By way of Introduction let me say that in the United Presbyterian Church there is considerable discussion all across the United States on the new “Confession of 1967.” This discussion is being pursued on a very high level. Professor Edward A. Dowey, who is chairman of the committee that studied seven years to bring the confession into being, has made himself available for all kinds of church groups and has presented the findings of his committee in a very positive, open, pleasant manner. Polemics has been at a minimum, and the church is making a serious and profitable study of its creedal position.

CHRISTIANITY TODAY is an interdenominational publication, and the interests of one denomination are not necessarily the interests of other Protestant groups in the United States, to say nothing of those in other lands. My justification for here discussing the confession of one denomination in the United States is that what happens in this confession will, I believe, have great influence on other denominations both here and abroad.

A fifteen-member study committee plans to meet with some regularity between now and the next General Assembly, which will be in May, 1966. The purpose of this committee is to review the questions and criticisms in regard to the confession and to be ready to make recommendations in agreement or disagreement with the findings of the original committee at assembly time. What happens at that General Assembly in 1966 will determine the nature of the material on which the Presbyterians will vote at the assembly of 1967.

So far material that has come to the committee of review is beginning to take shape around certain general questions, and it is probable that what will happen between now and next May has been indicated by what has already appeared. Perhaps the most serious study group is one called Presbyterians United for Biblical Confession. More than one thousand ministers are already related to this organization, and their number is growing. A meeting is planned in Chicago in November, and by that time members of the group will be ready to decide either (1) that they oppose the new confession outright; or (2) that they believe it can be revised according to their lights; or (3) that it should proceed to a vote of the presbyteries as it now stands. If the Presbyterians United for Biblical Confession should decide that the proposed confession as it now stands ought to be discarded, they would feel under some duress to offer a substitute. Meanwhile a series of meetings is being held in every possible presbytery. Printed materials are being released and speakers are being made available. The approach of Presbyterians United matches Professor Dowey’s approach with the same good spirit.

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One of the repeated questions is this: Though the new confession is supposed to be relevant to our day, and, therefore, clearly expressed in the language of our clay, can it really be said that the confession is clear? I do not believe it can. There is a certain ambiguity of language throughout the confession that seems to be as confusing to the lay men of 1965 as the traditional Westminster Confession supposedly is. Language does, of course, change over the years; but unless a man is schooled in what has been going on in modern theology, he will find it difficult to sort out what the new confession really says and means. The few meetings that I have attended, and on occasion participated in, have illustrated how difficult it is for ministers and laymen, trained theologians and tyros, to agree on the meaning of the confession itself apart from any parallel discussion about the meaning of Westminster.

What needs to be clarified most, however, it seems to me, is the relation between the new confession and the so-called Book of Confessions. By the Book of Confessions is meant that whole body of creedal statements and confessions leading up to and including Westminster which can be looked upon as part of the Reformed tradition. Are we to believe that Westminster, rather than being definitive of the Reformed tradition, is merely one like all those confessions that preceded it? More to the point is this question: Are we to accept the Book of Confessions and the new confession, or are we to accept the Book of Confessions except where changed or corrected by the “Confession of 1967”? When a man calls himself a Presbyterian (theologically), just what does he use to define what he is? Are there any differentia in Presbyterianism? And, if so, do (hey lie in the new confession, or in Westminster as revised by the new confession, or in the whole mass of creeds as revised by the new confession?

Another question rises out of this. Can it be said that in the new confession there is a definite departure from the Reformed tradition? It seems to me that there is, and it rests primarily in three places: (1) the overemphasis on the humanity of Christ as against his deity; (2) the emphasis on reconciliation as the proper center and thrust for our day; and, (3) the description of Scripture as “normative” or “authoritative.”

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It is this last note that seems most clearly to change the direction of the thinking of modern Presbyterianism as against its own tradition. The phrase “only infallible rule of faith and practice” is certainly not covered by the word “normative.” Although all can agree that the Word is Jesus Christ, the question does not rest there; it rests on the Bible as the Word giving us authoritative material on Christ as the Word.

The Westminster confession is plain and strong at the very outset of the confession, whereas the new confession has certain ambiguities. Such a truth as reconciliation rests on the authority of Scripture; but when the new confession comes to discuss Scripture, we are treated to a Barthian position of the Word with certain overtones of Bultmann and Tillich. Even though reconciliation rests on Scripture, Scripture itself when it is treated as a topic in the new confession seems to have authority only after one has swept away the inherent weaknesses of the men and the cultures from which it has arisen. A Bible used in this fashion becomes a highly personal existential experience, making it almost impossible for a church as a church to come to general agreement on what it means. Can we, for example, agree on the strong statement of reconciliation when it has become everybody’s game as to what the Scripture means out of which reconciliation arises? If, as the new confession suggests, we need the guidance of authoritative scholars, is the choice of our guides a highly subjective one?

We usually think of a creed or a confession as man-made and therefore subject to constant change. This is why a reformed church must keep reforming its creeds and confessions. Well and good, but one last question. Does the new confession treat the Bible as being itself nothing more than a creed—man-made, shifting according to personalities and cultures, relevant to its own time, and requiring new treatment for a new day? Have we, indeed, made a creed out of the Scriptures?

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