The Confession of 1967:  Fifty years and still counting

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the approval of the Confession of 1967, a milestone that brought the church a contemporary witness to faith and mission and a Book of Confessions that testified to the guidance provided by nine other historic statements of faith from the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds to the Barmen Declaration.

The climate of 1967

Although this action a half century ago may appear to be nothing more than an ecclesiastical footnote, for those of us who were in seminary or active in the Presbyterian Church at the time, its critical message for today is still apparent. With its powerful emphasis on the theme of reconciliation in Christ, its historical-critical understanding of the Bible, its insistence that the church speak boldly about ethical issues in politics and society and with its particular focus on racism, women’s rights, sexual anarchy, the danger of militarism, peacemaking, poverty and environmental justice, it is not difficult to see how valuable this document is to Americans with deep concerns about the national and political issues we must face in the years to come.

For those of us in seminary at the time, one major issue concerning ordination was obvious. The Confession of 1967 (C67) offered a theological breath of fresh air as we realized that ministers, elders and deacons were no longer required to affirm the Westminster standards of 1648 that the Scriptures provided the “only infallible rule of faith and practice” or that the Westminster Confession and Catechisms contain the “system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures.” The new ordination vows, still in place, recognized that the Old and New Testaments were the “authoritative witness to Jesus Christ in the Church universal” (called “the witness without parallel,” 9.27), and that our knowledge of them was based on historical-critical studies outlined in C67, not inflexible rules about infallibility. It also pointed out, by adding a second part of the Constitution parallel to the Book of Order called the Book of Confessions, that the church has reviewed and rewritten its confessional positions and theological declarations throughout its history and is aware that the Holy Spirit calls for, indeed demands, new statements of faith for new times.

The writing of the confession

C67 had its origins in 1958 when the moderator of the recently united Presbyterian Church in the United States of America and the United Presbyterian Church of North America was authorized to appoint a drafting committee to write a new confession for a new church. This special committee of 15 proposed the initial version of C67 and also recommended the creation of a Book of Confessions. A second committee appointed in 1965 reviewed it, and the resulting documents were approved by the General Assembly in 1966 and a majority (165 to 19) of the presbyteries in 1967. Since then, two new confessions have been added: A Brief Statement of Faith (for the reunion of the northern and southern churches in 1983) and the Belhar Confession in 2016. The text of C67 was reworded with inclusive language in 2002 in recognition of its 35th anniversary.

 In 1999 I had the opportunity to talk with Edward Dowey, the chair of the drafting committee and a former professor of Christian doctrine at Princeton Seminary. He was retired by then and when I told him how exciting it was to be part of the discussion and debate about C67, he acknowledged that its creation constituted a kairos moment in the church considering the critical debates that were taking place about biblical interpretation, the angst over the war in Vietnam and the national struggle to achieve racial integration. Dowey said that it was “scary” to be appointed to the committee, especially considering the outstanding theologians, biblical scholars and pastors who served on it: Marcus Barth, Arnold Come, George Hendry, Janet Harbison, James Smart, Charles West, John Meister, Gayraud Wilmore and others. As he put it, “I doubt that you could put together a group of people like that today.” He also mentioned that it was difficult work since its passage was by no means a “shoe-in,” since some opponents considered the Westminster Standards to be sacred texts and even accused the committee of being heretics or communists. As Dowey put it, “By adopting Neo-Reformation concepts of the authority of the Bible, the church made an exciting and important step into the future.”

In his book, “A Commentary of the Confession of 1967 and An Introduction to the Book of Confessions,” Dowey reflects on the opening words of C67, “The church confesses its faith when it bears a present witness to God’s grace and love.” His remarks immediately demonstrate its importance at the beginning of the 21st century. “Present guidance is especially necessary as modern life raises problems undreamed of in the ancient or Reformation church. Neither sprawling consensus, nor makeshift pronouncements, nor stubborn traditionalism are a service to the gospel. The church should not reflect every ripple of history and every wind of doctrine, but it must respond to profound changes in life and culture.”

In reference to C67’s emphasis on reconciliation in society, Dowey presciently writes that this section is a “finger pointing at some of the most destructive enmities” of modern humanity. “It exposes their relation to God’s reconciliation so that the church on its missionary journey cannot avoid them.” The personal relationship of people to God and each other are obstructed in four ways: racial discrimination, international conflict, enslaving poverty and sexual anarchy. Today we could easily expand this list, most notably in regard to the need for honesty in personal and political ethics, a renewed effort to achieve racial equality and sexual diversity, constructive approaches to violence at home and abroad, a more comprehensive definition of interfaith relations and more current statements on poverty and climate change.

Themes of the confession

A brief review of the main themes and the structure of C67 confirms its continuing value for the future church. The central biblical theme of reconciliation is organized around three subtopics: God’s work of reconciliation, its ministry and its fulfillment. Reconciliation has a dual orientation: a vertical one between God and humanity through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, and a horizontal one between people as individuals and corporate units with their neighbors. C67 also has major sections defining the nature of the Bible (9.27-30), the sacraments (9.51-52) and relationships with other religions (9.41-42).

C67 begins with powerful Christological statements about the person and nature of Jesus Christ, his divinity and his humanity. “In Jesus Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself. Jesus Christ is God with humankind. He is the eternal Son of the Father, who became human and lived among us to fulfill the work of reconciliation. … Therefore, the church calls all people to be reconciled to God and to one another. … In Jesus of Nazareth, true humanity was realized once for all.”

One issue was particularly controversial prior to C67’s approval (in addition to discussion about the nature of the Bible) and remains so today: challenging (and still challenging) concepts of the primacy of national identity (9.45). Rather than advocating that America (or any nation) must be first, C67 confesses that Jesus Christ is the only true ground of peace and justice and that all systems of government are called to serve him and pursue responsible relations across every line of conflict, “even at risk to national security.” In light of the danger of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, any nation that identifies its way of life with the cause of God “denies the Lordship of Christ and betrays its calling.” As the final section of the confession makes clear, the church hopes in Christ foremost and does not despair in the face of disappointment and defeat. “In steadfast hope, the church looks beyond all partial achievement to the final triumph of God” (9:55). That we are still committed to these bold principles is clearly indicated throughout the final sections of the Directory for Worship (W-5.03-5.04): “Following the example of Jesus Christ, we pledge that we will respect the dignity of all, reach out to those judged undeserving, receive as well as give and even risk our lives to show Christ’s love.”

As Christians face new challenges that test their faith and commitment to Jesus Christ, almost on a daily basis, the words spoken by Arnold Come at a celebration of C67’s 15th anniversary have special meaning today. “The more I study the emergence of the Confession of 1967, the more momentous becomes its occasion and the more amazing becomes its contribution.”

earl-johnson-jrEarl S. Johnson Jr. is a retired PC(USA) pastor living in Johnstown, New York, and adjunct professor of religious studies at Siena College.