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Prof. Mark Achtemeier responds to Johnson viewpoint and Busch interview

In the May 14 Outlook William Stacy Johnson presents a very helpful and learned reminder that the situation facing today's PC(USA) is very different from that which confronted the German church in the 1930's. Precisely because of those differences I would argue that any reasonable assessment of the contemporary confessing movement ought to have its primary focus on events taking place in 2001 rather than in 1934.

I would have to respectfully take issue with Prof. Johnson’s claim, growing out of his single-minded focus on the Barmen Declaration, that in a context where the church already has a Book of Confessions, “the only legitimate reason to declare a ‘confessing church movement’ is if the existing church has somehow ceased to be the church.”

To the contrary, Prof. Eberhard Busch in the very same Outlook issue presents an alternative understanding of what it means to be a confessing church that nicely fits the situation at hand. Drawing a very helpful distinction between a confessional church and a confessing church, Prof. Busch says that a confessional church has a confession that she honors as a piece of her heritage. “She quotes it, especially at major celebrations and in important publications.” For such a church a confession is principally a ceremonial and sentimental possession. A confessing church, by contrast, “does not celebrate her confession. She tries and tests her confession practically in concrete challenges. She uses it as light in order to see where she should remains silent…or where she must speak and act . . . Thus she does not try, as does the confessional church, to protect her confession from the changes of time . . . The confessing church is completely absorbed in actively doing her witness to the Christian faith so it may be for people like a lighthouse above the churning sea.”

Exactly. It is this concern to transform our church’s confessions from the status of honored museum pieces to living witness that animates the current confessing movement. Having a confession is not the same as living a confession.

Recent events have brought this distinction between having and living a confessional heritage into sharp relief. The PC(USA) does not today face anything like the organized, monolithic threat to its faithful existence that the Nazi party posed to the German churches in the 1930s. What the PC(USA) does face is a crisis of grassroots confidence in denominational leadership’s resolve to take our confessional heritage seriously. Time and again people in the pews have come away empty-handed after looking to upper-level denominational entities for an unambiguous and plain-spoken defense of our confessional and constitutional commitments in the face of attack. This has been the case even when those attacks have been directed at the Nicene-Trinitarian consensus that forms the very heart of Christian faith, as we saw in the recent controversy over Dirk Ficca’s statements.

I believe the confessing sessions are right to view this failure of leadership as a very serious matter. Martin Luther once opined that those who defend the gospel at every point except where it is currently under attack are guilty as if they had betrayed the whole of it. Our confessional heritage can be compromised by passive neglect as well as by active renunciation.

In response to this evacuation of leadership and teaching authority at the upper levels of our denomination, lower-level governing bodies are now stepping in to fill the breach. Sessions all across the country have announced their intention to uphold and defend our confessional heritage precisely at those points where they perceive it to be under attack. They are determined that the PC(USA) will be not just a confessional church that has a confession, but a confessing church that lives its confession. In the vacuum left by denomination-wide leadership’s failure to clearly discharge its responsibility, they are claiming with renewed seriousness the local leadership role that is entrusted to them in our polity. In so doing they are not aiming to split the PC(USA) or to declare the denomination to be “no-church,” but rather to establish and uphold in their own jurisdictions that faithfulness to which our confessional tradition calls the whole church. In short, I believe these statements by sessions are properly viewed not as new confessions, but as determined resolutions to reclaim and uphold our existing confessional and constitutional standards in areas where they are seen as being threatened.

One could perhaps wish that some of the movement’s early defenders had been a bit more circumspect in pressing analogies with the Barmen churches, or that they had come up with a name less prone to misinterpretation, or that the language of some of the sessional statements had exhibited a bit more theological precision. A grassroots movement will always provide plenty of material for academic theologians to criticize. But at the heart of the movement I am convinced there are many thousands of faithful Presbyterians who are determined to take personal responsibility for the confessional heritage to which the PC(USA) as a whole lays claim, and to that project I can only say “Amen.”

P. Mark Achtemeier
Associate Professor of Systematic Theology
University of Dubuque Seminary

The Outlook’s response

The Outlook notes that the sharp distinction Professor Achtemeier wishes to draw between the positions of Professors Busch and Johnson is not supported by a full reading of their texts. Professors Busch and Johnson both agree that the need for a specific confessing church movement arises only when the existing church ceases to be a confessing church of Jesus Christ, a situation which neither of them believes to be the case under our present circumstances. Professor Busch makes this clear in his distinction between “opinion” and “confession” as well as in his clear statement of the criterion for a confessing church, which Professor Achtemeier neglects to quote.

As Professor Busch says,

The criterion for whether this division [in which the gospel is thought
to be at stake] is divinely commanded or is merely arbitrary will be
whether or not the Confessing Church will be bold enough to say that it
is not only one but rather the Church of Christ, and on the other side,
regardless of how it appears, there is Non-Church. Thus the appeal
is made the other side not simply to accept an opinion but rather
to return to the Church of Christ.

In order allay this confusion and to further clarify his position, Professor Busch has offered the following comment:

“In a church in which a profound difference of opinion regarding
the practices of life dominates, then each side should confess Christ
and not his opinion, until hopefully one day a larger fellowship emerges
in regard to the practical question under debate.”

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