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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

Presbyterian Distinctives, Part IV:  Book People
February 13, 2014

How do we know who God is, what God has done for us, and how God desires us to respond? As we have over the last few weeks considered how Presbyterians distinctively answer these questions, we are driven to a deeper issue: By what authority do we make such claims?

The direct answer is a Person – all authority in heaven and earth belong to Jesus. (Matthew 28:18) In this, we agree with all Christians. Beyond that fundamental affirmation, however, Christians have various understandings of exactly how he speaks to us. We have no tapes of his sermons, nor did he leave us any writings. We depend on the testimony of others to shape our understanding of who Jesus is and what he says.

First in line of the “others” on whom we depend are the writers of the books that comprise Holy Scripture. We believe them uniquely inspired by God (2 Timothy 3:16), and trust their testimony as reliable guides to knowing the God who is revealed supremely in the person of Jesus. By faith we understand all Scripture, and not just the Gospels, to reveal the God whom we meet in the person of Jesus. (John 5:39) In these affirmations, Presbyterians are still in step with most Christians. But how that plays out for us specifically is distinctively Presbyterian.

We ordain people to the special calling of interpreting Scripture for the church’s understanding and mission, and require that they learn enough of the Bible’s original languages to be able to research its texts in their most ancient forms. Few other churches require Hebrew and Greek for their ministers, but Presbyterians do.

Because we take the Bible so seriously, we search not only its original texts, but also the insights of the saints who have heard God speak through them. We don’t imagine ourselves to be the Bible’s first or final interpreters; we know we stand on the shoulders of others who themselves wrestled hard and long to understand God’s Word in their place and time. We hear their guidance to our gain, and ignore it to our peril. At critical junctures in the church’s history, our forebears in faith drafted statements that capsulized for them some essential teachings of Scripture. We formally recognize some such statements as authoritative “confessions” of Christian faith that shape our own reading of the Bible’s message. Their authority is not inherent, but derives from the Bible to which they bear witness.

Just as Shakespeare scholars study not only the great Bard but also his best interpreters, so Presbyterians are people whose love of the Bible leads us to read it in company with others who also know and love it well. Presbyterians’ love for The Book is expressed in our close attention to our forebears’ bold confessions of their convictions about what it leads them to believe and do. Presbyterians are a “confessional” people precisely because we are so seriously committed to being a biblical people.

The Bible is far more than a collection of ancient testimonies – we believe that by the Holy Spirit it speaks God’s Word to us today. It lives anew in the heart of every person who opens its pages and reads it under the Spirit’s illumination. Yet, even when informed by the church’s confessional heritage, people of good faith come away from Bible study with differing ideas of its meaning for us. How do we negotiate between our myriad understandings of what Scripture leads us to believe and do? Presbyterians have long addressed that challenge by adopting a “Book of Order” that specifies how we live as a fellowship of biblical interpreters committed to walking together as Christ’s disciples, amid all the variety of understandings and gifts that flourish among us. The Book of Confessions permits us to range widely yet not boundlessly in our understanding of what the Bible teaches about God and God’s way with us, while our Book of Order gives form and substance to how we live together to God’s glory amid our differing gifts and understandings. We are bound to one Lord by one Spirit, and are thus inescapably bound to each other in his service, to the glory of the one God and Father of us all. The classic Presbyterian word for this bond in our Lord is “covenant.”

Some have charged that Presbyterians’ allegiance to our books of Confessions and Order has supplanted our allegiance to the Bible. Such allegations mistake their role – we cherish these books precisely and only because we love The Book they help us understand and follow. Our honor of the Bible only grows as we bind ourselves to the faith and order of the saints on whose shoulders we stand, and with whose hands we are joined, in serving the One to whom that Book consummately bears witness.

Grateful for all our books,

The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister

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