From the Worldwide Faith News archives

Panel approves statement on lordship of Christ

Date 18 Jun 2002 15:51:14 -0400

Note #7258 from PCUSA NEWS to PRESBYNEWS:


Panel approves statement on lordship of Christ

by Alexa Smith

COLUMBUS, OH - A six-page paper on the lordship of Christ and the salvific work of a sovereign God was unanimously approved by the Assembly Committee on Confessions and Christology (ACCC) on June 17.

The committee scuttled attempts to have it adopt more succinct Christological statements for study in the church and to issue an "authoritative interpretation" of the denomination's first ordination vow.

At the end of a day of hearings that rehashed fundamental theological questions - such as "Who is saved by God and who is not?" and "Is claiming Christ the only way for people to come to God?" - the 58-member panel affirmed only two overtures:

* The Trinitarian document, "Hope in the Lord Jesus Christ," drafted by the denomination's Office of Theology and Worship (OTW), (overture 02-2 from the Presbytery of Redstone) at the behest of last year's Assembly, whose own Christological document professing Christ as "uniquely" Savior drew fire from conservatives; and,

* A measure directing the OTW to develop a lectionary-based liturgical resource that draws on affirmations of faith from the church's Book of Confessions (overture 02-7, from the Presbytery of Yellowstone), a project that it discovered was already under way.

"Hope in the Lord Jesus Christ" was commended to the presbyteries, with the committee's urging that it be studied. The commissioners used that more thorough statement to answer the other overtures seeking more succinct definitions of Christ's lordship. A study guide for use with the paper is available on the OTW's Web site:

"Hope in the Lord Jesus Christ" attests that "Jesus Christ is the only Savior and Lord, and all people everywhere are called to place their faith, hope and love in him." It further insists that "no one is saved apart from God's gracious redemption in Jesus Christ," but says Reformed theologians do not "presume to limit the sovereign freedom of 'God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth.'" (1 Tim. 2:4)

"Thus, we neither restrict the grace of God to those who profess explicit faith in Christ, nor assume that all people are saved regardless of faith. Grace, love and communion belong to God, and are not ours to determine."

In committee hearings, theologian John Burgess of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary told the committee that the breadth of those parameters was wise.

"It says modestly what we need to say modestly," he said. "And clearly what we need to say clearly. The God we know works in Jesus Christ, but we can't always say precisely how. And it may be in ways more mysterious than we're able to fathom."

How to decide what is fathomable and what is not - and how to express and interpret truth in either case - kept emerging in debates of the overtures.

Commissioner Ron Leonard, an elder from Great Rivers Presbytery, said he felt comfortable with terse proclamations of Christ's Lordship. In a pluralistic world - one in which multiple faiths profess pathways to God - "I don't begrudge God a Plan B," he said, "but I do know about Plan A ... and it is given to me in the Bible (as the way to salvation.)"

The Rev. Jon Noble, of Utica Presbytery, pressed for more nuanced words that proclaim Christ but don't forestall dialogue and cooperation with Muslims, Jews and other non-Christians. Speaking of a Jewish friend, he asked, "Do I tell him he is not really a child of God, because he hasn't accepted Jesus as his Lord and Savior?"

The debate became more intense when the commissioners dealt with two overtures that tried to interpret the meaning of the first ordination vow for PC(USA) deacons, elders and clergy, which reads: "Do you trust in Jesus Christ your Savior, acknowledge him Lord of all and Head of the Church, and through him believe in one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit?"

A overture from Pittsburgh Presbytery (02-31) sought to define Jesus Christ's lordship as "singular," and asked that all ordained officers and ministers be required to affirm him as both "Lord of all and as their personal savior" - and to have the Assembly approve that interpretation of the vow as definitive guidance.

That overture's advocate, the Rev. Catherine Purves, told the committee that clear interpretation of the vow's meaning is needed in a pluralistic culture. She insisted that those who take it must have a clear understanding of what it means, and that that understanding needs to be shared by the community. "There can't be unlimited ways to interpret it," she said. "We must mean the vow, we must mean it in a clear way, and we must take the words at face value."

The Advisory Committee on the Constitution had advised the commissioners against making such a binding change, which would have amended the constitution without seeking a vote of presbyteries.

The measure drew vocal opposition from several commissioners and was voted down by a 49-10 vote - largely on the grounds, that creating an interpretation would force the presbyteries to struggle to interpret the interpretation.

The Rev. Tom Murphy, of New Hope Presbytery, said candidates for ordination are examined on the local level, and examiners already have authority to question the meaning of faith statements. He opposed "starting down the road" where "no different opinion was possible" within the faith's broad parameters.

The Rev. Anna Taylor Sweringen, of New York City Presbytery, opposed both overtures that would have interpreted the ordination vows. (The second, 02-50, from the Presbytery of San Francisco, would have defined the phrase "acknowledge him Lord of all" to mean that "God is revealed in and through Jesus Christ as the triune God of Grace - Father, Son and Holy Spirit; and Jesus Christ, fully human and fully divine, is the one and only Lord and the only way of salvation, as revealed through Scripture, understood in our confessions and affirmed by the Book of Order."

"I'm against this," Sweringen said, "... (because) you don't trust me, the vow-taker." He said limiting faith statements to "exactly what you want to hear" would undermine trust.

The San Francisco overture was defeated, 40-19. A minority report is believed to be in the works.
Despite the committee's rejections of shorter Christological statements, they did have their champions.

Kestelle Wiersma, a Youth Advisory Delegate from the Presbytery of Prospect Hill, said that, while "Hope in the Lord Jesus Christ" may be a beautiful statement, she isn't sure she grasps its complexities. "But Overture 02-50 ... I do understand it," she said, "and I say, 'Amen.'" She said many seekers need a simple place to begin exploring the Scriptures.

"I respect that you all have this great knowledge," Wiersma said, "but there are people out there like me."
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