Winter 2003
Volume 7 Number 2
 

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A Living Confession introduction| Page 2 | Page 3 | Drafting the Confession of 1967
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by Ericka Marksbury

Edward Dowey, professor emeritus of the history of Christian doctrine at Princeton Seminary, sits with an old Bible in his lap, his thin fingers slowly turning the worn pages in search of what he calls “some of the most beautiful and profound words that we have ever heard from Scripture.” Arriving at II Corinthians 5:19-20, he reads, “In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”

When a committee was called together following the 1958 union of the Presbyterian Church in the USA and the United Presbyterian Church of North America and given the task of drafting a new confession, they turned to these verses.

“The first thing we decided,” remembers Charles West, PTS’s Stephen Colwell Professor of Christian Ethics Emeritus, “was that in our time, for our place, the theme would be reconciliation. In other words, if you’re going to preach the gospel, present the Christian faith in the mid-20th century, that’s where you start.”

It was a break from the tradition that preceded their work. Other confessions of the church since its earliest days, the committee was well aware, opened with statements about Scripture or about the majesty of God and the depravity of humanity. This confession wanted to say, instead, that everything flows from an understanding of humanity’s reconciliation with God through Jesus Christ.

“We don’t start with how sinful we are and therefore how much we need grace,” West explains. “We start with what Christ has done and discover human sin in the light of it.”

It was bold, but necessary, the drafters believed, to speak in challenging ways to the culture of the church, still deeply rooted in the 17th-century language and ideas of the Westminster Confession. But the new confession was not written for that reason alone.

“Confessions are usually a response to great issues facing the church and the world, situations of crisis in which the church feels compelled to articulate its faith as unambiguously as possible,” explains Daniel Migliore, PTS’s Charles Hodge Professor of Systematic Theology. This one, drafted during a time of racial, international, economic, and sexual crises, Migliore says, emerged as “a pioneering confessional statement of the 20th century.”

Though even the confession’s title acknowledges its time-bound nature, its words continue to speak prophetically today. Under the heading of “Reconciliation in Society,” the Confession of 1967 (C-67) names four broad issues of justice on which God calls the church to act. “The following,” it states, “are particularly urgent at the present time”: the elimination of racial/ethnic discrimination; in politics, the search for cooperation and peace among the nations; the eradication of enslaving poverty; and equality, joy, and respect in male/female relationships. Though progress has been made on some of these critical issues, sadly they still sound all too current.

 

Charles C. West, PTS professor emeritus of Christian ethics (above) was a member of the drafting committee for the Confession of 1967, and attended the Seminary’s recent conference.

Every word of the Confession of 1967 was carefully chosen—from its claim that the church forms out of mission and not mission out of the church, to its statement about pursuing “fresh and responsible relations across every line of conflict, even at risk to [the first draft read, ‘of’] national security.” (Circulating during the Vietnam era, the original wording was highly controversial; some early readers were unhappy with the implication that their national security could be stripped from them. In its current form, this phrase only implies a possible jeopardizing of that security. This issue of national security as it relates to faith is again at the forefront.)

Though the writers spent a painstaking seven years on its formulation, Dowey is quick to point out, “What’s important isn’t always what you write into the confession, but what the reader finds in it.”

That, of course, is different for every reader. When C-67 was introduced, its statement on Scripture was perhaps its most controversial element, and debates over its implications still arise. PTS M.Div. middler Eddie Nabhan admits his own difficulties with that section, saying, “It states that Scriptures, ‘given under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, are nevertheless the words of men, conditioned by the language, thought forms, and literary fashions of the places and times at which they were written.’ It also says the Bible is a ‘prophetic and apostolic testimony in which [the church] hears the Word of God.’ Together, these statements place the responsibility of finding what in the Bible is the Word of God on the shoulders of the church. This idea, in my view, allows us to remove a part of the text or claim it as nonauthoritative on the basis of historical situation or culture—resulting in the church having more authority than the text.”

The writers would argue that they were not trying to emphasize Scripture or the church, but Jesus Christ as “the one sufficient revelation of God” and the Bible as a witness to that revelation. There is freedom, however, for both of these views and others to exist, because of the way the Presbyterian Church (USA) defines its relationship to its confessions.

Continued on next page
 

A Living Confession introduction| Page 2 | Page 3 | Drafting the Confession of 1967
âť Download .pdf version of this article*

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