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Getting Serious About Jesus Christ

It's time to get serious. The intramural debates preoccupying the PC(USA) look rather trivial and self-defeating when compared to the all-too-real challenges now facing the world in the aftermath of Sept. 11. With commercial jetliners having been turned into weapons of mass destruction; with biological weapons having been directed, however crudely, at news agencies and government leaders;

and with our own justified but precarious use of force still facing an uncertain outcome, the threat of an escalating cycle of violence is more palpable now than at any time in recent memory.

What is the church’s confessional responsibility in time of war and rumors of war? Beginning with Karl Barth in the 1950s and continuing in the more recent efforts of the American Roman Catholic bishops, certain Christian leaders have sought to call Western Christians to self-accountability for our complicity in the resort to war, and especially for our own manufacture, possession, and implicit threat of using weapons of mass destruction. This was an issue that Barth believed the church needed to face above all others — it was status confessionis on a level similar to the one prompted by the Nazi threat. And it is this chilling issue that lurks beneath the surface of our present terrorist crisis. Unlike the Cold War in which the doctrine of “mutually assured destruction” made the use of such weapons the functional equivalent of suicide, in the present conflict the possibility of suicide is no deterrent: the enemy would like nothing more than to provoke the West into a response of overwhelming and violent conflagration.

Surely the church has a special responsibility to think and to act with moral clarity in a conflict that threatens to ensconce the three great monotheisms — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — in a grim new danse macabre of terror, counter-terror and death. In a situation such as this, the long-standing disagreement between pacifism and just war has in fact been transcended by the very machinery of violence we have created, for neither the purity of a just war nor the luxury of standing above the fray are now within our ready reach. My point is to pose the problem; I do not claim to know the solution.

One thing is for sure: in this time of great national and international distress, it is incumbent upon all Christians to bear witness to our common faith in the “peace that passes all understanding” in our Lord Jesus Christ. And just as surely this common witness will elude the PC(USA) if all our energy is siphoned away in nursing old conflicts and allowing futile misunderstandings to fester over which Presbyterians are truly confessing Jesus Christ and which are not. Make no mistake; it is not my purpose to dismiss the importance of confessing the Lordship of Christ, but quite the opposite. My purpose is to make clear that the church’s task now as always is to think through theologically what our common confession of Jesus Christ as Lord calls us to be and to do right here, right now. A house divided brings no glory to God, nor does it bring a saving word to the world.

Within the context of American Presbyterianism, therefore, a small but important step toward healing our division took place on Sept. 27, 2001, with the release of a document entitled, “Hope in the Lord Jesus Christ,” by the Office of Theology and Worship. The document does nothing to address the concerns I have just mentioned, but what it does is to call Presbyterians away from their discord and back to the confessional heritage that marks them as Christians and as Presbyterians in the first place.

The premise of this document is that “the comprehensive witness of the Book of Confessions is sufficient to lead, instruct, and guide the church.” Hence the new document is by no means a new confession. Rather, “Hope in the Lord Jesus Christ” begins with quotation of Scripture and proceeds to quote salient confessional passages from across the centuries: The Nicene Creed, The Second Helvetic Confession, The Westminster Confession, The Theological Declaration of Barmen. The first confession it quotes is The Confession of 1967, and more text is quoted from that confession than from any other, as if to underscore that the church’s contemporary confessional witness is no less relevant and alive than that of ancient days. Regarding content, there is a clear affirmation that “Christian faith is trinitarian faith,” and that Jesus is the Lord, in whom “God did not simply show us a path to follow but lived among us as the Way, the Truth, and the Life . . . . Jesus Christ was and is the path, for Jesus Christ was and is — [quoting Nicaea] — Œof one Being with the Father.'”

It is crucial that our confession of Jesus Christ be conjoined with the Reformed tradition’s historic commitment to free inquiry in response to the Spirit. There are many, many issues that this document does not address and that need to be addressed in the church: e.g., the relationship of the church and Israel; what to make of other religions; how to think in non-sexist ways about the one whom Jesus called “Abba, Father,” and on and on.What this document does quite admirably, however, is to call attention to a framework within our already-existing confessional literature for allowing that ongoing theological discussion to take place. The point is not that this document should become the basis of a legalistic effort at subscriptionism, as though reciting theological formulas were itself the act of integrity and response to God’s will that true confession requires. Rather, the point of this document is simply to remind us of who we are.

I believe this statement, drafted by Joe Small and his associates, puts a resolution of our recent disputes over Christology within the church’s grasp. The statement was quickly and unequivocally endorsed by the GAC, thus ending any credible charge that this body is in the business of denying Jesus Christ. The document also received an approving nod from renewal groups that up until now have been outspoken in their criticism of the denomination, and sometimes with good reason. I personally believe that more needs to be done to facilitate theological understanding and competence across the theological spectrum. While there is no way to sustain the charge of apostasy (i.e., denial of the Lordship of Jesus Christ) directed at the Christological statement adopted by the 213th General Assembly last summer, it is also true that the statement is not the church’s best effort, leaving much to be desired in terms of clarity, precision and rhetorical persuasiveness. It is best to consider it for what it is — a temporary statement with no binding force — and move on.

Moving on means we must quit tearing each other down and refocus our attention on building each other up. It is time to get on with the business of being the church. It is time to get serious about our witness to Jesus Christ. The birth pangs of a new age of challenge to religious faith are upon us. Let us quit pointing the finger at one another and point instead to the God who in Jesus Christ by the Spirit’s power is the only one with the wisdom and authority to lead us forward.

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William Stacy Johnson is the Arthur M. Adams Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at Princeton Seminary.

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