Disagreeing, agreeably (PCUSA)
- CALLED OUT
February 26, 2003
20 task force members are building trust, becoming community
by John Filiatreau, PCUSA NEWS
DALLAS - The Theological Task Force on the Peace, Unity and Purity of
the Church spent several hours during its recent meeting here
discussing the foundational documents of the Presbyterian Church
(USA) - the Bible and the Book of Confessions.
In the process, the group's 20 members voiced and heard a welter of
firmly-held opinions, and discovered many points of frank
disagreement, which they discussed in a way that all seemed to find
Barbara Wheeler, the president of Auburn Theological Seminary in New
York City, said one of the group's key discoveries is that the gospel
"can be powerfully proclaimed by someone with whom you don't agree at
When Frances Taylor Gench, a professor at Union Theological Seminary,
spoke of the group's efforts "to understand why people who take the
Bible's authority seriously disagree about what it says," she implied
that the task force members were among those who do "take the Bible's
That's a concession many might not have been willing to make when
they were appointed about a year ago. In those days, some may have
entertained ideas like the one Mark Achtemeier, a professor at the
University of Dubuque Theological Seminary, described as "a
stereotype that cripples the church": the notion that "conservatives
are serious about scripture, and liberals don't care about
The members clearly have shed such misapprehensions, if they had
Somehow, a group that started its work full of apprehension and dread
now has a hopeful and optimistic attitude, and seems to have little
fear of the difficult work that lies ahead.
What has changed? How is it that Co-Moderator Gary Demarest, a
retired minister from Pasadena, CA, was moved to say, "I feel that
I'm experiencing the Body of Christ in a new way. Serving on this
task force has been one of the really fine privileges of my whole
journey"? (That's a journey of more than 50 years in ministry.)
The difference, of course, is the year of community- and
trust-building the task force members have put in so far; the year of
praying together and having Communion together and studying scripture
together and laughing together over meals.
In short, they've come to love each other.
Even those whose views are diametrically opposed - say, Wheeler, who
wants to remove the provision of the church constitution that forbids
the ordination of sexually active homosexuals, and the Rev. John
"Mike" Loudon, an evangelical who strongly supports that provision (a
primary cause of the dissension that brought about the task force's
appointment) - clearly are coming to respect and even like each
Referring to the group's gatherings, of which there have been five so
far, Demarest gushed, "Each meeting, to me, gets warmer and more
The group would like to make it possible for the whole church to
share its heartening experience. But no one has come up with a quick
and easy way to make it happen. (OK: Start by dividing the church up
into 250,000 groups of 10 ...)
"This is one of the most powerful experiences of the Holy Spirit
I've ever had," Demarest said, asking whether some parts of the
process aren't "marketable and transferable." Wheeler said she'd run
up against "the biggest problem in education - how to replicate
what's effective in one learning setting ... in another."
That may be why the group's anxiety level goes up whenever the
conversation turns to what the members call "the product" - the final
result of their conversations, whether it turns out to be a position
paper, a series of videos, a program for presbyteries and
congregations, new curriculum. Nobody knows what it may be.
Achtemeier suggested it might be a new confession for the church.
"I don't think it's inconceivable to envision a scenario where
something produced by this task force could end up being at least a
candidate for being a confession," he said. "� In any case, I think
we should aim at nothing less than that."
Wheeler pointed out, "We need to be clear on what we're talking about
when we talk about a new confession. There are capital-c confessions
and small-c confessions, and there is a procedure for creating a
capital-c confession. � We haven't been mandated to do that."
The idea is "worth pondering," said John Wilkinson, the pastor of
Third Presbyterian Church of Rochester, NY, but if creating a
'capital-C' confession is the group's aim, "then we've all got to
clear the next decade on our schedules."
Demarest had pointed out that the group that wrote the Westminster
Confession was composed of more than 150 people who met for 1,160
days over six years.
In the meantime, the group intends to offer resources it has found
useful - in matters of process as well as of substance on the task
force Web site: http://pcusa.org/oga/theo-task-force.htm
The theme of the Feb. 20-23 meeting was "The Bible, creeds and
confessions in faith and life."
The task force began by establishing a few "rules of engagement,"
promising to: commit to work hard together; share their best
insights; dissent when necessary; keep at it even when it's
difficult; and "seek ways to live with differences that cannot be
It then turned to a discussion of three historic models of scriptural
interpretation: the scholastic model ("the Bible as a book of
inerrant facts (1812-1927)"); neo-orthodoxy ("the Bible as a witness
to Christ the Word of God (1930s-1960s)"); and contextual
interpretation ("a divine message in human forms of thought
The members' quickly reached a consensus that all three approaches
are appropriately part of the Reformed tradition, and all three are
still widely employed in the PC(USA).
They also agreed with author John Burgess' observation that
"Presbyterians are better at asserting the authority of the Bible
than at actually opening the Bible."
Milton "Joe" Coalter, interim president of Louisville Presbyterian
Theological Seminary, said he thinks many Presbyterians and other
Christians have come to think of the Bible, "Why give it such a
privileged place when you have such a hard time saying what it
means?" and, partly on that account, dismiss the church as "just a
bunch of people who disagree."
The Rev. Jack Haberer, pastor of Clear Lake Presbyterian Church in
Houston, said he attended worship at a recent pastors' conference and
heard a minister from the United Church of Christ say, after reading
from the Bible and from "some other literature," "God inspires in all
these things equally."
"My hair was standing on end," he said, pointing out that some
attitudes about scripture "are beyond the pale of what we consider
OK" in the Presbyterian Church (USA).
Achtemeier urged the group to "look at the actual attention
Presbyterians pay to scripture." He said "relatively little attention
to the Bible has been paid by either side on the questions that bring
us here � An awful lot of this debate has been shouting unreflective
Wheeler said the group's first order of business may be to answer
what she called "an empirical question: Do Presbyterians use the
Bible, or not?"
Most task force members seemed to agree with authors Andrew Purvis
and Charles Partee that, "Today's church needs not a better theory of
scripture but a better practice of scripture," and with former
General Assembly moderator Jack Rogers that "the use of scripture is
more important than debates about its authority."
Part of the problem, Achtemeier said, is that, in discussions of the
Bible, many Christians devote themselves to seeking "the 'magic
bullet' that will prove your point, over and against the opposition."
Haberer laid some of the responsibility at the feet of the
seminaries, which encourage "over-against-ness" and scripture study
as a war of citations.
Loudon said the church needs to "pay much more attention to the
practice of engagement in scripture," especially through worship.
Citing the task force's own experience, Joan Merritt, an elder from
Newport Presbyterian Church of Bellevue, WA, said, "It's reading it
together that's truly important."
The group's discussion of the confessions began with the observation
that the confessions are even less familiar to most Presbyterians
After a few moments, Achtemeier observed, "We could be having the
same conversation we had this morning - just substitute 'confessions'
for 'scripture.'" Wilkinson held up a copy of the Book of Confessions
and said: "Does anybody ever open this book? Does it really matter?"
Wilkinson, pointing out that "no one statement is irreformable," said
it may be "the right and duty of a living church to restate its faith
from time to time." Loudon said making a new confession may well be
"something the church should do every 30 or 35 years." Haberer said
he has become aware of "a yearning for a new confession" in the
When Wilkinson observed that "for nearly a quarter of a millennium
there was only Westminster" - the Westminster Statement of Faith,
adopted in 1646 - Curtiss observed, "When we had a single confession,
we didn't fight any less."
"The main focus of Westminster appeared to be on scripture as the
sufficient, authoritative, powerful way we know God and as the rule
of faith and life, divinely inspired," said Merritt.
Westminster remained the only purely Presbyterian confession until
1967, when "C-67" (the Confession of 1967) was approved by the former
United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America. C-67 said
scripture in some instances was culturally biased, and that Biblical
interpretation must take into account the cultural contexts of the
Biblical authors and of modern interpreters as well.
Haberer said "the traditional Presbyterian key word of
'righteousness' becomes 'reconciliation' in C-67."
Loudon said he is amazed at "how much more orthodox C-67 (the
Confession of 1967) seems today than it seemed then � (and) has
become much more palatable."
The task force broke into small groups for studies of those two
confessions and one other: the Second Helvetic ("Swiss"), written in
1561 by Heinrich Bullinger. It is markedly ecclesial, emphasizing the
church and its life and affirming the authority of the scriptures in
church government and reformation.
Wheeler, observing that "the confessions really do reward study,"
said: "If the church ever breaks apart, I want to take Westminster
with me. I don't care about my property."
Loudon replied, "We'll take the endowment!"
Haberer said the proliferation of confessions - The Book of
Confessions currently contains 11 - may not be such a good thing. He
said it encourages Presbyterians to choose confessions, and parts of
confessions, that suit them. "We've got so many options, we've lost
our bearings," he said.
The group briefly discussed the concept of status confessionis, a
Latin expression for a situation that warrants a new confession of
faith (internal danger, external threat, or an opportunity for new
insight). That led to Achtemeier's speculation about the possibility
that the task force itself may create at least a small-C confession
for the PC(USA).
Coalter pointed out that the use of confessions, and church members'
knowledge about them, is not broad. He said the church needs a way of
making study of the confessions a part of people's lives."
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