Reading the Bible: The Presbyterian Way

by Jack Rogers
Vice President and Professor of Theology
San Francisco Theological Seminary

Paper presented at the 1998 Covenant Conference
November 6, 1998

 

In the mid-seventies, two educational psychologists decided to test their educational theories by observing a master teacher. The teacher they chose was John Wooden, the coach of the UCLA basketball team. Wooden had coached UCLA to 10 national championships in 12 years. This was a record unapproached by any other coach. During what turned out to be Wooden's last season, 1974-1975, The two psychologists observed over 20 practice sessions and carefully recorded and coded each interaction of Coach Wooden with his players. Most of the interactions fit one of the standard teaching categories that they knew. However, one of Wooden's teaching methods was so new to them that they had to add a category. They called it a "scold/reinstruction." It was a criticism followed instantly by instruction on how to do it right. When a player made a mistake, Wooden would stop the play. He would go to the player, and say: Not like that. Then he would illustrate the correct way and say: Do it like this. The psychologists felt that this technique was so effective that they named it a "Wooden."

The Presbyterian Church is observing "The Year with Education: Transforming Hearts and Minds." To transform means to change. Education requires change. To learn a new thing is to change. It often means to acknowledge that what we have thought or been doing is wrong and we must think or do something new.

On September 1, I came back to my job as director of the Southern California campus of San Francisco Theological Seminary after an 8 _ month sabbatical. I confess that I felt like a kid who didn't want to come back to school after the freedom of the summer. I had been privileged to spend every day, five days a week, at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California. It is one of the premier research libraries in the United States, specializing in 18th and 19th century British and American history and literature. The collections great added to my knowledge, and the scholarly atmosphere greatly enhanced my enjoyment of the process.

Whenever I wanted to know the definition of a word at the Huntington I went to the massive Oxford English Dictionary. It gives quotations from literature to illustrate the definitions. Interestingly, the second illustration of the word, "Transform" was a quotation from English Bible translator, John Wyclif in 1382. The text was 2nd Corinthians 3:18: "Allyebe transformed into the same image," the image of Christ. We are often fearful of what we may lose if we change. The issue is rather what we may gain. If we are being transformed into the image of Christ, that is certainly gain.

There was also a mathematical definition of transform: "To alterto another differing in form, but equal in quantity or value." Changing the form, or style, or manner of our belief or behavior may be a way of preserving the value of that belief or behavior.

I am using going to use Coach Wooden's method in this address. I am convinced that we can and should sometimes radically change the form in which we have practiced our Christian faith precisely in order to retain and renew the genuine value, love, and transforming power of the Gospel of Christ. During my sabbatical I looked at how the Presbyterian Church has been transformed, how it has changed its mind, how it has acknowledged that it was wrong about the way it had interpreted the Bible and how we changed our interpretation. I researched the manner in which Presbyterians have interpreted Scripture in three areas: Slavery and segregation; The role of women; and, divorce and remarriage. You may find this recital of past mistakes painful, as I have. Following Coach Wooden's lead we are acknowledging that learning requires recognizing our mistakes and rejoicing in new and better ways of being faithful to Christ.

Slavery and Segregation

The first pronouncement of Presbyterians regarding slavery was by the Synod of New York and Philadelphia in 1787. Its stance was definitive for over half a century. It declared that as Americans we were for the principle of universal liberty. It minimized the problem, saying that "some states" were concerned. Then it described slaves as "dangerous." Thus, it recommended "prudent measures," consistent with the interests of society, that might lead to eventual abolition of slavery.

In 1815, a Presbyterian minister named George Bourne put the whole matter in a different light. While preparing for ordination, in 1811, he had noticed that Question 142 of the Westminster Larger Catechism designated "man-stealing" as a sin forbidden in the Eighth Commandment. He further noticed that a footnote to the catechism defined "man-stealing" as slavery. In 1815, Bourne, now Stated Clerk of his presbytery, was, for the third time, a commissioner to the General Assembly. Bourne presented a paper to the Assembly "in which he asked what should be done with a Presbyterian minister who had taken a Negro slave into his orchard on a Sabbath morning, tied her to an apple tree, stripped off her clothing, lashed her unmercifully until he had exhausted himself, left her tied up, mounted his horse, rode to his meeting house, preached, returned home, repeated the lashing until he had again exhausted himself, called in another man to continue the whipping, rubbed salt in the wounds, and finally released her." Bourne therefore proposed an overture, prepared with his elders, to the General Assembly. The chair of the business committee refused to put it on the docket. Bourne then presented it as a commissioner's resolution. His resolution called slave-holding a sin and demanded the excommunication of slaveholders.

The General Assembly, over a period of years, responded in three ways. 1. The following year, in 1816, the General Assembly removed the footnote from the Catechism. (Question 142 of the Larger Catechism was still there, but its reference to slave-holding was not so noticeable). 2. In 1818, the General Assembly deposed Bourne from the ministry for having brought "reproach on the character of the Virginia Clergy." (The minister about whom Bourne had told the story of the Sabbath whipping was one of the judges at Bourne's trial.) 3. Also in 1818, the General Assembly made what was later considered a brave statement against slavery as inconsistent with the law of God (to love neighbor) and the gospel of Christ. However, it sympathized with slaveholders who, it declared, were not responsible for this evil. It further noted that slaves were ignorant and vicious and could not be immediately emancipated. It hoped for eventual emancipation when it was good for the public welfare.

This reluctance to change the societal status quo was strengthened in 1845 by a new ecclesiology and a new method of biblical interpretation. Over the previous several decades the interpretation of Scripture had solidified into a literalistic and legalistic mold. Charles Hodge, at Princeton Seminary in the North, and James Henley Thornwell at Columbia in the South used and taught this method. They were teaching the theology of a late 17th century Swiss theologian, Francis Turretin. Their method of biblical interpretation came from 18th century Scottish Common Sense philosophy. All the while, they claimed to be teaching the theology of Calvin and the Westminster Confession of Faith.

I give just one illustration of the difference between these methods. Calvin and the Westminster Divines, following the lead of Augustine, taught that we accept the authority of Scripture because of the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit in our hearts. Beginning with that faith we can go on to deeper understanding as we analyze and apply Scripture's teaching in the real situations of our life. Hodge and Thornwell followed Turretin who patterned his methodology on Thomas Aquinas, the great theologian of the medieval Roman Catholic Church. Aquinas and his followers taught that you could not believe something unless you first could understand it. They asserted that you should first prove Scripture to be the Word of God before you accepted it. Such an attempt at proof, Calvin had called "foolishness."

The practical consequence of this difference in methodology, was that Hodge, Thornwell, and their disciples began their theological reasoning from what seemed logical and evident to them in their 19th century culture. They then sought particular proof-texts in Scripture as confirming evidence of their culturally shaped views. Thornwell wrote, for example, "if men had drawn their conclusions upon this subject only from the Bible, it would no more have entered into any human head to denounce slavery as a sin, than to denounce monarchy, aristocracy or poverty."

Thornwell developed twin pillars of resistance to societal change by asserting, first, that the Church was a purely spiritual body that did not deal with social and political matters. Second, he argued that unless some particular text in the Bible expressly forbade slavery that it was not sinful. He thus ignored the cultural context of the Bible itself. He used its depiction of the ancient practice of slavery as a justification for American slavery in the 19th century. He argued: "Let us concede, for a moment, that the laws of love, and the condemnation of tyranny and oppression, seem logically to involve, as a result, the condemnation of slavery; yet, if slavery is afterwards expressly mentioned and treated as a lawful relation, it obviously follows, that slavery is, by necessary implication, excepted."

It was the Old School Presbyterian General Assembly of 1845 that made explicit the doctrine of the spirituality of the church and the proof-texting method of defending slavery. Thornwell, a commissioner to that Assembly, had worked hard in the background for this result. He wrote to his wife during the Assembly, "I have no doubts but that the Assembly, by a very large majority, will declare slavery not to be sinful, will assert that it is sanctioned by the word of God, that it is a purely a civil relation with which the Church, as such, has no right to interfere, and that abolitionism is essentially wicked, disorganizing, and ruinous." Note that on this basis, not slavery, but the attempt to abolish slavery, was declared sinful.

In 1861, the Old School Presbyterian Church divided North and South over the Gardner Spring resolution calling for loyalty to the Federal Government in the case of civil war. Charles Hodge and 57 other Northern commissioners agreed with the absent Southerners that the Assembly had no right to pronounce on a political question.

One of the great excitements of working at the Huntington was to sit in the rare books' room and hold in my hands the "Address to Christendom," written by Thornwell, and published, December 4, 1861, by the newly formed Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America. Fifteen of its eighteen worn pages give a biblical and confessional defense of slavery. It concludes with the pious promise that this Presbyterian denomination will pray and labor that all may be saved, "without meddling as a Church with the technical distinction of their civil life."

Following the Civil War, the Presbyterian Church in the United States succeeded the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America. Robert Lewis Dabney succeeded Thornwell as the formative theologian of the PCUS from the Civil War through the era of segregation. The PCUS seminaries used his systematic theology as a text until 1931. In 1888, this same Dabney declared that the "radical social theory asserts , 'all men are born free and equal.'" This, he declared, is "an attack on God's Word."

It was not until the 1930s and 40s that a theological shift took place. Seminarians began to study Calvin and modern theology. In 1934, the PCUS established a Permanent Committee on Moral and Social Welfare that began to deal with societal problems, including racial justice. The theological resurgence that began in the 1930s in Europe reached American with strength in the 1940s. Theologically this resurgence centered in the work of Barth, Brunner, and others. In biblical studies it took the form of the "biblical theology movement." Instead of viewing the Bible as a collection of inerrant facts, the new theology affirmed that, "The very human Bible was the record of the very real encounter of God with people." It attempted to correct the legalistic and literalist fundamentalism of the 19th century and replace it with an understanding of the totality of the life and teachings of Jesus Christ.

The change in theology made it possible for the church to change its stance toward continued racial segregation in society. The PCUS was ready when on May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court, in "Brown v. Board of Education," outlawed segregation in the public schools. On May 27, the General Assembly adopted a report that the Church should practice no discrimination and commended the Supreme Court decision. The PCUS was the first denomination to speak in support of the court's decision.

The clearest statement rejecting a biblical justification of slavery came in a 1956 PCUS report advocating equality for women. It said: "we no longer argue that human slavery is justified by the Bible, and in accord with God's will. Some of our grandfathers did so argue, declaring that slavery was God's permanent institution. Through the illumination of the Holy Spirit, we have come to a different understanding on this subject. We see that the Bible passages they quoted were not kept by them in the larger context of the Bible as a whole." That larger context included the awareness of the cultural limitations of people in biblical times. It also, and preeminently, included the perspective of Jesus who said the whole law was summed up in the dual commandments of love God and love your neighbor.

The change in biblical interpretation was followed by confessional change. The theme of the Confession of 1967 in the Northern Church was reconciliation, and its focus was on racial reconciliation. On Scripture, it declared: "The one sufficient revelation of God is Jesus Christ, the Word of God incarnate, to whom the Holy Spirit bears unique and authoritative witness through the Holy Scriptures, which are received and obeyed as the word of God written."

In 1976, the PCUS General Assembly approved "A Declaration of Faith." It stated that "antagonisms between races, nations and neighbors, are manifestations of our sin against God." Regarding Scripture it declared: "When we encounter apparent tensions and conflicts in what Scripture teaches us to believe and do, the final appeal must be to the authority of Christ."

From 1787 to 1957 there was a decisive change in the way that Presbyterians interpreted Scripture regarding slavery and segregation. It was a move from letter to spirit, law to grace, and from particular proof-texts to the positive ministry and message of Jesus Christ. I discovered the exact same pattern with regard to Presbyterian treatment of the role of women and of divorce and remarriage. Time does not permit a full treatment of those issues. Let me just share with you a few provocative quotations.

The Role of Women

The General Assembly first officially notice women in 1811 when it recognized the significant contribution women were making through voluntary organizations for missions, benevolences, and social reform. The men of the Assembly announced that: "Benevolence is always attractive, but when dressed in female form [it] possesses peculiar charms We hope the spirit which has animated the worthy women of whom we speak will spread [to] animate other bosoms " That same year a Presbyterian minister put the position in a typically patronizing manner: "Who will not delight in the sweet and heavenly work of honoring the weaker vessels, and of endeavoring to make them ornamental and useful in the house of God."

This concept of "ornamental womanhood" appeared in at least 14 articles by Charles Hodge and the learned gentlemen of Princeton Seminary between the years 1825 and 1855. The point was that while women could express their piety in private, the public realm was only for men. As with the case of slavery, Presbyterian men in the 19th century defended the status quo that prohibited women, e.g., from voting, and from owning property. They found selected proof texts from the context of the ancient Near East in Scripture and used these to justify their suppression of women.

We often conveniently forget that leading Presbyterian theologians were passionate and vehement in their rejection of women's rights. Charles Hodge, in a negative review of a book that attacked slavery, justified slavery by the analogy of the necessary subordination of women. He wrote: "If women are to be emancipated from subjection to the law which God has imposed upon them;if, in studied insult to the authority of God we are to renounce, in the marriage contract, all claim to obedience, there is no deformity of human character from which we turn with deeper loathing than from a woman forgetful of her nature and clamorous for the vocations and rights of men."

In time, things began to change. In 1916, the PCUS General Assembly continued to forbid women to preach or be ordained, but, left "other services of women to the discretion of sessions and the enlightened consciences of our Christian women." The implication was that the Assembly refused to repeat the oft-quoted prohibition of women from speaking in what was called "promiscuous assemblies." These were groups, like local prayer meetings, that were attended by both women and men. Sixty-one commissioners protested this omission as a violation of biblical authority. The General Assembly answered with clarity and continuing relevance: "The Scriptures may have their authority discredited not merely by a violation of their precepts, but also by any attempt on the part of ecclesiastical courts to bind the consciences of God's people on matters of doubtful interpretation."

Gradually, with a struggle at each step, women were ordained, first as deacons, then as elders, and finally as ministers of Word and Sacrament. One of the best statements on biblical interpretation is contained in that 1956 PCUS study on the role of women. It declared: "We are led to believe that the Holy Spirit will progressively lead God's people into a new understanding of the practice of the will of God." It stated that this is the promise of Jesus (John 16: 12-14). The report noted that the Church has experienced the leading of the Spirit of Christ in abandoning forms that were no longer appropriate while retaining the value, or meaning, or function of a mandated act. For example, we no longer enjoin greeting one another with a holy kiss, despite the fact that Paul commanded it in two of his epistles. Nor do we wash each others feet, even though that was in accord with the word of Jesus himself. The report rather affirmed, "We seek to preserve the principle of loving fellowship and humble service, but we do not observe the actual letter of the deed." The report implied that we should look for the scriptural function (the spirit), not the ancient cultural form (the letter).

Women were ordained to all offices in the church by 1956 in the North and 1965 in the South. Some men, however, who still held to the Old Princeton understanding of Scripture as a book of inerrant facts, cited proof-texts to claim that the ordination of women was invalid. Walter Wynn Kenyon, a senior at Pittsburgh Seminary in 1974, precipitated a judicial case by declaring to the Candidates and Credentials Committee of Pittsburgh Presbytery that he believed the Bible forbade the ordination of women. The case went from presbytery to synod to the Permanent Judicial Commission of the General Assembly.

Kenyon, his professor, John Gerstner, and several colleagues wrote a pamphlet defending their views. They wrote: "our purpose is simply to demonstrate what we believe to be the real issue: Biblical authority.No one can read the Bible and not see authority 'writ large' therein. Everywhere we meet a chain of command.everyone who loves and fears God should acknowledge that the Word of God authoritatively establishes authority - male authority - in the church."

The Kenyon Case is often referred to as an example of the imposition of a polity solution on a theological problem. If one reads the decision of the Permanent Judicial Commission in the UPCUSA's Kenyon Case of 1976, however, one discovers a biblical and theological rationale for the equality of women and men. The PJC wrote: "The question of the importance of our belief in the equality of all people before God is thus essential to the disposition of this case. It is evident from the Church's confessional standards that the Church believes that the Spirit of God has led us into new understandings of this equality before God."

The PJC decision cited the Confession of 1967 which proclaims, "Congregations, individuals, or groups of Christians who exclude, dominate, or patronize their fellowmen, however subtly, resist the Spirit of God and bring contempt on the faith which they profess." The PJC decision continued, "The UPCUSA, in obedience to Jesus Christ, under the authority of Scripture (and guided by its confessions) has now developed its understanding of the equality of all people (both male and female) before God. It has expressed this [theological] understanding in the Book of Order with such clarity as to make the candidate's stated position a rejection of its government and discipline." Thus a biblical principle in a former confession was applied to a new situation under the guidance of the Spirit of Christ.

Divorce and Remarriage

The issue of divorce and remarriage is a paradigm case for understanding biblical interpretation. Many scholars believe that Jesus proclaimed all remarriage after divorce to be adultery (Matthew 19:9 and Mark 10:11-12). Nonetheless, the Westminster Confession of Faith provided two exceptions, based on biblical principles, to the prohibition against divorce. In 1853, the General Assembly officially affirmed the stance of the Westminster Confession. The Assembly said that divorce and remarriage were possible for the "innocent party" in cases of adultery and "willful desertion as can no way be remedied." What is most interesting is the manner in which Presbyterians theologized to broaden the scope of these exceptions.

It first became necessary in 1791 in the case of slave marriages. By law, slaves could not marry. Yet many did marry by their own rituals and some were baptized and became members of the church. What was the church to do? Hanover Presbytery in Virginia wrestled with the issue of bringing into the church slaves who lived together, but were not legally married. The presbytery solved the problem by reflecting theologically on the nature of marriage. Marriage was constituted "in the sight of God" and by "mutual consent of the Parties." Therefore if slaves lived a Christian life as a married couple they could be accepted into the church without legal formality. The Presbytery then extended this logic to divorce. If a slave couple was forcibly separated by sale or removal of one of the spouses, that separation was the "moral equivalent" of death. The remaining slave could take "another Companion" and continue in the church. The concept of a "moral equivalent" was thereby introduced and became very important.

Beginning in 1928, both the PCUSA and the PCUS General Assemblies attempted to tighten the prohibition against remarriage after divorce. In each case the presbyteries rejected this limitation of pastoral judgment.

In 1930, a PCUSA Commission on Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage presented a spiritual, rather than legalistic, approach to Scripture. The report asked "whether our Lord is meaning to legislate for universal application, or whether he is emphasizing the spiritual values involved in a true marriage." The report then used the concept of a "moral equivalent" of death or adultery. The Commission concluded: "Anything that kills love and deals death to the spirit of the union is infidelity," citing the biblical phrase, "The letter killeth; but the spirit giveth life."

In 1950, the PCUS Council of Christian Relations reported: "Any attempt to build a Christian doctrine of marriage and divorce on a few isolated 'proof-texts' will always fail for at least two reasons: (a) the usual proof-texts are open to more than one interpretation, and (b) they fail to give due weight to the implications of Jesus' total teaching with respect to man's personal responsibilities and social relationships." They then applied this principle to divorce by declaring, "infidelity can be spiritual as well as physical and it manifests itself in many forms." They concluded: "Wherever free Protestant churches are studying this problem today in the light of Jesus' total teachings on human relations, the trend is unmistakably away from a strictly legalistic approach to one more finely and fundamentally spiritual."

In 1953 in the North and 1959 in the South, both Presbyterian denominations amended the Westminster Confession to allow divorce and remarriage. The rationale for divorce is that there is a moral equivalent of death, adultery, or desertion, when "the marriage dies at the heart and the union becomes intolerable." Then, in the PCUSA wording, "remarriage after a divorce granted on grounds explicitly stated in Scripture or implicit in the gospel of Christ may be sanctioned by the Church, in keeping with his redemptive gospel."

Pondering the Pace of Change

It took over a century for the church to cope with entrenched injustices to African-Americans and women. On the other hand, the church changed its stance on the matter of divorce and remarriage in a relatively short time, between 1928 and 1959. Might it be that one significant difference was that those present and voting in presbyteries and General Assembly were vulnerable to divorce and thus could feel the necessity for change. When presbyteries were all white and all men they were able to distance themselves from those affected by their decisions. They could treat the problems "objectively," and focus on the good of society in general. When it touched them, as with all human beings, their concerns become much more personal and pastoral.

Conclusion

Presbyterians have made dramatic changes in their interpretation of Scripture and the Confessions. We have been listening to Presbyterians like ourselves. As we do, they struggled to distinguish between the entrenched attitudes of their culture and the new possibilities of the Gospel. In each of the cases I have cited, I believe that most Presbyterians would agree that these changes have been positive. Few of us would be willing to go back to an earlier method of reading the Bible as proof texts that justified the oppression of African Americans, the subordination of women, and the exclusion of divorced and remarried persons from church leadership. In each of these cases, we believe that we have moved beyond the restrictions of the popular culture. We have rather become better attuned to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It has been positive for the Presbyterian Church to move from a focus on the letter to the spirit, from law to Gospel, and from particular proof-texts to principles in accord with the ministry and message of Jesus.

Coach Wooden trained his players by pointing out what they had done wrong and then showing them the right way. He was a master teacher. We are disciples of the ultimate master teacher, Jesus Christ. We learn best when we heed the unanimous testimony of the confessions in pointing away from their own authority and pointing to the authority of Jesus Christ. The Westminster Confession reminds us that, "All synods or councils may err, and many have erred; therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith or practice, but to be used as a help in both." (WCF 6.175) The Westminster Confession, concluding its magnificent chapter on Scripture, gives us the appropriate perspective: "The Supreme Judge, by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, can be no other but the Holy Spirit [the Spirit of Christ] speaking in the Scripture." (WCF 6.010.)

 

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These remarks are expanded in Dr. Rogers's forthcoming book, Reading the Bible and the Confessions: The Presbyterian Way, to be published in May 1999 by Geneva Press.

 

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