Friday, December 9, 2011

My thoughts on the Fellowship of Presbyterian's Theology paper

The Fellowship of Presbyterians have posted their polity and theology drafts and asked for feed back. Although I have not joined the Fellowship I have been thinking and praying about it. And although I have just glanced at the polity paper, not my strongest area, I have carefully read the theology paper taking some notes as I read. I am sure I will read it several more times taking care as I write.

I believe the goodness of the future for Presbyterians, all kinds of Presbyterians, hangs about this paper and the polity one. I write this because God often works within the breadth of our longings and the longing of many Presbyterians today is that they might find a place of safety and succor in the midst of spiritual decadence, trivial objectives and cultural conformity. Even those of us who intend to stay within the PCUSA need the kind of structure and essentials offered here.

One of the things I did as I was reading was to mark a few quotes that I found weighty and profound. The next thing I did was to write out notes in several places where I felt the subject might be emphasized more, strengthened or clarified. Finally I have a couple of “high” praises.

The quotes:

“As subordinate standards, the confessions are not free-standing authorities. They are subject to the authority of Jesus Christ, the Word of God, who is known through Scripture, the word of God. Subordination to the Lord and to Scripture’s witness serves to locate confessional authority, however it does not diminish it. The confessions provide reliable guidance to our reading and reception of Scripture, protecting us from self-absorbed interpretation, and opening us to Christ’s way, Christ’s truth and Christ’s life.”( 4)

“Each of us enjoys God by being so united with Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit as to become a participant in the divine nature, transplanted from one degree of glory to another and escorted by Christ into the loving community of the Trinity.” (5)

“We glorify God by recognizing and receiving his authoritative self-revelation, both in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments and also in the incarnation of God the Son.” (5)

“The Spirit will never prompt our conscience to conclusions that are at odds with the Scriptures that he has inspired. The revelation of the incarnate Word does not minimize, or set aside the authority of the written Word.” (5)

“Apart from the saving work of Jesus Christ, we are incapable of being in God’s presence, incapable of bearing the weight of his glory. We rejoice that Jesus Christ offers us safe conduct into the heart of God’s purifying fire, shielding us with his perfect humanity and transforming us by his divine power. Having received such grace, we extend grace to others.” (7)

“He is locally present at the right hand of the Father. When we are promised that one day we will see him face to face, we acknowledge that it is the face of the Jesus of Nazareth we will someday see. …” (6)

I must say that I am extremely pleased with the care the three theologians took to affirm the Christian’s union with the bodily resurrected Christ. It can be found in many of the quotes.

As for a few suggestions here they are:

Under incarnation on page six it would be helpful to better clarify the importance of the person of Jesus Christ along side the excellent explanation of how the two natures of Christ are not merged. One of the great theological problems of today, especially among progressive theologians, is so dividing the natures that the eternal Word is disconnected from the humanity of Christ. His person gets torn apart. I am thinking here of a helpful quote by the Puritan pastor John Flavel, in his book The Fountain of Life:
The two natures being thus united in the person of the Mediator, by virtue thereof the properties of each nature are attributed, and do truly agree in the whole person; so that it is proper to say, the Lord of glory was crucified, 1Cor. 2:8, and the blood of God redeemed the church, Acts 20:28, that Christ was both in heaven and on the earth at the same time, John 3: 13. Yet we do not believe that one nature doth transfuse or impart its properties to the other or that it is proper to say the divine nature suffered, bled, or died; or the human is omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent; but that the properties of both natures are ascribed to the person, that it is proper to affirm any of them of him in the concrete, though not abstractly. (56)
One other area that I wish was stronger is our redemption by Christ’s death on the cross. This is the great post-modern controversy of western Christianity. I like the way Richard Mouw spoke of it at the Fellowship Conference. He pointed out that when our view of sin is weak our views on Jesus’ death are neglected. In an age when radical feminists try to make the death of Christ 'child abuse,' we need a more vigorous understanding of the triune God’s redemptive action; we also for the same reason need a strong theologically clear view of the Trinity.

One other problem for me is this statement:

“God created human beings from the dust of the earth and his own breath, to be mediators between God and his creation, offering creation’s praise to God, channeling God’s grace to the creation.”(6)

There is only one mediator and he exists eternally. We are not mediators except by our union with Jesus Christ. It is always through him that anything is accomplished. The word “steward” fits beautifully. If we as creatures offer praise it is through the interceding work of our high priest, Jesus. If we offer grace to creation it is through the gracious work of Jesus. Always and ever, it is not our selves, but Jesus.

And then just this minor complaint: Please don’t use Tillich’s “ground of our being.” Most Orthodox believers know what is really meant when an orthodox writer uses the term, but Tillich meant it in a panentheistic manner—which means we are a part of God. That starts everything off on the wrong footing.

My praises:

I have high praise for the writers not bowing down to politically correct gender inclusive titles for references to God. On a minor note it means sentence structure is blessedly smooth and free. On a major note they are allowing God’s revelation of himself to speak. As Karl Barth put it, “We have not to draw our knowledge of who God is from what we think we know about eternity, infinity, omnipotence and invisibility as conceptions which bound our thought. On the contrary, we have to draw our knowledge of eternity, infinity, omnipotence and invisibility from what we can know about God, from what God has said to us about Himself.” [1]

I have high praise also for how the Fellowship have planned to draw all together in a friendship network that offers structure, fellowship, growth, care and discipline to each other. They do this with their section “Living in obedience to the Word of God.” Their list of 10 ways to be accountable is not unlike an outline of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together or the ancient orders of a Christian community.

Finally, I am always blessed when I see quotes I love. The introduction to the theology paper when referring to the Book of Confessions has this, “We have been guilty of what C. S. Lewis called ‘chronological snobbery, the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our age and the assumption that what ever has gone out of date is on that account discredited.’”I think this quote disqualifies so much of what I was reading on Tweeter about the Fellowship’s paper.[2] We must not throw away the goodness of the past but hold on to the faith delivered to our mothers and fathers.

[1] Karl Barth, The Knowledge Of God and the Service of God According to the Teaching of The Reformation, tran. By J.L. Haire and Ian Henderson, The Gifford Lectures Delivered in the University of Aberdeen in 1937 and 1938, (Great Britain: Charles Scribner's Sons 1939), 33.
[2] I want to emphasize that David Berge's tweets have been very helpful. See!/David_Berge


Dave Moody said...

Thanks Vi... it is good. Appreciate your thoughts.

You state at the beginning that "all presbyterians long for a safe harbor, etc... " My question: is that statement accurate? I assume you mean EPC, OPC, PCA etc.. or is that a statement about PCUSA evangelicals?

I keep hearing from corners of FB hints, assumptions, by PCUSA folks, that everyone is in flux (EPC, etc..) and eventually evangelical presby's will all be together under something FoP ish. I'm not commenting on that - other than asking where the data is for those assumptions? I'm truly ignorant on that.

Thanks again Vi, Merry Christmas!

Viola Larson said...

Hi Dave,

I do not want to make a precise answer on your question. However, I do include the EPC and others as well as the evangelicals of the PCUSA. Because at the Conference in Minneapolis it was mentioned how we need to have fellowship with all parts of the Reformed tradition and how that was helpful on both sides. But the PCUSA keeps us from doing that. I also meant some progressives in the PCUSA our longing for what they do not know. I do believe in the moving of the Holy Spirit to change attitudes about essentials and the person of Christ.

Viola Larson said...

I forgot to say Merry Christmas too!

Al Sandalow said...

Thanks for your comments. I really like what has been written and do feel that it could be tweaked in a few places.

However, I do hope we evangelicals will avoid our seemingly deep seeded desire to insist that stuff be added or re-written to satisfy our individual desires (or all too often our pet peeves or special interests). Historically we have often failed in our attempts at unity because we have been no better at agreeing with each other than we have with the progressive wing of the denomination. We are often our own worst enemies.

Remember that these are just “essentials”. It is not a document that attempts to replace the confessions, nor repeat their scope and depth. To slightly misquote John Piper “We do not assume that the process of deciding what is true and valuable starts over with every generation. It didn’t start with us. Therefore, we are a confessional church”.

Viola Larson said...

Those are good words and advice Al.

John McNeese said...


With regard to your post on the Outlook, I was surprised that the Fellowship proposal retained the entire BOC, as the Confession of 1967 caused problems with some evangelicals with it's comments one the writers of scripture.

Viola Larson said...

John one of the important parts of having Confessions is reading them, studying them and taking them seriously. Richard Mouw pointed out during the debate on Belhar that we tend to use the confessions as museum pieces; that if we take them seriously the Belhar would have been covered by the rest. I think he is right. There is much good in the Confession of 67- it stance on marriage between a man and a woman and the words surrounding that are good. And even its words on the authority of the word when laid beside the other Confessions such as Westminster is helpful. But we don't take any of the Confessions seriously.
And the fact is I would hate to lose some of the Confessions such as Barmen and the Second Helvetic Confession. And I see a Book of Confessions with the Apostles Creed and Nicene as crucial in this post-modern time. And I love the fact that we have the Chalcedon at least referenced in the Second Helvetic Confession. I wish we had the words.

Barbara Long Red-Horse said...

Viola, thank you for your review & insights on this. Al Sandalow, was just talking about you with Dave Drotts's son who helps in my Sunday School class!

Viola Larson said...

Oh!Oh! I wondered why my ears were burning: )