HONORING CHRIST IN OUR RELATIONSHIPS

You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason with your neighbor, lest you bear sin because of him.

Leviticus 19:17 (RSV)

Background

As a newly elected Commissioner to the Presbytery of Chicago I attended my first Assembly on April 24, 2012. A few days prior I downloaded the Call Papers. One paper stood out, an overture from the Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago titled “On honoring Christ in our relationships with one another.” [1] What caught my attention was that this was a response to fallout from the Amendment 10-A decision. Thus, it would shed light on the continuing debate and consequences associated with the PCUSA’s changes in ordination standards.

The overture is organized into two sections. In the first, passages from Scripture and the Confessions are presented and discussed as motivating factors for the statement recommended to be approved by the 220th General Assembly. The second section is a statement of the rationale for proposing the overture.

A cursory reading of the first section didn’t raise any flags until the second to last sentence:

“We commit ourselves to continue respectful dialogue with those who hold differing convictions, to welcome one another for God’s glory, and not to vilify those whose convictions we believe to be in error.”

Use of the word “vilify,” with one definition being “to utter slanderous and abusive statements against,” was striking. Clearly the debates following adoption of Amendment 10-A must have become heated and uncharitable for such an extreme word to be appropriate. Certainly we could all easily support a call to respectful dialogue as the church struggles with this divisive issue.

However, all prospects for an easy affirmation ended with the first two paragraphs of the rationale section. Here, the two poles of “vilification” are defined. Whereas the first paragraph states:

“Some Presbyterians read the Scriptures to condemn all forms of same-gender sexual intimacy, and sometimes accuse other Presbyterians of abandoning the authority of Scripture, ignoring the need for repentance, and leading persons into serious sin.”

the second states:

“Some Presbyterians read the Scriptures to bless committed same-gender relationships, and sometimes accuse other Presbyterians of bigotry, responsibility for bullying and suicides, and other harm caused by anti-gay attitudes.”

I was simply stunned that the core theological arguments against adoption of Amendment 10-A were here juxtaposed with personal attacks, in effect accusations of culpability for violence against gays. Following are two opposition responses about the adoption of 10-A that support this point (emphasis added).

Alan Wisdom, Institute on Religion & Democracy vice president and Presbyterian Action director:

“Now we belong to a denomination that gives no clear counsel on sexuality. It is a denomination that will not necessarily support its members as they struggle to obey the high standards of Scripture. It will not call them to repentance when they fall short of those standards, and it will not offer God’s forgiveness for what it no longer recognizes as sexual sins. … By dropping the ‘fidelity and chastity’ standard, the PCUSA separates itself from the Scriptures that are supposed to be its ‘rule of faith and life.’ It separates itself from the historic Christian tradition and the vast majority of the global Church. It separates itself from many of its own members who remain committed to upholding ‘fidelity and chastity.”

Presbyterians for Renewal:

“We deeply grieve this unfaithful action, for it brings great harm to the life and witness of the PCUSA. We have prayed that our denomination would uphold this biblical standard, and we have worked to maintain it. But now a line has been crossed. This revision of our Book of Order signals a massive change in our covenantal life and a departure from the beliefs and practice of the historic and global church. We who are committed to holding fast the clear teaching of scripture must pray and work all the more to discern how to move forward with biblical faithfulness in and for a denomination that has lost its way.”

These two overture rationale paragraphs have raised profound questions about the nature of our denomination’s theological and policy disputes, the most pressing being:

  • What are the fundamental boundaries that divide the two sides?
  • What do the working-out of these differences imply for the future?

What follows is one elder’s attempt to address these questions. I will begin with a detailed commentary on the Overture in question. The goal here is to identify key issues and discontinuities. Next, I will propose a theory that attempts to explain the identified discontinuities and issues. Finally, I will discuss the implications and propose ideas for progress.

The Public Record

Context

The Session of the Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago does not appear to have composed the original text of “On honoring Christ in our relationships with one another.” The earliest text that I have been able to find is from the Westminster Presbyterian Church Minneapolis, Minnesota, dated January 26, 2012. Additional overtures with the same title and text have been found for the Presbytery of Sacramento (Approved on Saturday, February 25, 2012) and the Presbytery of San Francisco. I don’t presume to know the original source.

The overture was amended and approved by the Presbytery of Chicago at its April 24 meeting by voice vote (I voted against approval). There was minimal discussion prior to the vote. One commissioner proposed modifications to the language (approved) and a second asked for specific Scriptural examples where practicing homosexuals are affirmed as church leaders (no response). The general attitude was perhaps best captured in a “tweet” from the meeting, “The overture might be sad, but honest #chipres.” The approved, amended overture was retitled “On Committing Ourselves to Respectful Dialogue with Those who Hold Differing Convictions” and sent to the General Assembly.

The following commentary is based on the amended text from the Presbytery of Chicago. The operative perspective is that of a Presbyterian elder who believes that Scripture communicates God’s unchanging truth through language that has a discernable objective meaning. We may fail to fully understand, thus requiring a continuing process of reformation. However, that which we are attempting to understand in the Scripture is a fixed, comprehensible and absolute standard to which we owe our joyful obedience.

Commentary

The following specialized styles will be used to differentiate text from the Overture document and my commentary on that text.

Text from the overture.

Commentary, not part of the overture text

************

On Committing Ourselves to Respectful Dialogue with Those who Hold Differing Convictions—From the Presbytery of Chicago.

The Presbytery of Chicago respectfully overtures the 220th General Assembly (2012) to make the following statement:

Because

  • Jesus taught that our highest ethical obligation is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself” [Luke 10:27]; and “this is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, when you love each other” [John 13:35];
  • having experienced Christ’s gracious love for us while we are yet sinners, we are called to “welcome each other, in the same way that Christ also welcomed you, for God’s glory” [Romans 15:7];
  • we affirm the solemn commitments expressed in the constitutional questions for ordination, installation, and commissioning, including that we intend to fulfill our ministries in obedience to Jesus Christ, under the authority of Scripture, and continually guided by our confessions;   that we will be friends among our colleagues in ministry; that we seek to follow the Lord Jesus Christ, love our neighbors, and work for the reconciliation of the world [W-4.4003];

I take the authors and supporters at their word that they believe themselves to be proceeding under the authority of Scripture. Their reasoning for this position is laid out in the Rationale section, and will be discussed at length in the associated commentary.

  • “we hold that interpretation of the Scripture to be orthodox and genuine which is gleaned from the Scriptures themselves (from the nature of the language in which they were written, likewise according to the circumstances in which they were set down, and expounded in the light of like and unlike passages and of many and clearer passages) and which agree with the rule of faith and love, and contributes much to the glory of God and man’s salvation” [Second Helvetic Confession, 5.010];

This is only the second-half of the complete paragraph. The first sentence of [5.010] is also germane. “The apostle Peter has said that the Holy Scriptures are not of private interpretation (II Peter 1:20), and thus we do not allow all possible interpretations.” It is clearly stated that the individual person is not sovereign in the interpretation of Scripture, and, that “all possible interpretations” are not allowed.

Thus, we must conclude that it is possible for an interpretation to violate the authority of Scripture. What is deemed to be sovereign in the interpretation of Scripture is “the Scriptures themselves.” Therefore, it should be reasonably expected that arguments for the Scriptural authority of a position be based directly on the Scriptural text. It should also be reasonably expected that arguments based on vague statements about Scripture or sources of authority outside of Scripture be viewed with skepticism. Although vague statements and outside authority can be true to Scriptural authority, the proof must be demonstration of actual concurrence with Scriptural text. To accept any other standard is to untether the authority of Scripture from Scripture itself.

  • the Larger Catechism lifts up the duty of holding “a charitable esteem of our neighbors,” and forbids the sin of “misconstruing intentions, words and actions” [7.254-7.255]:

These quotations are but small, selected phrases from the substantial Confessional paragraphs (the full paragraphs contain approximately 440 words). While I agree that these paragraphs are much too extensive for complete quotation, it is also the case that there are issues included that touch directly on the questions at hand. In particular, in [7.255] it is said that we are bound to avoid “… concealing the truth, undue silence in a just cause, and holding our peace when iniquity calleth for either a reproof from ourselves, or complaint to others …”

If, as a matter of Christian conscience, a member of the PCUSA believes that a provision in our constitution abandons the authority of Scripture, ignores the need for repentance, and leads persons into serious sin, are they not duty-bound by this Confessional paragraph to speak up?

The 220th General Assembly (2012) acknowledges that faithful Presbyterians earnestly seeking to follow Jesus Christ hold different views about what the Scriptures teach concerning the morality of committed same-gender relationships. Therefore, while holding persons in ordered ministry to high standards of covenantal fidelity in the exercise of their sexuality, as in all aspects of life, we decline to take an action that would have the effect of either imposing on the whole Presbyterian Church (USA) one interpretation of Scripture in this matter, or preventing any teaching elder and/or congregation from providing the pastoral care and presence their consciences and faithful reading of the Scriptures tell them is necessary for them to fulfill ordination and baptismal vows. We commit ourselves to continue respectful dialogue with those who hold differing convictions, to welcome one another for God’s glory, and not to vilify those whose convictions we believe to be in error. We call on all Presbyterians to join us in this commitment.

Rationale

Some Presbyterians read the Scriptures to condemn all forms of same-gender sexual intimacy, and sometimes accuse other Presbyterians of abandoning the authority of Scripture, ignoring the need for repentance, and leading persons into serious sin.

Some Presbyterians read the Scriptures to bless committed same-gender relationships, and sometimes accuse other Presbyterians of bigotry, responsibility for bullying and suicides, and other harm caused by anti-gay attitudes.

A careful examination of the preceding two paragraphs’ content and relationship is called for. To begin, they apparently are designed to constitute the relevant end-points for comments that are deemed to be vilifying. Therefore, they would appear to be intended as equivalent.

But whereas the first paragraph describes a critique of the arguments of others, the second paragraph describes conclusions about other’s motives and culpability for acts of violence. The difference is striking, and disturbing. Apparently, to make a case for the authority of Scripture, the need for repentance and the seriousness of sin is an act of vilification. One is left to wonder under just what terms the authors propose to pursue “respectful dialogue,” when the central concerns of those opposing the current ordination standards are made equivalent to character assassination and accusation of fomenting violence.

Finally, an essential prerequisite for the claim that raising the issue of abandoning Scriptural authority amounts to “vilification” must be that the text of Scripture is at a minimum ambiguous on the issue under discussion. Therefore, it is reasonable to expect that the claims of Scriptural authority for the new ordination standards would be rigorous, compelling and clear.

All Presbyterians acknowledge that we are sinners in need of repentance, but we disagree about whether all homosexual intimacy is sinful, and over the best way to love our LGBT neighbors.

We are bound to ask what God’s Word means when it calls us to “love each other.” Does “to love” mean to act in an indifferent and permissive manner, regardless of behavior and/or belief? Or, does God’s Word teach that this is the opposite of “love?”

For example, was Jesus Christ transgressing His own call to love when responding to Peter’s rejection of God’s sovereign plan for accomplishing our salvation? But he turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’ [Matthew 16:23, NRSV] Or, did the Apostle Paul transgress the rule of love when he addressed the Galatian church thus? I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed! As we have said before, so now I repeat, if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed! [Galatians 1:6-9, NRSV]

There are issues at play in God’s Word that contradict the easy assumption that to love another is to be unconcerned about their behavior and/or beliefs. It is the conviction of many in the PCUSA, and, in the church universal, that “to love each other” has requirements that are far deeper and more profound than permissive indifference.

Each “side” perceives the other to be harming the cause of the Gospel.

Although the Scriptures contain a variety of patterns of sexual relationships without condemnation,

I can only understand this vague phrase to mean passages of Scripture that describe a kind of sexual relationship, but without condemnation in the passage itself.

Is the same-sex intimate relationship one of these “patterns of sexual relationship” that is clearly contained in Scripture “without condemnation?” A review of the most specific Scriptural texts (i.e., Lev. 18:22; 20:13; Rom. 1:24-27; I Cor. 6:9-11; I Tim. 1:8-11; Jude 7) results in the conclusion that condemnation is uniform.

What, then, about those Scriptural texts that do contain “patterns of sexual relationships without condemnation?” I will mention only two of many possible examples: polygamy (e.g., Genesis 4:19) and incest (Genesis 19:30-38). Should we interpret the lack of condemnation in these passages to mean that God does not oppose polygamous or incestuous “patterns of sexual relationship?”

Isn’t it actually the case that God, in His wisdom, placed sufficient information in Scripture for humans to determine what is to be condemned without placing a specific condemnation in each and every relevant passage? Isn’t this the standard of Scriptural interpretation to which the authors pledged allegiance (see bullet point quoting the Second Helvetic Confession, 5.010)?

The bottom line is that this proposed interpretive method utterly fails under even cursory examination. Homosexual relationships “without condemnation” are not to be found, and terrible sexual sin is apparently claimed to be affirmed by Scripture. The authors had access to the Scriptures and our Confessions. They could have easily tested the validity and implications of this claim, but apparently didn’t.

most Presbyterians believe that intimate sexual expression is to be restricted to a committed partnership between two consenting adults who regard one another as equals and seek to honor God, community, and each other in their covenant relationship. While some believe that the partners must be a man and a woman, and others are convinced that the gender of the two partners is not of concern to God, all share the conviction that relationships should be life-giving, responsible, and a blessing to family, church, and community.

I note that the implied principle regarding the interpretation of Scripture is “what is believed by some.” I can say with certainty that if what “some believe” is the standard for Scriptural interpretation then virtually anything is possible and permissible.

While it is incumbent on all to continue to seek God’s will for sexuality, no human being has a full understanding of God’s Truth and all are called to humility before the Lord and charity toward one another. Questioning the faithfulness of those who in good conscience disagree with our interpretation does not bring honor to Christ or build up his church.

This apparent interpretive concept of “humility” is a concern. One wonders what that is currently understood to be taught by Scripture couldn’t be overturned. Is it presumptuous to believe in salvation by grace, not works? Is it presumptuous to believe in the Trinity, the virgin birth, Christ’s divinity, Christ’s miracles, and Christ’s resurrection? Can we really know that the Scriptures teach any of this, since it is well known that there are some in the Church who don’t believe in these doctrines? By what rule can we know that a given understanding of Scripture meets this interpretative concept?

There is also the issue of consistency. We are here being told that it is a violation of “humility” to conclude that the current ordination standard is not faithful to Scripture. On the other hand, the PCUSA habitually proclaims that specific domestic and foreign policies, economic relationships, etc. are unfaithful to Scripture. Again, the authors presume to know that Luke 10:27, John 13:35 and Romans 15:7 combine to disallow the arguments regarding Scriptural authority, repentance and sin deployed by opponents of the new ordination standards. How can they be so sure when “some believe” that they do and “others are convinced” that they don’t?

Finally, who within the PCUSA gets to determine when the principle of “humility” is operative?

Nothing in current Presbyterian polity or policy, including the ordination standard in G-2.0104, takes one side or another in the conflict over the morality of same-gender relationships. A variety of views is now allowed to coexist in the PCUSA, consistent with the historic Presbyterian principles of freedom of conscience in the interpretation of Scripture and mutual forbearance [F-3.01]. Until God blesses the church with a clear consensus, continued attempts to impose uniformity are detrimental to the peace, unity, and purity of the church.

This Overture will suppress future debate regarding current standards of ordination by equating legitimate opposition theological arguments with name-calling and culpability for violence, and then declaring both to be out of bounds. Thus, while supporters of the current ordination standards would only be prevented from making their most extreme and unfair arguments, opponents would be prevented from making their core, legitimate arguments.

The authors do not demonstrate rigorous, compelling and clear plausibility for their claims to equivalent Scriptural authority based on the text of Scripture. Rather, they resort to vague and defective interpretive methods that violate the Confessional standards to which they state allegiance.

Boundaries of Division in the PCUSA

How can the failure of this overture to withstand examination be explained? It is critical to examine the overture’s perspective prior to passing judgment.

Examining Perspectives

Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago

A natural starting point for this examination is the Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago, the overture’s sponsor in our Presbytery. I looked through their web site and read/listened to sermons [2]. What follows is not intended to be a comprehensive review, but rather observations relevant to the issue at hand.

Fourth Presbyterian appears to be a caring, complex, vital and intellectually engaged congregation. Although clearly dominated by a “progressive” viewpoint, there are also signs of intellectual / theological diversity. For example, in a letter by then Senior Pastor John Buchanan (Reflections on the Passing of Amendment 10-A, May 11, 2011) he says “I am also aware that not all the members of Fourth Presbyterian Church agree with my position and will not be happy with this change, and I want to assure all that there is room in our congregation for all opinions.” I also found an excellent sermon on the doctrine of predestination by Associate Pastor Adam Fronczek (That Question about Predestination, Sunday, May 4, 2008).

One possible clue to Fourth Presbyterian’s perspective is its self-understanding as a church serving a postmodern world. For example:

  • On the “Young Adults at Fourth Church” web page there is the bullet point “offers a space to encounter the intersection of faith and (post)modern life”
  • A sermon by Associate Pastor John W. Vest, titled “Generation to Generation” (April 15, 2012) begins with a quote from James K. A. Smith, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? And includes the statement “Our way forward into the emerging future of faith in a postmodern, post-denominational, post-Christendom, pluralistic world is not to retreat into fundamentalism. Rather, our way is to tell, in fresh, new, and relevant ways, the story we have heard.”
  • In his Chicago Theological Seminary Commencement Address, May 14, 2011, The Rev. Dr. John Buchanan stated:

“Something new is struggling to be born, “groaning in labor” as St. Paul put it. You’re graduating into it at exactly the moment when the old denominations aren’t working all that well, the old parish system no longer fits post modern life, theological education is wondering what kind of church it is supposed to be training leaders for. We have to learn how to be church all over again and you are the ones who will do it. It’s already happening in South America and Africa and Asia, where Christianity is growing so rapidly it has burst the seams of the old paradigm. It’s happening here as Megachurches with flexibility and social media savvy address the needs of post-modern women and men with creativity and high energy. And it happens here and there even in the traditional church, when faithful leaders transform old structures into new structures.”

While these items by no means prove that postmodernism dominates Fourth Presbyterian, they do show that this philosophy is on the minds of its (past) Senior Pastor, Associate Pastors and staff.

Postmodernism

Anyone that has been intellectually engaged is aware of postmodernism at some level. For many, including myself, it has not been of sufficient prominence to demand specific investigation. However, this search for an alternate perspective has motivated the following closer look.

The Encyclopedia Britannica’s [3] top-level definition is as follows.

“Postmodernism, also spelled post-modernism, in Western philosophy, a late 20th-century movement characterized by broad skepticism, subjectivism, or relativism; a general suspicion of reason; and an acute sensitivity to the role of ideology in asserting and maintaining political and economic power.”

Specific sentences in the accompanying short article have a strong correlation to issues at the center of this inquiry, including:

  • “the rejection of an objective natural reality—is sometimes expressed by saying that there is no such thing as Truth.”
  • “For postmodernists, reason and logic too are merely conceptual constructs and are therefore valid only within the established intellectual traditions in which they are used.”
  • “postmodernists claim that language is semantically self-contained, or self-referential: the meaning of a word is not a static thing in the world or even an idea in the mind but rather a range of contrasts and differences with the meanings of other words.”
  • “Postmodernists deny that there are aspects of reality that are objective; that there are statements about reality that are objectively true or false; that it is possible to have knowledge of such statements (objective knowledge); that it is possible for human beings to know some things with certainty; and that there are objective, or absolute, moral values.”
  • “Thus postmodernists regard their theoretical position as uniquely inclusive and democratic, because it allows them to recognize the unjust hegemony of Enlightenment discourses over the equally valid perspectives of nonelite groups.”

Additional highly correlated statements can be found in the much longer article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy [4]:

  • “In this regard, the modern paradigm of progress as new moves under established rules gives way to the postmodern paradigm of inventing new rules and changing the game.”
  • “Justice, then, would not be a definable rule, but an ability to move and judge among rules in their heterogeneity and multiplicity. In this respect, it would be more akin to the production of art than a moral judgment in Kant’s sense.”
  • “The Nietzschean sense of overcoming modernity is “to dissolve modernity through a radicalization of its own innate tendencies,” says Vattimo (Vattimo 1988, 166). These include the production of “the new” as a value and the drive for critical overcoming in the sense of appropriating foundations and origins.”

The above postmodern concepts are generalized by the Encyclopedia Britannica as “the straightforward denial of the general philosophical viewpoints that were taken for granted during the 18th-century Enlightenment.” Thus, what makes these ideas highly correlative are that they provide a philosophical framework for the concepts (e.g., objectivity in language, the possibility of knowing truth, etc.) that appear to be violated by the overture’s text.

Postmodernism and Christianity

What happens when Christianity and postmodernism are merged? On its face this appears to be an absurd combination, requiring a faith based on the absolute Word of God be combined with a philosophy that denies the possibility of truth and the objective meaning of language. However, this merging has indeed occurred, with radical consequences. The best summation of these consequences found to date is in a Masters of Theology thesis [5].

  • “The rejection of metanarratives, which appear to suggest that orthodox Christian philosophy and epistemology appears to be under threat (Adams 1998: 522). The traditional coherent presentation of the orthodox system of belief, developed through the centuries, based on deductive reasoning and the interaction of the Bible, have to give way to relativistic theology (Guarino 1993: 37-40). Relativistic theology appears to be the theology of liberation and numerous socio-political systems. The core Christian message is no longer normative; instead, truth is subjective and relevant only to the culture and society of the day (Grenz 2001: 40).”
  • “Foundationalism seems to be replaced by nihilism (Nietzsche 1968:1). Christian foundation such as scripture, creeds and confessions, and ecclesiastical traditions appear to be no longer meaningful. Biblical text cannot be understood with certainty since the “postmodern condition” concerning the theory and practice of interpretation is “incredulity towards meaning” (Lyotard1984: xxiii). In this respect, Lyotard claimed that the model of knowledge, as a progressive development of consensus, is also outmoded.”
  • “Absolutism seems to be replaced by relativism. Christian morality and theology are relative to the people who embrace them (Carson 2005: 31-32). Hence the rise of moral and theological plurality, assuming that no one perspective has the dominant position in church, and no single unique outlook on reality accounts for the world we live in.”
  • “The concept of truth, including biblical truth, seems to have no correspondence to objective reality (Moreland 2004: np). Hence, the search for truth appears to be a vain exercise and the reader should be content with individual/personal interpretation. Systematic theology should be replaced by “edifying” theology, which aims at a continuing conversation between the reader and scriptures, rather than discovering truth.”

Once again, I note that these consequences correlate to a very high degree with the apparent contradictions and deficiencies identified in the overture.

Boundaries of Division

It’s been said that the PCUSA has been split into two non-overlapping worlds with only the pension and property as points of contact. This language suggests a gulf so wide that productive communication has been rendered virtually impossible. The overture under discussion is a concrete example of this gulf. When I read it the philosophy and arguments are so inexplicable that they induce a state of disorientation. It literally feels like reading something composed in an utterly foreign world.

Given this situation, it is of the greatest importance to identify the primary boundary of this division. Only by so doing can we begin to understand the true nature of our situation, and, develop effective responses.

Progressive and Evangelical Christians

The most common characterization for the boundary of division in the PCUSA has been “progressives” versus “evangelicals.” Just to be clear about definitions, here’s a reasonable one for progressive Christians from Wikipedia.

Progressive Christianity is the name given to a movement within contemporary Christianity characterized by willingness to question tradition, acceptance of human diversity with a strong emphasis on social justice or care for the poor and the oppressed (often identified as minority groups) and environmental stewardship of the Earth. Progressive Christians have a deep belief in the centrality of the instruction to “love one another” (John 15:17) within the teaching of Jesus Christ. This leads to a focus on compassion, promoting justice and mercy, tolerance, and working towards solving the societal problems of poverty, discrimination, and environmental issues.

Somewhat surprisingly, it is much more difficult to find a good definition for evangelical Christians. Here’s the best I have been able to find (also from Wikipedia), though it leaves much to be desired.

The contemporary North American usage of the term is influenced by the evangelical/fundamentalist controversy of the early 20th century. Evangelicalism may sometimes be perceived as the middle ground between the theological liberalism of the mainline denominations and the cultural separatism of fundamentalism. Evangelicalism has therefore been described as “the third of the leading strands in American Protestantism, straddling the divide between fundamentalists and liberals”.

My home church includes visible, articulate, dedicated progressive and evangelical Christians. We certainly do disagree on key points, including Amendment 10-A. There are robust, even heated discussions on areas of theology, politics and culture, among others.

However, when in these discussions we rarely feel like we are living in utterly different worlds. Yes, we interpret the Bible differently on some points, but we are still discussing the text and what it ultimately means. We may believe in differing means of advancing justice and peace, but we tend to acknowledge a common framework within which these goods are pursued. Finally, there are significant bonds of relationship and common support of ministries.

The progressive / evangelical distinction is only one of numerous sources of differentiation within our church, with worship style, mission, and education also in the mix. That is, the progressive / evangelical distinction doesn’t dominate.

Generalizing from this specific experience, it appears that there is no essential reason that progressives and evangelicals can’t have significant common ground. The fact that we draw differing priorities and conclusions from the Scriptures doesn’t change the fact that we are in dialogue about the same thing.   In fact, there is often a positive, creative aspect to the debate, as we keep each other aware of the myriad threads of Scriptural truth.

We can move from the general to the specific by discussing the current controversy, Amendment 10-A. I have read about and personally participated in debates about 10-A with progressive Christians. They often argue that most of the Scriptural condemnations of homosexual activity are less clear than one might think. For example, some may be describing situations of prostitution and/or pagan religious practice. They also stress Christ’s expansive love that encompassed the outcasts and marginalized of His time, the poor, women, even tax collectors; and then extend the argument to homosexuals.

The key point is that we are arguing about what the text of Scripture teaches under the common assumption that there is a fixed Truth to be found. Theoretically at least, each acknowledges that, should the opposing point be convincingly made, they would change their opinion to bring it into obedience to Scripture. This common ground could be described as the remnants of orthodoxy shared by the contending parties.

It’s certainly true that the progressive / evangelical divide can lead to anger and distrust. The issues raised by the approval of 10-A have significantly increased the conflict between progressive and evangelical Christians. However, the fact that there remains a common ground on which to discuss and debate, that we are not in completely different worlds, suggests that this isn’t necessarily the primary boundary of division.

Postmodern and Orthodox Christians

We have already discussed postmodernism at length. However, the term “orthodox,” particularly as applied to the Protestant Christian faith requires definition and discussion. One dictionary definition is:

“Adhering to the Christian faith as expressed in the early Christian ecumenical creeds.”

A reasonable definition can also be extracted from [5]:

“The traditional coherent presentation of the orthodox system of belief, developed through the centuries, based on deductive reasoning and the interaction of the Bible”

The PCUSA’s Book of Confessions discusses orthodoxy as follows:

“2. Defense of orthodoxy. Most confessions have been intended as polemical defense of true Christian faith and life against perversion from within as well as from attacks from outside the church. They are the church’s means of preserving the authenticity and purity of its faith.”

It should be obvious from these definitions that both progressive and evangelical Christians can be orthodox. The same cannot be said for postmodern Christians. While I can’t claim expertise in postmodernism, the available resources would appear to describe a philosophy that is in opposition to and, in fact, a purposeful negation of orthodoxy. That is, it rejects both the content and method inherent in orthodox Christianity.

It should also be clear that neither progressive nor evangelical Christians must be orthodox. Thus, orthodoxy is a principle that can span and unify Christians from multiple perspectives, but is not automatically held by individuals of any perspective.

Even so, is postmodernism of great enough significance in the PCUSA to be considered for a boundary of division? I’m doubtful that many members or pastors would label themselves as “postmodern Christians.” However, it’s possible that this philosophy has gained enough influence in enough people and organizations to have a significant impact.

I have found minor connections between the Westminster Presbyterian Church Minneapolis, Minnesota and San Francisco Presbyterian churches with postmodern thought. A web search on “Presbyterian postmodern” yielded numerous significant references to books, sermons blog posts and articles. I’ve also recognized shadows of postmodern ideas in attitudes of Presbyterians that I know, including a subjective, personalized attitude towards Scriptural interpretation, rejection of creeds and Confessions and doubt about our ability to identify truth, among others.

It does appear that postmodern ideas permeate the larger culture. The examples of relativism, nihilism, negation of reason and debasement of language are too numerous to ignore. It must therefore be assumed that this philosophy permeates the membership of the PCUSA as well.

For these reasons my working hypothesis is that the overture’s content can best be explained by assuming a postmodern dominant philosophy for the authors. The animating philosophy of supporters is more difficult to ascertain. They may support simply because it advances their cause.

Let’s test the hypothesis by revisiting the overture using postmodern concepts to explain the primary identified discontinuities and issues.

 

Orthodox Point: The overture equates under the term “vilification” legitimate opposition theological arguments with name-calling and culpability for violence.

Postmodern Response: These theological arguments are seeking to discredit a moral position that is “uniquely inclusive and democratic” because it recognizes “the unjust hegemony of Enlightenment discourses over the equally valid perspectives of nonelite groups.” Also, by the naming of homosexual practice as “sin” they are vilifying both those in that group and those who support them. This is wrong since there are no “objective, or absolute, moral values” upon which such a conclusion can be based. [3]

 

Orthodox Point: The authors do not demonstrate rigorous, compelling and clear plausibility for their claims to equivalent Scriptural authority based on the text of Scripture. Rather, they appear to resort to vague and defective interpretive methods that violate the Confessional standards to which they state allegiance.

Postmodern Response: There is no point in dwelling on the text of Scripture since “the meaning of a word is not a static thing in the world or even an idea in the mind but rather a range of contrasts and differences with the meanings of other words.” [3] “Christian foundation such as scripture, creeds and confessions, and ecclesiastical traditions appear to be no longer meaningful. Biblical text cannot be understood with certainty since the “postmodern condition” concerning the theory and practice of interpretation is “incredulity towards meaning.” Therefore, “the concept of truth, including biblical truth, seems to have no correspondence to objective reality.” [5]

 

Orthodox Point: Authority in the determination of Scripture’s meaning rests on that which “some believe” in “humility” as opposed to seeking to identify and demonstrate what Scripture teaches.

Postmodern Response: We are not bound by the previous rules for determining the meaning of Scripture. “The modern paradigm of progress as new moves under established rules [must] give way to the postmodern paradigm of inventing new rules and changing the game.” [4] “Systematic theology should be replaced by “edifying” theology, which aims at a continuing conversation between the reader and scriptures, rather than discovering truth.” [5] We are compelled to embrace “’the new’ as a value and drive for critical overcoming in the sense of appropriating foundations and origins.” [4]

 

It is clear that what appear to be inexplicable failures under an orthodox philosophy become understandable when viewed from a postmodern perspective. Therefore, until new information arrives, I will consider this overture to be primarily the product of postmodern Christian thought within the PCUSA.

The preceding discussion is sufficient to qualify orthodoxy / postmodernism as a credible candidate boundary of division in the PCUSA. It is a boundary that may have received less attention due to dominance of the progressive / evangelical model. Attention will be paid in the following section.

Implications and Ideas

We in the PCUSA stand on unstable, treacherous ground. As we survey our situation it sometimes appears that there is more encouraging our disintegration than there is holding us together. Conventional wisdom says that this is because we are approaching schism along the progressive / evangelical boundary. I am not discounting this threat. Rather, I am pointing out that there is another significant boundary, orthodox / postmodern, that may also be of considerable significance, but that may not have been sufficiently explored.

In reviewing the descriptions of postmodernism I see threads that appear to have broad influence, cutting across evangelical and progressive lines. For example, “individual/personal interpretation” of Scripture that neglects or ignores “Christian foundation[s] such as … creeds and confessions” is widespread. Systematic theology has collapsed, often being replaced by an individualistic “edifying” theology that conforms to preconceived notions and self-justifying conclusions. We have also become careless about language, too often redefining words and concepts to conform to our own desires.

There are also postmodern temptations specific to each group. For example, evangelicals, with their high desire for church growth may be tempted to neglect, modify or even abandon doctrines that are found to be unpopular (e.g., “morality and theology are relative to the people who embrace them”). Progressives may see a natural ally in postmodernism’s emphasis on challenging existing structures, support for non-elite groups and “theology of liberation.”

These postmodern influences create significant confusion and frustration. For example, where language has been debased, with words and concepts no longer having a common meaning, we would expect much greater opportunity for misunderstanding. Where Biblical interpretation has become highly individualized, and consequently detached from systematic theology, confession and creed, we would expect a bewildering explosion in the number of positions. Issues such as these would be serious in normal circumstances, but become far more dangerous in a highly charged debate such as Amendment 10-A.

Many evangelicals and progressives are troubled by the current state of dysfunction. Although they have strong opinions about specific issues, they also are in despair at the thought of schism. It’s possible that many in both camps would jump at the chance to exit the current lose-lose scenario in which we appear to be trapped. One candidate for this exit strategy is a return to orthodoxy.

In tandem with a return to orthodoxy, postmodern relativism, debasement of language, radical individualism and irrationality would be discouraged. Members of the progressive, evangelical and any other position could then continue their difficult dialogue, but with the destructive tendencies of postmodernism attenuated.

We the Church could also begin to offer something other than slippery, ephemeral ideas to a world that desperately needs the sure, confident light of the Gospel. Perhaps unity could be reestablished under these circumstances. Perhaps we would still be unable to resolve our differences. But, whatever the outcome, our ongoing discussion would be more coherent, productive and faithful.

References

[1] Call Papers, April 24, 2012, Chicago Presbytery Assembly Stated Meeting.

[2] http://www.fourthchurch.org/

[3] http://www.britannica.com/

[4] http://plato.stanford.edu/

[5] Lee, Hock S., “Christianity and the Postmodern Turn: A Critique of Postmodern Epistemology,” Master of Theology Degree Thesis, South African Theological Seminary, May 2009.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s