Monday, May 24, 2010
On doctrines and confessions
This subject is probably my favorite when it comes to the history of the United Church of Christ: The UCC accepts the confessions and creeds of our ancestors in the faith as their legacy to us of their own thinking in their own times and places. Rather than “update” them, or edit them, or modernize them -- vigilance in avoiding present gender bias in language use notwithstanding -- the UCC preserves historic statements at signposts marking where those who came before us sojourned.
It starts with the Bible as “the authoritative witness to the Word of God,” followed by the ecumenical creeds and statements of historic church councils and confessions of the Reformation. In the UCC’s covenantal tradition, “no centralized authority or hierarchy … can impose any doctrine or form of worship … Christ alone is Head of the church.” The UCC “therefore receives the historic creeds and confessions of our ancestors as testimonies, but not tests of the faith.”
Testimonies, not tests -- that is critical, I think, for allowing people, in Christian liberty, to evolve in their own thinking, and it is necessary for a denomination that insists that “God is still speaking.”
Specifically, the UCC happily embraces a theological heritage that includes the Statement of Faith of the UCC, the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Definition of the Council of Chalcedon, Luther’s Small Catechism, the Heidelberg Catechism, Principles of the Christian Church, the Kansas City Statement of Faith of the Congregational Churches, the Evangelical Catechism of the Evangelical Synod of North America, the Barmen Declaration against Nazi theology and the Basis of Union of the Congregational Christian Churches and the Evangelical and Reformed Church, which was a precursor to the union of the communions as the United Church of Christ in 1957.
In my own congregation, two other confessions are important enough to warrant permanent placement on the front of our weekly church bulletin: “Where head and heart are equal partners in faith,” and the 1629 Covenant of the Salem Church, which reads: “We covenant with the Lord and with one another and do bind ourselves in the presence of God to walk together in all his ways, according as he is pleased to reveal himself unto us in His Blessed Word of Truth.”
All of which explains how and why Mayflower Congregational-UCC Church can be so wide open to so many interpretations of what it means to follow Jesus. It has informed and excited and inspired me since I joined the congregation in 2005, and it is the source of my hope for further unity in the church.
I'm glad there is no specific UMC confession for precisely the reasons you name - openness to the on-going voice of the Spirit. Accepting and understanding the doctrinal limits set forth at various church councils and in various confessions of faith as limiting cases rather than straight-jackets is good enough for me (Trinitarian doctrine, the centrality of the passion and resurrection of Christ, the life of the Spirit animating the Church in its ministries). We have, in the UM Hymnal, along with the historic creeds, the Affirmation of Faith of the United Church of Canada, of the Korean Methodist Church, and something called "A Modern Affirmation", and an affirmation culled from verses in Romans.
I like that.
They're supposed to be "authentic and reliable expositions of what Scripture leads us to believe and do." They're standards, but subordinate to Scripture itself. However, because we're not fundamentalists (and this is the part that the fundie wackjobs in our denomination get completely wrong all the time) they're not *absolute* standards of the essential tenets of the Reformed faith, because there is no such list in the PCUSA.
We're debating now whether or not to approve a new confession, the Belhar Confession, so the whole deal about what a confession is, what they should be, etc. is a big deal right now for us.
We see confessions the same way in the Presbyterian Church, as stated directly in one of our "signposts" (my personal favorite right now), the Confession of 1967:
"Confessions and declarations are subordinate standards in the church, subject to the authority of Jesus Christ, the Word of God, as the Scriptures bear witness to him. No one type of confession is exclusively valid, no one statement is irreformable. Obedience to Jesus Christ alone identifies the one universal church and supplies the continuity of its tradition."
Our confessions are not subscriptionist, we look at them to see the faith of those who came before. We can change them. Many of them disagree with each other. But many of them also contain jewels which we can mine. Others of them say things that make us say, "Oh my...Whew."
To me, your statement ER could easily be a PCUSA statement. ...Oh, and you may notice in C67 above, the reference is to The Word, not the words. ...As Alan rightly suggests, there is undoubtedly some confusion in some segments of our denomination about the role of confessions...
That metaphor got loose sometime back there and attached itself to the Scriptures themselves, then devolved from rich metaphor to loose colloquialism -- which is the cause of most of the confusion, I think.