Presbyterians have been debating whether its ordained officers should be required to adhere, or subscribe, to a certain set of tenets or beliefs since its earliest days in America. Initially it was the Westminster Standards in the 18th and 19th centuries and later the famous “five points” in the early 20th century.
Today, once again, there is great concern by those advocating a split from the PC(USA) that the denomination does not specifically name its essential tenets. David S Kennedy, editor of The Presbyterian published an editorial titled “The Present Conflict”, in which he wrote the battle shaping up between conservatives and liberals is “the renewal of the old primitive conflict between cultured heathenism and historic Christianity.” He wrote this in 1911. It’s like deja vu all over again, and again.
In the PC(USA) service for ordination we ask those to be ordained, “Do you sincerely receive and adopt the essential tenets of the Reformed faith as expressed in the confessions of our church as authentic and reliable expositions of what Scripture leads us to believe and do, and will you be instructed and led by those confessions as you lead the people of God?”
ECO’s service for ordination asks those to be ordained, “Will you receive, adopt, and be bound by the Essential Tenets of ECO as a reliable exposition of what Scripture teaches us to do and to believe, and will you be guided by them in your life and ministry?
Clearly there is a difference between receiving and adopting the essential tenets of the Reformed faith as expressed in the Book of Confessions and receiving, adopting and being bound by the Essential Tenets of ECO.
Of course the concern is that without the moorings of specifically defined essential tenets the denomination will drift theologically. But we’ve drifted before, to better places (we’ve drifted past restricting women from leadership and slavery as two examples). What certainly looked like drift to some at the time, we now see as a push by the Holy Spirit. Why would we want to tie ourselves down so tightly now?
In the early 20th century when the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy was threatening to tear some denominations apart, Trinity’s own denomination at the time, The United Presbyterian Church of North America, chose not to tie itself to the five points of Fundamentalism.
- The inerrancy of the Bible
- The virgin birth of Christ
- His substitutionary atonement
- Christ’s bodily resurrection
- The authenticity of miracles
Our predecessor denomination was in agreement that these five doctrines in question were true and should be believed, but they were unwilling to claim them as essential tenets of the Christian faith upon which salvation depended.
At the time of the controversy Dr. W. E. McCulloch published an editorial in The United Presbyterian titled, “What are the Christian Fundamentals?” His sentiment was typical of the United Presbyterian Church during this period. Dr. McCulloch maintained everyone should make up his own list of “fundamentals” to see just where their own faith stands. He submitted his own list as follows:
- The Fatherhood of God
- Salvation through Jesus Christ
- God’s abiding presence in and through the Holy Spirit
- God’s judgement of rational beings and Christ’s return
- Eternal life with God
I think it is fair to say a part of Trinity’s DNA includes the resistance of being tied to a specific set of essential tenets.
Trinity, let’s stay PC(USA)