The sentence in question says, “The good news of the Gospel is that the triune God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – creates, redeems, sustains, rules, and transforms all things and all people.” Since the General Assembly, this contention of universalism has arisen occasionally in varied locations. There are at least two problems with that contention.
First, the contention of universalism utilizes a faulty interpretive approach where a sentence – and, as sometimes has happened in concerns raised about nFOG, a single word – is isolated from its context, separated from its interpretive connections, and then used against the whole document. I suspect those who have raised concerns about universalism would never interpret Scripture in the same way they are interpreting F-1.01. Instead, the whole of Scripture would be allowed to interpret a particular part of it. We must do the same when we interpret any part of our Constitution.
The Form of Government, current or proposed, may in places speak in theological terms, but, in the end, does not exist to resolve issues of theology within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). The proper place for that conversation is within our councils (governing bodies) and the Book of Confessions, as is perhaps illustrated by our conversations around the Belhar Confession. The proposed Foundations and Form of Government make use of two of our confessions in framing our polity, the Nicene Creed’s marks of the Church (“one, holy, catholic, and apostolic”) and the notes of the Reformed Church from the Scots Confession (proclamation of the Word, celebration of the sacraments, nurture of the church through ecclesiastical discipline). This specifically grounds the proposed Form of Government in part one of our Constitution.
With this understanding, the first sentence of the Foundations, in referring to the sovereign activity of the triune God, begs the following question: How is the activity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit described in F-1.01 presented within our confessional tradition, and beyond that, in the Scriptures themselves? The first sentence of the Foundations cannot be understood apart from that context.
Second, the contention regarding universalism is not informed by the entire witness of the Foundations itself. In discussing the fourth mark of the Nicene Creed (apostolicity), the Foundations says, “The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) affirms the Gospel of Jesus Christ as received from the prophets and apostles, and stands in continuity with God’s mission through the ages. The Church strives to be faithful to the good news it has received and accountable to the standards of the confessions. The Church seeks to present the claims of Jesus Christ, leading persons to repentance, acceptance of Christ alone as Savior and Lord, and new life as his disciples.” (F-1.0302d)
As a missional polity, the Foundations of Presbyterian Polity proclaims that as God’s mission unfolds within our world, Christ gathers the church and calls it to be involved in this mission. As the triune God “creates, redeems, sustains, rules, and transforms all things and all people,” the church is gathered to this task in multiple and diverse ways, including the vital proclamation of the good news that Jesus is Lord and is alone the Savior of and for the world. Again, proclamation of the Word is one of the notes of the Reformed church used throughout the proposed Form of Government to identify responsibilities that are central to the work of the church and its councils.
If the first sentence of the Foundations is a Universalist creed, then God must be a Universalist when God declares, “See, I am making all things new” (Revelation 21:5, NRSV). F-1.01 is an expression of this aspect of God’s ongoing mission in the world.
DAN WILLIAMS is pastor of Second Church, Staunton, Va. He was co-moderator of the Form of Government Task Force (2008-2010)