American denominations are having increasing difficulty figuring out who they are. The identity crisis is felt with particular intensity in the Reformed family of churches, which have been creedally based. These denominations have required their ordinands to assent to confessions that have been quite specific and have been squarely based on their interpretation of biblical revelation.

What will these changing churches do with their historic doctrinal symbols? Will they throw out such standards as the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Shorter Catechism, the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort? Will these historic statements be minimized in influence by being included in a larger set of standards whose parts are theologically incompatible? Should they be translated into contemporary language without a change of their essential meaning? Should they be amended to bend to the times?

The Roman Catholic Church, too, is wondering what it believes. Recently the Bible has come to the fore in Catholic life in a way unknown for generations. Numerous baptized and confirmed Catholics have come to know Christ as Saviour. They believe the Bible and do not accept some of the teachings of their church that are not biblically based (e.g., the immaculate conception and the assumption of Mary, and transubstantiation). The church teaches that those who do not believe these doctrines fall from grace. But the new believers reject that teaching, too. When liberal higher criticism, the theology of revolution, and Marxist views are added to the mix, it is clear that the Catholic Church is faced with a wide variety of doctrinal opinions, ranging from far left to far right.

In the largest of the American denominations of Reformed heritage, the United Presbyterian Church, the Westminster Confession and Catechisms were once the undisputed doctrinal standards. A decade ago the church became de jure what it had been de facto for some time, an inclusive body that allows adherence to theological views that are irreconcilable with the Westminster standards. The adoption of the Confession of 1967, a Book of Confessions, and a new set of ordination vows made it official.

William P. Thompson, the United Presbyterians’ top executive, stated in a recent speech to the Presbyterians United for Biblical Concerns that the church is an inclusive body in which widely variant views are acceptable. An official report to the 1976 UP General Assembly stated that 40 per cent of the people in the pew do not believe the Bible to be the “infallible rule of faith and practice.” Given the denomination’s creedal looseness, the figure is not surprising.

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Very recently the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. (Southern) went through the agonies of writing and voting on a new confession that would commit it to the same creedal confusion that its northern counterpart now has. At least in part, the writing of this confession was designed to further the cause of reunion with the northern church. The document failed to receive the support of three-fourths of the presbyteries, and it was rejected. The fact remains, however, that multitudes of Southern Presbyterians do not believe and practice the teachings of the Westminster Confession, which is the denomination’s primary creedal standard. No doubt the advocates of this new confession, which parallels the 1967 document of the northern church, will bring it to the fore again with the confidence that sooner or later it will become a part of the church’s confessional stance.

While all this was going on, the Reformed Church in America put together in 1974 a new confession entitled Our Song of Hope. The intention was to make it a part of the church’s standards along with the historic documents in 1978, when the denomination celebrates its 350th anniversary. Our Song of Hope is more poetic than the new Presbyterian confessions, and it suffers from the ambiguities inherent in the poetic mode of writing. While it might be consonant with the early creeds of the church, it certainly varies at important points from the Belgic Confession and the Canons of Dort.

The authors of Our Song of Hope specify that “one can feel considerable tension between ‘Our Song’ and the Canons of Dort in the understanding of ‘election’ and between ‘Our Song’ and the Heidelberg Catechism in the use of the word ‘righteousness.’ ” To the careful reader, other and perhaps more important differences surface in Our Song. People in the Reformed tradition will watch this development with interest to see whether the church follows the example of the United Presbyterian Church or the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. when the matter is voted on in 1978.

The Christian Reformed Church, too, has theological tension, though it has taken a different form. That church has been reconsidering its theological image by means of internal reports. The most recent of these, Report 44, has caused considerable anxiety in the denomination, and a number of laymen have expressed their concern. Report 44 may be a move toward what the new confessions have done in the other Reformed bodies. At best it can be said Report 44 is ambiguous compared to the church’s traditional confessional commitment.

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Confessional commitments should be consistent. If a change in doctrine occurs, then the earlier statements of that doctrine should be canceled so that there is a consistency of theological image. A denomination should not, for example, teach eternal security while also teaching that a believer can lose his salvation.

If this principle is not perceived, the ultimate result could be a repetition of the pattern of the Unitarian-Universalist churches, in which theists, atheists, and agnostics gather together to worship the God who is and isn’t, to pray to the God who does and does not hear prayer, and to look for the kingdom of God that does and does not exist.

A New Page For India

Robert F. Goheen, the former Princeton University president who is President Carter’s nominee to be ambassador to India, has no small assignment. In a period when the White House is emphasizing human rights, the new envoy is going to represent America to a nation of over 620 million human beings. He is returning to the land of his birth (his parents were Presbyterian missionaries there) as a new government begins to shape its policies.

When Indira Gandhi and her Congress party were voted out of office, their successors promised to restore the freedoms that had been taken away in what Mrs. Gandhi saw as an emergency situation. Her defenders, including some prominent American churchmen, assert that what she did was necessary; otherwise the country would have fallen prey to worse evils. Still, when political opponents are jailed, thousands of men involuntarily undergo vasectomies, and government bureaucrats control the media, the medicine seems no better than the disease.

The coalition that ended the thirty-year rule of the Congress party is an untested one, forged during the months of repression. The new prime minister, Morarji Desai, is an idealist with practical political experience. He has been described as a “Hindu Calvinist” and an ascetic. He told Time magazine correspondent James Shepherd that he was sure of his positions “because I’m an instrument of God.”

Among the matters that the former “missionary kid” from the United States should monitor closely will be the new government’s position on religion. While India has been admitting a few new missionaries in recent years, the total number of overseas Christian workers there has been declining. National Christians, meanwhile, have begun to get more of a vision of their missionary responsibility (see March 4 issue, page 49, and March 18 issue, page 60). There are still many restrictions, however, and a good yardstick to measure the government’s determination to allow freedom will be its actions in the area of religious liberty.

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The Capacity Not to Covet

It may take some biblical virtue to cut the inflation rate. A substantial number of people are going to have to forego increases in income, either business or personal or both. They are going to have to do this while others exploit the disparity to their own financial advantage. What is needed, in short, is the capacity not to covet.

President Carter’s goal of reducing the inflation rate by 2 per cent by the end of 1979 is certainly a worthy one. But most of the plan appears to be voluntary, and there are no magic new formulas. Its effectiveness seems to depend upon a great popular outpouring of altruism.

The sobering energy analysis is not going to make things any easier. Neither is the fact that a few days before President Carter announced his plan, the steel industry had agreed to a new three-year union contract that provides for hefty wage increases. The settlement was described in the news media as compatable to the package won by the automakers, reportedly a 34 per cent boost in wages over three years. Within the week, Ford and General Motors announced that they had increased the wages of their top executives to nearly a million dollars a year, a move hardly calculated to reduce the envy of the rank and file.

Who’s Speaking For the Family?

For years the National Council of Churches has been promoting the week preceding Mother’s Day as Christian Family Week. Following precedent, the NCC’s current director of family ministries and human sexuality, G. William Sheek, produced an article about the week and sent it to religious publications early this year. He wrote about what he considered the reasonable assumption “that the Christian can affirm male and female in a variety of sexual modes while still affirming the value of God’s clear gender identity.” It was not the kind of piece that would immediately capture the interest of the lay reader.

That article, distributed in February, was not the last word, however. Last month, in a letter to the Dade County, Florida, commissioners, Sheek took issue with singer Anita Bryant’s campaign against a homosexual-rights ordinance that the county board had passed. (In the first court test of the ordinance, a local judge ruled it valid, but a referendum is set for June 7 to let the voters decide.) Miss Bryant has called her organization “Save Our Children” and has insisted that her primary interest is that of a Christian mother. Sheek told the commissioners that the singer and her supporters “do not represent the total Christian community,” and he cited a 1975 NCC governing-board resolution on “civil rights without discrimination as to the affectional or sexual preference” to prove his point. He added that it “simply is not true” that (as Miss Bryant had implied) the Bible clearly condemns homosexuality.

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Sheek’s opinion is certainly not the motherhood-and-apple-pie view that keeps Mother’s Day dinner-table conversations uncontroversial. Neither is it biblical.

In Defense Of Umpires

Technology produces problems as well as pleasures, even in the sports world. A current point of controversy is whether replay screens in sports stadiums and arenas ought to be allowed in effect to challenge the judgment of game officials. Umpires and referees must make instant decisions based entirely on what they see.

One of our baser instincts is to like to see another person proved wrong, so the fans love these replays. But the officials are left in a difficult spot. No matter how skilled and conscientious they are, they cannot be expected to be right every time. So let him or her who is perfect first cast a stone.

A Focus On Food

While much of the world struggles to get enough to eat, Americans find themselves trying to decide what foods from the available abundance are best to eat. Controversies abound on the effects of various foods and food additives. Experts often disagree, leaving the average person, who has neither the time nor the ability to keep up to date on research, in a quandary. Physicians are not much help; therapy is enough for them to handle. There is not yet much of a place in our society for specialists in preventive medicine.

How to Eat Right and Feel Great (Tyndale), an easy-reading new book by Virginia and Norman Rohrer, gives us the basis upon which to start sorting things out for ourselves. Firm answers are elusive. But here is a primer on nutrition upon which anyone can build a healthful approach to food. (One of the first things to be learned is that people differ not only in their nutritional requirements but in the way their bodies react to what is eaten.) It is a comprehensive discussion of food as medicine, both preventive and therapeutic. Complex scientific studies are interpreted and made understandable. Illuminating anecdotes and interesting recipes help to maintain the reader’s interest.

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The Rohrers are conscientious Christians whose concern for their fellow human beings extends beyond the body to the soul. Nonetheless, they have understandably stopped short of offering new theological statements. It is probably too early for such an attempt. As in many other disciplines, to correlate tentative data with scriptural principles is a great challenge.

Explaining Birth Facts

Discovery of the term “born again” during 1976 opened many doors of witness to Christians. Not only did the secular writers and cartoonists publicize it, but even some preachers counted it respectable again. Popular use of the term continues this year, sometimes with great misunderstanding.

Some of the secular commentators have vague notions about a connection between reincarnation and being “born again,” while others sneer simply because it involves something (anything) religious. More conscientious but still theologically uninstructed reporters try not to be pejorative by explaining to their readers that the “born again” person feels this or that. These various concepts are probably all that believers can expect from non-believers, many of whom respect Christians while not understanding their convictions. Regrettably, we have failed to communicate simple truth. There is still a tremendous educational job ahead for the Church!

Believers who do try to share their beliefs seldom go further than John 3, where Christ confronts Nicodemus with the necessity of rebirth. But this great passage is only one of the rich New Testament references to being “born again.” A good parallel is First Peter 1:23–25. Nicodemus had asked Christ about the complications of a human physical birth. Peter uses a botanical figure to teach the lesson. Whether for plants or for people, reproduction involves seed, and Peter points to a new kind that does not perish (v. 23). The life of physical seed is limited; spiritual seed has no such limitation.

Peter ties that eternal seed to God’s Word and quotes an Old Testament passage to make his point. From Isaiah 40 he brings in the botanical figure to emphasize the perishability of physical life (v. 24). Even the most beautiful flower fades eventually, but God’s Word never perishes (v. 25). That message (“the good news which was preached to you”) is the seed which results in the new birth. When proclamation is faithful to the Scriptures, people will be born again. As those new believers are obedient, more people will understand what it means to be “born again.”

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