Tuesday, October 10, 2006

What is Essential?

Disclaimer: I am not a theologian, nor do I have any special training in Christian Education or Church Polity. I read Scripture, the Book of Order, and the Book of Confessions on a regular basis, and occasionally I vote in Presbytery. What follows are my own opinions shaped by my reading and people with whom I have spoken.

There has been much discussion of what constitutes the Essential Tenets of the Reformed Faith, with people dividing into two divergent camps: Those who feel that there ARE essential tenets and those who don't.

Those who believe there ARE essential tenets that can be identified will find them in Scripture and the Book of Confessions.

The prevailing "official" attitude seems to be that since there isn't a section in the Book of Order labeled "Essential Tenets", that we are free to come up with our own list; a doctrinal cafeteria, if you will.

As Beau Weston has pointed out in his book Leading From the Center, 1967 was the year the Presbyterian Church went from one doctrinal statement (the Westminster Confession and Catachisms) to a Book of Confessions, not all of which emphasized the same points. As a result, even those who look to the Book of Confessions for guidance as to what Scripture "leads us to believe and do" have an often bewildering set of confessional choices to wade through.

Another, perhaps more basic issue is that Presbyterians are not particularly conversant with what the Book of Confessions actually has to say, and when they read some of the harsh views about Roman Catholics in the Scots Confession, or the condemnation of Anabaptists in the Second Helvetic Confession, they are astonished. These confessions, much more than Scripture, must be understood in light of what they were responding to, and we need to separate the theological understandings from the specific condemnations of things that were happening hundreds of years ago. Our denomination has not done well at teaching and interpreting the historic confessions. In fact, our denomination has not done well at teaching what it means to be Reformed.

Individual congregations have taken on this task, when it is done at all, and there are excellent books available that can help. Two in particular are Presbyterian Polity for Church Officers co-authored by our current General Assembly Moderator Joan Gray and Presbyterian Creeds -- A Guide to the Book of Confessions by a former moderator, Jack Rogers. In the latter volume, originally written around the time of the reunion, Jack Rogers identifies from the Book of Order a list of essential tenets and reformed distinctives. I will post something on those next week.

So -- What essential tenets can we identify, using the plain meaning of the English language and our common sense?

The first and foremost is found in the public profession of faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior that all members must make (G-5.0100). In many congregations this takes the form of a question: "Who is your Lord and Savior", with the prescribed answer in the liturgy being "Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior". This question is also asked of parents presenting their infants for baptism, and it is one of the few, if not the only question that calls for a complete sentence as its answer.

There are other questions asked of persons desiring to become active members, and they mostly relate to the duties incumbent on members.

The constitutional questions (G-14.0206) asked of all deacons and elders are 9 in number:
  • Do you trust in Jesus Christ your Savior, acknowledge him Lord of all and Head of the Church, and through him believe in one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?
  • Do you accept the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be, by the Holy Spirit, the unique and authoritative witness to Jesus Christ in the Church universal, and God’s Word to you?
  • Do you sincerely receive and adopt the essential tenets of the Reformed faith as expressed in the confessions of our church as authentic and reliable expositions of what Scripture leads us to believe and do, and will you be instructed and led by those confessions as you lead the people of God?
  • Will you fulfill your office in obedience to Jesus Christ, under the authority of Scripture, and be continually guided by our confessions?
  • Will you be governed by our church’s polity, and will you abide by its discipline? Will you be a friend among your colleagues in ministry, working with them, subject to the ordering of God’s Word and Spirit?
  • Will you in your own life seek to follow the Lord Jesus Christ, love your neighbors, and work for the reconciliation of the world?
  • Do you promise to further the peace, unity, and purity of the church?
  • Will you seek to serve the people with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love?
  • Will you be a faithful elder (deacon), watching over the people, providing for their worship, nurture, and service? Will you share in government and discipline, serving in governing bodies of the church, and in your ministry will you try to show the love and justice of Jesus Christ?
The questions for ministers are identical on the theological issues and similar on the polity issues.

Since all these questions must be answered with either "I do" or "I will", I think that a reasonable person can infer that they are essentials.

Granted, not all the ordination questions are theological in nature, but our polity is what makes us Presbyterian, and should be taken seriously.

My list of essentials thus far numbers ten -- and I haven't even cracked open the Book of Confessions or the Bible. At the risk of starting something, what else should be on this list? Am I being fair in counting these ten as "essentials"?

To me the denial of the existence of "Essential Tenets" is taking the path of least intellectual resistance -- and that is unworthy of the strong intellectual faith that Presbyterians have been known for over their 300 year history in America.


jim said...

Nice thought provoking post on an issue of great significance, I'm not sure that we'll ever have a sufficient answer to the question of what is "essential."

Having been ordained just over a year ago, it sure would have been easier to have someone hand me a list of essential tenets that I could go down and with each item identify either 'yes' or 'no.'

But it also would have made things harder because then I would have had to precisely define at what points and why I disagree with particular aspects of reformed theology. (It might however make for a more honest examination process?!?)

I wonder now if candidates need to declare scruples on the harsh rhetoric of the Scots confession against the Roman Catholic church or the 2nd Helvetic against the anabapists? And if they don't don't declare such a scruple does that mean that we should assume that they have no idea what the Book of Conessions actually says?

The only problem with your pariticular list is that it's self-referential. Question 3 says "Do you sincerely receive and adopt the essential tenets of the Reformed faith."

It's a bit of a quagmire we've gotten ourselves in by using the word essential without bothering to define it.

Denis Hancock said...

Jim -- Thanks for dropping by. I was first on your blog a week or so ago, and now you have found your way to mine. I think we PresbyBloggers are not that many degrees of separation from each other...

As for scrupling -- common sense is what is called for. We may not condemn the Anabaptists for their beliefs, but we can (and should) say "here is a point on which we disagree, and this is why we believe the way we do."

The third consitutional question might be construed as actually defining "the essential tenets" when it describes them "as expressed in the confessions of our church as authentic and reliable expositions of what Scripture leads us to believe and do", but that is a pretty wide net.

Life might have been simpler had the Presbyterian Church kept one confessional document (i.e. The Westminster Confession and Catachisms) and commended the rest to the Church for study and reflection.

Gruntled said...

The Adopting Act approaches the "essential tenets of the Reformed faith" negatively -- the Confession (when there was one) was assumed to be accepted by the prospective church officer and assumed to contain the essential tenets. If one wished to extract some particular point from the Confession, the ordaining body would then (and only then) make a judgment about whether the precise nuance of the candidate's particular scruple did or did not touch as essential tenet.