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When a Theological Debate Isn’t

All of us who are or have been pastors know what it is like to be in the middle of a marital or family counseling session and realize that what the parties are arguing about isn’t really the issue. They may be talking (or yelling) about a child’s grades, but the problem for the family lies elsewhere. The grades are merely what they’ve decided to argue about.

That’s what is happening now in the Presbyterian Church. Our arguments may not really be about theology or Christology. They are about something else, and our only hope of finding a way forward is to attempt to name some of the (other) real issues.

As a theological educator and one trained as a theologian, it grieves me to say this. I enjoy theological debate and believe that it serves a deeply useful purpose in the life of the people of God. No one of us can ever know all there is to know about who God is or what Jesus Christ means for us or how to express any of that in whatever our current context may be. Writing and talking and conversing with one another is an ongoing and necessary activity as we seek to be faithful followers for Christ.

But this isn’t a theological debate. The question isn’t really “Who is Jesus Christ?” (although that is a critically important question and one that needs considerable attention in our present context). The issue is that some Presbyterians are convinced that some other Presbyterians really don’t believe that Jesus Christ is Savior and Lord despite what seems to those other Presbyterians like reasonable, honest and legitimate affirmations.

The most recent round of this argument began after a speech made at the Peacemaking Conference in 2000. It was alleged that the denomination had sponsored a conference at which a speaker had denied the Lordship of Christ. The General Assembly Council, General Assembly moderator and stated clerk all issued statements affirming our confessional standards and our faith in Christ. It wasn’t enough.

An overture came to the 2001 Assembly asking for a statement confessing Christ as Lord. A statement, written by a commissioner, was affirmed. The moderator led the commissioners in affirming statements about Christ from all the confessions of our church. But it wasn’t enough.

Earlier this fall the Office of Theology and Worship issued a statement highlighting affirmations about Jesus Christ from the Book of Confessions. It’s still not enough.

The presenting issue may be faith in Jesus Christ, but the underlying issue (or at least one of them) is trust or the lack of it. Some Presbyterians cannot or will not accept the fact that other Presbyterians are speaking honestly and faithfully about what they believe.

At the Assembly last year, a pastor said to me, “If the beloved asks the lover, ‘Do you love me?’ why not just say, ‘Yes, I love you.’” The analogy of lovers or spouses was being used for the relation between Christ and believer. My response was something to the effect that I think that’s what I’m doing every time I say the Apostles’ Creed: I say (and mean to say) that Jesus is Lord.

After some reflection, I have decided that the analogy is wrong. What has been happening, I think, is one sibling asking another: “Do you really love our parents?” And that the subtext is: “I really love them more than you do.” It’s not about how either child relates to the parents; it’s about how the siblings relate to one another. It’s about trust.

The question of who is Jesus Christ and how we confess Christ as Savior and Lord is a critically important question (always has been, always will be). It is especially important in contemporary American culture. The United States is not only the most religiously active of all the Western nations; it has become, arguably, the most religiously diverse nation on Earth. What does it mean to confess Christ in a genuinely multifaith nation?

That is the theological issue. It requires serious conversation, discussion and discernment. But such conversation also requires a fundamental trust among the conversation partners. That, in turn, requires willingness for all parties to take the statement of the others at face value even if they disagree. Disagreement is acceptable, understandable and even necessary. Calling one’s conversation partner names (apostate) or maligning their integrity is not.

The current and three past moderators of the General Assembly have appointed a task force to help us to discern and to discuss the underlying issues among us. I hope that they will begin with the question of trust, because if that is not there, nothing else will be accomplished.

Cynthia M. Campbell is president of McCormick Seminary..

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