The Liberty and Fundamentals of Presbyterian Doctrine

The Liberty and Fundamentals of Presbyterian Doctrine

Glynn Cardy, Pentecost 2018

Sun 20 May

There is a question in our service this morning that reads in part:  “Do you respect the doctrine … of the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand?”

Theologically most of us at St Luke’s hold minority views within PCANZ when it comes to doctrine.  Although we accept that the General Assembly has authority to make decisions about our Church, we from time to time disagree with those decisions and yet still remain within the fellowship of our denomination.  Being part of the Church is like being a part of any institution – there are parts we love and parts we hate and parts we tolerate.

While we Christians started as a Jewish egalitarian movement back in the mid-first century, uncoordinated and eclectic, in time we transformed into an institution with structure, division of responsibilities, buildings, and subterranean, and then terranean, patriarchy.  My guess is that the Jesus movement might not have survived unless the institutional forces came into play. 

Mind you I gag somewhat when we give the institution a holy imprimatur.  ‘One church, one faith, one Lord’ has always sounded like the vain hope of ecclesiastical controllers who prize/d uniformity more than the ‘Spirit who leads us into all truth”.[i]   Indeed the Spirit has long been a problem for those who want us all to think the same.

I think the Church has always been a mix of movements and institution, of unity and diversity, and the untameable Spirit of God that has flown in and out, alighting where She wills.  And respecting Presbyterian doctrine, as the question asks, is about respecting the warp and weft, the creative and conflicting currents of knowledge and experience, as we struggle to make sense of our past and present and the God beyond and in the midst of it all.

Here are some brief thoughts on Presbyterian doctrine:

Firstly, there are fundamental doctrines and then there is everything else.  The ‘everything else’ allows for liberty of conscience.  And we are purposely not too clear on what the fundamentals are.  This room for plurality is a good recipe for how you keep a large number of people and ideas in the one denomination – and hopefully continuing to talk theologically with each other.

Secondly, this is the backdrop to our Presbyterian problem with sex.  In the last 20 years in PCANZ sex, and regulating it, has been shifted from a liberty of conscience category into a fundamental category.  Instead of allowing for a variety of interpretations of Scripture – particularly on the matter of faithfully committed same-gender relationships (something, note, the Bible is silent on) – General Assembly has made decisions on ordination and marriage that interpret these as fundamentals, and not matters of conscience.  But there has been no change in our doctrine to reflect this.  So, doctrinally ordination and marriage (unlike Anglican and Roman Catholic doctrine where these are sacraments) remain matters of conscience.  It’s all rather a strange; and for many of us a painful aberration.

We have in the past been able to live with more than one biblical and theological understanding on contentious subjects.  Think of divorce and pacifism – both of which one could argue have clearer biblical support than opposing same-gender marriage.  Neither divorce nor pacifism by the way is a core doctrine, but matters of conscience.

Thirdly, you will find fundamental doctrine in creeds and confessions of faith.  So, Presbyterian fundamentals are not hymn-singing, or preaching, or buildings, or how to dress a haggis.  These creeds and confessions include the Apostles and Nicene creeds, the Scots Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Second Helvetic Confession, the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Westminster Shorter Catechism and the Westminster Larger Catechism, and the 2010 Kupu Whakapono [which I printed with the readings today].

There are some common misunderstandings about creeds and confessions.  They aren’t legal contracts that individual believers have to sign up to.  Indeed in our church individual believers don’t have to sign up to any doctrinal statement.  Rather creeds and confessions are communal documents that a majority or often influential elites have assented to at some time.  You can think of them as historical markers or signposts.  That’s why it’s a good thing that there are many of them – it underlines their relativity, and undermines any misguided attempt to make them absolute.  At their best they are attempts to interpret Scripture, just as Scripture is an attempt to interpret God.  And of course such interpretation, though necessary, is deeply fraught.  God is simply too big.

If it worries you that one can be a Presbyterian without adhering to a doctrinal statement, can I suggest that every time you help a stranger in need, every time you gather around a table in memory of Jesus, every time you unconditionally welcome a baby at baptism, every time decry the greed of the rich and the despair of the poor, every time you include someone of the margins… you are being Presbyterian.

Creeds and confessions are therefore provisional.  They are time-bound, culture-bound, and knowledge-bound.  Most were written when Christians believed in a three-tiered universe and a seven day creation of the world, which we now know are literal nonsense.  So the title ‘Creator’ for God, if indeed we continue to use it at all, needs to be understood differently – maybe along the lines of a creative spirit?  They also often reflect a poor understanding of biblical scholarship because biblical knowledge and its companion disciplines were so much more limited when most of the creeds and confessions were written.

That said the creeds and confessions often build on past creeds and confessions.  The interesting thing is then to play ‘spot the difference’.  What are the new words/concepts being included, and what is being left out or skipped over?  Look too for what each confession is encouraging us to do and be, rather than what it’s encouraging us to believe.

Fourthly, creeds and confessions are usually arranged in a three part structure, with a paragraph each on Father, Son and Holy Ghost.

Here’s a little humour to help you with doctrine.  This is the Irish comedian the late Dave Allen.  In this pericope he is a four year old being questioned by nuns.  [Video clip is shown]

Allen identifies some of the problems of reducing a big God to a being – ‘where is he?’ asks the 4 year old – and a male being at that – God, Allen is told, is Jesus’ unmarried father.  Allen also shows the absurdity and contradiction of commanding someone to love, and then threatening to punish them severely when they don’t.  Can love ever be commanded?

‘Father’, or rather ‘daddy’[ii], in the Jesus texts is a pointer to relationship, relatedness, and intimate connection.  It’s not about reducing God to some parent-like, gendered being.  That reduction has been used by patriarchal elites over the centuries to, amongst other things, exclude women from positions of authority and in doing so impoverish us all.

While we are autonomous beings we are also interconnected not just with other human and animal beings but with a goddish energy, a ‘weak’ power of deep intimacy, which we don’t have language to adequately explain.  So the Church has used the language of father and sovereign and creator and ‘love before all loves’ [as the Kupu Whakapono says] to try to point to this beyond-and-amongst language of intimacy and connection.

In the beginning, now, and at any end, there is a reality bigger than all the other realities in our lives, which is that we are connected/enveloped within that Love called god.  And all that evolves, all that we make, all that we dream into being is part of this Love connection.  This is the ultimate reality – the ground upon which we stand, the air which we inhale, the web of all the relating that brings life.

Of course, one can look at confessions like the Kupu Whakapono and find many things to dispute.  Like the notion of true Gods and false Gods – reflecting, amongst other things, the arrogance that we know God and you don’t – an arrogance that hinders what our world desperately needs: cooperation between all the different religions and tribes.

Confessions and creeds also largely ignore the historical Jesus and interpret his death as the meaning of his life.  They make his life to be all about our supposed need for forgiveness, rather than the scandalous, inclusive, topsy-turvy, politically corrosive and confronting love and justice that he taught and lived.  Resurrection is not an individually tailored rescue package for those deemed sinful.  Resurrection is, at heart, code for:  “You can’t stop this Jesus train – you can’t stop this freedom train!!”

The confessions and creeds have long struggled with the spirited persona/face of the Trinity.  The earliest creed we have, the Apostles, simply says ‘I believe in the Holy Spirit’.  The Nicene authors got hung up on where the Spirit came from, and that debate split mainstream Christendom in two! 

The struggle though, from the earliest days, has been about control.  Does the Church control the Spirit; does the Spirit control the Church; or neither?  The Kupu Whakapono says the Spirit is ‘at work in all creation’.  Think about that for a moment.  It means we, the Church, don’t control the Spirit.  This is what our Moderator Richard Dawson reiterated in his Pentecost message:  the Spirit is out and about, so watch out!

I think the most useful thing about the Kupu Whakapono is the explanatory preamble which reminds us the truth [or in mine and Dave Allen’s words, the ‘bigness’] of God is greater than can ever be encapsulated in any creed or confession.  Then, after ingesting the theological modesty that such a truth requires, we tentatively put our current understandings into words and in doing so accept responsibility for declaring the Gospel in our own context.  Acts 2 creates the myth of how, on the day of Pentecost, the Church itself was born as the Gospel was declared by the power of the Spirit in languages that all could understand.  

And so in every time and place, hopefully with humility, hopefully in the light of the best academic knowledge and spiritual wisdom, we once again try to fathom and concretize the unfathomable and mysterious by trying to find words to express faith and understanding; and then debate those words with fellow Presbyterians.  We have and will get it wrong, a lot of the time; and occasionally we will get some things right.  This is Presbyterian doctrine – above all it is a process.  And it is the process – fraught and fractured and fallible – that I can respect.

[i] John 16:13.

[ii] ‘Daddy’ is a more accurate interpretation of ‘Abba’, the word that Jesus commonly used to refer to God [and a word that is commonly translated as Father].