Guided by the Confessions

1998 Covenant Conference

  Guided by the Confessions: A Conversation Over Time

Cynthia Campbell

November 6, 1998

[Précis]

Since Reunion in 1983, the Presbyterian Church (USA) has been a “confessional church,” living with a Book of Confessions.  This collection was originally developed by the United Presbyterian Church (USA) with the adoption of the Confession of 1967, amended at the time of Reunion, and finally added to by the Brief Statement of Faith of the PC(USA).  Taken together, “these statements identify the church as a community of people known by its convictions as well as by its actions”  (G-2.0100b).  The confessions help the church say to itself, as well as to the world, who we are, what we believe, and what we resolve to do (cf. G-2.0100a). 

Defining what precisely it means to live with (and especially, “in conformity to” — G-6.0106b) the Confessions is not easy.  Indeed, it seems that for every statement that can be made about the status or authority  of the confessions, there is another statement equally true, which must be held in tension with the first.

Let me give you a few examples:

* On the one hand, the confessions are “subordinate standards in the Church, subject to the authority of Jesus Christ” (C-67);  but on the other hand, “they are, nonetheless, standards” (G-2.0200).

* On the one hand, the ordination questions ask persons being ordained to be “instructed,” “led,” and “guided” by the confessions (rather than, for example, “obligated” or “bound”).   And yet, provision is made to discipline an officer who has “seriously departed” from the confessional standards (and/or “the essentials of Reformed faith”)  (cf. G-6.0107a and b). 

* Again, those being ordained are asked to “receive and adopt the essential tenets of the Reformed faith as expressed in the confessions.”  And yet, the Church has, as far back as 1927, resisted producing  a list of essential tenets. 

* The Confessions are about the identity and thus about the integrity of the community.  But on the other hand, one of the cornerstones of this community is that “God alone is Lord of the conscience” (G-1.0301a and b). 

* The writing and adopting of confessions signals the necessity of boundaries for a faith tradition to have coherence; but (beginning even with Nicea and Chalcedon) the church has understood that within those boundaries, there remains considerable latitude for appropriate expression of faith and practice. 

* Confessions affirm the continuity of  faithful people today with those who have gone before, and yet a particular confession of our tradition is that the tradition itself must always be open to reformation and transformation by the power of the Holy Spirit. 

These are tensions within which we live if we live with a Confessional tradition. 

What does it mean to live as a Confessional people?  Jack Rogers has used the image that the Book of Confessions represents “a Reformed range of responses to the word of God.” That sentence invites us to remember that we are called to respond to God’s word anew in each generation.  But affirming a Confessional tradition means that we are not making this up as we go along.  We are not the first people ever who have tried to respond to God’s word.

To live as confessional people means that we take seriously councils and assemblies, drafting committees and authors, preachers and scholars, who have labored over 2,000 years to discern the faith.  And yet, just as with scripture itself, living with a long confessional tradition means that we cannot simply jump from the words on the page to their application.  As we do with scripture, we need to take into account the context, the situation, the social location, the history, the rhetoric of the people who wrote in times past. 

To live in a confessional tradition is to act out the conviction that trying to say what we believe is a worthwhile undertaking, because beliefs matter.  Our beliefs affect how we live, and that’s why this undertaking is so serious for us.

To live in a confessional tradition means to be committed to the notion that discerning God’s truth comes out of human interaction and debate. The confessions themselves were born out of conversation, a.k.a. debate. And we believe that God is with us in this process. 

If we do this well, if we discern the truth of our confessional tradition through debate and dialogue and discussion well, we might give this society in which we live a valuable gift: the gift of people disagreeing in civility, disagreeing with compassion, disagreeing with steadfast commitment, not only to the truth to be discerned, but to one another. 

To affirm a confessional tradition, then, is not simply to have a list of statements of doctrine or an interpretive framework through which to view both scripture and contemporary experience.  Being a confessional church also entails a commitment to the ongoing process of discerning God’s revelation and the implications of the gospel of Jesus Christ in the midst of the church’s particular contexts and challenges. Reformed Christians believe that God is always present to the community as it reads scripture and attempts to proclaim the Word.  We also believe that none of our attempts to interpret, proclaim, or state the faith can be final, complete, or infallible.  No statement of faith, however venerable, is God.  Only God is God.

Some describe the situation in which the Presbyterian Church finds itself as a struggle between those who identify, uphold, and defend the traditional confessional standards and those who hold that “God alone is Lord of the conscience” and that the rights of individuals to believe specific things (or to behave in certain ways) should not be proscribed by the church.  Upon reflection, I don’t see the matter in this way: it is not as simple as a modern struggle between “public” vs. “private” faith.  I believe that the Presbyterian Church is doing today what the church has often done.  We are debating the nature, role, and authority of the standards themselves. And that is a good and healthy debate.

This process of living in the tension between our need for boundaries and our commitment to the discernment of God’s will through our differences is a hallmark of the Reformed tradition. It is also a mark of a healthy church.

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