When the 222nd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) – called “GA” – meets in Portland, Ore., it will consider literally hundreds of items of business. The high profile items (typically related to morals or politics) will be reported by the national media and on this web site. Included in the GA’s packed agenda are several events recognizing the 50th anniversary of the Confession of 1967. These are unlikely to get much attention by the national media, but will be celebrated often by the 594 commissioners and the 198 advisory delegates to the assembly who report their experiences in their home presbyteries and local churches. The advance synopses of these events suggest they will treat C-67, as the Confession of 1967 is often called, quite favorably. Nonetheless, history shows there is little reason to celebrate.
C-67 was written in response to an action begun in 1958 to produce a statement of faith that would update the Westminster Shorter Catechism into contemporary language. The committee instead wrote a totally new statement that varied from the Westminster Shorter Catechism. Their report was first presented to GA in 1965 but took its name from the year in which it was adopted.
Adopted by both of the pre-reunion branches of the PCUSA, C-67 was billed as a “modern statement of faith” and was eventually adopted by an overwhelming majority of the presbyteries. Even so, it was not without controversy then and it ushered in an extended unbroken period of membership losses that have now seen the departure of about 63 percent of PCUSA membership.
Most notable among the controversies in C-67 was a statement that reflected a broad departure of the Presbyterian understanding of the authority of Scripture. A key was this statement from C-67:
“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, 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. As God has spoken his word in diverse cultural situations, the church is confident that he will continue to speak through the Scriptures in a changing world and in every form of human culture.” [Book of Confessions 9.29, emphasis added]
That statement stands in stark contrast with the words throughout the Bible attesting to a much higher authority of scripture. These statements may be found throughout Scripture – one theologian listed forty-seven such references – but consider these two key statements about what the Bible says about the authority of Holy Scripture:
“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” [2 Timothy 3:16-17, NIV]
“Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things. For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” [2 Peter 1:20-21, NIV]
By saying Scripture was “the words of men,” C-67 opened the door for other people to redefine Scripture – even when its meaning was crystal clear – to other meanings that better fit their agenda.
“C-67 was the first step of many in a departure from the historical standards of the Presbyterian Church (USA) as expressed in the Westminster Confession of Faith, said Matthew A. Johnson, chair of the board of the Presbyterian Lay Committee (PLC). “It took the denomination from relying on Scripture as its source of authority to everyone doing what was right in his own eyes.
In fact, the PLC was begun over this controversy. We said then that this statement in C-67 was not consistent with Holy Scripture and was blasphemous. We said then that this outright disobedience to God’s teachings would bring punishment upon our denomination and we called for repentance and reform. We have not ceased our prayers that reform would come and we urge all Presbyterians to pray that the upcoming GA will truly mark the beginning of that new reformation.
It is an historical fact that the pre-reunion denominations of the Presbyterian Church (USA), which experienced numerical growth each year from 1960 to 1965, have never seen a year of positive growth since! The total membership of the pre-reunion PCUSA, which stood at 4,158,127 in 1965 is now 1,572,660 and the rate of loss has accelerated since 2012 when the ordination standards and the definition of marriage were changed. Projections indicate that in about 2024, the PCUSA membership will drop below 1-million members.
Obviously it cannot be proven that the continuing five decades of membership losses can be attributed solely to C-67. PCUSA officials, including most local pastors, cite a myriad of other reasons that range from the local economy and a general malaise in society about religion. The early church, however, viewed numerical growth as a sign of God’s approval of their work. (See Acts 11:21).
A well-known Presbyterian theologian once remarked that a dying organization will say yes to anything in a futile attempt to save itself. That’s how we, at the Presbyterian Lay Committee view many of the controversial actions of recent GA’s and we caution that the upcoming GA may be no exception.
We need to pray for the commissioners to the 222nd GA and for our denomination and its leaders at all levels. We need to be concerned, as we may have a rough road ahead.
Suggested further references:
Read John 10:22-42, esp. 34-39. “Scripture cannot be set aside,” (v.35)
Check this web site for regular updates from the General Assembly
Robert B. Fish has served as a board member of the Presbyterian Lay Committee since 1994. He served as clerk of session, a member of his presbytery’s General Council and its Permanent Judicial Commission and he was a commissioner to the 202nd General Assembly (1990).