In the 18th century, it was the Westminster Standards, inherited from Great Britain and Northern Ireland. In the late 20th century, we moved to a book of confessions containing 10 documents, to which an 11th was added in 1991. At the same time the range of theological reflection open to ministerial students has broadened substantially as new (previously excluded) groups have found their voice and have helped reshape inherited theological traditions.
We can all agree that in a confessional church there have to be boundaries; but the current reality is that the ability to set those boundaries is nearly impossible, given the diversity of views that exists in the ordained leadership of the Presbyterian Church.
This situation is the result of dramatic changes in the world in which we live, in our own culture and in those institutions — from the home to the theological seminary — responsible for the task of traditioning individuals into the faith of the church.
Given the diversity that has been allowed to grow within our bounds, how can we now begin to draw lines? Where will the lines be drawn? Who will draw them? What will become of those who cannot live within the lines?
The task is further complicated by the fact that the discipline of theology has moved beyond its almost exclusive service to the church to the service of many other masters, depending on the individual theologian, in a particular seminary that may nor may not have any relationship to the PC(USA), but who has an important role in training our future leadership.
If there is to be clarity regarding the line between orthodoxy and heterodoxy, insofar as that relates to those who train ministers, candidates for ministry, ordained ministers and church officers, we’re going to have to have a much more serious, sustained theological conversation in the church than we’ve had in a long time.
Christology is critical as many are suggesting. To be able to affirm with all one’s heart and mind that Jesus Christ is Lord of all and Savior of the world is at the heart of the gospel. But Christology is part of a whole system of understanding of what the church believes the Bible to teach about God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ.
The Presbyterian solution to the reality of theological diversity that always exists in its ordained leadership — whatever the confessional/theological limits at any given time — is the governing body of membership, which in a particular examination, of a particular individual, at a particular time, in regard to a particular call, must make an informed and faithful decision about the authenticity and integrity of that person’s faith and competence for service in office.
Orthodoxy, then, becomes what the ordaining governing body (presbytery for ministers, session for deacons and elders) declares it to be — subject to the review of a higher governing body if a protest is lodged — which is not so different from the secular standard: the Constitution of the United States is what a judge says it is.
For the Presbyterian Church to fulfill the responsibility of instructing its leaders in the faith of the church, and holding them accountable to that faith, will require a massive instructional effort for a generation — so massive that it has not yet even been contemplated by the church as a whole, much less realistically debated.
In the meantime we make do with the diversity that is greater than some believe is tolerable, using the examination process to determine authenticity of an ordinand’s faith, at the same time being willing to tell an individual that his or her knowledge is insufficient, or views are not in accordance with what we believe to be essential to the faith of the church.
Heresy trials are another option, but Presbyterians no longer have the stomach for them. The most we can hope for today is a major commitment to education, and a gradual return of biblical and theological literacy — and cohesion!
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