As the professor snips the richest bud for his lapel, his scalpel of reason lies on the tray: some weekly wanderings

Resourcing Elders

TreeIt’s not unusual for me to be contacted about reading resources, and typically it’s not too difficult to recommend some appropriate text(s). Today, I was asked what resources there are for elders serving in the Presbyterian/Reformed tradition. After a quick scramble, here’s what I came up with:

  • Joan S. Gray, Spiritual Leadership for Church Officers: A Handbook (Louisville: Geneva Press, 2009).
  • Ken Lawson and Stewart Matthew, Caring for God’s People: A Handbook for Elders and Ministers on Pastoral Care (Edinburgh: Saint Andrew Press, 1995).
  • Ted A. Lester, ‘So, You’ve Been Elected an Elder …’ (Louisville: Congregational Ministries Publishing, 2001). This is a video/DVD.
  • Phil A. Newton, Elders in Congregational Life: Rediscovering the Biblical Model for Church Leadership (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2005). This is a Baptist perspective on eldership.
  • Colin H. Ray, ed., A Guide for Elders (Melbourne: Uniting Church Press, 1994).
  • Lester J. Reid, A Resource for Elders, Sessions & Parish Councils (Wellington: Presbyterian Church of New Zealand. Department of Parish Development and Mission, 1997).
  • Sheila Stephens, ‘Why Me?’ (Edinburgh: The Church of Scotland). This is a video and it comes with an accompanying 36 page handbook.
  • Thomas F. Torrance, ‘The Eldership in the Reformed Church’, Scottish Journal of Theology 37 (1984): 503–18.
  • Thomas F. Torrance, The Eldership in the Reformed Church (Edinburgh: Handsel Press, 1984).
  • Thomas F. Torrance, Royal Priesthood: A Theology of Ordained Ministry (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1993).
  • Tony Tucker, Reformed Ministry: Traditions of Ministry and Ordination in the United Reformed Church (London: United Reformed Church, 2003).
  • Lukas Vischer, ed., Eldership in the Reformed Churches Today: Report of an International Consultation held at John Knox Centre in Geneva from August 26–31, 1990 (Geneva: World Alliance of Reformed Churches, 1991).
  • Lukas Vischer, ed., The Ministry of the Elders in the Reformed Churches: Papers Presented at a Consultation held in Geneva in August 1990 (Berne: Evangelische Arbeitsstelle Oekumene Schweiz, 1992).
  • D. Newell Williams, ‘Consultation on the significance of Eldership in the Reformed Tradition’, Mid-Stream 30 (1991): 353–55.

Now the concerning thing is that I may have discovered today that my inkling is confirmed: that the pickings really are slim in this area. Of course, I’ve love to have my inkling swiftly murdered by others who know more about this stuff than I do. In other words, I would be really excited to hear of some other resources (booklets/videos/books/tapestries/etc.) that people have found helpful in this area (and those not only from the Pressie/Reformed tribe).

Of course, there’s also a serious book or two that it would be great for such elders to read. Among these I would include:

On the writing of Reformed Confessions

pcanzIn recent times, the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand has been engaged in drafting a contemporary, indigenous confession of faith – Kupu Whakapono – with a view to it being accepted as a new subordinate standard. (You can read more about it here and here.) Among other things, the writing of this confession is evidence that while theology by committee is never easy – if not usually downright impossible – miracles still happen. The draft confession reads:

From this land of Aotearoa New Zealand
we confess that we believe in and belong to God
who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

We believe in God
the Father of Jesus Christ,
sender of the Holy Spirit;
Creator and Nurturer of all,
Love above all loves,
and Judge of all the earth.

We believe in Jesus Christ our Lord,
truly human and truly divine.
He lived among us full of grace and truth
and suffered death by human hand,
He was raised by God to new life,
setting us free from sin
and bringing to birth God’s new creation.
Now ascended, he calls us to repentance and faith,
and restores us to God and to one another.

We believe in God the Holy Spirit
who makes Christ known,
inspires the Scriptures,
transforms hearts and minds,
gathers us into the community of Christ
and sustains the Church in worship and in mission.

We belong to this triune God
who calls us to become what we are in Christ:
God’s own people, diversely gifted
witnesses to his love in word and in action,
servants of reconciliation,
and stewards of Creation.

Brought together in Christ,
women and men,
young and old,
tangata whenua and tauiwi,
we look forward in hope
to that fullness of life
in which justice and peace will flourish,
the reign of Christ will be complete,
and we shall forever sing praise to the glory of God.

Eberhard BuschIt’s not perfect – there’s no mention of Israel for a start – but its very existence does recall something inherently built in to our DNA as those people of God who identify most strongly with the Reformed branch of the Church Catholic. I was reminded of this afresh recently while reading an essay by Eberhard Busch titled ‘Reformed Identity’ Reformed World 58/4 (2008): 207–218). In this essay, Busch recalls not only that being Reformed entails what he calls ‘the unconditional subordination of [our] own tradition and doctrine to the holy scripture’, and that the Reformed consciously confess that they are members of ‘one, ecumenical church’, but also that the arrangement of the Reformed denominations occurs ‘in the travel of God’s people’. To be Reformed, in other words, means to affirm (as the Basis of Union of the Uniting Church in Australia would have it) that we belong ‘to the people of God on the way to the promised end’. It is the taking serious of this on-the-wayness – that the community is a participant in God’s eschatological liveliness – that calls for fresh expressions of the ancient faith. So Busch:

In every shape the Church is only on its way, – following the aim which is determined and brought about by Him alone. Therefore the life of the congregations and their members is essentially a pilgrimage, not fleeting life on earth, and not being obsessed by it. It is like the way of Israel through the desert. It is being on the way, in restlessness, in uneasiness, in fights, in sighs, and in thirst, but always with the motto: let’s go! Calvin indicated this direction: ‘After we have accepted the testimony of the gospel about the free-gracious love of God, we are waiting, till God will show that, what is still hidden below the hope’. For the Confessio Belgica (1561) or the Confessio Scotica (1560) this goal is clearer in the visible appearance of the rule and the realm of Christ, which had already begun when He rose to heaven. And the Heidelberg Catechism formulates that the coming judge is no one else than the already appeared redeemer. Therefore, we walk towards him ‘in all [our] sorrows and persecutions, with uplifted head’ … In this context it becomes clear that the Reformed are not so much interested in the possession of a confession, but more in the determination to confess. The Reformed acknowledge – in line with the ancestors – that we do not always have to say and do the same as they said and did. It is possible that we will be asked new questions, to which we will have to give new answers. It is possible that other insights become the focus of attention, inviting us to decide whether we confess or deny Jesus Christ. Certain biblical sentences speak particularly at different times. In 1942 the long forgotten words ‘Salvation is from the Jews’ (John 4:22) began to be heard in the Swiss churches in favour of the Jews. Monopolisation of biblical words is beyond such an experience. The Reformed denomination reminds us that we have to reckon with the Holy Spirit who wants to lead us in all truths. We have to be open to His concrete, new instructions. It is the Spirit, who allows us to think, say and do what is necessary now. The same Spirit urges us to get on the way from our own denomination to what is more than our and all other denominations.

Busch then proceeds to speak about the ‘gratitude of the Reformed Church’, recalling that when the freedom of the Spirit of Jesus in the Gospel does not exist in a denomination, then that denomination becomes inflexible. Busch believes that this danger is no longer a particular issue for the Reformed churches today (I’m not so sure about this), and he cites another danger which is ‘far more of a menace’:

That is the threat of a certain kind of liberalism: the danger that they gamble away the talent of a church, Reformed according to the Word of God, which has been handed over to them for safekeeping and for passing on to their neighbours. It is the danger of selling this talent for a small profit. Maybe they seem to be ‘Reformed’, but they have the title without the ‘Word of God’. That is the danger of wrongly interpreting the formula ‘The Reformed Church is always to be reformed’, so that they think they are Reformed because they are doing their work in a different way than the Reformers. They do not understand the true sense of that formula that we have to turn again and again to the fountain of faith, love, and hope. It is dangerous for the Reformed to store their legacy in a museum, which is visited occasionally, but not used in the daily life. In short, there is the danger that present-day Reformed Christians live in the church, as if it were not true that God is not the God of the dead but of the living. Therefore, our ancestors can not really join in our conversation today and are not allowed to have a say in our decisions. There is no space for their questioning whether we still really are Reformed Christians. When we think in this way, an unspiritual arbitrariness will appear in the church.

For the contemporary Reformed who live in Aotearoa New Zealand and who are seeking to carve out what it means to be faithful to God’s good news in Jesus Christ in this land, these words from Professor emeritus Busch are both timely and imperative. It is, after all, Reformation Day.

Reading Twentieth-Century Reformed & Presbyterian Thought

Man readingSome months back, I posted a list of suggested novels, plays and collections of poetry that I thought theology students and pastors ought to read, and in response received a number of excellent additional suggestions. Thanks heaps to those who offered such! Now, I am putting together a wee course on twentieth-century Reformed & Presbyterian thought for interns training for ordained pastoral ministry, part of which means offering some pre-reading suggestions. So far I’m considering selections from some of the following:

I’m also considering some of the following essays:

Am I missing anything really obvious here, particularly stuff that would be important for Presbyterian ordinands to engage with? Keep in mind that this is only one module of seven in an entire course dedicated to Presbyterian and Reformed studies, and that there is a separate module that attends to key New Zealand figures.

So what other texts ought I consider? And – to make it broader – if you’re a Pressie/Reformed minister, or even one from some lesser tribe, what twentieth-century reformed theology do you wish you had read when you were training?

The Revd Clarence Arthur Wilmot on Presbyterianism … and America

Updike - Beauty of the Lilies‘What all the genteel professors at Princeton Seminary had smilingly concealed, Warfield and Green and the erect, pedantic rest, and the embowering trees and Gothic buildings had in their gracious silence masked, was the possibility that this was all about nothing, all these texts and rites and volumes and exegeses and doctrinal splits (within Scots Presbyterianism alone, the Cameronians, the Burghers Antiburghers, the Auld Lichts and New, the Relief Church and the United Sucession Church, the United Free Church and the Free Church and the further seceding “Wee Frees”) – that all these real-enough historical entities might be twigs of an utterly dead tree, ramifications of no more objective validity than the creeds of the Mayan and Pharaonic and Polynesian priesthoods, and Presbyterianism right back to its Biblical roots one more self-promoting, self-protective tangle of wishful fancy and conscious lies’. – John Updike, In the Beauty of the Lilies (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1996), 18–19).

It is the pouring out of such language that leads Frank Kermode , in a scintillating review, to suggest not merely that In the Beauty of the Lilies is ‘a novel planned with much care’, but also that ‘Updike is almost alone among his contemporaries in his willingness to study this state of dull spiritual privation, what used to be called wanhope; or at any rate to study it in a religious, quasi-theological context. He alone would seek the origins of Clarence’s discomfiture in German Higher Criticism: Semler and Eichhorn, Baur and Welhausen, Strauss’s Das Leben Jesu, all those learned Christians who ‘undermined Christianity’s supporting walls and beams’’.

Kermode continues:

Underneath the busy surface there is Updike’s permanent preoccupation with the vagaries of the spirit in ex-Puritan America. The careful abundance of the writing testifies to his love and admiration for the daily beauties and oddities of American life, past and present, but the deep structures suggest sadness and disappointment. Something serious has been lost or at any rate eroded, a seriousness of intellect but also of spirit. A sign of the degeneration is the difference between Clarence’s religious life and the later fundamentalism accepted by Clark, a doctrine that cuts off all serious thinking at the root.

In the Beauty of the Lilies captivates no less on the second read. Speaking of which, my copy of Marilynne Robinson’s Home arrived today. So excited.

BTW: While I’m drawing attention to London Review of Books, readers of Per Crucem ad Lucem may be interested in a recent piece therein by Slavoj Žižek on ‘Berlusconi in Tehran’.

McCormack, Willis and Bush Challenge Efforts to Amend the Heidelberg Catechism

A few days before the 218th General Assembly of the PCUSA, a letter was issued by a group of seminary professors supporting the efforts of three overtures sent to General Assembly seeking to amend the Heidelberg Catechism.  By way of response, Bruce L. McCormack, E. David Willis, and Michael D. Bush have since issued the following letter:

Dear Commissioners and Advisory Delegates to the 218th General Assembly:

Some of our Presbyterian colleagues in the fields of theology and church history have petitioned the General Assembly to take steps toward changing the theological teaching of the P.C. (U.S.A.) by changing the Heidelberg Catechism as it stands in our Book of Confessions.

We are writing to you as well so that you may have a fuller scholarly account of the issues before you. We apologize that we must say so much: we have found that theological and historical scholarship cannot be well done in sound bites. Please bear with us!

Our colleagues wrote to you in support of overtures from the Presbyteries of Northern Kansas, Boston, and Newark.  Not all the claims in the rationales for these overtures are mistaken, but those that are not mistaken seem hardly worth the emotional and financial expense the Church will incur by changing them, since no one of our eleven confessions is definitive.

We would like to point out three historical and theological problems in the rationale for these overtures, expressed most fully in the version from Northern Kansas, which appear to be endorsed in our colleagues’ petition.

First, this overture, endorsed by our colleagues, claims that the writers of the Heidelberg Catechism did not contrast the concepts of an Old Covenant and a New Covenant. The rationale describes such a contrast as “not very well represented” in the Reformed tradition and “not supported” by the Catechism.

These claims are simply incorrect. There have been many forms of covenant theology in the Reformed tradition, and no one form has definitive authority. The Northern Kansas overture identifies one of these several forms, one that emphasizes a unitary covenant with different expressions through time. Such a view has had advocates in our tradition. Even Zacharius Ursinus, the primary author of the Heidelberg Catechism, sees the old and new covenants as “one in substance,” and even writes that “there is but one covenant,” in the sense that God promises forgiveness both before and after the coming of Christ.

However, it is precisely through the Heidelberg Catechism that much of Reformed theology receives from Ursinus (and, perhaps Caspar Olevianus) the distinctive form of covenant thinking that uses an old covenant God made with humankind at the creation of the world as a foil for a new covenant in Christ. Ursinus makes it abundantly clear in his Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism that he understood God’s covenant in just these terms: “The old testament, or covenant, is often used in Scripture…for the law… For in the old covenant, the law was enforced more strenuously, and there were many parts of it. The gospel was also more obscure. The new testament, or covenant, on the other hand, is for the most part taken for the gospel, because in the new a great part of the law is abrogated, and the gospel is here more clearly revealed.”

Thus, denying that the Heidelberg Catechism, to say nothing of the Reformed tradition as a whole, makes use of a two-fold covenant scheme is akin to denying the roundness of the earth. It is manifestly untrue in light of the evidence.

Second, the Northern Kansas overture points out that the terms “testament” and “covenant” are not synonyms. Indeed, in order to make sense of the whole range of covenantal thinking in the Reformed tradition, it is important to maintain this distinction. However, here again, in the case of the Heidelberg Catechism, Ursinus makes his intention clear in his Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism: “In the Scriptures, the terms Covenant and Testament are used in the same sense, for the purpose of explaining more fully and clearly the idea of this Covenant of God.”  Since the major author of the Heidelberg Catechism sees the terms as synonyms, even though some of his contemporaries would have disagreed, it is clear that the P.C.(USA)’s Heidelberg Catechism is faithful to the theological perspective of the original version of this Catechism.

Third, we come to the point that we all know is behind this apparent fishing expedition for problems in the P.C.(U.S.A.)’s Heidelberg Catechism: Did Ursinus have in mind 1 Corinthians 6:9, with its negative view of homosexuality, when he composed the answer to question 87?

Once again, Ursinus has recorded for us a definitive answer: he did associate this verse of Scripture with this question and answer. In his Commentary, Ursinus mentions this verse as having particular relevance for understanding what is at stake in question 87.  The translators of the P.C. (U.S.A.)’s Heidelberg Catechism, as good translators do, took into account the stated intention of the authors in order to show us what the passage meant in its historical and literary context. They did this faithfully.

Unless these overtures and scholars wish to claim that Ursinus did not know what he meant by the words he and his collaborators chose, we can only conclude that the overtures have made serious historical and theological mistakes.

If we as a church are going to look for theological guidance in the sixteenth century, then it is only responsible to respect that period in its distinctiveness, and not to flatten its witness into the kind of one-sided sloganeering with dubious historical and theological claims that we read in these overtures. It is unworthy of our academic and ecclesial calling to reduce these complex issues to sound bites and then deploy them, with a scholarly patina, in the service of church politics.

These overtures show signs of wanting to find a kind of inerrant Ur-text to treat as the “real” Heidelberg Catechism, playing this original off against the actual text of the P.C.(U.S.A.)’s Heidelberg Catechism. Such an approach fails to understand how the Confessions function in the P.C.(U.S.A.). It is not the Latin and German texts from the sixteenth century that guide our Church, but rather it is the English texts adopted by the deliberative assemblies of the Church and published in the Book of Confessions by which every officer of our Church has vowed to be guided. These English versions have been responsibly translated and carefully chosen as “faithful expositions of what Scripture teaches us to believe and do.”

Will the Presbyteries who have sent these overtures, together with their academic sponsors, next ask that we revert to the seventeenth century texts of the Westminster standards, without the chapters on divorce and the Holy Spirit, and restoring the claim that the Pope is the anti-Christ, as the original indisputably said? Will they question the translation of the Second Helvetic Confession?

We suspect not, because we suspect the goal of these overtures is not to restore early modern texts or their embodiments in our Constitution to some pristine state, but only to remove from the Constitution of the P.C. (U.S.A.) a single phrase they find disagreeable. These other issues, with the infelicitous scholarship that underwrites them, have apparently been sought and found to provide cover for this one goal.

In other words, these overtures appear to us to be a disturbing effort to change the church’s normative teaching about homosexuality under cover of historical-theological scholarship, instead of using the legitimate, above-the-table process our Constitution provides for considering such a change. Trying to slip a change by the church under cover of correcting mere errors of translation is inappropriate as deliberative process, short-circuiting the P.C.(U.S.A.)’s ongoing contemporary discussion of this issue, even as it undermines the trust the church places in its seminaries and teachers.

Bruce L. McCormack, Frederick and Margaret L. Weyerhaeuser Professor of Systematic Theology
Princeton Theological Seminary

E. David Willis, Charles Hodge Professor of Systematic Theology Emeritus
Princeton Theological Seminary

Michael D. Bush
Erskine Theological Seminary