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[PCUSANEWS] Theological task force lifts up Nicene Creed
PCUSA NEWS <PCUSA.NEWS@ecunet.org>
29 Oct 2002 10:21:45 -0500
Note #7492 from PCUSA NEWS to PRESBYNEWS:
Theological task force lifts up Nicene Creed
October 29, 2002
Theological task force lifts up Nicene Creed
Theology group also explores "key features of the cultural terrain"
by John Filiatreau
LOUISVILLE - The Jesus Christ that Presbyterians believe in, the Theological
Task Force on the Peace, Unity and Purity of the Presbyterian Church (USA)
affirmed during a recent meeting here, is the one identified in the Nicene
Creed and the Definition of Chalcedon.
The creed, hammered out during the Council of Nicea in 381, was described by
task force member Mark Achtemeier, a professor of systematic theology at
Dubuque Seminary in Iowa, as "the ecumenically binding creed of
Christianity." It affirms the Trinity: "One God, the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth"; "one Lord, Jesus Christ ... begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father," who "for us and our salvation ... was
crucified"; and "the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life ... who
proceeds from the Father and the Son" and "has spoken through the prophets."
The statement approved by the Council of Chalcedon in 451 affirmed the Nicene
Creed and specified that Jesus is "actually God and actually man ... of the
same reality as God as far as his deity is concerned and of the same reality
as we ourselves as far as his humanness is concerned; thus like us in all
respects, sin only excepted."
Achtemeier noted that both councils were held in response to running
controversies in the early church over the person of Jesus and the nature of
his mission on earth.
The church fathers who met at Nicea, he said, decided to "go ahead and clash
with the culture" in order to "make coherent sense of the apostolic
testimony," even though by doing so they were dispelling popular notions and
"sacrificing an awful lot of missional effectiveness."
That observation brought together the two themes of the Oct. 24-26 meeting:
The person and work of Jesus, and the current social and cultural context of
Presbyterian life and mission.
A presentation on the latter was made by task force member Barbara Everitt
Bryant, of Michigan, a former director of the U.S. Bureau of the Census, who
pointed out that Presbyterian Panel polls have found that PC(USA) members are
almost evenly divided between those who want a "big tent" church that is
tolerant of social and theological diversity (52 percent), and those who
would prefer a stricter and more uniform body of believers (47 percent). If
those were the results of a political poll, she said, the experts would say
it was "too close to call" - so it's no surprise that theological and other
disagreements have arisen in the church.
Bryant pointed out that the U.S. population is: "the oldest we've ever been,"
largely because of the aging of the "Baby Boom" generation; increasingly
diverse, mostly because of rising rates of immigration; increasingly mobile,
with nearly 50 percent of citizens having moved in the past five years; and
less invested in "social capital," or involvement in community organizations
and volunteer activities - which correlates closely with church attendance.
She said these cultural factors are causing a drop in membership in all the
mainline Protestant churches, not just in the PC(USA).
Achtemeier pointed out that the decline isn't only a recent phenomenon: "As a
percentage of population, we've been losing market share since we set foot on
American shores," he said.
"Calvinism is a hard sell in this culture. It's amazing we've done as well as
Milton J. Coalter, a professor of bibliography and research at Louisville
Presbyterian Theological Seminary, presented a 33-page paper, "One Mapping of
the American Religious Context," in which he tried to "discern the key
features of the cultural terrain." Pointing out that the document "is not a
position paper of the Theological Task Force," Coalter outlined five patterns
of the religious landscape that have "particular relevance to the peace,
unity and purity of the church."
Those factors are the privatization of religious faith and practice; greater
awareness and acceptance of religious options; a growing preference for
local, special-interest and individualistic religious expressions; the
decline in "social capital"; and a "contentious search for a peaceful shared
Coalter's paper speaks of a consumer-oriented religious "marketplace"
offering "the possibility of free religious choice on a scale not previously
experienced in this country or in the vast majority of Christians nations
elsewhere in the world."
"Few consumers claim to have been captured by a transcendent revelation - the
motivation that most churches like to believe lies behind their members'
decision to join their communion," it says.
In America, Coalter says, "It has become socially acceptable ... to cobble
together one's own religious perspective by borrowing eclectically bits and
pieces of beliefs and practices from quite different religious traditions."
Task force member Mary Ellen Lawson, of Pennsylvania, said she found it
helpful to be reminded that "the loss of numbers in the denomination is not
because of (a controversial) issue."
In his presentation on Jesus Christ, Achtemeier traced some of the history of
early Christians' efforts to understand what is revealed in Scripture about
Jesus and his mission on earth.
Despite our tendency to think of heretics as "evil people," he said, they
actually were generally well-meaning people who undertook "failed
experiments" and did the church the service of forcing it to deal with issues
central to the faith. Achtemeier argued that theologians must be able to
"experiment with new ideas without accusing each other of heresy," noting
that heresy is "only visible in hindsight."
The teachings of the infamous heretic Arius - who reasoned that a God who was
infinite, unchanging and omnipotent "doesn't walk around Galilee getting
hungry, much less dying on a cross" - were among the reasons for the council
Then as now, Achtemeier said, issues related to salvation were especially
provocative: "Salvation, that's the question they worried about when they got
up in the morning," he said.
The conviction of some Christians that they are saved and all others are
damned "kind of turns you into a Nazi," he said, "and there's some truth to
that." He pointed out that the Second Helvetic Confession "says we are to
have a good hope for all," and that the Bible makes clear that "all human
beings are created in the image of God."
Further, he says, "Jesus dies for non-Christians - there were no Christians
at the time of his death."
While we don't want to say that "salvation without Jesus" is possible, or
that any Buddhists who might be saved "are going to be saved by Buddha, "we
don't want to pretend we know where the limits (of God's saving grace) are,"
Achtemeier said, or to act as if we know that no one may be "saved by Christ
in Christ in ways that we haven't thought of."
The Rev. John (Mike) Loudon, a task force member from Florida, said
Achtemeier's analysis "pushes too far" in holding out hope for salvation
through means other than "the grace of Jesus Christ."
"This is a discussion where you can fall off the cliff on either side,"
Achtemeier replied. "We all have predispositions about which side of this
cliff we'd rather fall off of."
Salvation is God's business, he said: "You give thanks for it when you find
Barbara Wheeler, the president of Auburn Theological Seminary in New York,
observed that Christians "would make more progress" if they dropped the
theological labels - exclusivist, inclusivist, pluralist - that they impose
on one another.
The members celebrated the growing sense of community among the 20 members of
the task force, but their ebullient mood was deflated somewhat when it was
learned Friday night that scholar, author and noted preacher Elizabeth R.
"Betty" Achtemeier, originally a task force member, had died of cancer after
a long illness. This meeting was the first attended by Mark Achtemeier, her
son, who was named as her replacement after she asked to be released because
of failing health.
Still, it was the feeling of the participants on Saturday morning that much
had been accomplished.
The Rev. Gary Demarest, a southern Californian and co-moderator of the task
force, said: "It seems to me we need to make some kind of statement out of
this meeting ... that we have come to a strong consensus, that the road ahead
obviously involves a realistic and clear understanding of the current (social
and religious) context, that we confirmed the Nicene Creed and Chalcedon, and
affirm that we're experiencing the movement of the Holy Spirit ... (that)
we've dealt with two substantive issues."
There were a few demurrals.
Oregonian Joan Kelley Merritt said, "We've affirmed that we have much in
common, and how we have come to trust each other in these meetings, but I
think we want to beware of trying to smooth off the edges of everything." The
Rev. Jack Haberer of Houston said he was pleased that the group reached "a
strong consensus about the most essential things," but thought the
conversation "may feel a little bit polite at this point."
Jeong Hyeong Lee, of Illinois, said of the group, "We try to accept this and
that both. ... But in Korean society, instead of both/and, the thinking is
either/or, one or the other." And several women on the task force were
troubled by the use of what one called "the male metaphor for the first
person of the Trinity."
Loudon, an outspoken evangelical, seemed eager for the task force to address
the disputes that led to its appointment.
"This whole thing is driving me crazy," he said, apparently referring to the
taskforce's avid pursuit of consensus. "I have trouble with this. We don't
take a vote."
He proposed a provocative test of the consensus model - a meeting of the
presbyteries of Northern New England and Shenango. "Why not pull together the
dissidents?" he asked.
A number of church officials in Northern New England are openly defying
constitutional provisions that forbid the ordination of sexually active gays
and lesbians and church "blessings" of homosexual couples. Shenango is a
conservative Pennsylvania presbytery that asked the 214th General Assembly to
intervene in the judicial process and enforce the constitution against
Northern New England. The Assembly rejected Shenango's overture.
Despite the misgivings of some members, most seemed to agree with the Rev.
Jose-Luis Torres-Milan, of Puerto Rico, who said, "I wish we could have this
experience reproduced throughout the church." Co-moderator Jean S. (Jenny)
Stoner, of Vermont, affirmed the task force's decision-by-consensus practice,
asking, "How do we invite the church to take part in a similar process?"
The Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, stated clerk of the General Assembly, spoke to
the group on Friday night, noting that the World Council of Churches, in
trying to "really define the core of the faith," also "has been led to the
Nicene Creed" as a way of finding "a Christian identity as a community of
He said the task force's work may dovetail with his own efforts to make the
PC(USA)'s constitution "a leaner, more foundational, more flexible" document,
better suited to "a mission church of the 21st century." Kirkpatrick wants to
have the church give the first four chapters of the Book of Order "covenantal
status" as part of an effort to "create a culture of respect for the
constitution" and an "essential-tenet-based faith community, centered around
He noted that the Book of Order is the best-selling publication of the
denomination, while the poorest-seller is the Book of Confessions - "just the
opposite of what it needs to be."
During a question-and-answer session, Achtemeier warned that "appeals to
heritage, documents, tradition aren't going to move people."
"I'm certainly a fan of those first four chapters," he said, "but we can't
reclaim the gospel by the first four chapters of the constitution. ... Jesus
Christ is the only one who's going to get us out of this mess."
Achtemeier said part of the problem is that Presbyterians "have quit being
worshipers and started being canon lawyers," although "what we want, really
want, is a church centered on Jesus Christ."
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