[Reprinted with permission of the Editor, The Presbyterian Outlook, April 10, 1995, pages 7, 10-11.]
Earl S. Johnson, Jr. is pastor, First Church, Pittsford, N.Y., and Adjunct Professor in Ministry Studies at Colgate Rochester Divinity School.
The Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the absolute guide for faith and action for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). There is no other standard which provides a better or more powerful norm. Whenever Presbyterians discuss or debate a matter of belief or a controversial issue of Christian ethics, they always turn to the Bible to determine positions, process and direction. As the Confession of 1967 puts it, "The Scriptures are not a witness among others, but the witness without parallel" (9.27).
It is with a certain amount of sadness, nevertheless, that we have to think about the second question that is asked of all pastors, elders and deacons before ordination or installation: "Do you accept the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be, by the Holy Spirit, the unique and authoritative witness to Jesus Christ in the church universal, and God's Word to you?" (Book of Order, G14.0405b).
The problem for Presbyterians is that not every officer or member means the same thing by that vow. As a study received by the 194th General Assembly of the United Presbyterian Church indicates, there are at least five different positions within our denomination regarding the proper interpretation of the Scriptures ("Biblical Authority and Interpretation," 1982, Office of the General Assembly, DMS Order #OGA-92-003, p. 31). These perspectives range on a wide continuum from the literal interpretation of the Bible (the Bible is without error in all matters) to the view that "the Bible is merely a record of the moral and religious experiences of Hebrews and Christians." According to a survey conducted at the time, 48 percent of Presbyterians took a position consistent with the Confession of 1967, agreeing that "All of the Bible is both the inspired Word of God and at the same time a thoroughly human document." As the Confession of 1967 says, "The Bible is to be interpreted in the light of its witness to God's work of reconciliation in Christ. The Scriptures, given under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, are nevertheless the words of men [sic], conditioned by the language, thought forms, and literary fashions of the places and times at which they were written.They reflect views of life, history, and the cosmos which were then current. The church, therefore, has an obligation to approach the Scriptures with literary and historical understanding." (9.29)
Such a distribution of opinions inevitably leads to controversy and it is fair to say that nearly every major issue which Presbyterians have debated within the past 30 years has returned, in one way or another, to the critical debate about the authority of the Bible.
Important questions for our life and work together are at issue. What is the Bible? Is it a book or a library? What do we do when we find differing perspectives in Scripture? Do we believe in a particular theory about the composition of the Bible or do we believe in the God and the Lord Jesus Christ who are revealed there? How do we treat other Presbyterians when we disagree radically, not only about the interpretation of a particular passage but about the definition of the Bible as a whole?
The most difficult questions we need to ask ourselves as a denomination are severe, namely, "Is it possible for Presbyterians to remain in one church when we cannot agree about the way the Bible is to be used and interpreted, or is it time for conservatives and liberals to go their own ways? Is it time to write each other off either as unbelievers or hopelessly irrational interpreters? Are there still reasons to continue the struggle, hoping that in spite of frustration and pain we can still learn about God from each other because we are members of one family of faith?"
In my own view, although years of careful Bible study and preaching have convinced me of the basic correctness of the position of the Confession of 1967, I do not want to cease the dialogue and discussion with others who think otherwise. The second ordination question points us in the right direction when it urges us to use Scripture in conjunction with the present activity of the Holy Spirit in our lives. A statement adopted by the 123rd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States (1983) remains valuable. "This guideline for interpretation is not just a pious platitude. Neither careful rationale nor logical deduction, nor use of all the tools of critical-historical exegesis, can guarantee the right interpretation of Scripture. After we have done the best we can with all the means at our disposal, we depend on God's Spirit to enable us rightly to hear and believe and obey" (p. 23). It is through prayer and dialogue with others that we can best discover what the Spirit is saying to us through the Bible today.
The ordination question which church officers affirm, furthermore, asks them to use the Bible, not to find some unalterable theological or ethical position, but to find Jesus Christ who is the Word of God in human flesh and to seek for God's will through him. Again, the statement of the Presbyterian Church in the United States is helpful. "At the most direct level of application, this principle means that any teachings of the Bible on a matter of faith or life [are] to be used in a manner consistent with scriptural accounts of Jesus' own teaching and embodiment of the person and will of God" (p. 17). In other words, even though recent studies of the historical Jesus indicate how difficult it is to know precisely what Jesus did or said we are still obligated as Presbyterians to try to discover what Jesus, the living Word wills for us, and to make his will the priority in all our study of the Bible. If we see a conflict, for example, between certain Old Testament precepts and the teaching of Jesus we should have little trouble choosing between the two. To paraphrase something P.T. Forsythe once wrote, biblical preaching preaches Christ and uses the Bible; it does not preach the Bible and use Christ (Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind, Hodder and Stoughton, no date).
No doubt Presbyterians will continue to debate the proper interpretation of the second ordination question for years to come. Let us hope that we will choose to continue that dialogue, as difficult as it may be, understanding that it has always been in that crucible that Presbyterians have pounded out what it means to hear God's Word afresh. Within that struggle each new generation has discovered what it means to have God call them through Christ to act and to believe.
The Presbyterian Outlook is an independent publication with 43 weekly issues per year. It is the only independent weekly serving the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Editor is Robert A. Bullock, Jr.
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