From the Worldwide Faith News archives

Assembly overwhelmingly approves Christology statement

Date 21 Jun 2002 08:06:23 -0400

Note #7308 from PCUSA NEWS to PRESBYNEWS:


Assembly overwhelmingly approves Christology statement

Action follows two years of controversy over what Presbyterians believe

by Alexa Smith

COLUMBUS, OH - After nearly two years of suspicion and rancor, the 214th General Assembly approved Thursday a Trinitarian document that affirmed the lordship of Christ and the saving work of a sovereign God, then issued a separate statement that the Presbyterian Church (USA) is neither "confused nor hesitant" about its faith.

The vote was 497 - 11 in support of the paper, "Hope in the Lord Jesus Christ."

Will the vote resolve what some have called a crisis of faith in the PC(USA), where a segment of the church wants to affirm God's freedom and mysteriousness in matters of salvation and others want to claim Christ as the "only way" to approach God?

"Oh yeah," said the Rev. Anna Case-Winters, the diminutive theologian from McCormick Theological Seminary, who moderated the Assembly Committee on Confessions and Christology where, what promised to be a contentious debate was, instead,  a respectful conversation.

"This doesn't mean there aren't differences anymore. But we've agreed on something we can say together," she told a press conference immediately after the vote. "There are those who want to affirm only the Lordship of Christ, and a spectrum of people who want to affirm only the freedom of God.  But in scripture and in the confessions, both are present.

"The truth and richness of our tradition is found in keeping both together, not just saying one or the other."

Committee member David Kegley of Boise Presbytery spoke from the floor about how the statement melds two of the primary principles of the Reformed faith, stressing that the document proclaims Christ as Lord, but holds out a "larger vision," that does not attempt to restrict the grace of God.

The actual wording of the most scrutinized paragraph in the statement reads:

"Jesus Christ is the only Savior and Lord, and all people everywhere are called to place their faith, hope and love in him. No one is saved by virtue of inherent goodness or admirable living, 'for by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God' (Eph. 2: 8). No one is saved apart from God's gracious redemption in Jesus Christ. Yet we do not presume to limit the sovereign freedom of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Tim. 2: 3-4). 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." (lines 155-68)

"Hope in the Lord Jesus Christ" was drafted by the Office of Theology and Worship (OTW) at the behest of last year's Assembly. The Assembly's own Christological document professing Christ as "uniquely" Savior drew fire from conservatives, already incensed by a clergy-speaker at the denomination's annual peacemaking conference who suggested that an all-powerful God may provide other avenues to salvation for non-Christians.

The Assembly's action encourages the denomination to study the paper. A brief study guide is available on the OTW's website at

A number of overtures asking for more succinct Christological affirmations were answered by the passage of the document.

Redstone Presbytery overtured the Assembly to commend the document to the church, and four other presbyteries concurred.

The Assembly issued a separate statement in disapproving overtures seeking to interpret the meaning of the first ordination vow:  "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?"  The statement quoted lines 155-68 of "Hope in the Lord Jesus Christ."

The Rev. Jeff Ebert of Elizabeth Presbytery told the Assembly that he did not want the rejection of those overtures to be misinterpreted in the wider church, where, he said, "some may seize on this disappointment" to say that the PC(USA) does not believe in the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

Ninty-four percent of the commissioners voted to say that the church is "neither confused nor hesitant about our faith" - after which commissioners read a liturgy and sang the Doxology.

Case-Winters said her committee felt that an authoritative interpretation would not solve the church's problem, saying that the interpretation would then need interpreting.

In other actions, the Assembly affirmed work already begun in the OTW to develop a lectionary-based liturgical resources that draws on affirmation of faith from the church's Book of Confessions.

OTW was asked to have the resource ready during this calendar year, which marks the 30th anniversary of the Confession of 1967.

The Presbytery of Hudson River asked that presbyteries and congregations reflect on the Confession this year to demonstrate concern "for reconciliation across all divisions outside and within the PC(USA)."

The Rev. Bill Wiseman, one of the writers of the Confession, was recognized on the platform.
Case-Winters told reporters that "Hope in the Lord Jesus Christ" revisits the church's historic tradition.  "We have asked, 'What is it that we have believed?,'" she said, adding that the next step may be asking, "What does that mean and what questions does it raise for inter-religious dialogue?"

Presbyterians are weary of contentiousness, according to Case-Winters, who described the Assembly's action as an affirmation of the most ancient and central confession of the church.  "We're together," she said, "on this most central affirmation."
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