For all the talk of “being guided by the confessions” in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), little attention has been paid to what “C-67” says — the mid-20th century hopes it embodies — and few sense how much its theology shaped the language and structure of our denomination in the 1970s, 1980s and even 1990s. The current “confessing church” movement, for example, by treating certain “essentials” of faith as new fundamentals, seems almost to deny the heritage of systematic theological expression nurtured in the confessions.
This brief essay is an argument and an invitation, even to those who find the confessing church’s “line-in-the-sand” persuasive. The argument is for renaming the Confession of 1967, calling it instead the Confession for Mission. The timeliness of C-67’s title, in my view, works against it, however much the dating suggests that all past confessions are also dated. More importantly, C-67 shaped and reflected the concept of mission that informed the church’s life in the world. That concept of mission embedded prophetic witness in the church’s life and undergirded creative programs that would embody that mission: the Hunger Program, Peacemaking Program, the councils on women and race and, to some degree, the ecumenical element in international mission.
The work of missionary James Wright in Brazil, for example, exemplifies that prophetic edge: helping the Archdiocese of Saõ Paulo document human rights violations in the 1960s and 1970s, rather than working with a Presbyterian Church that accommodated the military dictators. C-67’s concept of mission — based clearly in Jesus’ prophetic life — made ethical stances part of the essential marks of the church, and made it easier to identify countless faithful martyrdoms with God’s incarnation in Jesus Christ.
A runner-up name for C-67 might be: the Confession for Reconciliation. Reconciliation, its overall biblical theme, does suggest that biblical themes are as important as the propositions of doctrine that punctuate them. Certainly reconciliation is an essential description — though one of many — for Jesus’s saving work. It was the motif favored by Karl Barth in the sweeping two-part journey of God in Christ that is the fourth volume of the Church Dogmatics. It is hard, in fact, to argue against “reconciliation,” since we need it so badly in our church itself. The closeness with which mission and reconciliation are woven also testifies to the thematic coherence of the confession. Yet it was and is Christ’s mission that shapes our understanding of reconciliation, the Christ who is prophet, priest and blessing, ruling king.
Recent scholarship, such as that of Jack Rogers, our current General Assembly moderator, highlights how the Confession of 1967 authorized the Book of Confessions, helping us understand the Reformed ecumenism within our tradition, broadening our church’s heritage from exclusive dependence on the much-revised Westminster standards. Dissatisfaction with Westminster had long been present, of course: the 1902 Brief Statement of the Reformed Faith (reprinted in the widely circulated 1933 PCUSA Hymnals) lifts up “grace” as much as “glory,” appeals to revelation in the “hearts of men” and has the word of the Bible witnessing to “Christ, as the Word of God, the only infallible rule of faith and life.” That statement, elegantly drafted by Henry Van Dyke, invoked reconciliation in its concluding paragraph: “. . . God was in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself, and that He will have all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”
The most significant correlate of the decision to recommend a Book of Confessions was the understanding that C-67 would not need to replicate doctrine amply and ably expressed elsewhere. This was in keeping with its focus on the church’s mission. Thus the dual nature of Christ and the structure of the Trinity were not explicated, although these understandings clearly shape the incarnational content and trinitarian form of the confession. The other confessions also provide the privileged theological context for interpreting any particular confession. In the nearest precursor to C-67, the Barmen Declaration of 1934, we can see some of ’67’s theological premises and political awareness, although the judgments on error, the anathematic sharpness, get turned against the church itself in C-67. Ideally it is the church’s own faithfulness, not its righteous condemnations, that judge the false idols of the world.
Both 20th-century confessions share a prophetic witness that helps us reread Westminster’s 17th-century warnings about the church “meddling” in society with different eyes. Good Calvinist meddling had just helped inspire the English Civil War. While the Presbyterians of Westminster then sought to retain more stability and authority than the Puritan Independents, exemplified by Cromwell’s followers, our predecessors still linked political democracy with a democratic spirituality — some of which was ably distilled into our eight Preliminary Principles of Church Order at the time of the American Revolution. It is part of the achievement of C-67 that we are no longer bound primarily to a work shaped by a context unfamiliar to most American Presbyterians.
Alongside the embrace of timely witness and contemporary knowledge, symbolized by the solar system in the Avery and Marsh banner, the confession emphasized that the Word of God was Jesus Christ, not the physical, time-conditioned Bible itself. This was the point of greatest opposition to the confession, of course; Presbyterians United for a Biblical Confession (later, Presbyterians United for Biblical Concerns, antecedent of Presbyterians for Renewal) opposed this openness to biblical interpretation and “higher criticism.” This brings us to the invitation and the reconsideration parts of this essay.
When the General Assembly received the draft confession and Book of Confessions in 1965, it appointed the “Skinner Committee,” to work with the drafting committee (especially chair Edward Dowey Jr. of Princeton Seminary) in responding to comment from across the church. Changes were made to bridge understandings of Scripture and to add a section on sexual morality — “anarchy” was the confession’s diagnosis, with pastoral care part of the cure. That section is the only place where women are mentioned. The important thing about these changes was that they enabled more of the church to stay on-board — even though John Wilkinson’s recent Ph.D. work describes the disappointment of some of the original committee members at the compromises of 1965-6 that ensured the overwhelming approval of the confession in 1967. (One of those was adding, “word of God written,” right out of Westminster, into C-67).
Any reconsideration of the Confession of 1967 today must reckon first with A Brief Statement of Faith adopted several years after the Reunion of the PCUS and UPCUSA. Above all, the drafters of that document chose a brief, liturgically friendly style format that clearly depends on previous confessions in the Book of Confessions to explicate our faith more fully. Thus C-67’s reinterpretation, in the both/and style of “neo-orthodoxy,” is essential, however little the confession may be known in the former Southern church. Of course, Jack Rogers’ book on Presbyterian creeds and confessions describes how the non-title was selected for the Brief Statement of Faith, so any thematic name may limit a confession.
But more than that, such a reconsideration must look at the topics that C-67 lifted up, the topics of race, poverty, war, sexuality and the environment that, with the exception of the last, A Brief Statement of Faith avoided. Particularly as we assess the post-Sept. 11 context, the treatment of war and peace, and of the costs of fundamentalism and religious intolerance, is essential. Sexuality we have perhaps analyzed almost to denominational death, but the overall framework of reconciliation may be more needed than we knew — even a basic reconciliation or “second innocence” between men and women after feminism and the men’s movement. We have discussed homosexuality too much proportionately, and basic gender relations — such as contribute to divorce — too little. We desperately need to put the sexuality debates and allegations of apostasy into a larger confessional context.
In 1982, the 15th anniversary of the Confession of 1967, an excellent symposium was held at Princeton Seminary, entitled “Reconciliation and Liberation.” Dieter Hessel, the chief architect of that gathering (and author of helpful books on social change and the church, such as Reconciliation and Conflict, 1969), ensured that a very inclusive group looked hard at poverty, race and concerns neglected 15 years earlier. The papers from that symposium are printed in the Journal of Presbyterian History, Spring 1983. Yet neglected topics easily come to mind: the roles of liturgy, healing and personal piety; the dimensions of the unconscious and of conscience; greater attention to other religions in a non-reductionist yet Christocentric way. A new book of essays dealing with many of these matters is in production for the 35th anniversary of C-67.
The invitation here is that we hold many symposiums and consultations across the church in the coming year, not just one. Obviously, this is a way to address the concerns of the confessing church — if that group wishes to look at what the confessions really talk about. The fact is, we have been and still are a confessional church — that is certainly the core of our connectionalism, at least where I live. But such consultations — perhaps attached to presbytery meetings — would be a way to reframe and broaden some of the issues of our current debates. Can we handle a bit more historical and theological context? Can we use the leadership in our seminaries? Can this be part of the work of the Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity and Purity?
In Hudson River Presbytery, our Third Way Project has set up a conference for Feb. 3-4 at Stony Point, including speakers updating key themes of the Confession of 1967. The church’s identity is at stake in our current divisions, but we have not been looking at parts of our identity — our recent confessional heritage — written by people who knew the founders of the original German Confessing Church during World War II. We hope that many others across the church will say with us, “Remember before we dismember; join in mission before we decommission; let us reconcile rather than self-exile.”
Chris Iosso is pastor of the Scarborough, N.Y., church.
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