What was the most important document to come out of the Second Vatican Council? Which will be the most significant in the decades ahead?
Some Roman Catholic theologians are said to give that distinction to the council’s decree on divine revelation, officially promulgated last month by Pope Paul VI. They contend it is historic not so much for what it says as for what it leaves unsaid.
The document deals with the age-old question of the relative merits of Scripture and church traditions. Most conservative Catholics hold that Scripture and tradition are separate sources of revelation, a view that sets them at odds with Protestants.
Progressives among the Vatican Council fathers succeeded in minimizing somewhat the role of tradition. The final version of the document is generally more acceptable to evangelical Protestants than earlier drafts. It still suggests, however, a reliance on the double-source theory. Tradition and Scripture are said to be “like a mirror in which the pilgrim Church on earth looks at God.” At this point many Protestants will attribute to the Vatican the perpetuation of a historic heresy. Here is an excerpt front a translation issued by the National Catholic Welfare Conference in Washington, D. C.:
“… There exists a close connection and communication between sacred tradition and sacred Scripture. For both of them, flowing front the same divine wellspring, in a certain way merge into a unity and tend toward the same end. For sacred Scripture is the word of God inasmuch as it is consigned to writing under the inspiration of the divine Spirit, while sacred tradition lakes the word of God entrusted by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit to the Apostles, and hands it on to their successors in its full purity, so that led by the light of the Spirit of truth, they may in proclaiming it preserve this Word of God faithfully, explain it, and make it more widely known. Consequently it is not from sacred Scripture alone that the Church draws her certainty about everything which has been revealed. Therefore both sacred tradition and sacred Scripture are to be accepted and venerated with the same sense of loyalty and reverence.”
The document adds:
“It is clear, therefore, that sacred tradition, sacred Scripture, and the teaching authority of the Church, in accord with God’s most wise design, are so linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others, and that all together and each in its own way under the action of the one Holy Spirit contribute effectively to the salvation of souls.”
Another portion of the document holding special interest for Protestants is that dealing with scriptural authenticity. Roman Catholic teaching has traditionally asserted the inerrancy of the Bible. Pope Leo XIII vowed, “It will never be lawful to restrict inspiration to certain parts of the Holy Scriptures, or to grant that the sacred writer could have made a mistake.”
The new statement on divine revelation does not go that far. It says merely that “the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully, and without error that truth which God wanted put into the sacred writing for the sake of our salvation.” That is the extent of the document’s comment on inerrancy.
No distinction is made between theological, historical, and scientific truth. But the document calls for interpreters to seek out what the writers of Scripture “really intended” to say. For instance, “Attention should be given, among other things, to ‘literary forms.’ ”
A Confession? In 1967?
The presumptuously titled “Confession of 1967” probably must undergo major changes if it is to become an official creed of the United Presbyterian Church in the U. S. A.
It may also need a new name.
Those who drew up the 4,200-word statement had hoped it would gain official status by 1967. Resistance has been building up, however, and critics are demanding more time for revision.
Some critics even contend that the document as now constructed is not comprehensive enough to be dignified as a “confession.”
In Chicago’s Palmer House last month, the proposed confession underwent an intensive, twenty-four-hour critique aimed at making it more biblical. The special study session, sponsored by Presbyterians United for Biblical Confession, attracted 538 registrants from all parts of the country. They made no significant effort in behalf of the Bible as explicitly inerrant but agreed that the confession should assert the inspiration and overall reliability of the biblical message.
A PUBC editorial committee’s nine-page list of suggested revisions was worked over by forty discussion groups at the Chicago meeting. pubc leaders are pooling the results and will turn them over to a fifteen-member confessional revision committee appointed by the United Presbyterian General Assembly. The revision committee was scheduled to hear arguments this week.
The Confession of 1967 is the work of a small committee headed by Dr. Edward A. Dowey, Jr., professor of church history at Princeton Theological Seminary. It is based on the reconciliation theme in Second Corinthians 5:18–20, which the committee regards as “the touchstone for the meaning of salvation expressed especially for the conditions of our day.” The committee has suggested that this new statement and six older documents be given equal status with the Westminster Confession, traditional standard for Presbyterian groups around the world. The committee has further proposed that less binding questions be asked of candidates for the ministry.
The Chicago meeting of PUBC—a new organization that already has support from more than 5,000 clergy and lay evangelicals in United Presbyterian ranks—was a responsible effort. Pressed for time, participants worked far into the night to sort out the issues. They displayed extreme caution and bent backwards to avoid being labeled reactionaries. They showed considerable respect for Dowey, showering him with repeated applause, though one unidentified onlooker read the Chicago Tribune financial pages during Dowey’s address. United Presbyterian Moderator William Thompson, who pleaded for an irenic spirit, also was treated cordially.
As expected, the Chicago study indicated that the concern of theological conservatives was focused on what they feel is an inadequate statement on Scripture in the new confession. Even Dr. John Mackay, no fundamentalist, pleaded for a stronger stand on the Bible.
“This new statement is right when it says the Bible is the ‘normative witness,’ ” conceded Mackay, retired president of Princeton. “But it is much more. It is the authoritative source from which we draw.”
Drafters of the new confession readily acknowledge that its view of the Bible “is an intended revision of the Westminster doctrine, which rested primarily on a view of inspiration and equated the Biblical canon directly with the Word of God.” The new confession defines the Bible as the instrument of the revelation of the Word incarnate, namely Christ.
A related issue that nettles conservatives is the new confession’s assertion that understanding of Scripture “requires literary and historical scholarship.” This, they say, harks back to an old Roman Catholic heresy which contends that the Bible needs to be interpreted for laymen.
Liberals are likely to exploit at least one of the suggestions raised in Chicago. The groups proposed striking out a section that states the Church cannot condone poverty. The statement that was substituted prompted an immediate reaction from the Rev. Frank H. Heinze, chief information officer for United Presbyterians: “The Republican Party could have written that just as well.”
Few will venture a guess as to how the confession will come out. But evangelical strategists now apparently seek a revised confession that most United Presbyterians can live with, not a campaign against the very idea of a new confession. Some attempts may be made, however, to demote the document to the level of a mere theological statement for the times.
Dr. Cary N. Weisiger III, a California minister who is chairman of PUBC’s governing committee, has outspokenly lamented United Presbyterian failure to update the Westminster Shorter Catechism. The drafting committee was originally charged with preparing a contemporary introduction and revising scriptural references in the Shorter Catechism, but was relieved of the duty by the 1959 General Assembly “in view of the difficulty and importance of the remainder of its task.”
Showdown On Scripture
Two United Presbyterian scholars engaged in a verbal duel over Scripture last month. Their stage was the ornate, gold-and-white grand ballroom of the Palmer House in Chicago, and their sponsor Presbyterians United for Biblical Confession. The debate took most of a morning, and the mood alternated between tension and joviality.
The contenders were Dr. Edward A. Dowey, Jr., chief architect of the proposed “Confession of 1967,” and Dr. John Gerstner of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, like Dowey a church history professor. The night before, battle-weary Dowey had yawned as he sat listening to remarks by Gerstner. But when he was put on the spot, Dowey’s appeal to historical precedent was engaging and persuasive. Nevertheless, Gerstner emerged as somewhat the more articulate of the two, though a bit more argumentative as well. Dowey lost the day with his audience of evangelicals when he suggested that Christ erred in considering the Jonah account historical.
Before the debate, Dowey, in a prepared address, took the liberty of some tangential swipes, including a remark that “Billy Graham sounds pretty Arminian to me.” He unleashed his most severe criticism at the recently formed Presbyterian Lay Committee, Inc. (see December 3 issue, page 48). Their statement in Presbyterian Life, he said, “reads like a millionaires’ manifesto.” Dowey did not specify the group by name, but the reference was clear. He charged that this committee “takes the church out of the business of corporate responsibility.”
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