(By Michael D. Bush, Theology Matters). Recently the Presbyterian Church (USA) released the results of a Presbyterian Panel survey entitled “Theological Reflection.” It describes the views of members and ministers in three areas: Interreligious issues, understanding and affirmation of the Presbyterian theological tradition, and certain matters related to vocation and worship. In this article we focus on the second set of issues, the theological concepts and themes. For those who care about the tradition of Presbyterian and Reformed Christianity, there is some good news in these data, along with evidence of considerable misinformation and confusion.
Some of the confusion in the responses is grounded in the survey itself. Someone answering the survey might be perplexed how to assess some options alongside others. For example, in a list of spiritual resources Christians might use in decision making, “Jesus Christ’s life, teaching, or example” and “God’s will” are listed as though they were somehow independent of “Scripture,” “prayer,” and “the guidance of the Holy Spirit.”
The report does not clarify how its authors imagine Christians might learn, apart from Scripture, what Jesus did and taught. In fact, we have no information about Jesus’s life, teaching, or example independent of Scripture. To be sure, many books attempting to reconstruct Jesus’s life on the assumption that the biblical narratives are unreliable have appeared since 1836. The weakness of these reconstructions is that they cannot explain why we should care what Jesus did and taught. Why not some other Hellenistic, middle-eastern teacher? For that matter, why not nearly any other person who has ever lived? And even with such limitations, these reconstructions depend on evidence only available in Christian Scripture. But Scripture identifies Jesus as God living a human life, a good reason for thinking his life and teaching can guide us.
Moreover, is not discerning God’s will the entire point of consulting a “spiritual resource” in decision making? What sense does it make, then, to treat God’s will as itself a “spiritual resource”? The survey’s implied reasoning here is circular. To learn God’s will, I consult God’s will? This is like a dog chasing its tail: It may be better than boredom, but it does not lead anywhere.
In reality, we have direct access neither to God’s will nor to the life and teaching of Jesus. These come to us through prayerful reading of Scripture under the illumination of the Holy Spirit, or we know nothing about them at all. It is a category mistake that can only confuse to include “God’s will” and “Jesus Christ’s life, teaching, or example” as options within a list of other spiritual resources a Christian could actually consult.
Turning to what we learn of the theologies of Presbyterians, we find the survey asked about how members and ministers see salvation in Christ …
- Looking Back, Looking Forward: The Protestant Reformation, by Paul C. McGlasson
- The Catechized Prodigal: When Covenant Children Lose Their Way, by James P. Hering
- If I Were a Church School Teacher Again, by Bruce M. Metzger