Order G-1.0301(a)

This phrase has a long history in the reformed tradition, having originally appeared in the Westminster Confession of 1647 (see below). It was adopted by the first Presbyterian General Assembly in the United States in 1789, and has been a part of our Book of Order ever since, with only one minor change – “any thing” became “anything”. This statement was the first of several in a section of The Book of Order (G-1.0300) titled “The Historic Principles of Church Order.

The clear meaning of the complete statement is that Presbyterians accept that our conscience is subject only to the Word of God, and not to beliefs or practices which are not based on God’s Word. We also recognize that there can be differences of opinion over the meaning and interpretation of Scripture. Since we are fallible humans, we individually and collectively can be wrong, as we now recognize with regard to slavery and our failure in the past to recognize that God calls women as well as men to spiritual leadership. Our denomination is struggling with war, abortion, capital punishment, economic justice, and other issues over which consensus eludes us – yet in so far as these issues are being illuminated by Scripture, we are open to being reformed through the Word. It is our willingness to listen to prophetic voices that allows us to be reformed according to God’s Word.

For your interest, here is an excerpt from the Westminster Confession as it appears in the 2002 version of the Book of Confessions:

The Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 20 (UPCUSA)

Of Christian Liberty, and Liberty of Conscience

1. The liberty which Christ hath purchased for believers under the gospel consists in their freedom from the guilt of sin, the condemning wrath of God, the curse of the moral law; and in their being delivered from this present evil world, bondage to Satan, and dominion of sin, from the evil of afflictions, the sting of death, the victory of the grave, and everlasting damnation; as also in their free access to God, and their yielding obedience unto him, not out of slavish fear, but a childlike love, and a willing mind. All which were common also to believers under the law; but under the New Testament, the liberty of Christians is further enlarged in their freedom from the yoke of the ceremonial law, to which the Jewish church was subjected; and in greater boldness of access to the throne of grace, and in fuller communications of the free Spirit of God, than believers under the law did ordinarily partake of.

2. God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in anything contrary to his Word, or beside it in matters of faith or worship. So that to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commandments out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience; and the requiring an implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience, and reason also.

3. They who, upon pretense of Christian liberty, do practice any sin, or cherish any lust, do thereby destroy the end of Christian liberty; which is, that, being delivered out of the hands of our enemies, we might serve the Lord without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him, all the days of our life.

4. And because the powers which God hath ordained, and the liberty which Christ hath purchased, are not intended by God to destroy, but mutually to uphold and preserve one another; they who, upon pretense of Christian liberty, shall oppose any lawful power, or the lawful exercise of it, whether it be civil or ecclesiastical, resist the ordinance of God. And for their publishing of such opinions, or maintaining of such practices, as are contrary to the light of nature, or to the known principles of Christianity, whether concerning faith, worship, or conversation; or to the power of godliness; or such erroneous opinions or practices as, either in their own nature, or in the manner of publishing or maintaining them, are destructive to the external peace and order which Christ hath established in the church; they may lawfully be called to account, and proceeded against by the censures of the Church.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

What is Reform?

When the United Presbyterian Church in the USA reunited with the Presbyterian Church in the US several years ago, they chose as their motto a short phrase written during the Reformation:

Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda

This has generally been translated as "The Reformed Church, always reforming".

Over the past few years, I have read discussions about the meaning of this phrase as it relates to how our church should deal with change, and one comment jumped out at me. The author said that the "always reforming" part was mistranslated and was actually in the passive voice: "always being reformed".

This is significant because it cuts to the core of who we are and what we believe. Is it the Church's job to reform, or to be reformed? And who does the reforming?

I checked the Latin translation with a person who graduated several years ago with a major in Classical Languages, and she looked at the four words and said that "reformanda" was in the gerundive form, and "always reforming" was the way she would translate it. I thought to myself "well, it would have been a good illustration", but then she hesitated and said "There's something I need to look up about the Latin gerundive." A few weeks later she returned with her Latin grammar and said "I'll bet you thought I'd forgotten". She was right, but I held my tongue. She showed me the section on the gerundive, also known as the future passive participle. We have a word in English that comes straight from Latin: Agenda. It is in the gerundive form, and refers to a list of things that are to be accomplished. As she left the room, she turned and said "Oh, by-the-way, reformata is a perfect passive participle".

So, if one wants to be accurate about translating our Presbyterian Church motto, it would be "The Church has been reformed, and is always about to be reformed".

There is more, though. The words "secundum verbum Dei" follow immediately. So the full statement reads "The Church has been reformed, and is always about to be reformed, according to the Word of God".

This dovetails perfectly with the guiding Reformation principle that it is the Scriptures alone (Sola Scriptura) which determine what form the Church and its doctrines should take. Question 3 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism asks, "What do the Scriptures principally teach?" The answer is "The Scriptures principally teach what Man is to believe concerning God, and what duties God requires of Man."

It is hard to imagine a more concise, yet complete answer to this question. This answer is simple, but it is most certainly not simplistic. The Shorter Catechism remains a part of our Book of Confessions, and the more I read it, the more I am impressed with the way it defines clearly our Reformed faith.

The early reformers understood clearly that reform is not something we do to ourselves when we feel the need, nor is it something we undertake when our doctrines appear inconvenient in a modern world. Reform is what happens when prophetic voices, inspired by the Word of God, are raised in response to the Church straying from the Word of God.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Trying something new....

I have been involved with web sites for 12 years now, and have hosted the Missouri Flyfishing page for 11 years.

My first experience with blogging was reading the plethora of information arising out of the 2004 general elections. I saw the good, the bad, and the ugly of blogging, but with care, I could learn what I wanted to. One thing that came to mind during the last general election was an old saying: "A lie will travel halfway around the world before Truth puts its boots on". This has been true for as long as email has been a factor in campaigning. We all need to filter what we see, whether it be the Main Stream Media or email groups, or blogs.

Why "The Reformed Angler"? Well, first, I am a Christian in the Reformed tradition, specifically a Presbyterian. Second, I am a fly angler who finds much time for contemplation while waiting for a trout to take my fly.

I have no idea how frequently I will post, but for now, let's see how things go. I'm looking forward to being a participant rather than an observer.

Denis Hancock
Columbia, Missouri