The current version speaks of “obedience to Scripture” and “conformity to the historic confessional standards of the church” as the measure of fidelity to our recognized authorities. This formulation represents a retreat to the model of authority that governed Presbyterianism prior to the adoption of The Book of Confessions. When the Westminster Confession was our sole confessional standard, it was assumed that the Bible contains a single system of doctrine of which the confession is the orthodox exposition. Obedience to Scripture and conformity to the confession were one and the same since the confession dictated how the Bible was to be interpreted. But the problem with this pre-modern view of theological authority — and the reason for its rejection in 1967 — is that it cannot do justice to either the Bible or the Reformed confessional tradition as these are now understood through the lens of historical scholarship.1
It is no disparagement of Westminster to recognize that it represents but one voice in the larger chorus of Reformed theologies. Through its inclusion of multiple confessional documents, The Book of Confessions illustrates the fact that from the earliest days of the Reformation there has never been a single Reformed theology that commanded universal assent. This appreciation of theological diversity at the heart of our tradition is not an excuse for doctrinal indifference but rather a reminder that no interpretation of Scripture can ever be final. Moreover, some statements in The Book of Confessions cannot be reconciled. Both the Scots Confession (3.22) and the Second Helvetic Confession (5.191) explicitly deny ordination to women whereas the Brief Statement of Faith (10.4) affirms that women are also to be ordained to office. Obviously, the latter statement renders the former statements obsolete even though they have not been excised from the confessions. Hence, the insistence upon “conformity to the historic confessional standards” is misleading inasmuch as we do not indiscriminately observe everything contained in The Book of Confessions. This formulation does not reflect how our church actually uses its confessions, namely, in a spirit of mutually critical dialogue in the service of faithful interpretation of the gospel. Furthermore, our constitution (G-2.0200) explicitly allows for revision of the confessions, yet it is hard to imagine how someone could make an argument for revising them without being accused of non-conformity with them!
The Confession of 1967 is the first confessional document that incorporates the understanding of the Bible made possible by historical criticism. Indeed, it speaks of the church’s “obligation” to take such scholarship seriously. It recognizes the cultural distance between us and the Biblical writers whose words “reflect views of life, history, and the cosmos which were then current” (9.29). This means, as Karl Barth knew, that the Biblical writers are not “the inerrant proclaimers of all and every truth” and, for that reason, we have to be ready to acknowledge the Bible’s “capacity for error.”2 The simplistic insistence upon “obedience to Scripture” conceals the Bible’s genuine humanity. Does obedience to Scripture mean rejecting what science teaches about the origins of the cosmos and of humanity? There are many Christians in our country today who think it does. Does it mean that we pattern our political and economic institutions after those of ancient Israel? Anti-democratic defenders of monarchy once argued that it does. Should we support the separation of church and state when the confessions (3.24, 5.253-5.255) say otherwise? Should we allow polygamy since there is no Biblical prohibition against it and many Biblical writers take it for granted? And shouldn’t we rescind the ordination of women? The more conservative Presbyterian denominations do not think our church is obedient to Scripture in this regard. The phrase “obedience to Scripture” is thus just as misleading as is “conformity to the historic confessional standards” since it does not reflect our church’s actual use of the Bible.
More damaging, however, is the failure of the current formulation to mention the gospel as the main point to which Scripture bears witness. This is the theological criterion, derived from Scripture, by which to evaluate the various portions of the Bible in terms of their adequacy as a witness to the gospel. Luther understood this when he argued against the canonicity of James in the name of justification sola fide. The Second Helvetic Confession(5.111) upholds the principle of such theological critique of the canon even though it arrives at a different exegetical conclusion about James than did Luther. This aspect of the Reformers’ understanding of Scripture as standing under the authority of Christ was retrieved by the Confession of 1967 (9.27). It clarifies exactly what it is about Scripture that is authoritative: “The Bible is to be interpreted in the light of its witness to God’s work of reconciliation in Christ” (9.29). This distinction between Scripture and the gospel to which it bears “unique and authoritative witness” is essential if there is to be a serious theological engagement with the Bible that does not abandon historical-critical exegesis of it. The present wording of G-6.0106b represents a departure from this model of theological authority evident in the Confession of 1967 as well as in the Book of Order. Note the wording of the fourth constitutional question required of persons to be ordained (W-4.4003d): “Will you fulfill your office in obedience to Jesus Christ, under the authority of Scripture, and be continually guided by our confessions?”
The present wording requires that gay persons pledge a vow of celibacy as a condition of holding ordained office. Underlying this requirement is the assumption that a faithful Christian life for a gay person entails renunciation of any relationship involving genital expressions of sexuality, however loving and monogamous that relationship might be. Ironically, the current policy denies one of the basic tenets of the Reformed tradition: no one should have to take a vow of celibacy as a condition of living a faithful Christian life. For Luther, Calvin, and their followers “vows of perpetual single life … are superstitious and sinful snares, in which no Christian may entangle himself” (6.126). Only those who have “the gift of celibacy … and are not aflame with passion” (5.245) can happily remain single, but all others are free to marry. It is antithetical to the gospel to insist upon celibacy because persons without the gift will despair of themselves. But now an entire category of people is expected to be celibate as a condition of living the Christian life. Are we to assume that all gay people have the gift of celibacy?3
Opponents of same-sex marriage and, consequently, of the ordination of non-celibate gay people believe that homosexual erotic acts are always sinful. What is the justification for this moral indictment? We are told that fidelity to Scripture requires this judgment. But this is not an ethical argument. Ethics, including Christian ethics, must give rational reasons for justifying particular moral conclusions. In deciding any question of morality it must take into account what the relevant sciences teach us. Ethical inquiry demands that we attend to the experience of those persons most immediately affected by our moral decisions. A mere appeal to Scripture as though that were sufficient to resolve a moral debate can have demonic consequences for the lives of real human beings. The Biblical defense of slavery is one tragic example. Our church will never resolve the debate about homosexuality until it stops substituting exegesis for ethics.
In sum, there are three good reasons for adopting the proposed new wording of G-6.0106b. First, the church needs to clarify the nature of Scripture and the confessions in relation to the gospel. Second, the church cannot afford to betray its own Reformed heritage by reinstituting a vow of celibacy for a particular group of its members. Third, the church must not allow an authoritarian appeal to the Bible to derail serious ethical debate.
Paul E. Capetz is professor of historical theology at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, New Brighton, Minn.
1I have argued this case at length in my article “Defending the Reformed Tradition? Problematic Aspects of the Appeal to Biblical and Confessional Authority in the Present Theological Crisis Confronting the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.),” in The Journal of Presbyterian History 79:1 (Spring 2001): 23-39.
2Karl Barth, The Doctrine of the Word of God, vol. 1.2 of Church Dogmatics, trans. G. T. Thomson and Harold Knight (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1956), pp. 508-509.
3For my extended argument about the applicability of this aspect of the Reformation heritage to the situation of gay people in the church, see “Binding and Unbinding the Conscience: Luther’s Significance for the Plight of a Gay Protestant,” in Theology and Sexuality 16 (March 2002): 67-96.