Reading the Bible and the Confessions: The Presbyterian Way

A hierarchy is implied in that question, which is effortless enough to diagram but far more difficult to live by, in any practical sense.

For instance, the most blatant constitutional example of such difficulty regarding this particular question can be found in Book of Order G-6.0106b, which — whether you are otherwise for it or against it — confuses this above-mentioned hierarchy by deleting obedience to Jesus Christ altogether and then promoting Scripture and the confessions to roles that are awkward and ill-fitting. “Those who are called to office in the church,” it says, “are to lead a life in obedience to Scripture and in conformity to the historic confessional standards of the church.”

We Presbyterians, in the process by which we seek to make sense out of the vexing contemporary controversies that test the church, need interpretive help, frankly, when striving to order our lives by the witness of our pre-eminent sources of authority — our Lord, our holy book and our confessional tradition.

Such help has arrived in this marvelous new book by Jack Rogers, formerly of Fuller Seminary and recently retired from the faculty of San Francisco Seminary. This book, an easy and fascinating read, deserves to sit on every pastor’s shelf. It also suggests itself as an excellent resource for session retreats, adult church school classes and presbytery committees on ministry.

Rogers studies three historic personal and societal issues which tested our church — slavery and segregation, the role of women, and divorce and remarriage — and traces how in each case, over time, the church shifted in its normative understanding of the witness of Scripture and its confessional tradition. He examines powerful interpretive theories — such as (to name just a few) the doctrine of the spirituality of the church, the impact of 17th-century theologian Francis Turretin, the Scottish Common Sense approach so popular in the 19th century, and the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy of the early 20th century — that led the church to embrace assumptions and practices, such as biblical inerrancy and race-based and male-dominant class systems, that had to be repudiated later. He traces subsequent biblical and theological influences, and shows, case by case, the ways in which General Assembly policy changed to reflect the changing mind of the church.

A gratifying result of such a detailed and thoughtful study is the picture that emerges of our American Presbyterian faith heritage. It holds up, at its best, a dynamic — not static — theological conversation that takes place in community. Certainly this community of reflection is represented by the church’s councils and assemblies at their best. But it is also represented by that ongoing discourse that reaches back and forth through time, seeking illumination and instruction from confessions present and past and reading everything through the interpretive lens of Jesus Christ. From that theological conversation, Rogers develops seven guidelines for interpreting Scripture and the confessions. They are:

1. Jesus Christ with his redemptive gospel is the central theme of Scripture and the confessions.

2. Our focus should be on the plain text of Scripture and the confessions in their grammatical, historical and cultural context.

3. We should depend on the guidance of the Holy Spirit to lead us into clearer and more complete understandings of Scripture and the confessions.

4. We should be guided by the great themes of Scripture that are the confessional consensus of the church.

5. All of our interpretations should be in accord with the rule of love that commands love of God and neighbor and commends the redeeming love of Christ.

6. The church needs to do careful study of the Bible and the confessions in their original historical and cultural context, and then discern their appropriate theological application in our day.

7. Each particular passage of the Bible and the confessions needs to be interpreted in the light of the whole message of Scripture (p. 126). Presbyterian pastors and elders would do well to study Rogers’ book carefully. It offers, for sure, historical insight into our interpretive errors of the past, but more important, it inspires us to use our authoritative biblical and confessional resources more creatively in the midst of present-day challenges before our church that demand our most thoughtful reflection.

In Rogers’ own words, “Our task is to think theologically about how best to apply the intentions of our forebears to live out the gospel in their time. We need to heed their warning that the Confessions are not a rule but a help. Then we must have the courage, as they did, to apply Christ’s message in our own time and context” (p. 127).

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