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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

Bible & Newspaper
August 28, 2014

In 2010 our Book of Order was revised to include a new opening section outlining the Foundations of church life. Its second chapter, F-2.000, explains how our Confessions are foundational for our church, noting that the Confessions remind us of “who and what we are, what we believe, and what we resolve to do” as Christ’s church. (F-2.01) These three – our identity, our beliefs, and our actions – are as inseparable as faith is from works. (James 2:20-26)

Our Confessions are authoritative for the church not on their own merits, but only insofar as they bear faithful witness to Holy Scripture. Yet they are not mere restatements of biblical claims, but demonstrations of how God’s people have understood Scripture to address particular historical circumstances in which the church has found itself. Each of the Confessions is a response to a specific concrete challenge calling for fresh clarity on God’s Word to the church. As historically-conditioned responses, they bear different emphases, even to the point of “standing in tension with each other.” (F-2.01) For instance, “The Scots Confession” denies women engagement in ministry of Word and Sacrament (Book of Confessions 3.22), while “A Brief Statement of Faith”holds that the Spirit “calls women and men to all ministries of the church.” (Book of Confessions 10.4)

The church’s understandings of who it is, what it believes, and what it is called to do certainly shift from place to place and time to time. Yet Scripture remains the same. The Confessions demonstrate how the church’s understandings of Scripture’s claims on us evolve as historical circumstances change. This sense of continual development is embedded within the Reformed doctrine of the church, as captured in a Latin definition that has been with us since the days of the Reformation: Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda secundum verbum Dei: “The reformed church, always to be reformed under the Word of God.” In earlier editions of The Book of Order, the quote stopped with reformanda, and the translation into English was also skewed, “The Reformed church is always reforming.” The new Book of Order restores the important qualifier secundum verbum Dei from the original slogan, “according to the Word of God.” (F-2.02) It rightly notes that the word reformanda means not simply “reforming,” but as a passive verb it ought to be translated “is to be reformed.” This slogan is not a call to activists to reform the church according to their notions of what is needful, but a call always to be open to Scripture leading us to new understandings and practices of our faith.

Just as the Reformation sought to bring Scripture freshly to bear on the church’s identity, beliefs, and practices in its time, Reformed churches have sought always to listen to Scripture afresh in each new context. This is how we evolved from being a church of slaveholders to a church of emancipation, from being a church governed by a powerful few to a church that seeks to be led by the gifts of all its members.

The differences between the various Confessions reveal how the church is always being reformed, while the continuities across the Confessions testify that such reform is always in accord with the one Word of God. The Confessions seek conformity not to each other, but to the Word of God in each specific setting.

John Calvin modeled this commitment to stay engaged with both the eternal Word and the contemporary world by leading the church in constant rigorous Bible study, while engaging also in civil governance, keeping his office in City Hall rather than in the cathedral. Swiss theologian Karl Barth captured it well when he famously said that the church lives always with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.

Jesus calls his church to be “in the world” but not “of the world.” (John 17:11-14) By keeping the Bible always in one hand, the church remains tethered to the Word of God that alone can faithfully reform and transform us according to God’s Spirit. By keeping the newspaper in the other hand, the church remains always outwardly-focused, directly engaging the challenges with which the world around it is grappling.

This is why our church is always elbow-deep in controversial issues. We see in the news media the very social, political, economic, and moral issues with which we wrestle in our congregations, presbyteries, advocacy organizations, and General Assembly. We don’t hide from the challenges being faced in the surrounding culture, but we engage them head-on with the sure conviction that precisely here God stands ready to give us new understandings of what the Word leads us to be, to believe, and to do as the people of God. We do not bury our heads in the sand. We do not retreat to safe havens untouched by the world’s struggles. With the help of the Spirit, we face them squarely, Bible in one hand and newspaper in the other.

Attentively yours,

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

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