A PLACE FOR CONSCIENCE
It would be an understatement to say that leaving a community of believers, in this case, those whom they had shared their lives so intimately, was difficult and painful. And without casting judgment on individuals who have chosen to remain, the formation of CRPC was undertaken with a motive to act in faithfulness to the one Lord who is over his church – the Lord Jesus Christ.
So you can see why the question as to its history is not an easy one. It was formed in conflict – conflict over Apostolic Tradition, i.e., Scripture, its authority and therefore its relevance. Neither is it easy to explain the time, energy, and the attempt at remaining within the PCUSA. Untold effort and attempts were made at every level (local, presbytery, and general assembly) to keep the church family together. But such attempts in the final analysis proved inadequate. Many of the believers who helped cast the original vision of CRPC had previously encountered within their denomination (PCUSA) what they would call an ongoing deterioration of the authority of Scripture. Eventually, this deterioration brought about an issue of Christian conscience, and they could no longer remain. Minimally, conscience must be given its liberty to act, so long as clear principles in Scripture remain intact. Sometimes we must allow one another ‘differing perceptions’ and respect each other’s position, but there are other times when ‘a breach’ occurs, and that’s when action that separates is justified. What breach you ask? Well, when the center of the historic Apostolic Tradition is at stake, and when this happens Jude’s exhortation makes it clear, we are to “contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints.
The ruling that caused this issue for conscience, was a ruling of the denomination back in 2010, in which the language concerning Scripture was changed from an obligation to ‘obedience to Scripture’ to that of simply being ‘guided by Scripture’. Opportunity arose in 2012 to change or amend, but it did not materialize. The General Assembly also removed from the Book of Order, the church’s mission to “call all to repentance.” Why is repentance no longer part of the Christian message to an unbelieving world? One could cite other fundamental gospel issues, such as the exclusion of the new hymn “In Christ Alone” by Stuart Townend from the Presbyterian hymn book, because the hymn he wrote had the words: “Til on that cross, as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied.” Propitiation – the satisfaction of God’s wrath by Jesus who bore that wrath in our place, is now apparently something that the PCUSA rejects, which ironically eliminates the second generation Reformer, John Calvin, who penned perhaps the most famous Protestant work on the Christian faith – Institutes of The Christian Religion, and who is by far the most well known Reformer associated with everything Presbyterians believe and do. So there was a three-prong encounter with a ‘way of seeing’ that progressively led to a departure from apostolic tradition, and it all centered on the authority of Scripture:
- a replacement of the phrase ‘obedience of Scripture’ to that of ‘guided by Scripture’
- a deletion of a ‘call to repentance’ by the mission of the church
- a rejection of propitiation
It may surprise one, if I were to say it is NOT the particular PHRASEOLOGY concerning Scripture that is the issue per se, but rather it was, and continues to be, the APPLICATION of the phrase. One could legitimately argue that being ‘guided by’ Scripture has greater historical precedent than ‘obedience to’ Scripture. On the one hand, it is normal and healthy for all Christians to be ‘guided by Scripture’. So in itself, the phrase ‘guided by Scripture’ is not only innocuous, but it has both biblical and historical precedent. However the intent of the phrase, by some, seemed to be a weakening of Scripture’s authority, not a strengthening. For example, in response to criticism, another overture on this very issue called for a revamping of the phrase to simply the ‘authority of Scripture’. However, this phrase too was voted down by a margin of 4 to 1. Some no doubt, then, do want to ‘weaken’ the authority of Scripture, and greatly lessen its relevance.
THE ISSUES ILLUMINATED
Stepping outside our Presbyterian tradition, we find even in 2009, then Anglican Bishop N.T. Wright, an eminent ancient historian, called for a true and honest dialogue. In the interview, Bishop Wright uncovered one of the fundamental issues – the authority of Scripture, and addressed those who said it was time to move beyond the ‘bible’s homophobic culture’ (a phrase put forth by some who advocated same-sex marriage). Nearly prophetic, Bishop Wright asked a very revealing question:
“Which bit of moral high ground do you stand on from which to pass THAT judgment ON THIS TEXT?”
There seems to be three possible moral high grounds if you want to retain Scripture as authoritative: 1) HERMENEUTICAL – (claim of misinterpretation) Historically, it is claimed, Scripture is silent on the issue of monogamous, and loving same-sex relations, which itself rests on a rather bold claim that the entire history of the Christian church has misinterpreted the texts on same-sex behavior, or 2) CONFESSIONAL – (claim of continuous reform) This is the claim the church ought to be in a continuous state of reforming itself, or 3) NATURAL (claim of progressive revelation/further enlightenment) This raises the bar of natural revelation, i.e., knowledge we acquire through our own faculties, to compete with the claims of supernatural revelation, i.e., Scripture and apostolic tradition.
The notion that Scripture is silent may surprise some, for while the references may be slim, they seem explicit in their disapproval, e.g., Leviticus 18; Romans 1; 1 Corinthians 5 & 6, et. al. However, since the word homosexual is of recent origin, i.e., 19th century by a German psychologist, Karoly Maria Benkert, then it is possible to claim the cultural divide between the first and second century and that of the 19th and 20th centuries, is simply too steep for relevance. The ancient world of the bible, they would say, knew nothing of loving, monogamous, same-sex relations; to the contrary, its same-sex relations were a world of pederasty (adult men having sex with young adolescent boys/slaves) and cultic temple prostitution. So this is really an issue of hermeneutics (science of interpretation), i.e., the entire tradition within Christian history has ‘misinterpreted the text’. Make no mistake, this premise if confirmed, puts them in the category of being truly biblical, and puts those who oppose outside the very Apostolic Tradition they claim to defend. The consequences are nothing short of monumentus. But notice Wright’s off the cuff citation of two sources that counters this supposition:
- Plato’s symposium 2) Achilles and Patroclus in Homer
The observation that a new word, i.e., homsexual, came onto the scene rather recently, does not in and of itself prove much of anything, except that a new word arose in the 19th century. One has to demonstrate that the concept was also non-existent, and such a claim cannot stand up under scrutiny. While the term ‘homosexual’ is of recent origin, the behavior is not. So the sweeping claim of non-relevance and misinterpretation is simply incorrect. History does not support the claim.
CONFESSIONAL: (continuous reform)
So if ancient denial of corresponding contemporary behavior doesn’t work, then one other would be the very calling of the church to reform itself. One attempt is to cite the famous Reformation cry of “Ecclesia semper reformanda est (Latin for “the church is always to be reformed”. We might ask, “Is the church to be in continuous state of reform?” If it is, could not that be applied to the contemporary discussion on same-sex relations? As we will see shortly, the church IS to be in a continuous state of BEING reformed. But does the meaning of the phrase support open-ended continuous change? According to church historian and theologian, Michael Horton, to use this widely recognized Reformation mantra for same-sex relations is to fundamentally misunderstand its meaning. Professor Horton expounds:
“But where did this phrase come from? Its first appearance was in a 1674 devotional by Jodocus van Lodenstein, who was an important figure in Dutch Reformed pietism — a movement known as the Dutch Second Reformation. According to these writers, the Reformation reformed the doctrine of the church, but the lives and practices of God’s people always need further reformation.
Van Lodenstein and his colleagues were committed to the teaching of the Reformed confession and catechism; they simply wanted to see that teaching become more thoroughly applied as well as understood. However, here is his whole phrase: “The church is reformed and always [in need of] being reformed according to the Word of God.” The verb is passive: the church is not “always reforming,” but is “always being reformed” by the Spirit of God through the Word. Although the Reformers themselves did not use this slogan, it certainly reflects what they were up to; that is, if one quotes the whole phrase!” http://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/semper-reformanda/
Another insightful article by Anna Case-Winters, entitled, “What do Presbyterians believe about ‘Ecclesia Reformata, Semper Reformanda?’ Our misused motto” advances the meaning even further. She says:
“But one of the serious charges church authorities hurled at the Reformers was that they were “innovating.” John Calvin responded to this and other charges in his treatise “The Necessity of Reforming the Church.” As he put it, “We are accused of rash and impious innovation for having ventured to propose any change at all [in] the former state of the Church.” He then goes on to counter that they were not “innovating,” but restoring the church to its true nature, purified from the “innovations” that riddled the church through centuries of inattention to Scripture and theological laxity.
The appeal was to a more ancient source, Scripture—”sola scriptura” (Scripture alone). According to church historian David Steinmetz, by submitting themselves to Scripture, the churches of the Reformation movement were purging themselves of these unwanted “innovations” and returning to a more ancient and therefore purer form of church life.” http://www.presbyterianmission.org/ministries/today/reformed/
So the phrase challenges BOTH those who want to keep things the way they are for the sake of mere tradition, and those who think our heritage embraces change for the mere sake of change. But the real irony here, is that while the church always needs continuous reform, that reform is to be done with constant attentiveness to Scripture! In other words Ecclesia semper reformanda est itself stands on the prior tradition of Apostolic authority, so that ‘reforming her’ remains an ever viable possibility, but always within the context of Scripture!
Since the Reformation’s insistence of ‘ecclesia semper reformanda est’ (the church is always to be reformed) takes us BACK TO Scripture and not away from it, then how else could someone argue for the licitness of same-sex relations within the theology of progressive revelation? One such attempt, and I think reveals what is at the heart of the issue regarding same-sex relations, is to utilize a very different understanding of what Biblical scholars have historically meant by ‘progressive revelation’. It is the acclaimed high ground of our own enlightenment.
NATURAL: (progressive revelation/further enlightenment)
With regard to progressive revelation, I would like to point out the logical consequences of the position one embraces. Progressive revelation, like that of ‘being guided by Scripture’ is not only permissible, but it is essential to understanding the Biblical flow of history. As noted by the late Geerhardus Vos, the Father of Biblical Theology from Princeton,
“It is sometimes contended that the assumption of progress in revelation excludes its absolute perfection at all stages. This would actually be so if the progress were nonorganic. The organic process is from seed form to the attainment of full growth; yet we do not say in the qualitative sense the seed is less perfect than the tree. The feature in question explains further how the soteric sufficiency of the truth could belong to it in its first stage of emergence: in the seed form the minimum of indispensable knowledge was already present.” Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1959), 15-16.
So with Biblical progressive revelation, one has an ORGANIC progression that is authoritative from beginning to end. J. Barton Payne comments on the liberal notion of progressive revelation with these words, “The Old Testament is thus made [by liberal theologians] to conform to the contemporary thought patterns of the pagan world and to an assumed evolutionary progress.” J. Barton Payne, The Theology of the Older Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1962), 527-528
Did you get the difference? What is advocated by a liberal understanding of progressive revelation is that NATURAL AND CULTURAL PROGRESSION acts as some kind of norm, and in the case of same-sex relations, a norm that trumps Apostolic Tradition. Here, no norm is cited nor needed other than NATURAL ENLIGHTENMENT. That’s why this is an issue of Biblical authority, and not simply one of same-sex relations. The history of the Reformation has always ranked various levels of authority. Below are two very important ones.
- norma normata – a standardized norm, applied to churchly confessions
- norma normans – the standardizing norm, applied to Scripture as that norm standing behind the standardized confessions (Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms, by Richard Muller)
In our tradition, while natural revelation and the exercise of reason are affirmed – both are to be subjected to two prior norms. However, the folk who see the church’s stance on same-sex behavior resting on the foundation in Scripture, simply point out the need for correcting the very norm on which Apostolic authority rests, i.e., the text of Holy Scripture. They view the debate on same-sex relations in the same light as: woman suffrage, interracial marriage, or slavery, and the list doesn’t stop there. They think that as we were previously enlightened to other social behaviors, and have since made allowances, so too we will one day look back with the same historical hindsight. They claim that those who oppose same-sex relations do not allow for NATURAL PROGRESSIVE MORAL INSIGHT into ethics. But a more accurate statement, is that we don’t allow natural theology and human reason to circumvent the very authority on which the gospel itself rests. They, however, would aver that sometimes Scripture just plainly gets it wrong. Natural enlightenment brings authority to the hermeneutic process (and we agree; it should be), but never to the point of eroding the foundations on which one’s faith rests!
But some will claim hypocrisy, and they will cite a sizeable pool of historical events in which the church set aside Scripture’s authority in favor of natural revelation, e.g., spherical earth, women’s rights, master/slave, etc. So as involuntary as it may seem, we who choose to see certain verses regarding same-sex intimacy as cross culturally binding, are simply blinded by our own historical bigotry. But once again we have to ask the historical question, Is this what happened – did the church allow natural revelation to trump special revelation? The answer here is clear – NO. What the church did was TO REALIZE her error in handling the norma normans; we MISINTERPRETED Scripture, which is a far different thing than setting aside Scripture. This is a fine distinction, but an important one! In short, natural revelation provided the knowledge whereby we realized our error. It is very, very, important to understand that we missed certain trajectories within the text itself that pointed in the direction of moral adjustments, e.g., Paul’s exchange with Philemon and the slave Onesimus. BUT there are no similar trajectories concerning same-sex relations – NONE. Can we in good faith with apostolic tradition really allow for the trumping of ethical instruction by natural, progressive revelation? I think THIS IS THE HEART OF THE MATTER. and the answer is to be met with an unequivocal response – No! We cannot and must not.
While substantive in itself, same-sex marriage is really symptomatic of a deeper issue of authority. The voices calling for the overturning of Scripture’s continued relevance regarding human sexuality, have won out in many denominations. However, the trunk of Christendom remains intact in viewing same-sex relations as intrinsically disordered, e.g., Roman Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodoxy, some Lutherans, and innumerable Evangelicals. We believe Dr. Wright’s question is as relevant now (and even more so), as when he first asked it. And it bears repeating – “Which bit of moral high ground do you stand on from which to pass that judgment ON THIS TEXT?”
Same-sex marriage, then, is really an issue of the authority of Scripture. Either we seek conformity to the Word, or we seek to conform the word to our self-perceived enlightened authority. Even prior to Bishop Wright’s analysis, theologian and historical scholar, J.I. Packer, was interviewed on issues of authority within the world-wide Christian Church. He distinguishes ‘first-order’ issues, e.g., the trinity, from ‘second-order’ issues, e.g., baptism, and argues that those who think same-sex unions ought to be affirmed by the church, do so contrary to the gospel, and so demonstrate a fundamental break with the message of Jesus Christ. In other words, affirmation of homosexuality is a ‘first-order’ issue, because it ends up being a negation of both orthodoxy (right ordered beliefs concerning human sexuality) and ORTHOPRAXY (right ordered behavior). In essence, to use NATURAL AND PROGRESSIVE REVELATION as an argument for the allowance of same-sex relations, is at the same time to reject THE APOSTOLIC TRADITION found in the pages of Scripture, as the ‘source of ethics’ AND ‘the transformative nature’ of regeneration concerning our patterned disobedience. As Packer pointed out, Paul says “Be not deceived, those who practise such things will not inherit the Kingdom of God.” Perhaps Packer gave us some pastoral insight when he said that such patterned disobedience disqualifies one from the good news of Jesus Christ, because of a lack of repentance, and then said: “Now I don’t want to believe that, but I DARE NOT DISBELIEVE IT.” In conscience before the true and living God, we cannot – and will not – go down this road. To do so, is to destroy the entire foundation upon which the Christian message rests. The ten part series is well worth your time, but we have only included part six.