It is no secret that a creedal revolution is taking place in a number of denominations. Either it is obvious from a subtle reinterpretation of parts of the historic confessional standards, a studied neglect of their content or an open revision in black on white in an effort to “bring up to date” the “out-dated” standards. Presently engaged in a revision of this nature is the United Presbyterian Church, U.S.A.
The Situation in the Church
For a long time a rumble has been heard from below the surface to effect such a change in the traditionally conservative Presbyterian Church. The first time it broke into the open was in 1889 when fifteen presbyteries overtured the General Assembly to consider a revision of the Westminster Confession. Of major concern were the doctrines of reprobation, elect infants and the limited atonement. Tills revision sought by those representing the newer trends in Presbyterian theological thought was so overwhelmingly received that the Assembly of 1890 appointed a committee to work out the alterations. None of the proposed alterations were adopted. During the next few years a different attitude was seen in the Church. Several professors felt the hand of discipline because they held heterdox views. But no sooner were the ecclesiastical trials over than the issue of revision was raised again and in 1903 additional chapters were added to the Westminster Confessions entitled “Of the Holy Spirit” and “Of the Love of God and Missions;” also, the atonement was clearly defined as being for all men.
The rumbles had not ceased and the struggles were not over, however. In 1923, the General Assembly reaffirmed that essential doctrines of the Word of God were the infallibility of Scripture, the Virgin Birth of Christ, the miracles of Christ, the Substitutionary Atonement and the the bodily Resurrection of Christ. The next year the famous Baptist minister serving First Presbyterian Church of New York, Harry Emerson Fosdick, an exponent of liberal theological views, was asked by the General Assembly to either enter the ministry of the Presbyterian Church or leave his pastorate at First Church. He chose the latter course. These conservative victories were short lived, however, because 1924 brought the signing of the Auburn Affirmation by approximately 1300 ministers. In signing this they said that the cardinal doctrines reaffirmed in 1923 were not essential teachings, nor did good standing in the Presbyterian ministry depend on belief in the doctrines. When the committee on Bills and Overtures for the General Assembly of 1924 recommended “no action” on an overture requesting action against the Auburn Affirmation, it was apparent who had gained victory. The well-known result of this action was the eventual organization of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.
Forty years have passed and now again there is evidence of further decay. When the union between the United Presbyterian and Presbyterian, U.S.A. Churches was consummated in 1958, an eighteen member committee was given the task of formulating “a brief contemporary statement of faith.”
This “genuinely relevant” statement of faith was brought to the 1965 General Assembly. Three recommendations came from the committee: the publication of a book including some of the older creeds for reference purposes, the adoption of the new Confession which is organized around the theme of reconciliation and a drastie revision in what we would call “the formula of subscription.”
Presbyterians are not taking this lying down. Here and there loud voices are being raised in favor of the historic Westminster theology whicll seems dangerously near to being discarded. And voices ought to be raised because when this proposal was presented to the Columbus meeting of the Ceneral Assembly last year it passed by a 643 to 110 vote. Two more ballots are necessary for ratification. The 1966 Assembly must recommend it to the various Presbyteries for a ~ favorable vote. Then, if finally ratified by the General Assembly of 1967 it becomes the creedal statement of the Presbyterian Church. This is why it is caned the Confession of 1967.
As we consider these three parts of the committee recommendations we become very much aware of why this is cause for concern. It is a complete “about-face” for the old denomination.
A Creedal Museum?
First in the list is the establishment of what some have called “a Creedal Museum.” A book is to be published containing the Nicene and Apostle’s Creeds, the Scots Confession (1560), the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), the Second Helvetic Confession (1566), The Barmen Declaration (1934) and the Westminster Confession and Shorter Catechism. According to a news release in Christianity Today (May 7, 1965), “The Larger Catechism is to be omitted because of bulk, lack of usage, and ‘excessively legalistic’ tendencies.” The reason for this book, according to the committee, is that the creeds are historic. Their truth is not mentioned, They express “ancient doctrines” but they do not express the truth which is timeless. The book will express the beliefs of the Church as it has struggled through the years but not the confession of the Church today. Such a “museum” is a denial of ultimate and final truth.
The second desire of the committee is the acceptance by Presbyterians of “The Confession of 1967,” From even a rapid reading of this document we become aware that it represents a radically different theological view. A lack of precision is obvious in the theological statements. Reference to Scripture is very minimal.
Some argue that this Confession has a place in Presbyterianism since its purpose is to contemporize the faith. But really, the only justification for a new confession is that it is more able to clearly express Scriptural truth. The crispness of expression in the Westminster Standards is not superceded in the Confession of 1967. If the Confession would be a reaffirmation of the historic doctrines over against modern unbelief, perhaps it would be justified. But neither is this done. The argument that it is to stand along side of the earlier Standard of Faith is unfounded because two cannot stand together unless they be agreed…and the new Confession is fundamentally opposed to the Westminster theology. In its silences and its reformulations, it speaks volumes. None of the characteristic Calvinistic doctrines are affirmed, In fact, there is here and there the suspicious appearance of an Arminianism as well as a Universalism. If this Confession is accepted by the Presbyterians, it will mean a new theological foundation for the Church.
Scripture According to the New Confession
Perhaps the logical place to begin to show the difference between the new Confession and Westminster theology is in reference to the nature and authority of Scripture. “The one sufficient revelation of God is Jesus Christ, the Word of God incarnate, to whom the Holy Spirit bears witness in many ways. The church has received the Old and New Testaments as the normative witness to this revelation and has recognized them as Holy Scriptures.” The Confession continues by indicating that the writers reflected the then current “views of life, history, and the cosmos…The variety of such views found in the Bible shows that God has communicated with men in diverse cultural conditions. This gives the church the confidence that he will continue to speak to men in a changing world and in every form of human culture.”
It is said that Scripture is a “normative witness” to revelation and not, therefore, the inspired Word of God. Following the Bartman pattern of thinking a very pious guise is employed: Christ is the Word. They say that revelation is the act of God and man’s response is his witness. “The words of the Scriptures are the words of men…” Saying this the Confession does wrest1e with statements in Scripture such as “the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.” And those who will hold that Scripture’s words are men’s words indicate that their faith is not that of Scripture, because the Bible says that it is itself tho Word of God: inspired and infallible.
Being normative, Scripture has no objective authority. It only has authority as it is interpreted since the words are only the words of men. How then does man know the will of God? From the Bible, but only when it becomes the Word of God to man by the Spirit.
Further, the authority of Scripture lies not in its being God-given but in the decision of the Church, according to modern Presbyterians. The basis of authority bas been moved from God to man. How different this is from the crispness and clarity of the Westminster Confession (1:4), “The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, and obeyed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man, or church; but wholly upon God (who is truth itself) the author thereof: and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God.” Obviously, two different foundations support these two different confessions.
Another area of weakness is the discussion of the Person and Work of Jesus Christ. Never is He referred to as the “Son of God.” There is a strong emphasis on His humanity but emphasis on His deity is conspicuously lacking. In fact, one Presbyterian minister has remarked that not even a Unitarian would be offended by the ever so mild Confession.
What About Jesus Christ? The most specific statement about Christ is found near the beginning, “Jesus Christ is God with man.” Now this may sound innocent enough but, really, what does it mean? This could mean almost anything. A few sentences later, the Confession states, “In Jesus of Nazareth true humanity was realized once for all…He…became a brother to all kinds of sinful men.” Are we to understand from this that we are not truly human, but He is? In what way is He the “brother of all kinds of sinful men?” The Bible speaks of Christ as the Last Adam but here He is considered a “brother of all kinds of sinful men.” We are told in the preface to the Confession that the Person of Christ will be recognized as the basis for the Christian faith, though His Person will remain undefined. However, there is little evidence, if any, of this.
When it comes to the work of Christ, the Confession states: “God’s reconciling act in Jesus Christ is a mystery which the Scriptures express in various ways, It is called the sacrifice of a lamb, a shepherd’s life given for his sheep, atonement by a priest; again it is a ransom of a slave, payment of a debt, vicarious satisfaction of a legal penalty, and victory over the powers of evil. These are images of a truth which remains beyond the reach of all theory in the depths of God’s love for man. They reveal the gravity, cost, and sure achievement of God’s reconciling work.” Evidently, the words of Scripture do not express truth. To the committee, Scriptural terminology only draws pictures and the meaning of these is too deep.
Christ’s Humiliation and Exaltation are so thoroughly reinterpreted that the efficacy of His being the Last Adam for our salvation is lost. The essential Virgin Birth is never mentioned. The meaning of the life, death, resurrection and promised coming again of Jesus Christ is to be found, according to the Confession, not in redemption and sanctification but in social service: human welfare, judgment on inhumanity and the renewal of society.
The Nature and Task of the Church
The Confession admits that “The risen Christ is the savior of all men.” This universalism is found elsewhere in the creedal statement, “God’s reconciliation of the human race creates one universal family…” How different this is from the words of the Westminster divines (VIII:1): “It pleased God, in His eternal purpose, to choose and ordain the Lord Jesus, His only begotten Son, to be the Mediator between God and man, the Prophet, Priest, and King, the Head and Saviour of His Church, the Heir of all things, and Judge of the world: unto whom He did from all eternity give a people, to be His seed, and to be by Him in time redeemed, called, justified, sanctified, and glorified.”
Interestingly, this weakness is carried over into the task of the Church, Instead of emphasizing that the Church is to be busily engaged in proclaiming the Gospel of the Sovereign Grace of God in salvation, “the pattern for the church’s mission” is to be seen in applying the meaning of the events of Christ’s Humiliation and Exaltation in social service. As a body of “reconciled” people the church “is to be sent into the world as his reconciling community.” “Because Jesus identified himself with the needy and exploited, the cause of the world’s poor is the cause of his disciples…The church calls all men to use their abilities and possessions as gifts entrusted to them by Cod for the advancement of the common welfare…a decent living.” A social gospel is the emphasis of the Confession, Again we see a different emphasis in the Westminster Confession (XXV:3) because to the “visible Church Christ hath given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints, in this life, to the end of the world…” While it is true that Christians are to have a social consciousness, the Church must endeavor to proclaim the Gospel of salvation.
Further, the presentation of the Church is weak because God’s people do not stand and move as a militant body holding Truth which is unique and of divine origin. The Westminster Confession states (XXV:2) that the Church is composed of “all those throughout the world that profess the true religion…” How different is the new Confession: “The church in its mission encounters the religions of men and in that encounter becomes acutely conscious of its own human character as a religion.” Truth is not given of God; it is of a human source. When a weak view of Scripture is held, it is understandable that Truth will not exist.
By this restatement of the essentials of faith and the omission of others, it becomes evident that a new foundation is being substituted by Presbyterians for their doctrinal position, But even more is being recommended by the committee. They are recommending that the terms of subscription to the Confession be liberalized. Those who are about to be ordained are presently asked if they believe that Scripture is “the Word of God, the only infallible rule of faith and practice.” They are also to affirm that they “receive and adopt the Confession of Faith and Catechisms…as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures.” Those ordained are to exercise their ministry accordingly, According to Dr. Charles Hodge in Biblical Repretory and Princeton Review (July, 1867) , “They are required to adopt the system…” but that it is not necessary that ministers “adopt every proposition contained in our standards.” Even with this leeway many have found themselves uneasy about taking their ordination vows. Therefore, the committee has suggested that those being ordained affirm Scripture to be “the normative witness to Jesus Christ” and “by his Spirit God’s word to you.” Further, it is suggested that those who are ordained should affirm that they will perform their duties as minister “under the authority of the Scriptures, and the guidance of the confessions of this church.” The new form of subscription allows men who cannot assent to the Westminster Confession to enter the Presbyterian ministry without an uneasy conscience. Broad enough to encompass any confession, the form of subscription will no longer be a barrier to doctrinal apostasy for there will no longer be one system of doctrine normative for Presbyterianism.
A theological disaster is imminent in the Presbyterian Church. The old foundation for faith built on the Word of God is being shattered and a new one is being laid in its place, What a tragedy it is when a church so completely desires to depart from the Biblical doctrines which are essential to faith! Though contemporary unbelief entices, God says to His Church, “Nevertheless that which ye have, hold fast till I come.”
A major and much debated issue in the United Presbyterian Church (UPUSA) today concerns the relation of the proposed “Confession of 1967” to the creeds to which that church is officially pledged. Whether the church can adopt this new confessional statement and still claim to be truly Reformed and Presbyterian is discussed here by the Rev. Jerome Julien, pastor of the Rogers Heights Christian Reformed Church, Grand Rapids, Michigan.