Fellowship of Presbyterians
Theological documents include confessions and essential tenets
By Paula R. Kincaid, The Layman, January 24, 2012
ORLANDO, Fla. — “We are convinced that theological matters needed to be attended to early and well,” the Rev. Jerry Andrews told the more than 2,100 people at the Convenanting Conference of the Fellowship of Presbyterians (FOP).
The “we” Andrews referred to were the three principal writers of the FOP’s theological document: Laura Smit, associate professor of theology, Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Mich.; Joe Small, former director of Theology, Worship and Education for the Presbyterian Church (USA); and Andrews, pastor of First Presbyterian Church, San Diego, Calif.
A draft of the theological document was released in early December. Comments were received by the writing group until January, and those comments were used to produce the final version given to participants. The theology document includes the confessional standards, the essential tenets and a theological project that will clarify the theological identity of the FOP and new Reformed body, now called the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians (ECO).
The theological document states that the PCUSA’s Book of Confessions – containing 11 confessions – will be the confessional standards of the FOP/ECO. A list of essential tenets drawn from those confessions by the writing team is not only in the theological document but also in ECO’s polity document, where is says in 2.0101 that “ordaining bodies must ensure that all officers must adhere to the essential tenets of the ECO. Failure of officers to continue to adhere to these standards is grounds for a session or presbytery to remove an officer from service according to the Rules of Discipline in this constitution.”
Andrews and Smit presented the final version of the theology paper during a plenary session on Thursday afternoon. They spoke in greater detail about the paper during a break-out session held later in the day.
Andrews spoke of the many comments the team received once the draft was made public – like those that argued for seven to 10 pages that the draft was too long. Many of the comments, he said, “clearly helped us to strengthen the documents before you … along the way we became more hopeful for the life in our common life.”
“Truth leads to duty, faith leads to practice,” Andrews said. “We want you to see this project in that context.”
The forward of the theology paper stated that the work group had three tasks:
1. “to identify the statements of our confessional heritage that will connect us with the one holy catholic apostolic church and express our distinctively Reformed convictions within that church.
2. “to identify and articulate the essentials of the Reformed Faith as expressed in these documents.
3. “to identify the theological practices that will sustain us for the next generation and which we must, therefore, commit to and sustain.”
Andrews said that the team did “all of this with the prayer. ‘God help us.’”
Andrews said that evangelicals have been accused of saying the “creeds with a wink and a nod,” Andrews said. “We think it is important that we keep this covenant while we make a new covenant. … Within these confessions we hear from the churches around the world and through time,” he said. “They challenge us when we do not know how to challenge ourselves.”
Andrews said that evangelicals have been guilty of neglecting the confessions. “We have not made our full investment so we can be good stewards of what was handed to us,” he said. “These confessional standards are a cautious move on our part. They will serve us well now, because it is a move we can make with integrity and yet it still challenges us to grow more deeply and widely into the confessional heritage that has been given us.”
During a break-out session later in the day, Andrews said that “we believe that, some day, the confessional statements of ECO and PCUSA will not be the same and that will be a good thing — but not now.”
In answering a question about the “problematic” Confession of 1967 and the Brief Statement of Faith, both included in the Book of Confessions, Andrews said the writing team did not think that “now is the moment to pick and choose,” between confessions, but that he did not think that C67 would “make the final cut” of confessions for the ECO. “It won’t even make the playoffs. It cannot get a fair hearing before evangelicals and even if given a fair hearing it still won’t make it for good reason.”
He said he wasn’t sure “what contribution to our faith that the Brief Statement makes to us.” He thought what may justify the confession is that it spoke of “men and women leading. It has value for that, but maybe not enough to keep.”
Smit said she was not a fan of C67 or the Brief Statement of Faith, but that “the decision to add or drop confessions is an act of a duly constituted denomination, and three people aren’t that.”
“I did take a vow to be bound by the constitution so we have to do that in an appropriate way and the way to do that is by a constituted denomination,” she said.
The essential tenets
Smit then explained the essential tenets (see page 5). The writing team, she said, had no intention of the essential tents becoming a confession or of asking anyone to subscribe to them. “It’s a tool to be used in the exploration of the confessions – a process of moving toward some confessional clarity.”
She said she thought of the tenets as a “curriculum you use to study the confessional documents. … You can fight with it, edit it and rewrite it in your session. It is meant to be explored. … I hope that five years from now, it will be replaced with something much stronger and better.”
Smit said that she didn’t want anyone to get “too hung up on” not thinking they could affirm this or that line in the tenets. “That’s OK. There is a desired outcome: A genuine, robust, sincere affirmation of the Reformed tradition,” she said. “We’re not there right now. There’s an awful lot of Arminians in this room.”
“We entered into this project in a good-faith effort to submit ourselves to these confessions that have been given to us by generations of Presbyterians who say this is worth knowing. We come in with an attitude of trust, with a teachable spirit, with a hope that someday we can tear up our scruples and the ones we cannot affirm we destroy; but we do it together — not as a team of three in a back room,” Smit said.
During the break-out session, Smit said that, while the essentials were written in paragraph form, many people had requested a bullet-style list. To read the 19 bullet points, scroll to bottom of this article
As a compromise, the group highlighted 19 sentences with bold print in the tenets that could form an executive summary or key points.
‘A Pastoral Rule’
Andrews introduced “A Pastoral Rule” to help achieve the third task of the theology document “to identify the theological practices that will sustain us for the next generation and which we must, therefore, commit to and sustain.”
Through a grant received by the PCUSA’s Office of Theology and Worship, a Re-For
ming Ministry Initiative was made up of 20 pastors, seminary professors and church officials. The group met for five years and out of that initiative came “A Pastoral Rule.”
Andrews said that two years ago, a internal poll of Presbyterian pastors reported that fewer than one in three of them opened the Scripture in a non-instrumental way or in other words to “ask of God what do you have to say to me?”
“If in abstentia I could quote Joe Small, ‘Well, no wonder,’” said Andrews. “We decided that to read the Bible seems to be a good thing to do. … We now recommend it to you. Adapt it and adopt it. Commit to the practice of faith that builds faith. Sustain those practices that we might be sustained in faith.”
He said there was more to the “Pastoral Rule” than praying and reading the Bible. It includes mutual accountability on moral life; keeping the Sabbath, and how to live out the faith.
The group of 20 practiced what they wrote and were “surprised at how much joy there was in the rigor.”
“I was given an opportunity to grow up in the faith — to know the faith and have it have a grasp on me,” said Andrews, “so that we may become fit tools in the hands of the Master to do the masterful things He has prepared us to do.”
19 key points of ECO’s essential tenets
- The great purpose toward which each human life is drawn is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever
- We glorify God by recognizing and receiving His authoritative self-revelation, both in the infallible Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments and also in the incarnation of God the Son.
- With Christians everywhere, we worship the only true God — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — who is both one essence and three persons.
- Jesus Christ is both truly God and truly human.
- The divinity of the Son is in no way impaired, limited, or changed by His gracious act of assuming a human nature, and that His true humanity is in no way undermined by His continued divinity.
- The risen Jesus, who was sent from the Father, has now ascended to the Father in His resurrected body and remains truly human.
- The same Jesus Christ who is now ascended and who will one day return visibly in the body to judge the living and the dead.
- We are able to confess Jesus Christ as Lord and God only through the work of the Holy Spirit
- The present disordered state of the world, in which we and all things are subject to misery and to evil, is not God’s doing, but is rather a result of humanity’s free, sinful rebellion against God’s will.
- No part of human life is untouched by sin. Our desires are no longer trustworthy guides to goodness, and what seems natural to us no longer corresponds to God’s design.
- In union with Christ through the power of the Spirit we are brought into right relation with the Father, who receives us as His adopted children. Jesus Christ is the only Way to this adoption, the sole path by which sinners become children of God,
- Having lost true freedom of will in the fall, we are incapable of turning toward God of our own volition. God chooses us for Himself in grace before the foundation of the world, not because of any merit on our part, but only because of His love and mercy.
- Through His regenerating and sanctifying work, the Holy Spirit grants us faith and enables holiness, so that we may be witnesses of God’s gracious presence to those who are lost.
- In Christ, we are adopted into the family of God and find our new identity as brothers and sisters of one another, since we now share one Father
- Within the covenant community of the church, God’s grace is extended through the preaching of the Word, the administration of the sacraments, and the faithful practice of mutual discipline.
- The ministries of the church reflect the three-fold office of Christ as prophet, priest and king – reflected in the church’s ordered ministries of teaching elders, deacons, and ruling elders.
- Jesus teaches us that we are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our mind. There is no part of human life that is off limits to the sanctifying claims of God.
- Progress in holiness is an expected response of gratitude to the grace of God, which is initiated, sustained and fulfilled by the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit.
- As we practice the discipline of regular self-examination and confession, we are especially guided by the Ten Commandments.