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Essential tenets and sweaty palms

 

"We get sweaty palms every time we hear 'essential tenets.'" If ever a line begged for explanation it was that one. Can it be that Joe Small, the Director of the Office of Theology, Worship and Education for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), doesn't believe in the core convictions of the church? Of what value could be the advice he gave to the Form of Government Task Force (as it met in Louisville on August 16-18), if he wouldn't state plainly our essentials?

Given that all ordinands -- elders, deacons, and ministers of Word and Sacrament -- declare that they "receive and adopt the essential tenets" of the church, it only stands to reason that we be able to articulate them. 

Yet, the matter of defining and subscribing to essential tenets has been debated in our present and former denominations since the 18th century. Why has that been such a battleground for us? How can we vow to uphold the essential tenets yet refuse to delineate exactly which tenets are essential? And if we can't articulate clearly what we believe, how can we have any identity? 

“We get sweaty palms every time we hear ‘essential tenets.'” If ever a line begged for explanation it was that one. Can it be that Joe Small, the Director of the Office of Theology, Worship and Education for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), doesn’t believe in the core convictions of the church? Of what value could be the advice he gave to the Form of Government Task Force (as it met in Louisville on August 16-18), if he wouldn’t state plainly our essentials?

Given that all ordinands — elders, deacons, and ministers of Word and Sacrament — declare that they “receive and adopt the essential tenets” of the church, it only stands to reason that we be able to articulate them.

Yet, the matter of defining and subscribing to essential tenets has been debated in our present and former denominations since the 18th century. Why has that been such a battleground for us? How can we vow to uphold the essential tenets yet refuse to delineate exactly which tenets are essential? And if we can’t articulate clearly what we believe, how can we have any identity?

Let’s take a closer look at this.

Ordination and installation of church officers always includes asking them a series of commitment questions beginning with the following three:

  • Do you trust in Jesus Christ your Savior, acknowledge him Lord of all and Head of the Church, and through him believe in one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?
  • Do you accept the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be, by the Holy Spirit, the unique and authoritative witness to Jesus Christ in the Church universal, and God’s Word to you?
  • Do you sincerely receive and adopt the essential tenets of the Reformed faith as expressed in the confessions of our church as authentic and reliable expositions of what Scripture leads us to believe and do, and will you be instructed and led by those confessions as you lead the people of God?” (W-4.4003)

Given our ordinands’ declaration of allegiance to Jesus Christ, to the triune God, and to the Scriptures, what more do we need? The first two questions expound and expand the popular motto of some independent churches: “No creed but Christ, no book but the Bible.” Why have we Presbyterians felt the need to affirm so much more, as in the question about creeds and confessions, and why do some among us pine for still more, specifically, subscription to a summary statement of essentials?

Let’s be honest now: Some of us want more because some of us aren’t satisfied with what we’ve already got.

Face it. We could have done a better job of writing the Bible. We could have written it without including proverbs, parables, and poems. We could have avoided publishing variant viewpoints of historic events. We could have listed a simple set of propositions that would tell people what they need to believe and do. And we could have kept those propositions brief and simple.

If you want to propagate the faith, you need to make it plain and simple, don’t you?

In the hope of clarifying and simplifying, we Christians went about the business of summarizing the faith. The Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed served that purpose for more than a millennium. Then came the Reformers and with them the Westminster Confession. That document satisfied the western, English-speaking Presbyterian Church for a few hundred years — except, of course, for the parts ruled non-essential by the church and for the parts that got amended by some of us (the Westminster divines overlooked such topics as “the mission of the church” and “the Holy Spirit,” so they were added centuries later by amendment … by some but not all of us).

The actual practice of subscribing to the “essential tenets” came into use in the early 18th century to address these and other problems with the Westminster Confession, such as the divine authority it accorded civil magistrates over the church. Individuals could pledge their allegiance to its central points while also acknowledging disagreements over peripheral points, and governing bodies could excuse, i.e., “extend forbearance to,” such individuals.

Even after amendment, sufficient doubts circulated regarding Westminster’s accuracy and sufficiency.

About 100 years ago some of Westminster’s most ardent defenders revealed their own dissatisfaction by formulating five simple categories of theology to summarize it. They proposed that all ordinands vow their allegiance to those fundamentals: the inerrancy of Scripture, the virgin birth and deity of Christ, the authenticity of his miracles, the doctrine of substitutionary atonement, and the bodily resurrection and ascension of Jesus. That proposal was adopted but rescinded in 1927.

Eventually, in the 1970s and 80s we adopted a whole collection of confessions to provide multiple witnesses that summarize the faith for us. Advantage: Each of those documents shares with us particular insights gained by one branch of the body of Christ at a particular time and place in history, thereby granting us fresh eyes with which to see different contours of the faith. We can expect future generations to catch new insights to God’s word that we have yet to grasp.

But, some folks want things better tied down now. They yearn to hear a secure, final word, a summary of the summaries, a clear statement of essentials.

Why shouldn’t we give in to that desire? Why not publish a clear, authoritative synopsis of what we believe?

Well, for one thing, any condensation of the faith does just that: it condenses the faith. If our faith were that simple, don’t you think God would have provided us a pocket-sized summary of it? The eternal Word knows a thing or two about communications. The eternal Word chose to provide us not a pamphlet but a person, the living Word. God also chose to inspire dozens of writers to produce scores of manuscripts in order to convey a nuanced, deep faith to the very complicated, diverse peoples of the world. To turn that into a checklist or a collection of propositions siphons off its depth and shortchanges its breadth.

The other problem with faith summaries is the inevitability of errors.

Consider our denomination’s most outspoken essential tenets advocates in recent days, the New Wineskins Association of Churches. To their credit, not only have they advocated such a condensation, they’ve even prepared one.

A couple years ago, when they published on line their first draft of “The Essential Tenets of the Reformed Faith,” I posted to their Web site a letter commending their effort. The letter also included one suggestion for improvement. I noted a problem with their use of John 14:6. Referring to Jesus, the document states, “He is the Way, the Truth and the Life; no one comes to the Father but by faith in Him.” I suggested that the phrase “by faith in” changes what Jesus said (the original reads, “except through” him). In fact, their amendment seems to suggest that salvation comes by our faith rather than through Jesus’ grace. Further, it closes heaven’s door to every human who has not exercised “faith in Him,” including at very least all Old Testament saints and all young children.

I suggested that they might want to correct that unintended mistake.

Their statement of faith remains unchanged.

Most likely, they haven’t noticed the error. That’s forgivable. The Westminster Divines weren’t perfect, so the NWAC is in good company! Councils of the church are inclined to err. But that’s the point. No statement developed by any body of believers can ever quite do justice to the faith revealed in God’s Word.

In fact, most churches of the Reformed Tradition have recognized that the biblical Word is fundamentally different from all of our human words, however godly and well intentioned and useful for instruction they might be. The refusal of our Presbyterian ancestors to compel across-the-board subscription to a single confession or pre-defined list of essential tenets of the faith results from their desire not to place any humanly-contrived words between the church’s members and the living Word of the Bible. That biblical Word is the only sovereign and authoritative foundation of the church’s life and ministry.

So how shall we be instructed and led by our core convictions?

Here are some ideas:

  • How about affirming our allegiance to Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, to the holy Trinity and to the holy Scriptures as the authoritative witness to Jesus Christ?
  • How about choosing a collection of widely approved creeds and confessions to provide guidance to help highlight some of the key points in Scripture?
  • How about highlighting in our Constitution our solidarity with the church catholic, protestant, and reformed?
  • How about carefully and rigorously examining those who would serve as teaching elders, ruling elders, and deacons, asking them to explain before a body of their peers what it is that they hear God saying in the Scriptures?
  • And how about entrusting to those peers — the examining governing body — the responsibility to discern each candidate’s spiritual, theological, vocational, and personal readiness to lead the people of God in obedience to Jesus Christ as revealed in Scripture and highlighted by our confessions?

Uh, well, that’s what we Presbyterians have been doing for the most part for generations. Doing so has required serious effort. Many of us have endured sweaty palms in the process. But this process has granted countless millions … the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge … (Eph. 3:18).

POSTSCRIPT: This editorial is about twice as long as usual because even a discussion about essential tenets is just too complicated to fit onto one page.

— JHH

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