What if the nation’s 3,300,000 United Presbyterians were suddenly asked to sign a statement equating the Bible directly with the Word of God?

An overwhelming majority, including many who are theologically inarticulate, would probably subscribe without mental reservation. But the dissident minority includes a literate bloc of clergymen who control denominational headquarters in Philadelphia’s venerable Witherspoon Building. And from that ecclesiastically strategic vantage point the biblical critics are plumping a Barthian yet pragmatically oriented “Confession of 1967.”

Fearing that the new document will supplant the principle of scriptural integrity championed by the time-honored Westminster Confession, evangelicals in United Presbyterian churches throughout the country are discreetly rallying their forces to do battle. The outcome is expected to have wide significance inasmuch as Presbyterian thinkers have traditionally been leaders of evangelical theology in North America (see editorial, page 30).

United Presbyterian conservatives arranged an impressive show of strength at a special two-day conference in Chicago last month. Staged by a new organization known as Presbyterians United for Biblical Confession, the conference sought to coordinate efforts of the thousands of evangelical clergymen seeking to preserve the heritage of the United Presbyterian Church. The group’s key effort to date has been an incisive editorial critique, A Conversation about “The Proposed Confession of 1967,” now widely distributed in two versions.

Another development last month was the unveiling of a blue-ribbon Presbyterian Lay Committee, Inc., dedicated to restoring respect for biblical authority in the official denominational framework. The group, according to President Roger Hull, aims to work with the National Council of United Presbyterian Women and the National Council of United Presbyterian Men in fulfilling five objectives.“To enlarge the emphasis on the teaching of the Bible as the authoritative Word of God in our seminaries and churches; to emphasize at every opportunity the need for preaching the Gospel of redemption with evangelical zeal, the need for regular Bible study and prayer; to encourage ministers and laymen alike to take their place as individuals in society and, as led by the Holy Spirit, to become involved in the social, economic and political problems of our time and to assert their position as Christian citizens on all such matters; to discourage public pronouncements by the Church as a corporate body on political, social and economic issues; to provide an adequate and reliable source of information for laymen on the issues being proposed for consideration at General Assembly and other judicatories in order to enable laymen to express an informed position.” It has been in the planning stage for many months and is part of a restive lay movement in several mainstream denominations. Its nineteen-member board includes Hull, prominent New York insurance executive, chairman J. Howard Pew of Sun Oil, former Governor Arthur B. Langlie of Washington, and TV personality Bud Collyer. Invitations are out for charter members.

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Says Hull, “We are seeking dedicated lay men and women who are concerned about our church and who are willing to become involved at the presbytery, synod and General Assembly level in order to influence the church to exert her efforts to the mission of preaching the Gospel of redemption.”

The bid to involvement is especially important, for some observers feel that indifference and premature surrenders have aided church revisionists. Some evangelicals disappointed over the proposed new confession lament that two or three theological conservatives resigned from the drafting committee.

The pressures to conform often become intense, however, and here and there evangelicals throw in the towel. The latest is Dr. Stuart H. Merriam, a promising preacher whose dispute with New York Presbytery became a cause célèbre in 1962. Citing an assortment of relatively minor improprieties, the presbytery refused to allow him to retain his pulpit at Broadway Presbyterian Church. This fall, the 41-year-old Merriam severed all official ties with the denomination and announced he would return to New Guinea, where he has set up a small, independent missionary effort. Merriam will be accompanied by his bride of two months, the former Caroline Robinson, who served as his secretary at Broadway.

Many theological conservatives among United Presbyterians feel that time and truth are on their side as they stay put and press for their convictions. This was the rationale for the Chicago meeting, where conservatives probed a joint strategy focused on the confession. The main question at Chicago was whether the 4,200-word document was hopelessly heretical or could through amendments be shifted to a more biblical base. The key issue was the new confession’s viewing Scripture, not as the inspired Word of God, but as the mere “normative witness” to the revelation of God in Jesus Christ.

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A broader problem faced by United Presbyterian evangelicals is what to do with those clergy and lay leaders who have made confessional vows in the past but do not now subscribe to them. Whatever else it may or may not be, the new confession is widely described as an effort to make honest men out of heretics. In short, it would legitimatize aberrations by relaxing long-held scriptural standards.

Few evangelicals are willing to crusade for a wholesale exodus of heretics, and most prefer an attempt to salvage their denomination over desertion. But short of a mass exodus, United Presbyterians will have to work out an alternative to assigning official sanction to intellectual dishonesty.

The “subscription” questions actually are an issue separate from the debate over confessions. The committee that drafted the proposed new confession also took the initiative in recommending far-reaching changes in the theological test given candidates for ordination and commissioning (see May 7, 1965, issue, page 53).

The fate of the confession and allied proposals is currently in the hands of a specially appointed revision committee, at least five of whose fifteen members are known as theological conservatives. The committee is open to suggestions until January 15 and is expected to present an amended version of the proposed confession to the United Presbyterian General Assembly in Boston in May.

If the confessional package is approved in Boston, it will be submitted to a vote of presbyteries. Then, if two-thirds of the presbyteries voice approval, formal adoption will be possible at the 1967 General Assembly in Portland, Oregon.

Westminster Confession

Caught in the middle of the current theological strife among United Presbyterians is the majestic Westminster Confession of Faith, which dates back to the 1640s and includes what is perhaps the most eloquent rationale for scriptural authority to be found in the annals of Christendom (see next page). The proposed Confession of 1967 does not explicitly unseat a prior claim for the Westminster Confession, for the latter is slated, with six others, to be preserved alongside the new creed. In at least several aspects, however, the new confession obviously supersedes Westminster, which while not considered flawless has nevertheless served as a standard for Presbyterian and Reformed groups everywhere.

The Westminster Confession was the most illustrious of several historic theological documents produced in the strife-torn Britain of the seventeenth century by the group now referred to as “the Westminster Divines.” They were the 151 members of a special advisory commission appointed by Parliament to determine what constituted the true church. Thirty of them were members of Parliament, and the rest were clergy men from England and Scotland. They conferred in Westminster Abbey, holding more than a thousand all-day meetings.

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While most of the clergymen on the commission had been ordained by the Church of England, they had become nonconformists when King Charles I attempted to force upon them doctrines they considered alien. The doctrines of this group of nonconformists eventually became those of the Presbyterian communion.

Conversation Sampler

Here are significant excerpts from a revised version of A Conversation about “The Proposed Confession of 1967,” from Presbyterians United for Biblical Confession:

What are the merits of the proposed “Confession”?

It is a serious and needed effort to make the creed of our church speak to the need of our day in the language of our day. It endeavors to state the essence of our faith and practice so that it may be understood by United Presbyterians and by other churches in ecumenical conversations.

In what areas does the proposed “Confession” need to be revised to make it more truly Biblical, evangelical, and consistent with our Reformed faith?

I. The deity of Christ should be affirmed with no less clarity and emphasis than his humanity.

II. The inspiration of the Bible needs to be affirmed and a clearer statement of its authority presented.

III. Reconciliation between God and man needs stronger emphasis and the requirement of repentance and faith needs to be more clearly affirmed.

IV. The section “Reconciliation in Society” needs some revision and also extension to additional areas of social concern.

V. Under the questions for ordination, the subscription required regarding “the Scriptures” and “the confessions” needs to be changed and strengthened.

What is the central theme of the proposed “Confession”?

“God’s reconciling work in Jesus Christ and the mission of reconciliation to which He has called his Church …” (lines 34, 35).

How is God’s part in this work of reconciliation interpreted?

As a “reconciling act” seemingly fully accomplished.

How is man’s part interpreted?

Man is apparently represented as a beneficiary of God’s act of reconciliation regardless of personal response. The “Confession” states: “The risen Christ is the Savior of all men” (line 69), “In him man is victorious over sin and death” (lines 59, 60), “God’s reconciliation of the human race creates one universal family” (lines 298, 299).

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But is man not required to repent and believe in order to be effectively reconciled?

So the Scriptures teach, and we feel this truth needs to be stated more clearly and emphatically than is done in the proposed “Confession.”

What about the key passage in 2 Cor. 5:20 to which the Committee refers in its “Introductory Comment and Analysis”?

This passage itself indicates that in the world some are and some are not reconciled. Very strangely, the concluding statement of 2 Cor. 5:20 is omitted: “We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”

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