Wednesday, November 19, 2008
Beaver-Butler Presbytery voted down the Open Theological Declaration at its November 17th meeting in Aliquippa, Beaver County, PA and referred it to a special task force empowered to look at the issues the Declaration confronts.
Incoming presbytery moderator, the Rev. Connie Dunn was charged by the body last night with appointing members to this new task force and with instructing it to conduct its work so that it may present a report to the whole presbytery at its March 2009 meeting.
The 55-47 (I believe, but may be wrong on the actual vote) to refer the Declaration to the new task force came after nearly an hour of highly spirited debate.
Principle objections raised during the debate centered largely around the Declaration's statements about the nature of Christians' shared beliefs with Jews and Muslims about the nature of our understandings of who God is and what constitutes either valid or invalid promotion of joint worship.
Not a few minister-presbyters raised questions about participation in and conduct of mixed-religious wedding services with Jews. They also raised questions indirectly (or obliquely) about whether or not this Declaration calls into question Christian understandings of the historical precedence of the Jews' status as God's chosen people and whether or not the document calls into question the validity of the Old Testament scriptures.
Where We Go from Here
Those of us who are appointed to serve on the newly created task force will do so. We truly have no choice at this point.
We have invested ourselves, our beliefs and consciences into this debate--seeing it as a fight over matters that truly rise to the level of covenanted orthodoxy. We will continue to stand where we must.
In the mean time, a dozen individual sessions, their collected elders, their pastors have officially signed this document and stand behind it. Our call to other sessions and presbyteries to consider this or some very close parallel statement have lost none of their passion and immediacy. We need to take decisive steps and make a bold, clear but loving stand in the face of what we see as serious steps away from the gospel handed down once-for-all to the saints.
We may not back down. And we are committed to this fight at the judicatory level. This is a church fight that must be appropriately and correctly waged within the courts of the church. Certainly affinity groups and related reform organizations are welcomed and encouraged to share this fight with us, but ultimately, the fight must be waged from the lowest recognizable regional courts to the highest.
Again, our Defender is strong and we are called to stand in place.
Please continue to pray for us and to check in with us regularly regarding updates or questions. We may be contacted via this blog or by e-mail. My e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org and Pat McElroy's e-mail is email@example.com
Grace & Peace,
+Rusty Stuart & Pat McElroy
Monday, November 17, 2008
Relevant Excerpt from
Jesus Christ: Savior and Lord
by Donald G. Bloesch
© 1997; IVP; Downers Grove, IL
LCC #: BT202.B49
From Chapter 10: “The Finality of Christ” — Pgs. 243 - 249
An Emerging Confessional Situation
Theologians of various persuasions are beginning to speak of a new confessional situation, a status confessionis, as the church finds itself engulfed in a crisis concerning the integrity of its message and the validity of its language. The many attempts today to resymbolize God and to reconceive Christ are signs that people of faith may be called again to battle for the truth, to engage in a new Kirchenkampf (Church struggle).
The problem of theological authority has become especially acute, since it would seem that cultural experience is supplanting the biblical witness as the ruling criterion for faith and practice. An emerging neognosticism locates truth in the alteration of consciousness rather than in the an event in sacred history. The philosopher Schopenhauer, a favorite of New Agers, has declared that we are justified neither by faith nor by works but by knowledge. Tillich’s contention that self-discovery is God-discovery betrays a gnostic mentality. When Carl Jung asserts “I do not believe, I know,” he is placing his trust in intuitive knowledge over historical revelation.
In feminist circles there is a call for a new canon and a Third Testament that would drastically alter the foundations of the faith. Rosemary Ruether pleads for augmenting the canon with writings that manifest a sensitivity to the concerns of women and other oppressed peoples. She recommends including tracts drawn from goddess religions, Gnosticism and marginal Christian traditions often deemed heretical.
The new mood in the culture was strikingly anticipated by Ralph Waldo Emerson, on of the mentors of the new spirituality: “Man is weak to the extent that he looks outside himself for help. It is only as he throws himself unhesitatingly upon the God within himself that he learns his own power and works miracles.” The motto of the New Age is struggle, growth and freedom as opposed to the biblical motto: faith repentance and service.
The loss of transcendence is especially disconcerting when we consider the theological options today. There seems to be a confluence of various theological movements (liberationist, feminist, neomystical, process) toward a religion of radical immanence in which human experience and imagination preempt biblical revelation as the measuring rod for truth.
That real heresy is now a problem in the Church is attested by the frequent attempts to downgrade the Old Testament. Johann Semler, one of the first German theologians to apply the historical-critical method to the study of Scripture, described the Old Testament as “a collection of crude Jewish prejudices diametrically opposed to Christianity.” Complaining that the Old Testament promotes a legalistic type of thought, Schleiermacher recommended that it be ranked as a mere appendage to the New Testament. Radical feminists see the Old Testament as incurably patriarchal and the Sky Father, the supposed god of the Old Testament, as an obstacle to women’s liberation. Existentialist and process theologians view large parts of the Bible as mythological and have assigned themselves the task of translating what they consider basically poetry into a modern ontology. There is some sentiment in liberationist circles to deemphasize the Jewish matrix of Scripture out of a commitment to the rights of Palestinians.
What is ominous is that the new theologies, which are for the most part aligned with ideological movements, are seeking to revamp the worship practices of the church, notably through the production of radically altered prayer books and hymnals. Father language for God is being drastically curtailed and new symbols for God are being offered: the infinite depth and ground of all being, the creative process, the Womb of Being, the Primal Matrix, the pool of unlimited power, the New Being, the power of being, the Eternal Now, and so on. Try praying t one of these!
In November 1989 the Anglican Church in New Zealand introduced a prayer book that not only eliminated allegedly sexist language but dropped most references to Zion and Israel. It was explained that a prayer manual was needed to offer texts more relevant to the Maoris and South Pacific Islanders. Wendy Ross, president of the New Zealand Jewish Council, protested: “The only precedent for this was the German church during the Nazi era that wanted to de-judaize the Scriptures. We don’t have copyright because [the Psalms] are too old, but it is our ancient and sacred literature and we don’t like having it distorted. . . . We regard the removal of the words Zion and Israel in most cases as profoundly anti-Jewish”
Such activities should remind us of the close parallels between the religious situation today and the situation of the church in Germany in the later 1920s and 1930s. The so-called represented that segment within the German church that sought to accommodate to the rising ideology of National Socialism. Hitler was hailed as a new Messiah, and the election that brought the Nazis to power was celebrated as an act of God. The German Christian were especially intent on combating the idea that revelation was limited to biblical times: it continues, they said, throughout human history — in every culture and race. The religious institutions of the German people were deemed equal (if not superior) in authority of the Bible. Scripture was reinterpreted through the lens of the Volkgeist (the spirit of the Germanic people). A concerted attempt was made to purge the Bible of Judaic expressions like “Zion” and “Hallelujah.” They preferred to speak of the people of God rather than of the people of Israel. Interestingly, in some radical circles God was conceived of androgynously and referred to as Father-Mother.
The German Christians enlisted in their support some of the leading theologians and biblical scholars, among them Gerhard Kittel, the erudite New Testament scholar; Emanuel Hirsch, a Kierkegaard scholar; and Paul Althaus, a renowned Luther scholar. Others beguiled at least for a time by the new ideology were Friedrich Gogarten, a former student of Troetsch; Rudolf Otto, well-known historian of religion; Werner Elert; Otto Weber; and Heinrich Bornkamm. The respected Catholic theologian Karl Adam, who later broke decisively with the Nazis, gave this tribute to Hitler at the time of his meteoric rise to power: “Now he stands before us as the one for whom the voices of our poets and sages called, as the liberator of the German genius, who took the blindfold from our eyes and — through all the political, economic, social and confessional veils — let us see and love the one essential: our unity of blood, our German self, the homo Germanus.”
It was against the German Christian compromise that the Confessing Church movement emerged with its vigorous attack on natural theology and its bold reaffirmation of the uniqueness of the revelation of Jesus Christ and the authority of the Scriptures. In the words of the Barmen Declaration, drawn up primarily by Barth:
Jesus Christ, as He is testified to us in the Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God, whom we are to hear, whom we are to trust and obey in life and in death. We repudiate the false teaching that the powers, images and truths as divine revelation alongside this one Word of God, as a source of her preaching.
This statement does not rule out the possibility that God may communicate his light and truth in various ways, but it does insist that the church is bound in its proclamation to the definitive and incomparable revelation given in Jesus Christ. In the fourth article the church is urged to take care not to accommodate its message to prevailing ideological and political winds.
As in prewar Germany, there is currently in the nations of the West a resurgence of interest in the occult, a growing openness to Eastern religions and the rise of a naturistic mysticism. Pluralism is celebrated as something good in its own right; the destructive or demonic side of religion is conveniently overlooked. An inclusivistic mentality regards with disdain any appeal to a particular revelation or an absolutist claim to religious truth. The mst we can achieve is a “relative absoluteness” in which our religious way becomes only one among others, though through dialogue we can gain some further intimation of the infinite mystery that hovers over all religions.
The god of pluralism and inclusivism can be a jealous god; whatever does not fit into a pluralistic or globalistic agenda is condemned as backward and provincial. Theological semanaries in the mainline churches today are remarkably open to including Buddhists and Hindus on their staff but are conspicuously reluctant to invite scholars identified with either the old Catholicism or the evangelical side of Protestantism.
The battle today is between the historical Christian faith with its confession of the reality of a supernatural God and the uniqueness of Jesus Christ and the new spirituality, which embraces most of the recent theological and religious movements. It is the difference between a biblical monotheism and a naturalistic panentheism, between a catholic evangelicalism and a neomysticism and neognosticism. One side defends both the particularity of divine revelations and the universality of its claims and mission; the other champions an inclusivistic or global vision.
Class conflict is also an important factor in this growing cleavage. Those who constitute the so-called new class — upwardly mobile professionals, teachers and social workers — are open to an inclusivistic and relativistic worldview, for it lends moral sanction to their growing affluence. On the other hand, those identified with the older business and farming interests are more likely to defend traditional moral values and religious claims. The New Age movement could aptly be called a royal theology, for it justifies the privileged status of the upper middle and upper classes by its doctrine of karma, in which social status is determined by merits or demerits accumulated in previous states of existence. Shirley MacLaine, one of the gurus of this movement, argues that “if you’re poor or unemployed — you have only yourself to blame. You have victimized yourself by not living up to your potential.” The key to changing society, they say, lies in a transformation of consciousness.
Against this view biblical Christianity insists that the key to changing the world is the atoning death and glorious resurrection of Jesus Christ and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. The world can be changed because it already has been changed through the miraculous intervention of the living God into human history. The powers of darkness have already been defeated, and therefore the future of the human race is not bleak but filled with hope and promise.
A truly just society is dependent not on experiments in social engineering, not on the cultivation of a global consciousness, not on an amalgamation of the world religions, but on a universal acknowledgment of the reality of the holy and living God of the Scriptures and acceptance of the message that he has acted decisively and irrevocably for the salvation of the human race through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The hope of humanity rests on the kingdom of God, which is now at work in our midst, and on its consummation through the coming again of Jesus Christ in power and glory when his universal lordship will be assured to all who repent and believe.
In its witness, the church should not press for a return to a monolithic society in which church and state work together to ensure a Christian civilization, for such an undertaking would only draw the church away from its redemptive message and blur the lines between the church and the world. Neither should the church withdraw from society and cultivate little bastions of righteousness that strive to preserve the ethical and religious values handed down from the past. Instead, the church should witnes to the truth of the gospel in the very midst of society in the hope and expectation that this truth will work as the leaven that turns society toward a higher degree of justice and freedom. The church cannot build the kingdom of righteousness, but it can serve this kingdom by reminding the world that there is a transcendent order that stands in judgment over every worldly achievement and that the proper attitude of leaders of nations is one of humility before a holy God and caring concern for the disinherited and the oppressed.
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
Here is a brief update on recent developments on the cusp of our Presbytery vote.
- We have eleven Sessions from Beaver Butler Presbytery who have endorsed the Declaration.
- We have ten minister members of Beaver-Butler Presbytery who have endorsed the Declaration.
- We have had several meetings with various evangelical groups within the Presbytery and are confident that the Declaration will pass on the floor but not without significant debate and some serious dissension.
- We have received phone calls and e-mails from Churches in Coastal Carolina Presbytery, San Diego Presbytery, Presbytery of Atlanta, Shenango Presbytery and West Virginia Presbytery who are interested in potentially getting this document to the floor of their own Presbyteries. The First Presbyterian Church of Nitro, WV, along with one of their elders and their Pastor, have endorsed the Declaration and intend to present it to West Virginia Presbytery just as we have presented it to Beaver Butler in order to make it a Presbytery Declaration rather than just the Declaration of one congregation. Our prayers and support are with you Nitro!
Some interesting developments have taken place over the last few weeks throughout our denomination concerning the issues our document raises.
- San Diego Presbytery has made a Declaration of their own asking for the re-convening of the 218th General Assembly to reverse its decisions. We appear to share the same concerns.
- San Joaquin Presbytery has made a Declaration of their own outlining their intention to study the issues and write a more thorough response while still expressing their grave concerns over the 218th GA. We appear to share the same concerns.
- Central Washington Presbytery has made a Declaration of their own outlining their intention to study a possible departure from the PC USA as a Presbytery because of the actions of the 218th GA. We appear to share the same concerns.
- While all this has been progressing, the Covenant Network has held their annual conference and marshaled their plans and legal muscle to move their agenda forward under the auspices of the decisions of the 218th GA. They have also expressed their clear intent to never quit this fight until they get what they want.
Where do we go from here?
We obviously have a fair bit of affinity among us concerning the issues pressing us. We appear to have several Presbyteries who are prepared to take similar steps to address those concerns. It would seem providential and prodigious for us to combine our efforts as one. We are game for an e-meeting with representatives from interested Sessions, Presbyteries, and even Synods, should they be so led, to discuss what we might do as a corporate, univocal statement and/or plan. We will begin promoting a time for a get together in cyberspace after our Presbytery meeting.
Pat and Rusty