by James R. Edwards
Amendment B proposes deleting the current text of G-6.0106b, which on the basis of “obedience to Scripture” defines and limits the covenant of marriage to a man and a woman. Amendment B would replace G-6.0106b with the following paragraph:
Those who are called to ordained service in the church, by their assent to the constitutional questions for ordination and installation (W-4.4003), pledge themselves to live lives obedient to Jesus Christ the Head of the Church, striving to follow where he leads through the witness of the Scriptures, and to understand the Scriptures through the instruction of the Confessions. In so doing, they declare their fidelity to the standards of the Church. Each governing body charged with examination for ordination and/or installation establishes the candidate’s sincere efforts to adhere to these standards.
At first glance, the proposed paragraph looks innocuous. It may even seem to improve G-6.0106b because it shifts obedience from Scripture to obedience to Jesus Christ, which seems a higher form of obedience. I wish to argue that Amendment B is not an improvement, but rather a virus that weakens the church’s ordination standards and will inevitably open the door to the ordination of practicing gays and lesbians. Amendment B should be rejected.
Christology cannot be separated from Scripture
There are two major problems with the proposed amendment. First, as the last sentence explicitly states, the amendment would dismantle denomination-wide ordination standards, and relegate ordination standards to each “governing body,” i.e., to each presbytery. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has 173 presbyteries — and this change could result in as many different ordination standards in the denomination.
The second change relates to the “pledge to live lives obedient to Jesus Christ the Head of the Church.” This change is subtler and more dangerous, because obedience to Jesus Christ seems to be a self-evident good. The danger is cloaked in the wording of the proposed amendment, but it is unmasked in the rationale supplied by the Presbytery of Boston, which proposed the amendment. In support of the amendment, the Presbytery of Boston writes: “Our church thus has bound itself to a hierarchy of authority in which we are to obey Jesus Christ its Head, and additionally, to heed first the Scriptures and then the confessions, to the extent that they accurately bear witness to Christ’s will.”
The fundamental “hierarchy of authority” set forth above separates Jesus Christ from Scripture. The rationale assumes that there is a knowledge of Jesus Christ separate from and superior to the knowledge of Jesus Christ that is attested in Scripture. The problem in the new wording of “obedience to Jesus Christ” now becomes apparent: obedience can only be rendered to a known particular, and without Scripture Christ is neither known or particular, but only imagined. In severing Jesus Christ from Scripture, Amendment B can transmute the historical Jesus of Scripture into a concept that can be defined apart from Scripture. In asserting that the Scriptures should be followed only “to the extent that they accurately bear witness to Christ’s will,” the Presbytery of Boston demotes Scripture to the category of a relative, non-essential, authority. This jeopardizes or denies sola Scriptura, the essential Reformation doctrine that Scripture is the sole authority for the church’s theology and ethics. In its attempt to divorce Jesus Christ from Scripture, the Presbytery of Boston makes the astounding claim that “obedience to Scripture … is foreign to the Reformed understanding”!
Amendment B has been subtly worded to allow for a “knowledge” of Jesus Christ apart from Scripture that could be set above the divinely inspired knowledge of Jesus Christ set forth in Scripture. In the name of “obedience to Jesus Christ the Head of the Church,” a candidate for ordination, or a presbytery, could appeal to Amendment B to approve an action, such as the approval of an avowed homosexual for ordination, which is expressly prohibited in Holy Scripture.
What knowledge does the church have of Jesus Christ apart from Scripture? On what basis would the church assert this supposed knowledge of Jesus Christ to be superior to the knowledge of Jesus Christ revealed in Scripture? Herein lies the crux and danger in Amendment B. The church knows of no Jesus apart from the Jesus attested in Scripture. It might be objected that we know of Christ also through the Holy Spirit. It is of course true that the Holy Spirit reveals and confirms Jesus Christ to believers, but the Holy Spirit does not and cannot bear testimony contrary to the Scripture that the Spirit inspired.
The whole point of the Incarnation is that God reveals himself finally and unmistakably in Jesus of Nazareth in order to prevent humanity from misunderstanding and misrepresenting God by making God in its own image, either from human experience, culture, feelings, or intuition. The Incarnation allows God to be God, to define and reveal himself according to his image and will rather than to be misrepresented by false human substitutes. According to the testimony of the entire Christian tradition — Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant — the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament are “always, everywhere, and by all” to be received by the church as the essential and necessary witness to the divine revelation.
The Testimony of the Book of Confessions
The hierarchy of Jesus Christ, Scripture, and Confessions is a false hierarchy, first because no confession in the Book of Confessions claims for itself, or for any other confession, an authority commensurate with Christ and Scripture. Second, no confession in the Book of Confessions makes a distinction between Christ and Scripture so as to suggest that there is a Jesus Christ apart from and above Scripture.
The Book of Confessions repeatedly affirms that the Scriptures are the sole and sufficient source of saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. “In this Holy Scripture, the universal Church of Christ has the most complete exposition of all that pertains to a saving faith, and also to the framing of a life acceptable to God; and in this respect it is expressly commanded by God that nothing be either added to or taken from the same,” declares the Second Helvetic Confession (5.002). This declaration is corroborated in one form or another by every confession in the Book of Confessions except for the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Brief Statement of Faith. The Scots Confession declares Scripture to be the sufficient authority of God necessary to instruct and make perfect believers (3.19; see also Heidelberg Catechism, 4.018/019). The Westminster Confession declares that Scripture contains “the whole counsel of God … to which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men” (6.006).
The most undeniable witness to the Scriptures as the indispensable and necessary source of knowledge of Jesus Christ comes from Barmen and the Confession of 1967. Barmen declares that “Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death” (italics added). Barmen expressly “rejects the false doctrine, as though the Church could and would have to acknowledge as a source of its proclamation, apart from and besides this one Word of God, still other events and powers, figures and truths, as God’s revelation” (8.11). Amendment B allows for the possibility of another “source of proclamation, apart from and besides this one Word of God” attested in Holy Scripture.
The Confession of 1967 asserts “The one sufficient revelation of God is Jesus Christ, the Word of God incarnate, to whom the Holy Spirit bears unique and authoritative witness through the Holy Scriptures, which are received and obeyed as the word of God written. The Scriptures are not a witness among others, but the witness without parallel. The church has received the books of the Old and New Testaments as prophetic and apostolic testimony in which it hears the word of God and by which its faith and obedience are nourished and regulated” (9.27).
The confessional tradition of the PC(USA) acknowledges the Scriptures as the sole and necessary source of authority for the church’s faith and life. Barmen and the Confession of 1967 warn the church against the temptation to accommodate and proclaim a Jesus compatible with cultural ideologies rather than the Jesus attested in Holy Scripture and preserved in the church’s creeds and confessions.
May the univocal warning of the church be heard and heeded, and on its basis may the PC(USA) rightly reject Amendment B.
James R. Edwards is Bruner-Welch Professor of Theology at Whitworth University, Spokane, Wash.