In 1956 the Presbytery of Amarillo, Texas, overtured the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the U. S. A., asking that the Westminster Shorter Catechism be reworded on the ground that recent generations cannot understand it.
A year later the so-called Adams Committee named by the General Assembly abandoned this assignment, stating that such rewording would irritate Presbyterians who have learned and memorized the classic document and cherish its language. The Adams Committee proposed two alternatives: first, that a committee be named to write a historical introduction to the Shorter Catechism and to revise its biblical references, some of which are now scorned as “farfetched”; second, that a committee be named to draw up “a brief contemporary statement of faith” supplementary to the Westminster Standards as part of the church’s Constitution. This short modern “statement of faith,” the Adams Committee contended, “would bring to all members of our church some sense of participation in the thrilling revival of theology.” The committee on “a brief contemporary statement of faith” was named at the 1958 assembly that constituted the merged United Presbyterian Church.
But the 1958 committee soon sensed that the addition of any new document to the Presbyterian Constitution raises the delicate question of creedal subscription. Next May the “contemporary faith” committee will propose that the General Assembly alter the requirements of subscription concerning Scripture and the system of doctrine expounded in the Westminster Confession. The committee prizes confessional literature that does not involve any orderly system of doctrine, as does the Westminster Confession, which one of the committee’s church historians describes as “a miniature theological summa” but “not a Reformation document.” The committee insists that authentic confessions exist in a variety of forms, and that no one type is to be considered definitive. In the Barmen Declaration, drawn up by German churchmen in the 1930s against Nazi Socialism, the committee finds a precedent for a new confession operating within the general structure of older historic documents but restating the Word of God in its “modern meaning” in the face of a particular threat to the Church.
A wave of anxiety is already sweeping some United Presbyterian congregations. In the proposed expansion of their church Constitution they foresee doctrinal changes that will tend to move the denomination from its historic moorings, ultimately substitute a new authority, and gravely impair church unity. The addition of a “contemporary confession” is seen as the first step in a process whereby ecumenically minded churchmen are venturing to change the church’s historic Constitution, including its Confession of Faith and its Form of Government. They want to know what emergency in American church life requires the adoption of a new Presbyterian statement of faith at this time.
Those who fear an ecclesiastical maneuver to alter traditional Presbyterian standards consider the “contemporary confession” proposal variously motivated. For one thing, it would abet and approve the drift of denominational seminaries from historic Presbyterian theology. In the next place, it would provide a broader theological basis for future ecumenical merger. And it would also legitimize contemporary church practices that violate the Westminster Standards, including the hierarchy’s mounting involvement in politico-social activity.
The “contemporary confession” development is thus seen as conferring a denominational benediction upon trends and practices incompatible with the church’s Confession of Faith and its Constitution. The introduction and approval of elements in conflict with the historic standards might well initiate a movement that could lead to the ultimate replacement of the church’s present Constitution by another authoritative document.
Princeton Professor Edward A. Dowey, Jr., chairman of the eighteen-member committee assigned to draft the modern confession, told a Princeton Seminary Alumni Day gathering that the firm adherence of nineteenth-century American Presbyterianism to the Westminster Confession as irreformable was “perilously close” to the Roman Catholic view of the irreformability of papal definition. He deplored the reluctance to rethink Presbyterian theology and characterized as “the death of theological thought” the requirement once exacted from Presbyterian seminary professors that they teach nothing contrary to the Westminster Standards.
If seminary professors are not bound to uphold the theological tenets of their church, the requirement of creedal subscription cannot and will not long be imposed upon the clergy. Any “contemporary confession,” in these circumstances, can only serve to suggest the “dated” character of any and all confessions, and thus to imply the impermanence of theological beliefs.
It is remarkable that contemporary churchmen formulating modern statements take such an ultimately serious view of their own theological pronouncements while imputing to their denominational forebears a sense of exaggerated doctrinal authority. The ecumenical mood represents a flight from creeds and confessions as a test of truth. Professor Dowey told the Princeton audience that the theology formulated in the Westminster Confession cannot function in the present century and held out the alternative of doing “the best we can with a contemporary statement of faith.”
In the recent past, every proposal for a new Presbyterian confession has failed through the insistence that the Westminster documents represent an unsurpassable achievement. All pleas for a new confession have been silenced by the emphasis that the historic documents need only better interpretation and deeper loyalty. One spokesman for the “contemporary confession” committee has said his group will not venture to “repeal” the Westminster Confession but will honor it as “the great theological document of our tradition in the seventeenth century.” The committee proposes “a book of confessions”—from the Nicene Creed through the Westminster Confession and Shorter Catechism, plus the Barmen Declaration and, of course, the new American Confession now in preparation. The entire series of creeds, confessions, and catechisms with the Barmen Declaration and the 1964 statement would be formally adopted by the church in the same manner. Yet the committee’s major premise is that the Westminster documents do not have the character of timeless truth but are to be read rather as truth for their times, and that latitude of interpretation must be allowed.
The proposed new statement expounds the meaning of redemption narrowed to the theme of “reconciliation” and is built largely around Second Corinthians 5:18. Its theological intention will be to launch the church more firmly into “the work of being a reconciled and reconciling community.” The tentative version begins with the man Jesus, not with the Bible or with Creation—and in this respect breaks with the Westminster Confession. It presents man’s sin against the background of God’s grace in Christ, but not of Creation and the fall of Adam. The doctrine of Creation is presented later under the exposition of God’s love. The doctrine of God is cast in a trinitarian pattern, but the emphasis is functional. The significance of the Bible, expounded under the treatment of the Holy Spirit, further departs from the Westminster Confession. Under the topic of the Spirit, the new life in Christ is expounded before the subject of Scripture. The draft declares that Jesus Christ is the Word of God and that “the church has received the Old and New Testaments as the unique and normative witness, as God’s Word, and has set them apart from other writings as Holy Scripture.” But there is no doctrine of biblical inspiration.
In the second half of the draft, two sections on the doctrine of redemption and reconciliation are frankly intended as a revision of the Westminster Standards. These changes spring from the modern ecclesiastical “post-Enlightenment” view of the Church as “the reconciling community.” Divine calling and reconciliation are correlated with the Church’s mission in the world as a reconciling community, and this mission is expounded in relation to all manner of social commitments. The Church’s task in social education and action is regarded as so comprehensive that, in the words of one interpreter of the new document, the “whole business of civil rights is the most trivial first step.” The document relates church action aggressively to the political resolution of poverty and to policy relating to international conflict.
For most Presbyterians the Scriptures and the Constitution of their church express the basis of all their religious hopes and spiritual expectations. Were Presbyterian leaders to veer from the Westminster documents in order to rely exclusively on the Scriptures in an age of ecumenical exploration, something could be said for such a move. Or changes in the confession to more modern English and the revision of biblical references no longer consistent with reverent contemporary scholarship may be needed. But the “contemporary confession” looks beyond both Scripture and the Westminster Standards to twentieth-century affirmations that are offered as Spirit-guided insights reflecting the spirit of modern ecumenism.
The Westminster Confession of Faith continues to be a scholarly theological achievement of gigantic proportions based squarely upon the Word of God. Many Presbyterians will regard this new statement as a departure from the doctrinal formulation upon which that great denomination was built and a justification of corporate ecclesiastical involvement in politico-social affairs. It is a matter for concern throughout the whole evangelical community that despite their great theological heritage, Presbyterians are increasingly divided over what their confession ought to be.
From One Generation To Another
The Church is confronted with a breakdown in the process of Christian training, evident in altered standards in the home and in the failure of many congregations to hold their young people during the transition to adulthood. Behind the blurring of values among youth today there lies widespread biblical illiteracy. This is therefore a time for a return to scriptural principles.
In his final address to the children of Israel, Moses declared: “Lay to heart all the words which I enjoin upon you this day, that you may command them to your children, that they may be careful to do all the words of this law. For it is no trifle for you, but it is your life …” (Deut. 32:46, 47, RSV). This same theme occurs in Psalm 78: “Tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might, and the wonders he has wrought” (v. 4, RSV).
We may look to God to reverse the present trend if the Church and Christian parents go back to faithful instruction in his Word. “Thy word have I hid in mine heart, that I might not sin against thee” (Ps. 119:11) is still the principle on which a new generation must be trained. Yet a famine of the Word of God prevails among millions of our youth.
One generation is responsible to the next. Not to instruct children in the Scriptures is to withhold from them the food on which the growth of their souls depends.
Shattering The American Image
United States government efforts to create a favorable image abroad are often sadly undone by the personal behavior of American servicemen. Our image abroad ought at least to portray an America committed to decency. Yet that image is often shattered beyond recognition by servicemen who buy the gratification of their lust and debase the people they are there to help.
Reports of immoral behavior by American military men abroad have reached shocking proportions. The Rev. Ernst W. Karsten, former Army chaplain, and now director of the Lutheran Service Center in Seoul, finds a “frightening prevalence” of sexual immorality among American servicemen in South Korea. He reports that 90 per cent of the G.I.’s indulge “more or less frequently” in illicit sexuality. General Hamilton H. Howze, commander of American armed forces in South Korea, agrees with Karsten that immorality prevails among U. S. personnel, and says, “We are working continuously with the ROK [Republic of Korea] government in an effort to resolve it.” A Christian Reformed serviceman writes of the “constant bragging of fellow servicemen who have made promiscuity a pleasant habit.” “It is not uncommon,” he says, “to meet officers who proudly show pictures of their families in the States while a painted Korean whore hangs on an arm.”
Recourse to a prostitute by a lonely boy is a lapse soon regretted. But for some it has become a way of life. It is even a common practice for soldiers to “own” a girl. The Christian Reformed serviceman writes, “The soldier lives with his girl during his off-duty time.… When he leaves Korea, he ‘sells’ her to a newcomer. If he is broke, he may ‘rent’ her out to others. Under such circumstances, of course, venereal disease is as common as a cold in the head. Forty per cent of the troops serving in Korea during a year will get VD. A young boy may be horrified the first time this happens to him, but he is kidded out of his shock, and often becomes a repeater who never learns and ceases to care.”
According to William D. Carlsen, matters in Thailand seem much the same. Korat, its third largest city, has been transformed to meet the “needs” of U. S. service personnel. Korat formerly boasted one nightclub, “for the benefit of the Thai who had acquired an American education,” Carlsen remarks. “With the coming of the G. I.’s over 100 ‘Welcome and Joy’ nightclubs broke out all over town. Most of them are fronts for brothels.… My neighbor, a Thai public health nurse, told me her unit had as many as 4,000 girls under treatment at one time. What used to go on in back alleys has been brought out into public view by G. I.’s.” One U. S. military policeman told Carlsen the folks at home wouldn’t believe him if he told them “how depraved the men are.”
There are, of course, servicemen who withstand the combination of loneliness and the temptation of the “street flowers,” as Korea’s prostitutes are called. Happily they are helped by (an inadequate number of) U. S. chaplains, and by missionaries who digress from their task of evangelizing the natives to help America’s young men. Yet the over-all picture is depressing and frightening, not only for the “American image,” but also for the “Christian image.”
In Korat, Thailand, according to Carlsen, “Eighty per cent of the servicemen give some church affiliation but less than 15 per cent … are regular attendants at the camp chapel,” the only place they can hear the Gospel in English on a Sunday morning.
If the American churches consider their image in Korea and Thailand, they must surely ask themselves what they once taught these members, and what they are doing for them now.
Few pulpit utterances of recent years have occasioned as much vigorous comment as the sermon of Dean Francis B. Sayre, Jr., at the National Cathedral (Episcopal) in Washington on September 13. In it he said that the selfish materialism of our society has led to “a sterile choice” in the Presidential campaign between “a man of dangerous ignorance and devastating uncertainty” and one “whose public house is splendid in every appearance but whose private lack of ethic must inevitably introduce termites at the very foundation.” And now from the perspective of several weeks and in the light of the election that is now only days away, some implications of the sermon may well stand re-examination.
Was the dean justified in speaking as he did? To raise the question should not cast doubt upon the right of the pulpit to speak out on politics as relating to religion and morality and the national welfare, provided always that legislation and specific candidates and political parties are not endorsed. It is simply to ask whether the dean spoke responsibly and in the authentic prophetic tradition that is an important element of a biblical ministry.
At the heart of that tradition there is a particularism characteristic of the Old Testament prophets. Elijah, Amos, Micah, Jeremiah, and their fellow prophets criticized men in high places and named particular transgressions. But Dean Sayre condemned both candidates without presenting evidence. And although two weeks later he again spoke about the election, he offered no facts to support his earlier denigration of the nominees. Surely if ministers feel constrained to discuss morality in politics, they should do so prophetically and in conformity with the principle that a man is presumed innocent unless proved guilty.
The selfish materialism of our American society is indeed disturbing. It is without doubt reflected in politics. Nevertheless, the present campaign with all its ambiguities concerns great issues relating to integrity of administration, human rights, public welfare, national security, and world peace. Upon issues such as these the electorate must decide.
A Presidential contest, like all of human life, mirrors something beyond contemporary mores; it stands under the sovereignty of the God who works in the affairs of sinful men and, in judgment or blessing, carries forward his eternal purpose as he wills. It is to God alone that every public official as well as every private citizen is ultimately responsible.
Although a campaign for the highest office in the land is not a popularity contest, the personal qualifications of men who would assume the awful responsibility of the White House—and tragic experience demands the inclusion of Vice-Presidential candidates in this statement—must be taken with the utmost seriousness. At the same time there is the danger of so debating personal qualifications through ill-founded charges and counter-charges that some voters may stultify their citizenship by concluding that “a sterile choice” really justifies them in staying away from the polls. On the contrary, such a choice, even if the designation were accurate, must be interpreted as a summons to fuller study and clearer discernment of the momentous issues none but the blind can fail to see in this election.
As the Presidential race nears its close, there is a growing need for the courage to believe that, as we vote according to knowledge instead of emotion and choose out of concern for the welfare of others above that of self, we may trust our country to the God who graciously uses earthen vessels.
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