From the Worldwide Faith News archives

[PCUSANEWS] Disagreeing, agreeably

Date 27 Feb 2003 09:15:41 -0500

Note #7607 from PCUSA NEWS to PRESBYNEWS:

Disagreeing, agreeably
February 26, 2003

Disagreeing, agreeably

20 task force members are building trust, becoming community

by John Filiatreau

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 rewarding.
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 all."
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 authority seriously."
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 scripture."
The members clearly have shed such misapprehensions, if they had them.
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 other.
Referring to the group's gatherings, of which there have been five so far,
Demarest gushed, "Each meeting, to me, gets warmer and more wonderful!"
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:
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 resolved."
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 (1970s-1980s)"). 
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 conclusions."  
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 than scripture. 
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 PC(USA).
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
"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
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
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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