The revised Confession of 1967 of the United Presbyterian Church in the U. S. A. is an essentially unhomogenized doctrinal statement. The unrevised C67 was homogeneously neo-orthodox. The significant revisions were also homogeneous—homogeneously orthodox. However, no effort was made to extend these orthodox revisions throughout the document. The result is a document that has its original neo-orthodox character still extant, and at certain places quite visible, and yet has also some unmistakably alien, orthodox elements superimposed on its basic structure. Or, to put it another way, the revised C67 has some of the features of its grandparent, the Westminster Confession, and some of the features of its immediate parent, the original C67.
As a result, some orthodox and some neo-orthodox Presbyterians accept the document for quite different reasons. The orthodox may be happy with it in spite of its neo-orthodox elements, while the neo-orthodox rejoice in what has survived the orthodox revision. Some of the orthodox indulge in wishful thinking, viewing the document as if it had become homogeneously orthodox. And some of the neo-orthodox pretend that the changes were minor.
What of the Book of Confessions? It consists, as everyone knows, of eight creedal documents: the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Scots’ Confession, the Second Helvetic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Westminster Confession and Shorter Catechism, the Barmen Declaration, and, finally, the revised Confession of 1967. Let us look at these creeds from the standpoint of the three levels of subscription involved in our historical endorsement of creeds: the catholic or universal, the evangelical or Protestant, and the reformed.
1. Apostles’ Creed—catholic.
2. Nicene Creed—catholic.
3. Scots’ Confession—catholic, evangelical, reformed.
4. Heidelberg Catechism—catholic, evangelical, reformed.
5. Second Helvetic Confession—catholic, evangelical, reformed.
6. Westminster Confession and Shorter Catechism—catholic, evangelical, reformed.
7. Barmen Declaration—ambiguously catholic (orthodox or neo-orthodox interpretation possible).
8. Revised Confession of 1967—ambiguously catholic (orthodox and neo-orthodox elements present).
Thus we have in the Book of Confessions four confessions that are merely catholic; that is, they teach the general Christian truths accepted by the Eastern Orthodox, the Roman Catholic, and the Protestant churches, as historically expressed in their creeds. Two of them (Apostles’ and Nicene) teach only and unambiguously catholic truths. The other two deal only with the general catholic truths: one (Barmen) is ambiguously orthodox or neo-orthodox, while the other (C67) is mixedly orthodox and neo-orthodox. Four of the confessions (Scots’, Heidelberg, Second Helvetic, Westminster) deal, in addition, with specifically evangelical doctrines that distinguish Protestant churches from the Eastern and the Roman (the sole authority of Holy Scripture, the doctrine of justification by faith alone). These same four documents are also reformed; they include the doctrines that distinguish the Reformed churches from other Protestant churches. These doctrines are usually designated as the five points of Calvinism: the corruption of the whole human nature (not the total corruption of human nature, but the corruption of total human nature), unconditional election, the specific design of the Atonement, efficacious grace, and the perseverance of believers.
It should also be noted that there are some extraneous elements in the Book of Confessions. For example, the Second Helvetic (Chap. XI) includes a reference to “the ever virgin Mary.” The perpetual virginity of Mary, while it has been held in some churches, cannot be called a universal or catholic doctrine. Again, the revised C67 still contains such expressions as: “The new life takes shape in a community in which men know that God loves and accepts them in spite of what they are” (Part I, Section C, 1). If God does accept men in spite of what they are, he accepts men who are unbelievers. Thus all men, believers and unbelievers, are accepted by God; C67 teaches the divine acceptance of all men. This is not catholic, evangelical, or reformed; it is a grievous heresy. In brief, then, we have in the Book of Confessions some documents that are merely catholic; others that are catholic, evangelical, and reformed; and, scattered throughout some of them, elements that are not catholic, evangelical, or reformed.
The crucial question, then, concerns subscription to the “Book of Confessions.” Would a church officer be required in taking his vows to indicate that he accepts the catholic? or the catholic and the evangelical? or the catholic, evangelical, and reformed? We turn to the text: “(3) Will you perform the duties of ruling elder (or deacon) (or, a minister of the Gospel) in obedience to Jesus Christ, under the authority of the Scriptures, and under the continuing instruction and guidance of the confessions of this Church?” (Minutes of the General Assembly, Part I, 1966, pp. 248,249.) He thus would promise to perform his duties under the “instruction” and “guidance” of the Book of Confessions.
Some hold that these words do not necessarily commit the ordinand to believing that in which he is instructed and by which he is guided. They usually admit that the words call for a high degree of respect and consideration for the instruction and guidance of the Book of Confessions; but this may fall short of an actual adherence.
Since it is difficult for some to understand this mentality, let us attempt to explain it further. Those who take this position usually point out that a person who studies under a professor or receives his guidance in a subject from some book does not necessarily agree with either the instruction or the guidance. He may well be on his own as to what he does actually believe and what instruction he will follow. “Under the instruction and guidance” of anything means merely that a person considers, very respectfully, what these persons, institutions, or documents teach and presumably follows them, unless his own judgment is contrary. It is thus his own judgment that is the instruction and guidance he will actually follow, whether or not it concurs with the instruction and guidance he has received. The language of the vow does not clearly rule out this interpretation.
What appears to be the majority school of thought construes this language of subscription as meaning that the ordinand is to accept (and not merely consider respectfully) what is catholic, evangelical, and reformed in the Book of Confessions. This majority interprets “performing duties” under the “continuing instruction and guidance of” to mean the acceptance of this instruction and guidance on these three levels: catholic, evangelical, and reformed doctrine.
This view was very clearly evident at the 1966 General Assembly when this subscription vow was considered. A proposed amendment read: “These words to be added—‘which are affirmed of setting forth the catholic, evangelical and reformed faith.’ ” One can see that this amendment was intended to remove all ambiguity from the expression “instruction and guidance.” Had it passed, it would have made the subscription indubitably clear. In fact, it would have meant the adoption of what is, essentially, the present way of subscribing to the Westminster Standards. This amendment would have had the ordinand say explicitly that he accepts what is catholic, evangelical, and reformed, not merely in the Westminster Standards, which still continue (minus the Larger Catechism), but in the entire Book of Confessions. In other words, had this amendment passed, the United Presbyterian Church would have been, quantitatively, more catholic, evangelical, and reformed than it now is.
It is not enough to observe that this amendment to the subscription vow was defeated, in spite of a substantial minority vote. More significant is the reason why it was defeated. What was the mind of the General Assembly when it voted against this amendment? Let us recount the circumstances of the debate. As those present at the General Assembly in Boston well know, whenever an amendment to revised C67 was presented, the moderator called upon a member of the revision committee or of the original drafting committee to comment on the amendment. When this particular amendment was proposed, Dr. Edward A. Dowey was asked to comment. Speaking presumably for the two committees, he said he opposed the amendment because it was “unnecessary.” He was not basically against it, he said, but felt that it was already implicitly present in the proposal. It is extremely important to notice that he opposed this amendment, not because he was against it in principle, but because he felt its content had already been stated satisfactorily in the broad context of the Book of Confessions and the subscription provisions.
The Reverend Byron Crazier, of Indiana, Pennsylvania, as the mover of the amendment, was given the privilege of the final speech before voting. In that speech he argued that, since the substance of his amendment was conceded as already implicitly present, why not spell it out and make it explicit? In other words, he, as the main spokesman for the amendment, and Dr. Dowey, as the main spokesman against it, were standing on the same ground, that the substance of the amendment was already implicitly present. Dr. Dowey then opposed the amendment because he felt it was unnecessary, while Mr. Crozier urged it because he thought it advisable and helpful even if not absolutely necessary. That was the essence of the debate on this very, very crucial amendment, which then failed to pass.
What is the status of affairs now as the Book of Confessions goes before the presbyteries for decisive voting? In the opinion of this writer, it can be described only as ambiguous. For on this crucial matter of the subscription vow (far and away the most crucial, because it includes all others in its vast sweep) there is a conflict between language and intention. The language simply does not say that the ordinand believes the “instruction” and will necessarily follow the “guidance.” It would have been very simple to use clear language at this vital point, and it is inexcusable that instead, vague and debatable language was used. If a great church is going to have vows, it certainly ought to make them unambiguously clear. This vow is not clear.
On the other hand, it cannot be said that this language has no cogency at all. It may lack ultimate clarity, but it certainly moves in a particular direction. It may not say enough, but it definitely says something. A person who promises to perform his duties under the instruction and guidance of something certainly cannot be cavalier, disrespectful, or inconsiderate of it.
However, this point remains the most defective item in the entire Book of Confessions and threatens to vitiate the entire document if it is construed with strictest literality.
This leads us to observe the all-important intention of the 1966 General Assembly in recommending this document to the presbyteries. The mind of the assembly, as far as it was expressed by proponents and opponents of this amendment, was that the subscription to catholic, evangelical, and reformed elements in the Book of Confessions was present, implicitly at least, in this third vow. The animus imponendi (that is, the mind or intention of the one imposing) of the entire assembly, insofar as it was expressed on the floor, was that performing one’s duty under the instruction and guidance of the Book of Confessions is tantamount to believing what is catholic, evangelical, and reformed in the Book of Confessions.
This animus imponendi is vital in determining the meaning of any statement. Otherwise, subscribers would be permitted to construe words precisely as they pleased. Subscription would then mean nothing, because each subscriber could make the statement mean anything he wanted it to. As a New England divine once said, “You cannot write a creed which I cannot subscribe.” He meant that he could subscribe to any creed if he were permitted to place his own meaning on the words. But there is a meaning placed upon the words by the body that draws up a creed; there is an animus imponendi. It is a part of the understanding of the very words that future subscribers will endorse. This is vitally important. There can be no doubt that the animus imponendi of the General Assembly in May, 1966, as it was articulated in debate, was that the third subscription vow meant the acceptance of that which is catholic, evangelical, and reformed in the Book of Confessions.
(Incidentally, if this is understood, we can see that anything that is not catholic, evangelical, or reformed in any one or all eight of the documents would not be an item of subscription. Consistency would thus be maintained in subscribing the sometimes conflicting eight creeds.)
As the presbyteries proceed to vote and as the 1967 assembly perhaps faces the question of ratification, the situation confronting us is ambiguous. Because the language of this all-important vow is not precise and clear in binding the ordinand to the catholic, evangelical, and reformed elements in the Book of Confessions, we are unsatisfied with this document—in fact, grievously distressed with it. On the other hand, since the intention or the animus imponendi of the General Assembly made clear what the language left imprecise, we are profoundly grateful to God for the accomplishment of this past year of church-wide debate. If this overture is defeated, we hope it is defeated because of the inadequacy of the language. It it is passed, we shall insist that it was passed carrying the meaning that was given it by the General Assembly that referred it to the presbyteries. We will then say to the world that the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America is today, in its officially subscribed documents, more catholic, evangelical, and reformed than ever before.
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