Yesterday I posted my response to the Fellowship of Presbyterians’ Polity Draft. This post will briefly summarize and respond to the companion Theology Draft released at the same time on the groups’ website.
The Theology Draft does three things: it addresses the question of a theological standard (namely, confessional statements) for the New Reformed Body, articulates some Essential Tenets, and then asks some critical questions about the theological practices that will shape the group’s life together. I don’t consider myself a participant in the Fellowship, but I’m taking them at their word that they want public input.
I’m most interested in the Essential Tenets. The current Book of Confessions of the PC (USA) is the proposed answer to the question about standards and statements, which is sure to please many and rankle others. The third section of the Theology Draft sketches out the “theological friendships” that the Fellowship hopes will become a normative part of the life of pastors and elders in their new denomination. But, to me, the Essential Tenets are what deserve the closest attention.
And not really the tenets themselves. I have plenty to say about them, but I think the most significant fact is that they’re offered at all and that they’re given such weight in the Polity Draft. The Fellowship clearly expects adherence to these tenets to create a kind of theological cohesion that they are disappointed does not presently exist in the PC (USA). I have serious doubts about that expectation, both in its intent and likelihood.
As to their intent, the authors of the Theological Draft write in its foreward:
a collection of confessions lends itself to the wisdom of identifying what is essential within them. our theological ideas and inclinations as a church are far too diffuse to unite us. we reject the proposition that theology divides. instead, we affirm the proposition that truth tends toward unity, yet we are the first generation of presbyterian officers who do not have in the same ordination question the words truth and unity. identifying essentials necessarily and rightly focuses our theological conversation and our life together.
That “a collection of confessions lends itself to the wisdom of identifying what is essential within them” is a questionable assertion. The move to name essentials within the Reformed theological heritage strikes me less as an imperative driven by wisdom as one driven by efficiency. An agreed upon list of essentials is a useful rubric for determining membership in a body and for establishing the boundaries of its teaching. But I don’t think it follows that wisdom dictates such a move.
Wisdom compels people toward what is good, right, true, just, and honorable–not necessarily what is essential. There’s a lot in the Book of Confessions that is good, right, and true, and our life as confessional Christians ought largely to be taken up with mining that gold for Christian formation and mission. But the essentialist project wants instead to select a few confessional gems and convert them into plastic rulers for measuring fidelity to the covenant of church membership and ordination. To do so cheapens them.
Here, then, is my greatest objection to the Theology Draft: it’s inelegant. It’s a rude instrument for assessing (or even coercing) the “rightness” of faith. It’s full of the language of Reformed theological tradition (see the wordle below) and sentences like, “In his essence, God is infinite, eternal, immutable, impassible, and ineffable.” But it reads like an ordination exam. It reads like something written by someone who’s hand shakes as they write because their disapproving teacher is lurking behind them and peering over their shoulder.
This is how Essential Tenets must read, like traffic citations. And that’s why I don’t like them and don’t want them. But to those in the Fellowship who seek in them a ground of covenantal unity and who will press them into the service of concentrating a self-selected group of Christians into a theological corps bound together by its agreement in faith’s
fundamentals essentials, may you find what you seek.
The Fellowship Theology Draft as a wordle
The entire Book of Confessions as a wordle