This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Essential Tenets.

In conversations with Presbyterians considering departing from the PCUSA for another denomination, one thing that keeps coming up is the fact that (even though the category is somewhat unhelpfully mentioned in one of the Ordination Questions) the PCUSA has no written “essential tenets.”  These other denominations do choose to list on paper some “essential tenets.”  Conservatives appear to think that having such a defined list serves as a protection against error in doctrine, and that not having one opens the door to all kinds of eccentric and non-traditional, even non-christian, interpretations.
Historically, the Presbyterian church has always had this fault line between the Scotch-Irish stream that was more “subscriptionistic” in wanting the required beliefs of the church written down in some definite form, and the New England stream that advocated leaving more room for the Holy Spirit, and only requiring less definite and specific affirmations about doctrine.  We’ve already split a few times over this, always eventually figuring out a compromise and reuniting.
The problem with having written essential tenets and requiring subscription to them is that it requires a top-down centralized structure to be enforced, and it results in a legalistic approach to questions of faith.  In other words, instead of leaving decisions of doctrine and practice up to councils, beginning with local sessions, having to subscribe to prescribed essential tenets limits the freedom of local councils, and requires a strong national judiciary to work.
Also, just having people subscribe to essential tenets does not necessarily mean that they will take them seriously.
In declining to adopt written essential tenets and requiring subscription to them the church is not abandoning essential tenets altogether and leaving faith as a free-for-all, open and accepting of every possible interpretation.  It is rather recognizing that the essential tenets of the church have to be in the hearts of the members and councils of the church.  And we trust in the Holy Spirit to work in our gatherings to help us discern the truth and the way forward.
As Presbyterians we do believe the Holy Spirit is present when the church gathers around the Word in prayer.  When we come together for discernment and decision-making we listen to each other in light of Scripture and our own perspectives and experiences.  If a decision has to do with something like the ordination or the calling of a pastor, or the election of elders and deacons, then we are able to take into account what we know of people’s faith, piety, lifestyle, commitment to the church, and other views and behaviors, and assess the degree to which a their visible faith qualifies them for special kinds of service.  What works and may be acceptable or recommended for a church in rural Arkansas may not be the same as for a church in Brooklyn.  And we have more inclusive layers of church councils to serve as guides and to review decisions from a larger perspective and possibly correct any errors that may have been made.
The idea is that people are familiar with and guided by Scripture and our confessions, and are taking the views expressed therein with appropriately significant weight, when making the decision in the first place.  Even if a local council does manage somehow to call someone who is a Unitarian, or a believer in the Rapture, or who makes Sophia a member of a new Quadrinity, or who advocates the reestablishment of slavery, or whatever, that would be subject to review by higher councils.
Furthermore, it is possible for local sessions and presbyteries to adopt their own essential tenets, appropriate to their own missional situations.

So it is not that the PCUSA does not have any essential tenets or doctrinal standards.  Rather, realizing that committing such things to writing inherently creates inequities and places limits on the Holy Spirit’s work, we have them in unwritten form.  We therefore realize that the “one-size-fits-all,” authoritarian, legalistic approach is unwise and inappropriate for a diverse and inclusive denomination.         


John Edward Harris said...

I am sure you are familiar with Jack Rogers' distinction between the Confessions (i.e. Essential Tenets in a sense)defining a bird bath sort of theology vs. a bird cage sort of theology.

Also, here is a link to something I have written for use in worship to help suggest some formulation of the Essential Tenets.

Paul F. Rack said...

Thanks, John. I like your liturgical piece on the tenets. You chose a part of the Book of Order that I and out presbytery overturned GA to identify as the essential tenets, about 20 years ago. I have always thought that they kind of summed up the Reformed thing.