“I know that some of you are not keen on this project,” said Laura Smit, an associate professor of religion at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., speaking at the Fellowship’s Covenanting Conference in Orlando. “Some of you think we have spent way too much time on the theological niceties and it’s time to get missional,” and are asking, “Why are you wasting more time with ancient dead documents” such as the Book of Confessions of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
Smit said she understands that impatience, but “it’s a pernicious falsehood” to suggest that theological underpinnings for the work of mission don’t matter. “You cannot be missional unless you have a theology that drives that mission.”
At the same time, however, both she and Jerry Andrews, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in San Diego, indicated that the revised theology document the Fellowship released Jan. 19 will benefit from further scrutiny.
After releasing a draft of the document in December, the committee received more than 1,000 comments, including suggestions for changes. “We were under an incredible time crunch,” Smit said. “I know there were some great suggestions we didn’t have time to process.”
Some also have asked for clarity about a section of the theology document described as “Essentials of the Reformed Tradition.” Part of the discussion involves how much weight those essentials carry and whether those who join the new denomination – which the Fellowship has named the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians (shortened to ECO) – are required to subscribe to them.
A polity document that’s also part of the constitution of the new denomination states, for example, that members of congregations in the denomination who have significant leadership roles shall “agree with the Essential Tenets.” And those being ordained as pastors, elders or deacons “must adhere to the Essential Tenets of the ECO.”
Smit was the primary author of the Essential Tenets part of the theology document. She told the Covenanting Conference, “I gasped in horror when I found they had been placed in the ordination vows in the new polity. That scared me silly.”
Asked if the Essential Tenets are provisional or if they have constitutional weight, Smit said that’s still under negotiation.
The polity document, however, states that “the Constitution of the ECO includes the Essential Tenets, the Form of Government and the Rules of Discipline.” It also describes the process for changing the constitution – which requires at least two presbyteries to concur in an overture that’s sent to the synod (the ECO’s highest governing body) and put to a vote.
Smit told the 2,100 people attending the Covenanting Conference that “we have no intention of the Essential Tenets document being a new confession,” or something to which people must subscribe. “It is a provisional document” to help people move towards confessional clarity, she said. “I think of it as actually a curriculum” people can use to study the church’s confessional documents, which are the confessions in the PC(USA)’s current Book of Confessions.
Some might look at the Essential Tenets section and say, “Well, I don’t know if I can affirm this line,” Smit said. “That’s OK.”
She said of the Essential Tenets document: “You can fight with it, you can edit it, you can disagree with it.” Sessions of congregations might want to draft their own versions. “Go ahead,” Smit said. “Knock yourselves out.”
She also used an analogy drawn from a colleague who described some pieces of music as being like crystal goblets, cherished and passed down through the generations, while other songs are more like paper cups, something people listen to for a season or two, then put aside.
“I see the Essential Tenets (portion of the document) as being like a paper cup” that in five years or so it will be obsolete, replaced with something better and more clearly written, Smits said. “Our confessions are the crystal goblets.”
Both Smit and Andrews encouraged Presbyterians to themselves study the confessions and the Essential Tenets, rather than wait for any denominational task force or study group to do the work of revision. “You begin the process at home,” Andrews said.
Andrews also said that the theology document affirms the entire Book of Confessions, rather than selecting out just one – such as the Westminster Confession – as some at this conference might have preferred.
“Theological consensus among us can be built, but it has not been built,” Andrews said. To use only the Westminster Confession “we thought would lack integrity,” as “I doubt that 10 percent among us are Westminster Calvinists.”
In the past, Andrews said, he has sometimes accused Presbyterian colleagues “of saying their creeds with a wink and a nod,” and he doesn’t want that to happen in the Evangelical Covenant Order, as might happen if just one creed were selected. Stating theological belief is important, he said, because “before, we assumed a common truth when the truth was not held in common” in the PC(USA).
By using the entire Book of Confessions, Andrews said, “we hear from the church around the world and through time.”