Living into Amendment A in Three Movements.
Movement One: The Briggs Case
In 1874 Professor Charles Augustus Briggs started his career on the faculty at Union Theological Seminary in New York City teaching in the area of New Testament. At that time Union Seminary was affiliated with our Presbyterian Church. In 1892 his teaching sparked a whirlwind of controversy and disciplinary action in our Presbyterian Church. The problem was that Professor Briggs was teaching a controversial new approach to biblical interpretation which we call the historical critical method. He learned this method of biblical interpretation in Germany when he was a graduate student at the University of Berlin. Under the surface of the Briggs case there is a strong stench of anti-German racism. Disciplinary charges were brought against Briggs in the Presbytery of New York for approaching the interpretation of the New Testament in a way that was thought to be contrary to the Westminster Confession. Briggs was convicted, the case was appealed to the Synod, the Presbytery’s action was overturned, the case was appealed to the General Assembly. The General Assembly upheld the Presbytery of New York and Briggs’ ordination in the Presbyterian Church was removed, since he refused to give up his teaching position. But by this time the Seminary itself was supporting Briggs, and the whole affair escalated into action against Union Seminary. Because of the General Assembly decision, the Seminary broke all official relationships with the Presbyterian Church, becoming an independent theological seminary, which is today affiliated with Columbia University. The no-longer Presbyterian, Professor Briggs was retained on the faculty at Union Seminary and had a long, prolific career as a New Testament scholar.
Fast forward with me about eight decades. In the 1980s I was a student at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary which continues to be affiliated with our Presbyterian Church. My professor of New Testament was Ulrich Mauser. My professor of Old Testament, a wonderful mentor of mine and also the preacher at my Ordination Service, was Eberhard von Waldow. Think about that: Mauser and von Waldow. Now what nationality do you think they are? Indeed both Professors Mauser and von Waldow were born and educated in Germany. While on the faculty of Pittsburgh Seminary, they immersed their students, including me, in the historical critical method of biblical interpretation. We were taught to take seriously the cultural, historical and linguistic context of the Bible.
As I reflect on the Briggs case I find that history to be sad. Given the culture and theological commitments of the church at that time, it probably could not have come out any different. But I wish we as a church were big enough to listen to Professor Briggs. In fact, what he was teaching and preaching has become foundational for our Presbyterian Church. The Presbyterian Church believes that the Bible must be interpreted. Our pastors, in their theological education and in our continuing commitment to study Greek and Hebrew, are taught the tools and methods by which we interpret the Bible. We interpret the Bible. We believe that the Bible must be interpreted. What I am saying is not at all controversial or debated today. This is the air we breath; we all know this. If we believe that the Bible must be interpreted; we must also believe that there may be different interpretations of the Bible. This is a belief with which we truly need to make peace.
Movement Two: The Fundamentalist Modernist Controversy
In the 1920s our Presbyterian Church moved into a bitter season of conflict which was complex, multi-faceted and nasty. In order to be brief, I need to jump to the end of the story. But in some ways the Fundamentalist Modernist controversy has never ended and we are still living with it. Nonetheless there was a formal end to the Fundamentalist- Modernist controversy with a report that was overwhelming received and appreciated: the Special Commission of 1925. There are two conclusions of the Special Commission which define the church we are today.
In a nutshell, without discussing any of the personalities involved, the essential issue at the heart of the Fundamentalist Modernist Controversy was the desire of the General Assembly to define five specific points of theological doctrine as absolutely essential. In fact, the General Assembly has approved these five points of necessary theological conviction several different times prior to 1925.
But the Special Commission of 1925 clearly articulated what has always been, what was then, and what continues to be the practice of the Church. The General Assembly cannot define the theological doctrines of the church without the approval of the presbyteries. We have always lived in this tension between a unified, national voice spoken by the General Assembly and the many local voices and convictions spoken by the presbyteries. We are always going to live in this messy place which is a tug of war between the presbyteries and the General Assembly, and between presbyteries themselves. It is exactly in that messiness, in that tug and pull between these different councils and between different convictions that we seek to discern the will and way of God and move the church forward. In my opinion, one of great gifts of being Presbyterian is that we learn to live with, and I hope, embrace this deep discernment. We have never had and we will never have a General Assembly, or a Book of Order, or a council of bishops, or, God forbid, an executive presbyter that is going to precisely define the way we should act or our theological convictions. We are going to figure it out and continue to figure it out in the beautiful and awkward dance of the General Assembly, the presbyteries, and our congregations together.
The Special Commission of 1925 also expressed a significant spiritual conviction which I wish was more important and more practiced in our common life. The Commission in 1925 called us to a principle of toleration. Here is a direct quote from the Special Commission of 1925, an age long before the use of inclusive language: “Toleration does not involve any lowering of the Standards. It does not weaken the testimony of the Church as to its assured convictions. It does not imply that support is offered to what may be regarded as a brother's error. But it does mean that in the spirit of Christ, patience is exercised by the body of the Church toward those deemed to be at fault in some of their beliefs, remembering our own proneness to err, in order that by the manifestation of such graces, and by prayer, together with fidelity in our own witnessing, all finally, may be brought to see eye to eye in a fuller apprehension of the truth, and led into a convincing compliance with the Master's new commandment that His disciples should love one another.”
Movement Three: The Book of Confessions
In the 1960s our Presbyterian Church made a transformative decision. We approved the Confession of 1967 and created our Book of Confessions. Up to that time the Presbyterian Church had one authoritative Confession of Faith, the Westminster Confession. Today there are now several generations of pastors, including me, who have grown up with and have been formed in the theology of the Book of Confessions. I believe the theology of the Book of Confessions is beautiful and correct; this is the way I was raised and educated. The theology of the Book of Confessions is the conviction that theological expression changes. Theological expression changes. As culture, historical context, political and social practices change over time so does theological expression. Thus the Scot’s Confession is different than the Barmen Declaration which is different than the Confession of 1967. The theology of the Book of Confessions is essential today.
But there was consequence to the approval of the Book of Confessions which I would like to address, as my final word. The Presbyterian Lay Committee was formed in 1965 in opposition to the Confession of 1967 and what was considered the dilution of the Westminster Confession. The Lay Committee started a modern phenomenon in the church of what I will call theological political action committees. And now there are many in our Church: The Lay Committee, Covenant Network, Presbyterians for Renewal, The Outreach Foundation, The Frontier Fellowship, the Witherspoon Society, Presbyterians Pro-life, etc. It looks like we have a new group forming called the Fellowship. I certainly respect these groups. My concern is not about the existence of these groups; I have no problem with that. But I believe there has been an unintended consequence. Because we now have many different theological political action groups all around the church, it seems to me that they have become the location for theological discussion. Thus, I believe, serious, deep, thoughtful and prayerful theological discussion has been sucked out of the presbyteries. We simply do not do it anymore. The Presbytery must get back into the hard work of doing theology. Let’s do theology together. Let’s do theology together as a Presbytery, not in small groups of like-minded friends. Let’s do theology together as a Presbytery, fully aware of the wild diversity in our midst. Let’s do theology together which is immersed in the Bible, which is inspired by the theology of our Book of Confessions, and which embodies a principle of toleration. Let’s do theology together. Amen!