This is the second post (read the first here) in a series about competing understandings of the Scriptures found in the Presbyterian Church (USA). I am tracking the discussion found in the 1983 position statement, The Presbyterian Understanding and Use of Holy Scripture (.pdf available here) which was adopted by the Presbyterian Church in the United States and carried into the creation of the newly-formed PC USA in 1983.
The central point offered at the beginning of the document is an acknowledgment of the variety of understandings of what the Bible is and how the Bible is to be used both in the life of the church and the life of the individual believer:
Since Holy Scripture is the principal criterion of judgment in taking positions and making decisions, radical differences among us in the way we understand and use Scripture as the rule of faith and practice can weaken our ability to live and work as a community of faith. Especially in the case of theological and ethical decisions that the courts [i.e., councils] of our church [i.e., denomination] must make corporately, the diversity has become an important source of difficulty in deliberation and agreement.
The plurality of views has, if anything, widened since 1983.
In the last post we explored the first four differing views from the list of eight found in the document:
- The inerrancy view
- The supernatural book view
- The infallibility view
- The critical view
- The biblicist view
- The record view
- The political view
- The doctrinalist view
Let’s now turn our attention to the remaining positions.
The Biblicist View
I’m not certain that I am clear on what the framers have in mind. I assume that they’re describing what might be called the liberal baptist view: “I have no creed but the Bible.” Or, it could be a view of Scripture that lends itself more to Biblical theology as set over against the historical tendency of presbyterians to engage in systematic theology. Traditional presbyterianism is Calvinist in nature and the highest expression of that tradition is the Westminster Confession of Faith and Shorter and Larger Catechisms. These standards exclusively informed the theology of the Presbyterian churches from the time 17th Century until the 20th. A Confession and creeds are systematic summaries of the witness of Scripture according to topic or heading. Some presbyterians feel that the project of systematic theology makes the Bible do something it wasn’t meant to do, which is provide a systematic description of what we know about God. I disagree.
The Record View
This view holds that the Bible is “one of the revered documents of the church” but “does not seriously expect it to be illuminating or determining for important issues of faith or life in the present day.” This is a troublesome view which, in my opinion, is the predominating view of Scripture I have observed in my interaction with ministers in two presbyteries of the PC USA. The Bible, we are told, captures the reflections of ancient people as they encountered God–it is their record of the revelation of God rather than revelation itself. This is a seriously deficient view of the Bible, which is a product more of European Romanticism than Scripture Christianity. It produces statements such as “the Biblical writers could not possibly have known [xyz] therefore what they said outdated or does not control…” This view marginalizes Scripture to an inspirational book rather than a rule for faith.
The Political View
Some on both the left and the right seem happy to use the Bible to advance their political agendas. On the left, the Bible has nothing to say about homosexuality but virtually anything said about immigration in any passage is held to be controlling for the church today. On the right, issues of personal morality are focused on sometimes to the neglect of social and structural sin.
The Bracketed View
This view holds that the Bible is our source for religious knowledge alone and ought not to be consulted for anything other than learning doctrine. Frankly, I’m not sure that I know anyone who holds this view but I am sure that it exists in certain hybrid forms with others of these views.
Each of these views has something unique to it and something that it offers to the church. However, each of these views results in a (sometimes vastly) different conclusions as to belief or practice in the church, as we’ll see next week.