Shuck and Jive

Friday, June 17, 2011

What Presbyterians Believe (except me) Part 2

I am uncomfortable with this question:
What do Presbyterians believe?
My answer tends to be,
"Well some Presbyterians believe some things some of the time. Others believe other things some of the time. Just ask a Presbyterian."
I am not particularly happy when I read magazines with the title:
What Presbyterians Believe
I strongly resist those blanket statements. It doesn't relate so much to the content of what the authors or editors might believe, it is the assumption that everyone believes or should believe these things. I raise my hand and say,
"I'm a Presbyterian and I don't necessarily believe that."
That is the spirit in which I made my last post on this topic What Presbyterians Believe (except me). I don't write to be obstinate or to say that I have the absolute truth or that my views are more important than the views of another or to call attention to myself. I am simply an individual expressing my autonomy and my views at this point in my life. That is why I use "I" statements.
"I believe."
Nor do my statements constitute my last or only word on the topic. Many of my views seem to contradict each other. They probably do contradict each other. I say "yes" to my ordination vows even as I struggle with their content. I say "yes" to my (most recent and official) faith statement even as I find myself changing.

I don't find this work easy or finished.
I likely always will be seeking and my theological views likely always will be changing. I hope that I will seek and change until I die. As a minister, yes a Presbyterian minister, I respect and encourage that same freedom and autonomy in others. You have the right to speak and own your truth. You also have the right to change. As I often tell couples who come for counseling,

"You will change. When you do, don't forget to tell your partner."

In t
he 2011 Special Issue of Presbyterians Today, the editors reprinted a 2001 article by Cynthia L. Rigby, Jesus is the Way: Presbyterian theology affirms the uniqueness of Christ.

Dr. Rigby is an excellent professor. I was in her precept at Princeton when taking a course from Dr. Migliore on Karl Barth. She was getting her Ph. D. at the time and was the teaching assistant.

I respect her views even as I don't share all of them. It really isn't her views with which I quibble. It is the blanket statement about what Presbyterians believe. To illustrate, she writes:

Presbyterians believe that Jesus Christ is "fully human and fully divine, one person in two natures, without confusion and without change, without separation and without division." This statement dates all the way back to the fifth century (451 to be exact) and is known as the Chalcedonian Definition.
That statement from 451 doesn't even make logical sense. It is a contradiction. Not that there is anything wrong with contradictions, I make them myself. This statement from 451 was a political compromise. It isn't a statement of absolute truth or Divine proclamation.

Human beings decided this.
Whether the means of decision were violent, manipulative, or a democratic vote, human beings made it up. I doubt they were even as democratic as the Jesus Seminar when it votes. I certainly don't think they were any more or less divinely inspired than the Jesus Seminar (or than you and me).

Human beings made decisions in 451. They didn't all agree. There were losers. There were people who didn't win "the vote" that day. Were they wrong just because their view didn't win the day? As Dr. Rigby writes:

The people who wrote the Chalcedonian statement were, like us, trying to figure out what it means to confess that Jesus Christ is divine as well as human.
What does "divine" even mean in 451 let alone today? I think we need to know how our ancestors wrestled with decisions. We can respect their efforts. We can criticize their efforts. We can learn from their process and their decisions. We can honor our tradition but we are not beholden to their provisional conclusions. Not all Presbyterians believe these statements, nor in my view, should we be required to do so.

The statement,
"Presbyterians believe ______________" is not a statement of truth or even agreement. It is a statement of power. This is not the power that enables truth seeking but the power that restricts and coerces.

One may argue that Presbyterians have the right to do that. They have the right to make their own rules regarding belief and to include and exclude through their own means of power management. That is true.

My question to the denomination is whether or not we wish to be that. Is the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

  1. going to sequester itself in a self-imposed grotto of ancient theology and impose it on all of its leaders and thinkers or
  2. is it going to be open to the challenges of our time and encourage change and truth seeking?
My suggestion as to a way forward is not particularly dramatic. It follows a trend that many within our denomination have already been taking. That has to do with how we approach creeds and confessions. Are they
  1. statements of belief to which we must adhere or
  2. are they streams of tradition from which we are free to learn?
Are they
  1. tests of faith or
  2. testimonies to faith?
In our vows, candidates for ordination are asked if they will be "guided" by our confessions. That sounds like option two (if "guide" allows the freedom to choose differently). But when I read articles that state what Presbyterians believe, that sounds too much like option one for my conscience.
How will we approach our tradition?

As I see it, this is the struggle the PC(USA) is facing at this time.
I recommend option two.


  1. It seems the LayMAN group would like to think that option #1 is the ONLY option. As you and I and others here at FPCe are preparing for our THIRD New Member welcome of the year, it seems Option #2 might have something going for it.

    "You will change. When you do, don't forget to tell your partner." I love that.

  2. I wonder, then, how should Presbyterians differentiate themselves from any other faith group without talking about how Presbyterian beliefs might differ from those of other faith groups.

    Without talking about what beliefs we have in common, aren't we pretty much limited to "Presbyterians are people who get together every once in a while in places that have been named 'Presbyterian Churches'but there's really no connection beyond that."?

  3. Meghan, thanks for the push. I think you point out an important challenge. As a provisional response, I think of my Presbyterianism as analogous to various ethnic identities that are part of who I am. They are streams that flow into the river of who I am today. Presbyterians have our history/histories and we even document them with our confessions and various styles of worship and governance but nevertheless we change.

  4. "What makes a Presbyterian?" might be the approach to take, instead of "This is what a Presbyterian IS."

  5. "Presbyterians believe what was decided in 451 after a hotly contested political struggle, but that is the last word for all time,
    and don't even think of re-imagining it".

    Thanks John, I wish more people would call them out like this.

    Why can't they just be honest about how political and time-bound
    many of the beliefs are [including in the NT,the anti-Jewish statements such as in 1 TH 2:14ff... do "Presbyterians believe" that also? No of course not.]

    The implications of historical critical inquiry don't seem to consistently make it outside the academy. The message to them should be "talk to us like we're educated (or trying to be educated) adults please".

  6. This is a dialogue that must happen among Christians, whatever the denomination. What does it mean to call ourselves "Christians"? Should we just cede that to the fundies and call ourselves something else? But what? Jesus Followers?

    Unitarian Universalism is not an option for Christian exiles like John and me and a lot of folks reading this blog. UUs are too exclusionary of Christian tradition -- although there is a separate group called "Unitarian Universalist Christians," which is where I'm finding my home -- as part of an underground start-up chapter in my UU congregation. But we've been accused of being the camel's nose under the tent, and taking over the church . . . so

    Anyway, The Center for Progressive Christianity, the Jesus Seminar, UU Christians, and others are all trying to figure this out.

    "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times . . ."

  7. I should admit, in fairness, that for many (most?) Christians, their dominant life issue is not the quest for intellectual clarity, but it's more like: an abusive spouse, or an addicted or rebellious family member, or unemployment; and for such people, if a set of beliefs consistent with a 451 AD worldview makes life go better, well then I guess that's what they will have, and "Presbyterians Believe X" is ok for them. Intellectual obfuscation or outright dishonesty frustrates me to no end, but in a pastoral context, maybe there are other considerations. Not being a pastor I am fairly clueless on what the balance should be; our host could probably make some interesting comments on this.

  8. @Michael

    Yes there are a lot of considerations. I have read and heard a great deal of advice on how ministers should handle the balance of pastoral care and intellectual honesty (and other kinds of honesty). I have heeded the bad advice and ignored the good (hopefully less than the reverse).

    My Ishta Devata (my version of the historical Jesus) prods, pushes, and pokes but reminds me that the choice is always mine.

    Liberation can be scary.

  9. The term "Presbyterian" refers to our form of church government; that form of representative government is based on a conviction that discernment is based on group processes, not pronouncements from the top of a hierarchy. I believe that is one of the most important things that unifies the Presbyterian Church (USA) even though it simultaneously liberates us.
    J. M., Huntsville AL