As Americans, “we the people” is defined by a mutually agreed upon constitution. So too, as members of the Presbyterian Church (USA) we have a mutually agreed upon constitution that begins with the confession of what “we” believe. It’s called The Book of Confessions. The “we” of Presbyterianism is thus defined by those who believe what “we” believe. From basic Christianity to the finer points of Reformed theology, what do “we” believe?
“The faith once delivered to the saints” contains an identifiable corpus of information. Paul describes it to the Christians at Corinth as something specific that he preached to them, which they received and upon which they stand:
“For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared …”
The Gospel and the faith have definable content. The questions we must ask and answer are what is the content of the faith and is that the same faith we confess today?
Not everyone who met Jesus believed He was the Christ. Not everyone was a follower of Jesus. Even some who followed for awhile turned away when His teaching became too hard to accept. Not everyone was a disciple of Christ “then” and not everyone is a disciple of Christ “now.” There were those who were “in” the Church and those who were not.
Read Acts 4:23-37 for a description of what the Church was like then. The line of differentiation had nothing to do with origin, lineage, skin color, age, gender, social status or level of education. The confession that Jesus was the Christ, the son of the living God, the Lord, sets Christians apart from the rest of humanity. They were a peculiar people, distinct from the dominant culture and considered a threat to the point of persecution and martyrdom.
As time passed, by God’s grace, the Spirit’s power and the disciples’ missionary efforts, the Church grew numerically, spread geographically and was admirably contextualized beyond a branch of Judaism. People who would have formerly described themselves as Jews, Greeks, Romans, Egyptians or people from the region across the Jordan, all became Christians. By confessing one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, this highly diverse people became one.
Over time, they sensed a need to clarify what it meant to be a Christian. Positively framed with the declaration “we believe,” the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed were not so much condemnations of those who do not believe what Christians believe, but instead provided necessary parameters for those who shared an identifiable set or system of beliefs, a people of particular faith. The creed expressed the nature of “we.”
Anyone who needed help defining what was and what was not a Christian, could simply examine the creed. It is as if they said: “If you too believe these things, then you are a part of us. If you do not believe these things, you may be many things, but you are apart from us.” This is not to say that Christians did not have fellowship with non-Christians, but that the two groups were understood to have distinct, mutually exclusive views of personal reality.
At various times over the course of the ensuing 20 centuries, the historic creeds and catechisms of Christendom have been amplified in systematic confessions of the faith. For Presbyterians, the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) was the sole standard for generations. The WCF expresses a system of belief that defined what it means to be Presbyterian. For most Presbyterians around the world, this remains the case.
However, following a denominational merger in 1958, the historic standard for American Presbyterians in the northern branch of what subsequently became the PCUSA in 1983, WCF, was edited and then supplemented by other confessional documents. This process yielded a Book of Confessions in 1965-67, replacing one clear confessional standard with a catalogue of eight. The Presbyterian Lay Committee was formed largely in opposition to this effort arguing that the more confessions we have the greater the likelihood of confusion among the laity as to what “we” believe, dilution of our core sense of identity and ultimate fracture of our unity.
The book was expanded again in 1989 with the addition of The Brief Statement of Faith and in the mid-1990’s there were failed attempts to add The French Confession of 1559. It is from this catalogue of confessions that those ordained in the PCUSA are asked to cull for themselves the essential tenets of the Reformed faith. It is to this book to which ministers, elders and deacons are to turn for guidance in the interpretation of the Scriptures as they prepare to teach and lead the people of God.
If you are an ordained officer in the PCUSA, you must now ask yourself, how well do I know the 11 documents already contained in The Book of Confessions and by what criteria will I evaluate whether an additional standard should be added? What, in fact, do I believe and upon what creeds and confessions am I relying as I lead the people of God? What is my creed and based on the content of that confession, am I a part of the people described as “we the people” of the PCUSA or have I departed from it?
. I Corinthians 15:3-5 NIV.
. Ephesians 4:4-6 NIV.