Reclaiming Our Confessional Heritage

The 213th General Assembly (2001) directed the Office of Theology and Worship to develop materials to "help the church better understand the theological richness of the Lordship of Jesus Christ."

In its recently released statement, “Hope in the Lord Jesus Christ,” the office has fulfilled this directive — superbly.

For nearly two years the Presbyterian Church has been torn by misunderstandings concerning how it expresses its faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior of the world. Those disputes arose in response to the reflections of a platform speaker at a church conference summer before last.

At each point where criticism was leveled, responses were made by church leaders. And in each case, some deemed the responses made by officials and church bodies to be insufficient.

The matter came to a head at the meeting of the General Assembly this past summer when a compromise statement was approved. At the time, this editor asked three highly placed officials in the center-right group about their personal opinions as to the adequacy of this statement. Each, in turn, expressed satisfaction with what the commissioners had done.

Many of us hoped this would end the matter, but a different and much more negative view of the General Assembly action was advanced by a small but vocal minority. Quickly, despite positive comments by some renewal group leaders, the negative point of view was put forward as the accepted view of the matter. Prior to the Assembly, these same voices had declared the General Assembly Council no longer deserving of the support of the church because of its actions in this Christology controversy and then, following the Assembly, started the drumbeat that this Assembly was “apostate.”

We have read and re-read the Assembly’s statement. We have talked with many of the commissioners who were there and voted for it. Inasmuch as apostasy is a deliberate denial of the Lordship of Jesus Christ, there is no reasonable way to interpret the Assembly statement on Christology as apostate.

But rather than turn the tables and attack those who may think that the 213th General Assembly was apostate, The Outlook offers what we hope will be “a more excellent way” — one in the the spirit of the writer of 1 Peter who said: “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence” (1 Peter 3:15b, 16a). Friends: How about a little “gentleness” and “reverence” with our Christian sisters and brothers — for Christ’s sake!

The statement we have before us, “Hope in the Lord Jesus Christ,” faithfully reflects the beliefs of the church about the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. It leaves no question where the Presbyterian Church stands. It is based on Scripture and our confessions. It is clear and simply stated. It is not a new confession but a statement based on Scripture and the confessions of the church. No new confession is needed. It’s all in the Book of Confessions.

Any such statement will always raise some questions, even as it answers some others. Already there are some who are criticizing the statement. Their questions should not be dismissed out of hand, but rather be seen as an invitation to conduct a thoroughgoing churchwide discussion of what this church believes about Jesus.

Thus, it would be most appropriate for every governing body of the church to put this document, “Hope in the Lord Jesus Christ,” on the docket for comment and discussion in this coming year, and as many as will who can affirm that this is a faithful statement about what Presbyterians believe about Jesus Christ should contact the PC(USA) stated clerk’s office with their affirmation.

The major problem in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is not heresy — at least not calculated, deliberate heresy — but vast ignorance. Most copies of the Book of Confessions are never read — like the Bible. They sit on shelves in the pastor’s office, the church library, a few of the members’ homes gathering dust.

Then someone or some group comes along and says we have a Christological problem. In one sense the church always has a Christological problem. Even Jesus’ own disciples failed to comprehend fully who he was and is. From the very beginning, starting with those first disciples, the church has had to talk continuously about Jesus to maintain sound doctrine about his person and work.

To engage the church fully in this discussion, it would be good for questions on Christology frequently to be asked of and answered by candidates seeking ordination, or by ministers transferring into a presbytery during their examinations. That’s the primary point at which our polity allows governing bodies to determine the orthodoxy of persons seeking membership.

And, likewise, pastors and church sessions should teach diligently what the church believes about Jesus Christ to new members, persons being instructed for confirmation, and new and existing officers. Examinations of church officers should regularly include questions on Christology. The confessions should be taught regularly in the church school of every congregation.

We agree that the doctrine of the person and work of Jesus Christ — Christology — is critical; it is at the core of basic Christian doctrine.

Thus, the church should take it seriously in the minister/church officer examinations process, and the paper produced by the Theology and Worship Office is an excellent guide in this regard. It could mark the beginning of genuine churchwide confessional renewal in the PC(USA).

We thank Joseph D. Small and his colleagues for providing us with an invaluable tool. The church should turn its attention away from fruitless finger-pointing at one another and pay attention to where this document is leading us: back to the witness of our Book of Confessions. If we do that, then there is no need for Presbyterians to be divided over Jesus Christ.


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