The following is a slightly edited version of a blog post I originally wrote for the Trinity Fairness Group, published on December 22, 2013.
Trinity is being led to believe the PC(USA) does not unequivocally uphold the authority of scripture. But is this really true? No. So before we let this concerning accusation take us to the point of division we should attempt to understand what is actually going on with the PC(USA) related to authority of scripture.
Earlier this year Los Ranchos Presbytery hosted a discernment event and invited three panelists, representing progressive, moderate and conservative views, to address concerns being raised in the PC(USA), including the authority and interpretation of scripture. The panelist were Laird Stuart, retired PC(USA) pastor and interim president of San Francisco Theological Seminary, Jack Haberer, editor of The Presbyterian Outlook, and Dana Allin, ECO Presbyterian synod executive. In the video below each panelist unequivocally upholds the authority of scripture.
The entire video is only 18 minutes long. It is thoughtful, enlightening and well worth watching in its entirety.
One of the statements made by Laird Stuart starts to bring the real issue into focus. Laird said,
“We have, as Presbyterians, decided, often through long periods of struggle like what we’re going through now, that certain passages are no longer binding and authoritative, but that has never meant that scripture as a whole loses its authority or is cast out.”
It’s because through long struggle we have learned to read the scriptures according to faith and grace in Christ. We read them Christologically, realizing that often passages, particularly those that we naively read as normative instruction, commands, laws, are historically and culturally conditioned, and so cannot be so easily read to apply as law to us. We read the scripture as instructing us in faith in Christ, and a life of faith, faithfulness, which does not mean legal obedience to all that might have been taken as law.
Paul Rack, Stated Clerk of the Presbytery of Elizabeth, has published a response to the claim being made about the denomination rejecting the authority of scripture,
“. . . everything they complain is a ‘rejection of Biblical authority’ has actually been the church responding self-critically to the broader witness of Scripture. We feel this holds the Bible in higher regard than to force it into a doctrinal straitjacket based on a few verses, arbitrarily chosen to prop up the values, doctrines, principalities, and powers of another age.”
The footnote in the Comparative Matrix, provided to the congregation at Trinity, points to different interpretations of scripture in the denomination as the basis for claiming the PC(USA) does not allow any particular interpretation to be authoritative for the Church.
But, the PC(USA) is not dismissing the authority of scripture when it refuses to allow a particular interpretation to be authoritative. The difference is subtle but significant.
The second point referenced in the Comparative Matrix footnote claims there has been a tendency in the PC(USA) “to replace the phrase ‘in obedience to’ Scripture with the phrase ‘guided by’ Scripture.” This is also misleading.
Jack Haberer addresses “guidance” versus “obedience to” in the panel discussion video above. Jack was working with The Presbyterian Coalition to bring fidelity and chastity language to the Church in 1996 when the “Fidelity and Chastity” amendment was approved by the General Assembly. But he and others who had worked to bring this language to the Church were surprised that “obedience to” scripture had been included with the amendment when it came out of the subcommittee of the committee at General Assembly who was working on it.
Jack and others knew that language of “obedience to” scripture was going to be a problem because it was not in the Book of Order at the time, or at any other time that he knew of. Previously the Book of Order had said we were to be “guided” by scripture. “Obedience to” scripture has also not been our confessional language, either.
One of the reasons Jack believes we have traditionally used language of being “guided” by scripture is because,
“the Bible has too often been used as a hammer, taking one text out of context, to say you have to obey that, and you have to obey that, and most especially by men toward women.”
He goes on to say we have a long history of being a little bit more cautious than this when speaking about the role of scripture. Our obedience is to God, who has inspired the scriptures, and we are to totally obey God, understanding God’s will as the scriptures guide.
Trinity, let’s stay PC(USA)