Friday, March 28, 2014

Tricia Dykers Koenig, "Marriage and the Book of Confessions" more than unconstitutional

Tricia Dykers Koenig, national organizer of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians, asks: “Would it be permissible for the PCUSA to interpret and/or amend the Book of Order section on marriage to reflect the reality of same-gender marriage, even though The Book of Confessions uses the language of ‘a man and a woman’?” In her posting, “Marriage and the Book of Confessions,” Koenig, writes about the concerns raised at the 2012 General Assembly as to whether changing the Book of Order’s wording without changing the Book of Confessions would be constitutional.  She also uses two papers, one by Joseph Small[1] and one by Charles Wiley, offered at the Moderator's second “Conversation on Unity with Difference,” December 11-13, 2013.
Remarkably, Koenig introduces the ‘Unity and Difference” conferences, with these words:

Anticipating that this question [on the confessions and the Book of Order]  would arise again at the 2014 General Assembly, current Moderator Neal Presa convened a group of theologians in December to consider the issue of how the Confessions function in the PCUSA, and the confessional, constitutional, and ecclesial implications of the marriage overtures coming to this summer’s Assembly …
In the first part of her posting, Koenig relies on the argument put forth by Paul Hooker moderator of the Advisory Committee on the Constitution at the 2012 GA, that the Book of Confessions is, because of its diverse nature, inconsistent and “therefore its nature is as the primary repository of our basic theological commitments, and it cannot be treated as a rulebook.” Koenig goes on to give a minor history of the evolving Book of Confessions of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

And the idea that the Confessions are not a rule book but rather a help is seemingly her main focus. Using examples of discarded portions of confessions and the Westminster Confession, Koenig writes, “These examples illustrate the fundamental flaw of treating the Confessions as “a rule of faith and practice” rather than “as a help in both,” as Westminster teaches. [6.175]”
While Koenig and others, such as Hooker, have focused on the inconsistencies in the confessions, I would like to address the consistencies of the confessions.  And then I want to use several ideas that Small provides in his paper, ““Confessions and Confessional Authority in the Reformed Tradition.” I believe that something more dire than passing an unconstitutional overture may occur during the GA.

There is certainly consistency in the confessions’ views of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. There is consistency in the statements about the Incarnation.

The Lord Jesus Christ is “the only begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, begotten, not made; being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made; who for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and made man, was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate. …”(The Nicene Creed 1.2b) There are no confessions in the Book of Confessions that contradicts this statement. 

There is consistency in the confessions’ view of Jesus Christ as the one Lord and Savior whose embrace includes life and denial brings death. “The same Jesus Christ is the judge of all men. His judgment discloses the ultimate seriousness of life and gives promises of God’s final victory over the power of sin and death. To receive life from the risen Lord is to have life eternal; to refuse life from him is to choose the death which is separation from God. All who put their trust in Christ face divine judgment without fear, for the judge is their redeemer.” (The Confession of 1967 9.11) No other confession contradicts this.
There is consistency in the confessions’ view that God is a loving God and that God’s love is known in Jesus Christ. “In everlasting love, the God of Abraham and Sarah chose a covenant people to bless all the families of the earth. … Loving us still, God makes us heirs with Christ of the covenant.” (A Brief Statement of Faith 41-43, 47-48) God’s love is never questioned in any of the confessions nor is its manifestation in Christ denied.

There is a consistency in the confessions that the church possesses unity and that unity is in Jesus Christ. “And those who are such in the Church [sheep who follow the voice of Christ] have one faith and one spirit; and therefore they worship one God, and him alone they worship in spirit and in truth, loving him alone with all their hearts, and with all their strength, praying unto him alone through Jesus Christ, the only mediator and intercessor; they do not seek righteousness and life outside of Christ and faith in him.” (The Second Helvetic Confession 5.138) There is no confession which contradicts this view of the church’s unity.
Now please note that in all of this consistency there are barriers set against false doctrine and this can be stated as a ‘yes’ and ‘no’ of the confessions as Small points out in his paper:

When we listen to that part of the tradition given voice in The Book of Confessions, what do we hear?  We hear expressions of the search for distinguishing marks of faithful Christian community.  Those who have gone before us asked and answered questions about where to draw identifying lines between faithful and unfaithful confession of God, between faithful and unfaithful living out of that confession.  Christians in Nicaea and Rome, in Geneva, Heidelberg, and Edinburgh, in Barmen and Portland, shaped Christian faith and faithfulness by saying “Yes” to some things and “No” to others.  Genuine confession of faith is always both affirmation of truth and denial of untruth.  “If the Yes does not in some way contain the No,” said Karl Barth, “it will not be the Yes of a confession. . . . If we have not the confidence to say damnamus [what we refuse], then we might as well omit the credimus [what we believe].
To change any of the above consistencies would draw the denomination into heretical teaching concerning the person of Christ or the nature of God. The Presbyterian Book of Confessions would no longer be a Christian document.  Instead of a no to Arianism or to Gnosticism or to racism there might be a yes. A very heretical yes. All of these isms are rooted in a denial of the person and work of Christ. For instance, a yes to racism means that the unity connected to faith in Christ will be destroyed. A yes to Arianism destroys the deity of Christ and humanity is left without a God who has shared our suffering and experienced death for our redemption.

So here is one more important consistency:

There is consistency on the idea of marriage in the confessions. All of the confessions which speak of marriage, hold up marriage as a desirable existence for Christians, and that is only in the context of marriage between a man and a woman.
But first a return to Koenig’s posting, she offers several reasons of why the use of woman and man in marriage is unimportant. One is that “the Book of Church Order of the Presbyterian Church in the United States prior to Reunion had a section on marriage (Chapter 15) without any gendered language, and apparently nobody thought that that section was in conflict with the Westminster Confession held as the PCUS confessional standard.” But of course everyone at that time understood those words to imply man and woman. So that is a silly argument, after all what Koenig wants is words that will mean something different than just man and woman.

One other argument is that in some of those instances which refer to a man and a woman in the Book of Confessions the authors are saying no to polygamy. Well surely they were as some fringe groups on the outer edge of the Anabaptist movement were practicing polygamy. But just as surely that was not the sole reason for the references to a man and a woman. For two thousand years the church has considered marriage to be between a man and a woman and same sex coupling to be sin.

The Second Helvetic Confession states of marriage that it was “instituted by the Lord God himself, who blessed it most bountifully, and willed man and woman to cleave one to the other inseparably, and to live together in complete love and concord.” This statement conforms totally with Jesus’ words about divorce and marriage when he turns to Genesis repeating that marriage is between a man and woman and the man is to cleave to his wife. Biblically speaking, in reality, the word, which is God’s word, belongs to Jesus Christ.
The Westminster Confession of Faith, states of marriage:

Christian marriage is an institution ordained of God, blessed by our Lord Jesus Christ, established and sanctified for the happiness and welfare of mankind, into which spiritual and physical union one man and one woman enter cherishing a mutual esteem and love, bearing with each other’s infirmities and weaknesses , comforting each other in trouble, providing in honesty and industry for each other and their household, praying for each other, and living together the length of their days as heirs of grace. (6.131)
The Confession of 1967 states of marriage: The relationship between man and woman exemplifies in a basic way God’s ordering of the interpersonal life for which he created mankind. … Reconciled to God, each person has joy in and respect for his own humanity and that of other persons; a man and a woman are enabled to marry, to commit themselves to a mutually shared life, and to respond to each other in sensitive and lifelong concern; …The church comes under the judgment of God and invites rejection by man when it fails to lead men and women into the full meaning of life together, or withholds the compassion of Christ from those caught in the moral confusion of our time. (9.47b)

Looking at each of these quotes from the Book of Confessions one sees how they align with confessional truths about the person of Jesus Christ. His creativeness, his unity which he gives to the church, his redeeming and reconciling act on the cross, his life given to believers all undergird with grace Christian marriage—marriage between a man and a woman.
Small, whose whole essay should be read, states:

Confessions are understood as a crucial element in the continuing reform of the church.  Reformed churches understand themselves as “reformed and always to be reformed [ecclesia reformata semper reformanda] in accordance with the word of God [secundum verbum Dei].”  Reform of the church is not mere change, certainly not modernization, and never a product of the church’s own achievement.  The church is always to be reformed, not to imagine that it can reform itself, in accordance with the word of God, that is, in harmony with the clear witness of Scripture.  Because Reformed confessions are subordinate standards, always accountable to Scripture, they are authoritative only to the extent that they are faithful expressions of the primary apostolic witness.  The Reformation motto sola scriptura is often misunderstood to mean “Scripture alone”; it actually signifies that Scripture is the normative authority against which all other authorities are measured, including the confessions.  
Conservative Presbyterians, whether they identify as evangelicals or orthodox or both are reformed because they love confessing the faith and because they believe that the confessions must be “in harmony with the clear witness of Scripture.” No, although a standard, the Presbyterian Book of Confessions is not a rule book, it is the Church’s (through the ages) confession of faith and it is not so if it ignores Scripture. Marriage between a man and a woman is scripturally on the lips of Jesus our Lord. Marriage between a man and a woman is scripturally introduced in the first pages of Genesis when God creates a helpmate for Adam and the helpmate is a woman. Marriage between a man and a woman is used as metaphor for the care and love Jesus gives to his church. (Eph. 5: 25-33)

The Presbyterian General Assembly may change the Book of Order in such a way that it no longer conforms to the Book of Confessions when referring to marriage and insist that it is not unconstitutional. But by inserting words into the text of the Book of Order that are meant to be as readily interpreted as same gender (in marriage) in addition to man and woman, the GA will have cut themselves off from orthodoxy and faithfulness. They will have created a separate confession that has nothing to do with the Book of Confessions nor with Scripture. They will have created their own particular rule book which neither adheres to the Book of Confessions or to Scriptures. And they will, by moving away from the faith, be the cause of schism.


Anonymous said...

Viola - your posting highlights the problem that many churches will be having now that same sex marriages are heading for approval nation-wide.

Conservative Catholic Ross Douthat, a NYT columnist , wrote in a column titled, "The Terms of Our Surrender"(March 1, 2014): "We are not really having an argument about same-sex marriage anymore, and on the evidence of Arizona, we’re not having a negotiation. Instead, all that’s left is the timing of the final victory — and for the defeated to find out what settlement the victors will impose."

With this change coming in secular society, what will the churches do? The PCUSA will be having this discussion at this summer's General Assembly. In this discussion I am certainly willing to show as much grace to evangelical and orthodox Presbyterians as they have shown us over these many years.

John McNeese
Ponca City, OK

Viola Larson said...

John, funny you should bring Ross Douthat up, he is my favorite NYT columnist. Have you read his book Bad Religion: How we became a nation of Heretics? And I read that column.

It sounds like you have some glee over this, but I don't think that Douthat was suggesting that he thought it was a good thing. Instead he was just suggesting that the American church must realize that losing their tax exemption or business, etc. is a minor inconvenience compared to the drastic persecution of Christians in other lands.

Anonymous said...

You are right, I do take some glee in al this. However, let us not forget that Douthat also wrote in that column: "I am being descriptive here, rather than self-pitying. Christians had plenty of opportunities — thousands of years’ worth — to treat gay people with real charity, and far too often chose intolerance. (And still do, in many instances and places.) So being marginalized, being sued, losing tax-exempt status — this will be uncomfortable, but we should keep perspective and remember our sins, and nobody should call it persecution."

Viola Larson said...

Yes, John that is from what I was referring.
He also wrote another to clarify and affirm what he had said. It can be found here:

Viola Larson said...

I believe he was hoping people like you would not have so much glee: )

Anonymous said...

Viola, from my understanding of what the GA Moderator has said (backed up the by Stated Clerk), there is literally nothing the GA cannot vote on. When it comes to considering an overture, there is nothing that can be ruled out of order, regardless of how it conflicts with the Book of Confessions. Essentially, although the BoC is called "Part 1 of the Constitution," in reality it is treated like a reference resource. It has no authority to constrain what a majority of any particular GA feels like doing.

John Erthein
DeFuniak Springs, FL

Viola Larson said...

While it is true that last GA's moderator made that decision, that could change with a new advisor and moderator, but more importantly, even if the overture is voted on in debate the case could still be made that we would have a constitutional crisis if it passes. And we would.