Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Authorship, Copyright and Endorsement

The authors of this Declaration are the Reverends Albert Rhodes Stuart of Highland Presbyterian Church in Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania and Patrick McElroy of Park United Presbyterian Church in Zelienople, Pennsylvania, both members in good standing of Beaver-Butler Presbytery. This document is under consideration by Beaver Butler Presbytery at their September 23rd meeting per the recommendation and endorsement of the Session of Park United Presbyterian Church in Zelienople. This document is the intellectual property of the authors.

An Open Theological Declaration

An open Theological Declaration to the PC (USA) Explicating Major Errors of the 218th General Assembly as a Church Council and the means of Their Redress

Introductory Remarks
The Universal Church of Jesus Christ has long affirmed its role as the declaratory and magisterial Prophet in the world. This is universally acknowledged and accepted by all segments of the Body. After much prayer and reflection upon many selected scripture passages (but especially Ezekiel 33-34 and Matthew 18:6-9 and Mark 9:42-50), we, as presbyters, stand convicted of our responsibility as watchmen and shepherds and our obligation to speak to the sin of our own communion.

We discern multiple errors coming from the 218th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) that have breached covenanted confessional standing (Status Confessiones). These errors must be labeled and opposed lest we be guilty of failing to raise alarm or of leading “the least of His little ones astray.”

Therefore, we, the Presbyters of Beaver Butler Presbytery, are profoundly saddened by many of this Assembly’s actions.

What we now say and resolve to do, we do in love for our brothers and sisters. We cry out with fervent voices that the flock is under attack and we, individually and collectively, must return to the shepherd immediately.

Seeking to be humble, faithful servants of Christ and the Church, we offer this statement out of love (Romans 12) rather than anger or malice.

Guided by G-1.0307[1], we affirm that councils, indeed, may err. This one has. The erroneous actions of this Assembly have threatened the very notion of covenanted orthodoxy and orthopraxis. As we are reminded in G-1.0304[2], right belief and right practice are inseparable.

We discern six categories of errors made by this assembly.

Diplomatic Errors
While it can be argued that diplomatic errors are benign in nature, they vary in degree and scope. History is littered with diplomatic mistakes that sparked disunity among people groups. Most wars are predicated upon or instigated by diplomatic errors. It is our estimation that this General Assembly committed such an error this year in approving a two million dollar legal defense fund for the denomination to be used for property cases in civil courts.

On its face, this ruling might seem minor to some. It was an action that was certainly within the scope of the powers of the General Assembly, and, it would seem, in line with the provisions of the constitutional trust clause. However, creating this fund as an extra giving opportunity and thus a part of the mission budget equated property defense with the mission of the Church. It further gave the impression to many of funding a war chest encouraging Presbyteries to seek legal action to preserve property interests. We see this as a grave threat to the unity and witness of the Church Universal and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. At best, this action has confirmed the opinion of many that our denomination is primarily interested in mammon. At worst, some have received it as a declaration of war against our own congregations.

This action has eroded our trust, damaged our witness to the Church and Jesus Christ, and thus has done damage to our covenant life.

Tactical Errors
The Assembly erred tactically when it failed to allow debate on the second provision of Overture 05-09. This overture was a combined attempt to change the fidelity and chastity amendment (G-6.0106b) and provide an Authoritative Interpretation that would nullify all previous Authoritative Interpretations concerning ordination standards, particularly those speaking to homosexual behavior as sin. The Assembly debated the proposed revision of the Constitution to substitute a revised wording for G-6.0106b but failed to debate the proposed Authoritative Interpretation attached to the overture. It is the Moderator’s responsibility to insure, per Robert’s Rules, that all motions receive adequate consideration through debate. If the Moderator was unaware of this provision, the Stated Clerk should have corrected him immediately when he proceeded to call the question on both provisions in the overture after only having debated the first. The Stated Clerk failed to do so.

Further, the Moderator and Stated Clerk demonstrated neglect by not separating these two important issues for individual consideration when they had chosen to do so on matters of much lesser import to the life of the Church. The Assembly itself also erred when it failed to do so as a body despite repeated attempts by various delegates.

Further still, after the General Assembly approved an overture rendering all previous Authoritative Interpretations “without further force or effect,” it then proceeded to correct a previous Authoritative Interpretation from the 217th General Assembly that it had just ruled as having no further force or effect. Not only is this logically nonsensical, it is, at best, tactically irresponsible.

By committing these tactical errors, the 218th General Assembly stepped outside of the spirit and letter of our shared rules of order, and has thus broken our denominational covenant and damaged our covenant life together.

Constitutional Errors
The greatest constitutional error of this Church council has to do with the approach of the General Assembly of legislating through Authoritative Interpretations. Authoritative Interpretations have been abused by recent Assemblies on a number of occasions in an effort to change the Constitution’s plain meaning without proper ratification by vote of the Presbyteries.
Further, by reversing all previous Authoritative Interpretations that have rightly proclaimed the biblical norm of fidelity in marriage between one man and one woman and chastity in singleness, the General Assembly has sought to do by fiat what four previous denominational votes have disallowed by ever increasing margins. These constitutional errors have violated our trust and broken our denominational covenant by abuse of means for constitutional reform.

Judicial Errors
The intent and plain meaning of G-6.0106b, otherwise known as the fidelity and chastity amendment, has not changed in spite of Authoritative Interpretations to the contrary. Its meaning is plain. Unless it is removed, no Authoritative Interpretation can change its plain meaning. Even if it were to be removed, no ruling by any of our governing or judicial bodies could contradict the plain meaning of the Scriptures on this particular subject. Therefore, the 218th General Assembly erred judicially by overruling court decisions that rightly interpreted and applied this provision of the Constitution and Scripture. This injustice to our Constitution has violated our trust and broken our denominational covenant by incorrectly overruling the GA PJC.

Confessional Errors
The argument proposed for accepting and propounding the adoption of a re-translation of the Heidelberg Catechism is Biblically, theologically and logically erected on shaky ground for several reasons.

1. There is no truly demonstrated need for adopting a re-translation into English of the Heidelberg Catechism. The translation utilized by the denomination was perfectly acceptable when it was adopted. In fact, the translation adopted was used precisely because it spoke to a specific concern facing the United Presbyterian Church U.S.A. when it was adopted. Homosexuality was becoming an increasingly large topic for moral and ethical evaluation and discussion throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s that demonstrably it was not when the catechism was written by Ursinas and Olevianus in 1562.
2. The apparent rationale for adopting a re-translation into English appears to revolve around removal of the phrase “homosexual perversion” from the litany of proscribed behaviors contained in the answer to Question 87. The argument advanced is that this language is not contained in the original German of the Catechism, and that most other English translations lack this phrase. This argument is true insofar as it goes and would be more compelling were it not for the fact that the litany in the question is a quote from I Corinthians 6:9-10[3] which most definitely contains the phrase. If we are to be Biblically accurate, then we must indeed maintain the current translation contained in the Book of Confessions.
3. The argument is made that we must adopt the new translation because fidelity to the historical accuracy of the original Heidelberg Catechism demands our attention and immediate action. This argument is frankly un-compelling. And, in fact, were this logic and rationale applied to the entire Book of Confessions, then we would be forced to strip the BOC of all historic amendments made to the Westminster Standards by our antecedent denominations and re-adopt the original 1646 version of the Confession of Faith. Of course, were we to do so, we would be rejecting our current adopted standards with regard to marriage and divorce, the place and role of the civil magistrate, reinstate denial of any ordained office to women, and the necessity of covenanted uniformity of religion in any nation where there are Presbyterians. This would be an outcome that none of us would accept.

So then, we are effectively left with an important constitutional/confessional change whose very purpose was to remove a reference to 1 Corinthians 6:9 in a grossly irresponsible way that does violence to the Scriptures. This error, and its apparent motivations, places our standing in the Reformed community of faith throughout history and in our world in jeopardy and thus violates our denominational covenant and further erode our trust.

Biblical Errors
The most profound errors of this Church Council are biblical.
While it is to be acknowledged that there is a range of method and approach to biblical interpretation practiced among us that is agreed upon as valid or acceptable, it must also be recognized that this openness itself is still confessionally defined and, thus, is to be understood through the framework of Reformed theology. We acknowledge and confess that we look to Jesus Christ as the Word of God Living, yet we still recognize with the Confession of 1967 that Scripture is the Word of God Written.[4]

Two of this Assembly’s actions resulted in serious errors being made with regard to faith and order of the Christian life because of either faulty scriptural interpretation or skewed or missing exegesis. These were the recommendation that encouraged Presbyterians to seek worship opportunities with Jews and Muslims and the approval of a study guide for the previously received Trinity paper.

While specific language that Muslims, Jews, and Christians worship “a common God” was removed from the final resolution, the recommendation encouraging common worship between Jews, Muslims and ourselves was based on the assumption of the removed language. This practical recommendation remained unchanged in final form. This recommendation is not congruent with the Scriptural witness to the Divinity and univocal Lordship of Jesus Christ, or of the full divinity and co-equality of Christ and the Holy Spirit within the Godhead. Scripture tells us that Christ and the Father are one. Scripture tells us that the Spirit is Divine. We worship the thrice-holy, Triune God. Neither Muslims nor Jews can participate in worshiping the Triune God because for them to do so is, by their own lights, a blasphemy for them. So, too, is it blasphemous for us to deny the Divinity of Christ and the Holy Spirit in any worship context. This suggestion is based on a gross error in basic biblical doctrine, a profound misrepresentation of the Trinity. Therefore we cannot worship together and should not be encouraged to do so.
Further, the argument has been made and advanced that the Study Paper on the Trinity utilizes only Scriptural language and imagery for the discussion of the Deity. To a certain degree this is true, however the method employed continuously throughout this paper routinely confuses the natures of simile and metaphor to such a degree that it effectively confuses the very nature of what we think we know about the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In a great many places it skirts perilously close to propounding either pantheistic (God is everything) or panentheistic (God is in everything) views of God.

One may argue, and many have, that such studies of important topics inherently run the risk of “pushing the envelope” theologically and philosophically, and that such risks must be taken as we delve deeply into the knowledge of the Doctrine of God. We agree that we should study deeply, but also carefully as we mine the great treasure-filled depths of God’s word. We must always pay primary attention to context, historical situation and literary genre of the texts we study. Our goal should always and only be to reflect the truth contained therein, and never to speculatively invent or intuit material that is at best tangentially contained. To do so is neither smart, nor correct and potentially leaves us in the unenviable position of becoming false guides.
Additionally, theological issues aside, copies of this thirty-seven page, recently revised Trinity paper were not made available for commissioner review until six hours before the vote and copies of the study guide were never provided to commissioners at all. Commissioners were asked to approve a study guide that they had not reviewed for a paper whose revisions they did not have adequate time to review with and that with limited debate. This kind of blind faith might have been warranted in a former era of our denomination but in today’s environment of questionable decisions by upper governing bodies it is out of place.

In the aggregate, these errors represent a fundamental disconnect between historic, orthodox Christianity and the rulings of our General Assembly. These rulings do violence to our unity with the Church universal and threaten our relationships with mission partners all over the globe. These rulings have violated our trust, broken our denominational covenant, and continue to threaten our unity with the Church universal.

Concluding Remarks
We fully recognize and accept the duty of councils of the church to interpret and apply Biblical and Confessional interpretations and statements to everyday life as circumstances rise and demands are placed upon us to speak to our own times and cultures. Yet, even as we are committed to this principle, we appeal to Chapter Two of the Second Helvetic Confession in its entirety. In fact, our stand is fully consistent with our current discipline and is grounded in that confession’s own words. We cannot abide the ruling of any council which breaches Status Confessiones.

BOC-5.011 — Interpretations of the Holy Fathers. “Wherefore we do not despise the interpretations of the holy Greek and Latin fathers, nor reject their disputations and treatises concerning sacred matters as far as they agree with the Scriptures; but we modestly dissent from them when they are found to set down things differing from, or altogether contrary to, the Scriptures. Neither do we think that we do them any wrong in this matter; seeing that they all, with one consent, will not have their writings equated with the canonical Scriptures, but command us to prove how far they agree or disagree with them, and to accept what is in agreement and to reject what is in disagreement.”
BOC-5.012 — “Councils. And in the same order also we place the decrees and canons of councils.”
BOC-5.013 — “Wherefore we do not permit ourselves, in controversies about religion or matters of faith, to urge our case with only the opinions of the fathers or decrees of councils; much less by received customs, or by the large number of those who share the same opinion, or by the prescription of a long time. Who Is the Judge? Therefore, we do not admit any other judge than God himself, who proclaims by the Holy Scriptures what is true, what is false, what is to be followed, or what to be avoided. So we do assent to the judgments of spiritual men which are drawn from the Word of God. Certainly Jeremiah and other prophets vehemently condemned the assemblies of priests which were set up against the law of God; and diligently admonished us that we should not listen to the fathers, or tread in their path who, walking in their own inventions, swerved from the law of God.”

The errors of this Assembly fail to live up to its professed theme of justice, mercy and humility. Our trust has been violated. Our denominational covenant has been broken by our own highest level governing body. We refuse to break that covenant. We will honor it by constitutional, confessional and biblical adherence. It pains us but we must take corrective action in an attempt to restore this broken covenant and the Church herself. Therefore, we, the Presbyters of Beaver-Butler Presbytery, make the following resolutions:

-We do not now and will no longer recognize ordinations that are constitutionally or biblically unsustainable. We will vigorously examine each candidate seeking admission to our Presbytery, especially from Presbyteries who cannot share this affirmation in good conscience.
-If a session and/or congregation over which any one of us might preside as moderator presents a candidate exhibiting any behaviors in violation of the clear meaning of G-6.0106b, we refuse in advance to ordain them on biblical and constitutional grounds. Our consciences are bound to the Word of God and not the worldly ruling rendered by this assembly that a Minister of the Word and Sacrament has no choice but to ordain in all situations.
-We will not seek common worship opportunities with Jews and/or Muslims. To do so would be to ask all parties involved to commit blasphemy since Muslims and Jews do not recognize the Divinity of Christ or the Holy Spirit and we cannot deny either. We will continue to engage in dialogue with Jews and Muslims seeking to introduce Jews to their Messiah and Muslims to their Mahdi who is the One Lord Jesus Christ in both cases.
-We refuse to act in accordance with the Authoritative Interpretations adopted by the 218th General Assembly. They have no further force or effect in our Presbytery because they are constitutionally, biblically, judicially and tactically unsustainable. Their institution has done violence to our covenant life. Further, these interpretations cannot change the plain meaning of the Constitution which still holds full force and effect in Beaver-Butler Presbytery.
-We further affirm that no Authoritative Interpretation, Advisory Opinion, alteration to the Constitution, or re-translation of our confessions can change the plain meaning of the Bible’s teaching concerning sexual norms, now accurately reflected in our Constitution. Even if the Constitution is successfully altered, an outcome that would profoundly disappoint us and that we will work against, we will continue to uphold biblical standards for ordination particularly in areas of sexuality regardless of any amendments to the contrary.
-We do not and will not agree with Advisory Opinion #22 from the Stated Clerk’s office nor will we support it in our governing body. This ruling denies the plain meaning of our Constitution and wrongly rules that local option is now our reality in the PC USA. Since we cannot abide the Authoritative Interpretation upon which this ruling is based, we cannot abide this ruling either.
-We will actively discourage our congregations from giving to the new legal defense fund Extra Commitment Opportunity created by this assembly as it encourages both our congregations and our upper governing bodies to be actively disobedient to 1 Corinthians 6:1-8. We urge congregations and Presbyteries to “rather be wronged” than engage in civil law suits over property.
-We will not work to promote same gender civil unions within our commonwealth nor encourage anyone else to do so in their states. Rather we will support biblical definitions of marriage in our society, seeking to fulfill the great ends of the Church by preserving the Truth and promoting social righteousness.
-We will encourage other Presbyteries and/or congregations to join us in this declaration.
-We will continue to publish the Gospel once and for all handed down to the saints, grow our members in the One Lord Jesus Christ, and continue to participate in the transforming work of God according to His Word within our denomination and Presbytery.

We cannot and will not recant these statements. Our consciences are captive to the Word of God. We will not cease these proclamations if rebuked. We will not accept discipline that, like many of the GA actions, rests on human institution instead of God's Word. Here we stand. We can do no other. We trust in God through Christ for His deliverance and grace.

Our Defender is Strong,

The Presbytery of Beaver Butler
Individual Ministers of Word and Sacrament and Session Representatives undersigned
[1] G-1.0307 — “That all Church power, whether exercised by the body in general or in the way of representation by delegated authority, is only ministerial and declarative; that is to say, that the Holy Scriptures are the only rule of faith and manners; that no Church governing body ought to pretend to make laws to bind the conscience in virtue of their own authority; and that all their decisions should be founded upon the revealed will of God. Now though it will easily be admitted that all synods and councils may err, through the frailty inseparable from humanity, yet there is much greater danger from the usurped claim of making laws than from the right of judging upon laws already made, and common to all who profess the gospel, although this right, as necessity requires in the present state, be lodged with fallible men.”
[2] G-10304 — “Truth is in order to goodness; and the great touchstone of truth, its tendency to promote holiness, according to our Savior’s rule, “By their fruits ye shall know them.” And that no opinion can be either more pernicious or more absurd than that which brings truth and falsehood upon a level, and represents it as of no consequence what a man’s opinions are. On the contrary, we are persuaded that there is an inseparable connection between faith and practice, truth and duty. Otherwise, it would be of no consequence either to discover truth or to embrace it.
[3] I Corinthians 6:9-10 — “Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.”
[4] Book of Confessions / 9.27 — “The one sufficient revelation of God is Jesus Christ, the Word of God incarnate, to whom the Holy Spirit bears unique and authoritative witness through the Holy Scriptures, which are received and obeyed as the word of God written. The Scriptures are not a witness among others, but the witness without parallel. The church has received the books of the Old and New Testaments as prophetic and apostolic testimony in which it hears the word of God and by which its faith and obedience are nourished and regulated.”

An introduction

Hi folks! This site is for all those who are concerned with retaining confessional standing within the Presbyterian Church USA. We are particularly interested in generating comments and encouraging participation in "An Open Theological Declaration" under consideration by Beaver Butler Presbytery. We are looking forward to your feedback.