Saturday, September 03, 2005

Mirror-Image Theology and Logic

One of the dependable things in life is that if Gene TeSelle of the Witherspoon Society writes in favor of something, it’s an idea I would generally oppose, and if he writes opposing or bemoaning something, it’s an item I’d most likely favor or cheer.

Sometimes, while commenting on a given subject—say, the issues at a given General Assembly—I wonder to myself, “Why do I bother? Why not just point people to what TeSelle writes and suggest they take the exact opposite approach?” I could save myself a lot of work.

When reading TeSelle’s analysis of the Theological Task Force’s report, all was true to form. Apart from both of us appreciating some general attributes of the report, the particular aspects of the report that he liked, I worried about. And, of course, the aspects of the report that gave me some hope and reassurance, he decried.

For instance, TeSelle liked the reliance on “alternative forms of discernment and decision-making.” Many of us, however, find a consensus approach highly fraught with the possibility of abuse, allowing a determined and vocal minority to dictate outcomes. TeSelle’s affection for the idea does make some sense, however, since his viewpoint is in the minority. He couldn’t win a majority vote on the ordination matter, so the search for an end run around the vast majority’s position obviously would be tempting. And isn’t it interesting that when his viewpoint was in the ascendancy on another matter (such as in the 1970s on women’s ordination, something that uncharacteristically we both favor), I don’t remember him mounting any big push for alternative forms of decision-making about that hot topic.

Not surprisingly, TeSelle also likes the part of the report that would allow sessions and presbyteries to decide that our clear national ordination standards aren’t important enough to follow, and thus they can be set aside as immaterial by ordaining bodies. That, again, is the direct opposite of what Presbyterians have chosen to hold important.

TeSelle, as expected, also disparages the recommendation that would keep our Constitution from being reversed in respect to ordination standards. He wants to remove our standards and permit the heretofore impermissible.

Certainly TeSelle is allowed his opinions, but it is in this part, in particular, that I am amused by what he writes. First, he takes Presbyterians For Renewal to task for a proposed overture that would create a ten-year period of peace in which we wouldn’t have to fight about the standards whenever we gather. He says of this that it is “contrary to the spirit of the TTF report,” and he dismisses it as “political maneuvering.”

That’s odd, because the PFR overture would do precisely what the Task Force Report vigorously recommends. The Task Force, itself, strongly encourages the General Assembly “to send to the presbyteries no proposed constitutional amendments that would have the effect of changing denominational policy.” The PFR overture would accomplish that exact end, and yet TeSelle calls it “contrary to the spirit of the TTF report.” By what possible logic?

And what’s more, TeSelle then goes ahead and, himself, completely opposes the spirit of the TTF report and absolutely contradicts its recommendations by insisting that “The presbyteries have every right to continue what they have been doing—send overtures for revocation of all previous AIs and removal of G-6.0106b.”

So let me get this straight: To Gene TeSelle, PFR is nefarious for proposing a measure that would do exactly what the Task Force requests. Yet the Witherspoon Society is perfectly within its rights to totally contravene the Task Force report by doing exactly what the Task Force asks them not to do. I believe that’s commonly known as the pot calling the kettle black.

I’m just wondering, if I said “Hello” to Gene TeSelle, would he reply “Olleh”?

Friday, September 02, 2005

Tough Calls

Guest blog by the Rev. Rich Zimmerman, pastor of Tualatin Plains Presbyterian Church in Hillsboro, Oregon.

The recommendations of the Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity and Purity are out, and the Task Force vehemently denies that they are recommending a local-option ordination. But they seem to have written an Authoritative Interpretation of G-6.0108 that would allow for local interpretation of the essentials of the Reformed faith. This seems like an open door to ignoring G-6.0106b, no matter how hard they protest otherwise.

As I see it, the recommendation amounts to putting into an Authoritative Interpretation what is sometimes already done, albeit illegitimately. The recommendation is to keep the present sexuality standards in place. But the proposed new authoritative interpretation would make it possible for a presbytery to determine that failure to live up to G-6.0106b is “an inessential departure from Reformed faith and polity, and therefore no bar to ordination,” as Presbyterians For Renewal Executive Director Michael Walker described it.

Isn’t that what some are already doing? That is a good summary of the Katie Morrison ordination out of Redwoods Presbytery a few years ago. But now her ordination would be fully endorsed under the new Authoritative Interpretation.

I keep thinking of sports analogies for this. Let’s say there is a base runner on third with one out. The batter hits a fly ball to center fielder. The runner tags up and just as the center fielder catches the ball, the runner heads for home. The center fielder makes a perfect throw, right into the glove of the catcher, and the catcher makes the tag, right as the runner slides into home. All eyes are on the umpire. Is the runner safe or out? The umpire is in a tough position, because it was very, very close. If the runner is out, the inning is over and no run is scored. If the runner is safe, a run is scored and the team at bat still has one more out to go. The umpire has to try to decide if the runner beat the tag or not.

What if the league officials issued a new interpretation of the out rule? What if they said that the umpire did not need to be so literal? What if they said that the umpire could look at the total picture—how hard the catcher was trying, or how nicely the base runner was running, or whether the runner was an all-star or not—when determining whether to call the batter safe or out?

I think it is a dangerous departure from all we hold dear to say that officers don’t need to aspire to live up to all of the church’s standards of conduct. Where is this going? It is as though the Task Force doesn’t believe that the church is laying the very hands of God on a person when we ordain.

Ordination has always been a discipline of unity in the Reformed faith. We ordain those whom Christ has called to ministry through the voice of the church. We ordain with fear and trembling, and we withhold ordination with fear and trembling. Ordination is nothing less than the discernment of the will of God.

If enacted, this Authoritative Interpretation would make ordination into a matter of human decision and compromise, when it is meant to be a matter of prayerful discernment and aspiration by the whole church.

I would love to believe that this compromise would end the fighting and not result in widespread ordination of people who know from the outset that they will not obey the Constitution. But what I have seen in the last several years tells me that this A.I. would intensify our anguished debates.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

The Confessions as Evangelistic Policy

Back on July 13, I read a revealing letter by the Rev. Leslie Fox. It brought to mind a couple of questions similar to hers. I have written previously about “document creep,” regarding a provisional study paper being treated as if we’d made some sort of sacred commitment through it, and about our unconscionable reticence to tell Jewish people about the saving love of Jesus Christ.

But now, as the clock keeps ticking and a revised report of some sort on the evangelization of Jews is to be produced for General Assembly in 2006, the questions become even more serious.

First question: Who will produce this report, and how can the larger church be involved? As I understand it, to this point a rather unofficial group of staff members in Louisville has been slowly chipping away at the task. I hear that three consultations are planned, some of which will involve both Presbyterians and Jews—but not necessarily Jews who believe Jesus is their Messiah.

I’m not sure this is all that General Assembly had in mind when it asked three national offices to “reexamine … the relationship between Christians and Jews and the implications of this relationship for our evangelism….” Were the staff members supposed to do all of this reexamining—with a little help from various people consulted—or were they to coordinate a blue-ribbon team? Rev. Fox brings up excellent points about the composition of this reexamining group. (Click here for G.A. business, and click on Item 06-09 to see the directive.)

Second question: Will our true theological policy statements—our confessions—be accorded the attention and authority that the provisional study paper has been given so far?

That paper is troublesome for many, not that it doesn’t say some good things, such as “Christians are commissioned to witness to the whole world about the good news of Christ’s atoning work, both for Jew and Gentile.” The problem lies in how that fine statement is immediately blunted.

For instance, the paper also says that “Our persuasion of the truth of God in Jesus Christ has sometimes led Christians to conclude that … all Jews ought properly to become baptized members of the church”—which people like Peter and Paul and many of us take as something that would be wonderful for the Jewish people to decide to do—and then it casts it as the belief of those who have caused “many afflictions” for the Jews.

The provisional study paper is dangerously of two minds, wavering here toward faithful witness and there toward a syncretistic failure of nerve. It gives every Presbyterian just what we don’t need: another reason to fail to share the gospel. What could possibly be more anti-Semitic than hiding from the Jews the good news of Jesus Christ and leaving them to perish in unremitted sin because we wanted to be, well, more refined than Reformed?

In a Presbyterian Outlook news story, Rev. Joseph Small, Coordinator of the Office of Theology and Worship, is quoted as saying quite correctly: “The only theological policy we have is in the Book of Confessions.” Well, since that’s definitely the case, why not more thoroughly use the Book of Confessions as policy for our evangelization of Jewish people?

Look at what our confessions say [emphasis added in places]:

The Scots Confession: “This Kirk is catholic, that is, universal, because it contains the chosen of all ages, of all realms, nations, and tongues, be they of the Jews or be they of the Gentiles….” (3.16) If the church is to contain Jews, someone must tell them the Good News!

The Second Helvetic Confession: “Generally two peoples are usually counted, namely, the Israelites and Gentiles, or those who have been gathered from among Jews and Gentiles into the Church” (5.129). How would the gathering take place if people “politely” refrain from evangelizing Jews?

The Second Helvetic Confession: Section 5.129 continues to speak of the advantage of Christianity: “Yet here we acknowledge a diversity of times, and a diversity in the signs of the promised and delivered Christ; and that now the ceremonies being abolished, the light shines unto us more clearly, and blessings are given to us more abundantly, and a fuller liberty.” Who would be so cruel as to withhold clearer light, more abundant blessings, and fuller liberty from the Jews?

The Second Helvetic Confession: In the section on baptism, Jews are to be baptized: “in The Acts, Peter said to the Jews who inquired what they ought to do: ‘Be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit’(Acts 2:37 f.)” (5.185). Obviously, you can’t baptize into the church those no one should dare attempt to evangelize. Nor would baptism be urged for those whose prior covenant was already sufficient for salvation.

The Westminster Confession: Chapter VII is key: It talks of only one covenant, but different dispensations (interestingly enough!). It says of the various instruments of the Law, that they were “for that time sufficient and efficacious, through the operation of the Spirit, to instruct and build up the elect in faith in the promised Messiah, by whom they had full remission of sins, and eternal salvation” (6.041) The first dispensation of the one covenant was only efficacious because of the promised Messiah, so shouldn’t we fully tell Jews about him now in this dispensation?

The Westminster Confession: The phrase “for that time” is revealing in 6.041, since immediately in 6.042 the point is made that Christianity fulfills the administration of the covenant under the Law: “Under the gospel, when Christ the substance was exhibited, the ordinances … which, though fewer in number, and administered with more simplicity and less outward glory, yet in them it is held forth in more fullness, evidence, and spiritual efficacy, to all nations, both Jews and Gentiles.”

The Confession of 1967: This probably gives the clearest direction. It reads: “God’s revelation in Jesus Christ called forth the response of Jews and Greeks and came to expression within Judaism and Hellenism as the Christian religion” (9.41). If the revelation in Jesus Christ “calls forth the response of Jews,” how can it then be withheld, in a poor attempt at religious deference? Was it some cruel mistake that it “came to expression within Judaism”?

The Confession of 1967: After saying we can learn some things from other religions, it gets to the point: “The gift of God in Christ is for all men. The church, therefore, is commissioned to carry the gospel to all men whatever their religion may be and even when they profess none” (9.42). That “all” to whom we are commissioned to carry the gospel must include those whose religion is Judaism. They cannot be the sole party left out of the party.

Thus, let me ask again: Since these are our true theological policy statements, why not fully use our confessions as our policy? They make a whale of a lot more sense to me than the provisional study paper’s confused “Proselytism by Christians seeking to persuade, even convert, Jews often implies a negative judgment on Jewish faith.” How would the Book of Acts read if the apostles hesitated to “imply a negative judgment on Jewish faith?”

The provisional study paper seems to stumble all over itself to back away from the proclamation of the Gospel to the Jew, making it sound both unnecessary and presumptuous. However Jesus, Peter, Paul, and a host of our greatest spiritual leaders weren’t so inclined. As Paul said, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew..." (Rom 1:16).

Evidently for Paul, the provisional study paper’s affirmation that “Jews are already in a covenantal relationship with God” wasn’t his primary and overriding paradigm. Nor should it remain our main policy concern, as we reach out with love and the grace of God.

Let us pray for and encourage those who are working to complete General Assembly’s directions. May they have evangelistic zeal and boldness to accompany their diplomacy and care. May the Great Commission apply to all the nations, including the children of Abraham and Sarah.

And may we use Scripture and our Confessions as our theological position statements, not a provisional study draft without authority, which all too often seems to shy away from what we are called by Scripture and the confessions to proclaim.