Winter 2003
Volume 7 Number 2
 

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A Living Confession introduction| Page 2 | Page 3 | Drafting the Confession of 1967
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Continued

A Confessional Church

A confession, Migliore says, is “a public declaration of what the church believes and teaches, what will guide its witness and mission in the world. In our confessions, we say to God, to ourselves, and to the world, ‘These things we hold to be true,’ not just as individuals, but as a community of faith.”

 Included in the Book of Confessions

Nicene Creed (325/381)
Apostles’ Creed (814)
Scots Confession (1560)
Heidelberg Catechism (1563)
Second Helvetic Confession (1566)
Westminster Confession of Faith (1647)
Westminster Larger Catechism (1647)
Westminster Shorter Catechism (1647)
The Theological Declaration of Barmen (1934)
The Confession of 1967
The Brief Statement of Faith (1991

For more information, go to www.pcusa.org .

The Confession of 1967 locates itself in a heritage of similar statements, all efforts to articulate the faith in a particular context. The committee that drafted C-67, wanting to emphasize the Presbyterian Church’s confessional tradition, also decided to adopt a book of confessions, the resource in which the creeds and catechisms that the Presbyterian Church has affirmed as authoritative are gathered together. That book now stands, with the Book of Order (the two make up the church’s constitution) and secondary to the Bible, as a guiding standard for the church.

There are areas of convergence and divergence among the Book of Confessions’ 11 documents, says George Hunsinger, PTS’s Hazel Thompson McCord Professor of Systematic Theology, “so it’s a little puzzling for us to have a book of confessions. But it’s actually quite a Reformed thing to do.” Some doctrines, such as the mystery of the Trinity, the centrality of Jesus Christ, and salvation by grace through faith, remain constant throughout the book. Each confession also expresses some particularities of its time, allowing readers to better understand how, historically, the church has attempted to respond faithfully to its circumstances.

The PCUSA does not ask its members or ministers to agree with all the details of the confessions, but that they allow the themes and claims to speak to their lives and ministries. Dawn DeVries, the John Newton Thomas Professor of Systematic Theology at Union Theological Seminary and Presbyterian School of Christian Education in Richmond, Virginia, says, “The idea is that we will be guided by the confessions, but do not have to subscribe to every word. And this allows us to have a conversation with the confessions rather than have them determine in advance what we believe. We refer to them and defer to them. They are representative of some of the best thinking of the church, and I couldn’t imagine being a Presbyterian theologian and not working with the Book of Confessions. But we are able to say when they no longer best state our faith.”

Located in the Reformed tradition, the PCUSA takes seriously its historical identity as “the church reformed, always reforming.” The church articulates its faith and understands its mission in different ways in different times and places, responding to ever-new revelations of the Holy Spirit. Embracing a confessional tradition, then, allows Presbyterians to learn from, be in conversation with, and position themselves alongside believers throughout history and today.

Living, Breathing Documents

“I learned the Apostles’ Creed by rote memorization,” says John Gulden, PTS M.Div. senior, “and I remember sitting in church when it came to that part of the worship service, and thinking, ‘Yeah, now I can say it with everybody else!’ I was only in third or fourth grade, so I didn’t understand fully what everything meant, but I remember thinking that just knowing it provided a link with, and into, the church.”

At The Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill in Philadelphia, its pastor, Cynthia Jarvis, is trying to encourage that same sense of connection, with both the local church and its larger tradition. Her congregation just completed an overview course—what she laughingly calls “romping through the confessions”—in which they studied three confessions each Sunday. “We’ve done that before,” she says, “but what people really wanted [after the three-week study] was to then do a year-long study. There’s a real responsiveness to teaching these confessions.”

 

Janet Harbison Penfield, writer and editor and former member of the Seminary staff, and Edward A. Dowey Jr., PTS professor emeritus of the history of Christian doctrine, were members of the drafting committee for the Confession of 1967, and attended the Seminary’s recent conference celebrating their work.

The congregation’s positive response seems to indicate a desire for a better understanding of doctrine. “There was a time,” says Hunsinger, “when a minister could get into the pulpit and presuppose a fully catechized congregation, a time when ordinary people even had all of this committed to memory.” This is no longer true for a majority of congregations, and Hunsinger suspects that a lack of intentional doctrinal teaching is hurting these churches.

“We don’t have a culture, an ethos in the churches that vital doctrinal teaching is expected,” he says. “Anyone who becomes Catholic is instructed in the new Roman Catholic catechism, a big, thick volume, and that to me says, ‘Here is a church that has a future.’ If the Reformed churches don’t recover some kind of serious catechesis and ways of equipping people in the knowledge of their faith—especially young people—we don’t have a future.”

This concern for the church’s apparent neglect of its rich confessional tradition served as part of the inspiration for “We Trust in Jesus Christ,” a November conference held at the Seminary. According to Migliore, Hudson River Presbytery overtured the most recent General Assembly to use C-67’s 35th anniversary as “an occasion to summon the church for energetic study of the Presbyterian Book of Confessions.” In response to that idea, PTS’s Center of Continuing Education created a one-day event to celebrate of the anniversary of the Confession of 1967, to discuss the nature of the confessional witness to Jesus Christ, and to examine how confessional documents can be part of congregational life and training. Nearly 60 people gathered to participate, including Dowey, West, and Janet Harbison Penfield, members of the committee that drafted the Confession of 1967.

In the event’s opening lecture, William Stacy Johnson, PTS’s Arthur M. Adams Associate Professor of Systematic Theology, called confession “a matter of identification with the One who is the way, the truth, and the life,” and highlighted the confessions as a history of witness to Jesus Christ. Hunsinger spoke next, naming classical Christology as at least, but not merely, Chalcedonian Christology. He pointed out the confessional tradition’s strengths and weaknesses in its reflection of classical Christology. DeVries, guided by the Second Helvetic Confession’s (1566) statement, “Preaching the Word of God is the Word of God,” described preaching as sacramental, being a manifestation of the presence of Christ in the community. A panel discussion, moderated by Migliore, followed the event’s three lectures.

Kim Armstrong, PTS M.Div. senior and conference participant, was thankful for the chance to immerse herself in the confessions. She says, “The confessions witness to the rich diversity and unity that is the Reformed tradition, and each presenter, focusing on a different aspect of the confessions, spoke to this unity and diversity.”

Participants received a copy of the inclusive language version of the Confession of 1967, which a group of women, including Jarvis, created by editing the original draft to rid it of exclusively male terminology without changing the theological content. The event concluded with a reception in honor of drafters Dowey, West, and Penfield.

Participants were challenged to consider whether the current confessions are adequate for expressing the faith in this present and difficult time. Migliore believes that there are issues facing the church and the world today that may well summon the church to articulate its faith anew—to declare, for example, that in response to our culture of violence and death, “Christians are called to say an unequivocal ‘no’ to the use or development of nuclear, biological, or any other weapons of mass destruction by any nation and to bear witness to Jesus Christ as the Prince of Peace.”

Continued on next page

A Living Confession introduction| Page 2 | Page 3 | Drafting the Confession of 1967
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