Things are stirring in the United Presbyterian Church, and it will be interesting to see how many cooks get a spoon in the broth. As is well known in the States, and perhaps increasingly known overseas, the United Presbyterian Church in the U. S. A. presented a new confession, “The Confession of 1967,” to the General Assembly meeting in Columbus, Ohio, last May. Under the chairmanship of Professor Dowey of Princeton Theological Seminary, the committee had been at work for seven years drawing up this document. The action of the General Assembly was to receive this proposed new confession and to commend it to the church for a year of study. At next year’s General Assembly in Boston, a vote will be taken to say whether the confession is to be sent to the presbyteries for a vote. If this is done, the presbyteries, it is assumed, will vote favorably, and the confession will then became part of the church’s confessional standards.
During the year of study in which Presbyterians are now engaged, individuals and groups, particularly presbytery groups, will come up with suggestions for revising or amending the new confession. A Committee of Fifteen has been selected by the moderator, attorney William P. Thompson of Wichita, Kansas. This committee, under the chairmanship of Dr. W. Sherman Skinner of St. Louis, will review and study these suggestions and make recommendations to the 1966 General Assembly on “The Confession of 1967.” It is generally understood that the findings of Dr. Skinner’s committee need not have any greater weight than the weight of suggestions and recommendations, and quite possibly the confession as now written will be the confession on which the church will vote. It is apparent from the makeup of the Committee of Fifteen that Moderator Thompson made a sincere effort to have every shade of theological opinion represented on it. It is also apparent that he attempted to represent both laity and clergy and to include a cross section of the nation.
Some have questioned whether Dr. Skinner’s committee can finish its work in time for the next General Assembly. If the members do their work seriously, and if there is any measurable response from the church, they are faced with an almost insuperable task. In the first place, most of the presbyteries may be a little slow in getting under way. My own presbytery, having met in June, is still attempting to get some kind of a study committee going before the September meeting. This is proving a little difficult because of the vacation plans of both clergy and laity. Our moderator, for example, was not present at the June meeting because his vacation had already begun, and the appointment of the committee necessarily awaits his word. It is also likely that, with other vacations coming during the summer, little real study will be done before the September meeting. Assuming that this committee will not be ready to make any recommendations in September, we can reasonably guess that any action will be impossible until about November, and then only if the presbytery can reach a consensus on the recommendations of its own committee.
What I am trying to point out is that, if other presbyteries operate like this one, recommendations from presbyteries will begin to take firm shape very late in this calendar year. If we work from the other end, that is, from the next meeting of the General Assembly in May, we must keep in mind that the “Blue Book” has to be ready at least three weeks before the General Assembly and that material for this “Blue Book” has to be ready sometime in March. We can reasonably expect, therefore, that the pressure of this committee work will fall sometime between January 1 and March 15, 1966.
There are almost two hundred United Presbyterian presbyteries in the United States. Let us assume for the sake of argument that each comes up with at least one suggestion (and we suppose that if presbyteries look at the whole new confession, they may well come up with more than one). Can we picture what a committee of fifteen will do with 190 (or many more) suggestions and changes in the new confession? The time problem is aggravated by the possibility that variations of the same suggestion may come along to the committee from many different presbyteries. If, for example, ten presbyteries make one suggestion on one point of the confession and these suggestions offer the shadings of the variety of the minds that have worked on them, and, if the Committee of Fifteen has to debate wordings as well as substance, we need no great imagination to see what kind of a task they face.
We are assuming throughout this that the committee will take its assignment seriously, and those of us who know Dr. Skinner know that his work will be faithful, concerned, and meticulous.
Taking the new confession seriously is the only way it can possibly be taken. Many concerned churchmen are convinced that the whole theological atmosphere of the new confession is going to give a new nature to the church. If this be true, and I for one think it is, then the Presbyterians are facing a new departure in their theological life. It seems to me, then, that the United Presbyterian Church is caught in a very serious bind, much more serious and much more basic than the time pressure on the Committee of Fifteen.
Professor Dowey has an excellent mind and excellent training, and he has been studying and teaching creeds, and all material relating thereto, at the seminary level for a long time. I doubt very much whether there are half a dozen men in our country as well versed in these matters as he. Anyone who has ever heard him speak on creeds or even talked with him on these things knows how well versed he is and how interesting and relevant he can make these matters appear.
But the Presbyterian bind is this: In a confessional church that also prides itself on its concern for an educated clergy and an intelligent laity, and that prides itself equally on its democratic (or, more exactly, republican) form of government, just how will judgments on the new confession be made? In a “representative” form of church government, we can do one of two things. We can turn over the decision on the new confession to the experts, admitting that it would take perhaps three years of study for most clergymen and ten years of study for most laymen to understand what is actually being said. The other choice is to take whatever time is necessary to do the serious study. This might make the “Confession of 1967” the “Confession of 1977.”
Unless Presbyterians are ready to turn their theology over to the experts (a Roman Catholic principle), then even by 1967 most Presbyterians will have to admit that they do not know enough (a) to put the Westminster Confession on the shelf with other confessions in the tradition, or (b) to pass judgment on the value of the new confession, or (c) to say that the new confession is better than Westminster.
ADDISON H. LEITCH
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