Reconciliation Matters

Reconciliation Matters: C67 Now and Then

 John Wilkinson
Pastor,Third Presbyterian Church
Rochester, New York 

Address to the 2002 Covenant Conference
November 7, 2002

II Corinthians 5:16(RSV): From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once regarded Christ from a human point of view, we regard him thus no longer. 17: Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come. 18: All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; 19: that is, God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. 20: So we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21: For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

“Irresistibly imposed.” Those words from II Corinthians– “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself”– irresistibly imposed themselves on a committee, a Presbyterian committee, of all things. At least that’s the way that Edward A. Dowey, Jr., who chaired the committee that offered the Confession of 1967 to the Presbyterian church, described the way in which those words captured a committee’s imagination. “Reconciliation,” articulated by the Apostle as the centerpiece of Christian theology and appropriated by a committee nearly two millennia later, forms the centerpiece of a statement — what we this afternoon will call “C67” — that served as a theological and ecclesiastical watershed for the Presbyterian family.

A bit of background is called for. As you know, one of the many ways that Presbyterian history in the United States can be mapped is through the rhythm of schism and union. The pattern usually involves some kind of theological controversy, theological on the surface anyway, that also reflects a deeper struggle over power and decision-making and styles and practices of ministry and governance. Then, once bodies split, they almost always soon thereafter begin conversations about how they may get back together again.

Two major Presbyterian streams dissolved and then sub-divided in the constellation of events surrounding the Civil War, the issues of abolition and slavery and the war itself, and the church’s response. Almost immediately, those two streams began conversations about getting back together, but it was not really until the late 1940’s and 1950’s that those discussions gained much traction. A near-miss proposed union in 1954 of the Presbyterian Church in the United States (the P.C.U.S., the so-called “Southern” church), the United Presbyterian Church in North America (a denomination representing the Scottish covenanting tradition) and the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (the P.C.U.S.A. without the current set of parentheses, the so-called “Northern” church) led to the union of the “Northern” church and the United church in 1958 to create the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, reflecting perhaps the longest ecclesiastical title in the history of Christendom. The bottom line was that a new Presbyterian church emerged in 1958, representing several streams of tradition.

Throughout those decades of union and reunion discussion, the issue of theological standards was always at the top of the agenda. Though the issue of application of standards was something of an issue of contention, union committees often reached quick consensus on the standards themselves: the Westminster Confession of Faith, plus a package considering the Larger and Shorter Catechisms as well as either an update of the Westminster standards or a contemporary statement of faith.

Such was the case as we turn to the theological identity of the newly united U.P.C.U.S.A. It took an overture, of course, to really get the ball rolling in the newly united church, from the Presbytery of Amarillo. That overture, about the need to state the faith in a new way for a new time and generation, passed, with appropriate appropriation of the Westminster standards, and the committee that received the overture concurred with the sentiment that the church needed a “brief Statement of faith in clear, concise, and contemporary language” seeking to “bring to all the members of our Church some sense of participation in the thrilling revival of theology.” The thrilling revival of theology. How wonderful that sounds.

In the fall of 1958, therefore, the Special Committee on a Brief Statement of Faith began its work, chaired by Edward Dowey of Princeton Theological Seminary by way of McCormick Theological Seminary and by way — along with his colleagues on the committee — of study with some of the great names of 20th century theology.

The notes of the Dowey committee fill some half a dozen boxes at the Presbyterian Historical Society in Philadelphia. They capture what you might imagine they would capture, a group of dedicated, initially perplexed but eventually fairly convinced professors, ministers, leaders, seeking a way through an extraordinarily complex task in order to offer something useful to the church. They succeeded, and the manner in which they succeeded deserves not just a nod of recognition 35 years later, but re-examination and re-appropriation of how what they said then speaks to us now, for such a time as this. Because it does.

This is only nominally a history lesson this afternoon, but there are some things we should remember. We should remember that we Presbyterians are a confessional people, serving a confessional church. That is to say while “theology matters” all of the time, the work of the Dowey committee, and the call for a new confession, represents a particular moment when theology really mattered. The task they were given sought to do many things, but primarily it sought to give new articulation to some very foundational Reformed affirmations, at the same time providing a supplement, some say correction, some say abandonment, some say worse and some say better, to the Westminster standards that had served as the sole foundation of American Presbyterian theological identity.

One of the things we will need to bookmark for another day is not only the addition of C67 to our confessional corpus, but the creation, the formation, of a book of confessions, called appropriately the Book of Confessions, that captures theological formulations from the ancient church, the Reformation era and the 20th century. It took several years for the Dowey committee to develop that concept, just as it took them several years to develop the notion of a theme for this new statement of faith.

How to start? Whether “we hold these truths” or “four score and seven years ago,” how one starts matters. How to start? Was a central theme advisable, and if so, which one? Should it be “redemption,” what God has done for us in Jesus Christ? Should it be “revelation,” the ways in which we come to learn about God? In the end, Paul’s words about reconciliation “irresistibly imposed” themselves as the way in which we understand both redemption and revelation and became the calling card of the confession.

Unlike Westminster, which began with an affirmation of scriptural inspiration and authority, C67 was less interested in the how of the Bible and more interested in the that of the Bible, that the Bible testified to the reconciling ministry of Jesus Christ and therefore offered to the church a vision of reconciliation, a confession leading to Scripture and leading from scripture. As Ed Dowey remarked one time, this confession would start not with a book, but with the Word.

Our confessional tradition is fluid, rather than static, so the year, 1967, matters. Dowey wrote one time that the “genius” of the Reformed tradition is “a confessionalism that has adapted to its historical environment, subordinate to the scriptural witness and stating the faith in language appropriate to the evolving needs of the specific churches for which they have been composed.” (G.A. Minutes, 1959, page 267) It took many drafts and much debate to get to that point. Being a confessional church, I would submit, is like that. Reconciliation is like that.

C67 was originally intended to be “C65.” That a date was chosen at all as the title of the document is instructive — it suggests a timeliness to the whole enterprise that also seems very Reformed — God speaking a new word to the church in a new and particular moment in time, based on the timeless testimony of scripture.

And so, along with being a confessional church, we have been a contextual church. We believe in providence, in the loving acts of a sovereign God; we believe that that same sovereign God places us in context, historical, social, religious context. And what better context than the United States of the 1960’s to make a confessional statement to the church and for the world?

Historians of religion label the 1960’s a “watershed” era, a “turning point,” as do sociologists of religion. Consider this: the beginning of massive population shifts and the initial emergence of new immigrant groups; the civil rights movement; the women’s movement; the Vietnam war as political and cultural event, and the attendant anti-war movement; Vatican II, names like John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, John XXIII, Betty Friedan, the Beatles.

Or consider what was happening in the church and the broader religious landscape: the rise of secularism; the rise of evangelicalism; the beginning of the decline of mainline church membership; what sociologists like Wade Clark Roof and William McKinney call the decline of religion’s cultural influence or what historians like William Hutchison and Sidney Ahlstrom call religion’s “loss of hegemony.”

Context therefore does matter to a confessional church, just as it did for those faithful ones who produced the Scots Confession or the Second Helvetic Confession or even the Theological Declaration of Barmen. Context matters, even as Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow.

Perhaps the most influential context for the formation of C67 came at a unique confluence of religion and culture in a theological movement called “neo-orthodoxy.” A definition of neo-orthodoxy is a bit elusive; those who practiced it and taught it never really considered themselves part of a movement. Its banner carriers include names like Emil Brunner in Europe, Reinhold and H. Richard Niebuhr in this country, and most principally the great Swiss theologian Karl Barth. Neo-orthodoxy sought to serve as a corrective both to liberal Christianity and conservative Christianity, by focusing on the centrality of Christ as the Word of God, per the first chapter of the Gospel of John, the centrality of the Bible as it gave witness to Christ and a historical consciousness that took the world very, very seriously.

The Dowey committee was steeped in neo-orthodoxy, reflecting deep appreciation especially for the thought of Karl Barth. Beyond the more affirmative appropriation of the trajectories of neo-orthodoxy, the C67 committee saw as part of its task to challenge a view of orthodox Calvinism reflected in the Westminster standards and codified in the Princeton theology of the nineteenth century. This may be a bit more historically trivial than what concerns us at this gathering, except for the fact that we are living with historical and theological trajectories now more than a century old in American Presbyterianism. The issues “then,” many of them involving views of biblical authority and interpretation and Christological understandings — what we declare about Jesus Christ — continue to dwell with us “now.”

Dowey and the drafting committee sought to provide some remedy to the Westminster position on the Bible, specifically around the issue of inspiration. A counter view to that position understood the committee’s real concern not to be Westminster, but a nineteenth-century appropriation of Westminster headquartered in the scholastic Calvinist positions of Princeton theology. Read Westminster on the Bible. See what it says. The committee, however, deemed Westminster to be inadequate, because it led with inspiration rather than revelation. This position was founded on the neo-orthodox presumption that the Bible was both Word of God (vis a vis a liberal position) and subject to the learning of modern biblical scholarship (vis a vis the orthodox position).

The committee’s work itself involved a series of eight years or so of meetings, drafts, debates, compromises. After several years of formative work, including the development of the material on the Bible as well as the settlement of the “reconciliation” theme, the committee turned to the topic of ethics. The committee from the start embraced the concept of a strong ethical statement about the church’s role in society; it now turned to the task of specificity.

In 1964, and particularly in 1965, as the committee’s work proceeded to its conclusion, the church experienced other developments. One of the key developments in the C67 story is the rise of two groups — call them “special interest” groups or “affinity” groups, call them, as does sociologist of religion Robert Wuthnow, “struggle” groups.

One such group, which came to be known as Presbyterians United for (a) Biblical Confession, claimed as its task the renewal of the church through biblical and evangelical means. Its focus came to land on the way that the proposed confession considered the issues of biblical authority and interpretation. P.U.B.C. was quite satisfied with the Westminster understanding of the Bible, and quite dissatisfied that C67’s perceived abandonment of that position implied an abandonment of a Presbyterian commitment to the authority of the Bible.

Several of the extraordinary biographical moments of this whole story came as Dowey himself, characterized in the report of one meeting with P.U.B.C. leaders as a “lion in the midst of a group of Daniels,” engaged P.U.B.C. rigorously and winsomely in debate. This single topic could become a conference in itself; suffice it to say for the moment that P.U.B.C.’s commitment to “revision” enabled some modifications to happen in the final version of the confession, allowing that group’s constituency to register its support in the confession’s passage.

Such was not the case with another group, known then and now as the Presbyterian Lay Committee. The Lay Committee’s work began in the early 1960’s, prior to the center stage events of C67. J. Howard Pew, Presbyterian elder and successful businessperson of Sun Oil renown, was convinced that American Protestantism, and particularly the Presbyterian brand of it, had lost its moorings. Pew and the Lay Committee would have agreed with the P.U.B.C. concerns about biblical authority; their more heightened concern was with C67’s social statements. The church, to Pew and others, had no business “meddling” in political affairs. The most celebrated moment in the C67 story, in fact, came in December of 1966 as the Lay Committee purchased a full-page advertisement in The New York Times and countless other newspapers across the country to protest the proposed confession. While P.U.B.C. embraced a strategy of revision, therefore, the Lay Committee’s strategy of rejection could not allow for the support even of a revised statement.

The 1965 General Assembly in Columbus, Ohio overwhelmingly approved a draft of the confession, thus handing the work of the Dowey committee to a committee of fifteen, chaired by Sherman Skinner. The Skinner committee treaded lightly and faithfully on the previous committee’s work, but heard more than 2000 forms of critique, many of them focusing on the issue of biblical authority and the confession’s ethical statements.

While enfolding the majority of the 1965 version into its final offering, the Skinner committee did offer a P.U.B.C. approved compromise on the Bible, coupling the Word (upper-case “W”) of God in reference to Christ with the word (lower-case “w”) of God “written” to refer to the text of Holy Scriptures. The Skinner committee also adopted a fourth ethical provision, on human sexuality, that met the approval both of the Dowey committee and any Presbyterians who were looking for a clearer statement on issues of human morality.

Following a successful 1966 General Assembly in which the Skinner Committee made the original committee’s offering even more accessible to the church at large, all that remained was one more round of presbytery voting. In late spring 1967, the Confession of 1967 became a reality, along with a Book of Confessions and a new set of ordination vows.

So, what does it say? That question will be more fully explored in the context of several workshops, but more than a few highlights now will help to set the stage for those and other conversations. The best treatment of the confession is an “unofficial” commentary produced by Dowey himself following the final vote for ratification. But here goes.

The structure of the confession is Trinitarian, flowing from God’s work of reconciliation to the church’s ministry of reconciliation to the fulfillment of reconciliation. One of several pivot points happens early, in ¶9.03, which serves as a kind of purpose statement and a reminder about the role of confessions in Reformed theology.

The real pivot point, however, happens as ¶9.07 re-frames II Corinthians for the present confessional task, and then as ¶9.31 makes missional hay with that confessional affirmation: “to be reconciled to God is to be sent into the world as his reconciling community,” which Dowey called “the force of the entire confession,” even with two passive infinitives. (Commentary, page 112)

We have said enough about the theme of reconciliation itself. Perhaps the fact that it was not roundly criticized means that it should be provoking us a bit more. This reconciliation is not about political correctness or about smoothing over real and honest differences — it is about the gospel mandate. Gayraud Wilmore wrote later that “Reconciliation, the great theme of the C’67, does not rest upon rhetoric, but upon deeds, upon performance, upon the structural transformations that only the responsible use of power can affect.”(“The Path Toward Racial Justice,” in Journal of Presbyterian History, volume 61, number 1, Spring 1983, page 117.)

Beyond the theme of reconciliation, there are several substantive streams of thought that will not receive any significant attention this afternoon: important paragraphs such as ¶9.08 that focuses on the humanity of Christ, his earthly ministry, largely ignored in the history of confessional statements, and on his life as a Jew from Palestine. An even more prominent theme given scarce attention here is a revolutionary doctrine of the church, an ecclesiology that affirms, per ¶9.31, for example, the call of the church to be Christ’s reconciling community dispersed in the world.

As we have noted already, the two controversial touch points of the confession revolved around the Bible and social issues. Dowey would argue that the confession was biblical throughout; in fact, it serves as a kind of exegetical, hermeneutical exploration of II Corinthians. But the four paragraphs on the Bible, ¶9.27 through ¶9.31, remain primed for conversation. Notice terms like “sufficient revelation” and “unique and authoritative” and “received and obeyed.” Notice the term “witness without parallel.” Notice especially in ¶9.29 the interplay between the human quality of the words and the divine nature of the Holy Spirit’s guidance, and the call to critical study.

I would submit that the confession is biblical throughout; in fact, it is a some 4700-word exegetical exercise on one biblical text. Nowhere is that biblical understanding more pointed than in the litany of ethical and social concerns that served as the confession’s other prime controversy, the praxis of the church generated by the act of confession. In ¶9.43 the committee makes the case that the church is called to face particular crises in particular times. It initially posited three such situations, knowing that the Skinner Committee would most likely add a fourth to the list.

  • ¶9.44 focuses on the issue of race, within both church and society. It speaks to what historian Gayraud Wilmore, who served as the lone African-American member of the C67 committee, has called the “ambivalence” of the Black Presbyterian experience. It also embraces the commitment to “integration” as proclaimed, in the early and middle 1960’s, by Martin Luther King, Jr., applying the concept of reconciliation in an effort to break down barriers of discrimination.
  • ¶9.45 speaks as much to the world of the past, a Cold War world, as it does to the emerging world in the Vietnam War. It would not be until 1967, in fact, when the U.P.C.U.S.A. produced a particular statement on the Vietnam War. The words “even at risk to national security” provoked heated debate and even elicited a statement from the Department of Defense stating that Presbyterianism and military service were not incompatible. This paragraph does expand Presbyterian thinking to include — through the rubric of reconciliation — the church’s call to make peace as well as the traditional issue of waging just war. It also reads as a very current statement in light of the issues facing us in late 2002, in Iraq and North Korea, for example, as we face the rumor of war.
  • ¶9.46’s consideration of “enslaving poverty in a world of abundance” gives echo to Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” or the aftermath of books like Michael Harrington’s The Other America. Reconciliation in this case would confront economic systems, class distinctions, technological oppression, and links, much as the Roman Catholic understanding of a “preferential option for the poor,” Jesus’ earthly ministry with the needs of the economically impoverished.
  • ¶9.47, on human sexuality, seeks to envision a sense of reconciling order for the “confusion” and “anarchy” of relationships between men and women. The issues it raises continue to be our issues, though our issues have broadened and deepened as well. That’s why we are here. How people make decisions about sexual behavior — in the then-new face of birth control options or the threat of disease, and how human sexuality is exploited in the then tip-of-the-iceberg world of television, should still concern us, we ourselves, our young ones.

This paragraph is concerned about confusion. It captures a moment on this side of a more complete conversation about the roles of women in church and society, and, of course, about homosexuality, about G.L.B.T. concerns, about the travails facing this denomination formally since 1978. More on that in a moment, but consider now how the biblical and theological themes of reconciliation might be brought to our current conversation.

So, briefly and quite incompletely, that is the “then” of C67, enough historical background to be dangerous and enough confessional provocation, I hope, to provide stimulus for our own little thrilling theological revival. That was then. What about now? The Bard of Duluth, Robert Zimmerman, whom we know as Bob Dylan, wrote in those same 1960’s that “the times they are a changin’.” Well, Bob, show me a time that’s not! Why we re-visit C67 is not nostalgia, or even relevance, but truth, truth for today.

Since then, the only constant has been change, and change has been constant, accelerated by new forms of globalization and technology. The earlier era faced war in Vietnam, Cold War, war on poverty. This era faces war on drugs and war on terrorism. We think much differently about the environment. The Berlin Wall has fallen, as has apartheid in South Africa. This is not the 1960’s. It’s not the 1970’s, or 80’s, or 90’s, for that matter. The culture is different.

The church is different as well. We enjoy no cultural hegemony, if we really ever did. Denominations look different; brand loyalties shift. Secularism is on the rise, as is evangelicalism. James Davison and others have written of “culture wars,” battles in society and religion, ideological realignment with clear church implications, reflected in the Presbyterian family by the continuing role and presence of affinity groups, including those who organized “against” something then and those who organize “against” something now. And we continue to face decline defined by membership statistics and defined much more broadly than that, and perhaps more deeply.

And yet, and yet God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. The call to reconciliation, first articulated by Paul, re-articulated by Calvin and Barth or by a modest little committee, embodied by a great company of saints in word and deed, in many times and places. That call to reconciliation is more pregnant now than ever. Human depravity takes on new forms to which the transformative ministry of reconciliation in Christ must be offered.

It could happen in the particularity of four ethical statements, or the adding of new ones to the mix. If you want an interesting adult education exercise, invite people to list what issues they believe that a contemporary confession should consider. C67 seems pretty fresh in such a conversation. Issues of race haunt us still. Issues of war and peace haunt us as well. Poverty has taken on new forms, or more evolved forms. And all three are inextricably linked in our urbanized, globalized world.

And what about sex, and what about human sexuality? Can ¶9.47 teach us anything about G-6.0106b, for example? Perhaps. Perhaps we would do well at least to think about what human sexuality is not, according to C67. It is not confusion. It is not exploitation. It is not anarchy. It is a gift of reconciliation.

Reconciliation is about hard work, and not casual and surface harmony. Leonard Cohen’s wonderful song “Hallelujah” declares that “love is not a victory march.” Reconciliation is not a victory march. It is a gift to be received with gratitude and tended to and nurtured, a precious gift. Reconciliation between beloved one and beloved one. Reconciliation between co-worker and co-worker. Reconciliation between a certain constitutional provision and a biblical vision of Jesus’ extraordinary hospitality and common sense Presbyterian polity, reconciliation with those who have been so injured by that provision, and reconciliation between those who think one thing about that and those who think another. Or reconciliation even between the demands and possibilities in the most current iteration of our broken and fearful world.

We must reclaim the biblical vision of this, articulated not only by Paul but affirmed throughout the pages of scripture, and most certainly in the gospel narratives of Jesus’ ministry. And we must re-claim the confessional task. We owe that to each other, even as we owe it to the great tradition in which we gather.

To gauge the trajectory of the confession’s impact after the drama of its adoption is to be drawn into the murky waters of church growth and decline, of rising partisanship and shifting allegiances, of a new denominationalism that continues to seek definition and stability and unity.

And yet, the Confession of 1967 serves, to utilize John Calvin’s visual metaphors, as lens, window, mirror, prism to the past and as a looking glass into the future of American Presbyterianism.

Any statement of faith that takes Jesus seriously, the Bible seriously, the church seriously and the world seriously should be taken seriously. Whether it is a Reformed understanding of biblical authority, a compelling Christology or a vital social ethic, the Confession of 1967 will continue to matter as the church pays attention to it, and even more so, to the reconciliation it proclaims. It reminds us of the possibilities of a thrilling revival of theology, and also reminds us that we are at our best when we are teaching and learning and engaged in the mission of the church rather than fussing with one another.

At the new-member classes at Third Church, I often remark, half jokingly, that we could do a lot worse for ourselves than reading the Brief Statement of Faith before going to bed every evening, with its mantras of “in life and in death we belong to God” or “in a broken and fearful world the Spirit gives us courage to pray without ceasing.” A member of the Membership Committee came up to me one Sunday after church. “You know,” he said, “I’ve been doing that. I’ve been reading the Brief Statement every day.” I was stunned and grateful. Stunned that anyone had actually listened to me, and grateful for the benefits of that discipline!

We don’t have many mantras in our tradition. Here is one, from a very intentionally non-liturgical confession — ¶9.55. “With an urgency born of this hope.” With an urgency born of this hope. With an urgency born of this hope. With an urgency born of this hope might we claim and be claimed by the promise of reconciliation– for a church in very real need and a world aching for good news.

In the “Little Gitting,” T.S. Eliot writes: “And all shall be well and/All manner of thing shall be well/When the tongues of flame are in-folded/Into the crowned knot of fire/And the fire and the rose are one.”

And the fire and the rose are one. And all manner of creatures are one. And all manner of Christians are one. And all manner, yes, even of Presbyterians, are one. And our fallen selves and our redeemed selves are one. And the broken and fearful world and its creator are one. And the church and its Lord are one. Thank God for that ever present and not-quite-yet gift of reconciliation, in the name of the one in whom such reconciliation is found, and no other, even Jesus Christ.

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