Last Sunday, as I read the Preamble to the service for the ordination of elders I saw some puzzled looks in the congregation. We don't often hear the recitation of our doctrine of ministry, or even the names of our statements of Presbyterian belief. They are the Westminster Confession of Faith (1643), The Declaration of Faith Concerning Church and Nation (1954), and Living Faith (1998 - the Little Green Book). Presbyterians believe what we believe matters.
Churches in the Reformed tradition are called "Confessional" or "Confessing" churches. When I begin to explain that, most people think it means we have a Prayer of Confession in every service, and we may be a little too concerned about sin and forgiveness. We don't "go to Confession", do we? It means we believe we must always be ready to confess, or profess our faith. We believe there are times that call for us to make clear statements of how we interpret the Bible, and how we understand our purpose in the world. The mid-seventeenth century was such a time in our church history. From that time we have documents that came from an assembly at Westminster, in London. The English didn't adopt those documents, but the Scots did.
In 1954, the memory of World War II was still fresh and fear of the spread of Communist totalitarianism was a powerful force. Our Presbyterian Church in Canada adopted a statement about the relationship of the church to the state, and the Christian's duty as citizen.
In the mid-eighties Living Faith was written for use in worship and in study groups. The document became so popular in the PCC that it was elevated to the same status as the older confessions in 1998.
There are parts of the Westminster Confession that we just don't accept today. It'll curl your hair, if not your toes. It's an historic document, very much of its time. We're Presbyterians. We don't throw old things away. There is still much in that document to remind us, for one thing, that God is God and we are not. The Declaration is obviously a document of the 1950s, but still a serious work of theology. It deserves to be read. Parts of Living Faith are now dated. It reflects concerns about the world as it was in the 1980s. On the whole, it's a sound summary of orthodox Christian belief, without the heavy-handedness of the Westminster. The latter comes from an age when Christians were addicted to Certainty. Living Faith reflects a slightly more open approach to things.
These words are often missed when the Preamble is read out at a minister's induction, or when elders are ordained: ...and such doctrine as the church, in obedience to Scripture and under the promised guidance of the Holy Spirit, may yet confess in the church's continuing function of reformulating the faith.
"Continuing function of reformulating the faith..." We believe that's part of the church's work in this world. What we believe is important. It's important to know what we believe, and to be able to tell others what we believe. It's just as important to question what we say we believe and to be open to the possibility we may be wrong. The Puritans influenced the assembly at Westminster, yet it was also a Puritan who said, “I am verily persuaded the Lord hath more truth yet to break forth out of His Holy Word.” John Robinson sent his friends to the Americas on the Mayflower with these words. He stayed behind to challenge the terrible certainties of his brethren. He wasn't charmed by the Presbyterians, either. He said we stopped thinking when John Calvin died! I like to think we've learned from Robinson and others, that there is more light than we can see, and more truth about God than we have yet discovered.
For each time and purpose it is important to be able to say what we believe and demonstrate our convictions in our lives. To be a Confessing church isn't just to say "This we believe, and here we stand". We can't stop there. The next words must be, "And this is what we do because we believe". It was a Confession of Faith that provided Reformed Christians in Europe a platform for their resistance to Hitler. When we act on our convictions we put them to the test. That testing often leads us to "reformulate" our beliefs. We won't see new light if we just sit still and take no risks.
Maybe the time has come for a new statement of faith for Presbyterians to celebrate, ponder over, question, and push against. It takes awhile to write one. The work that finally led to Living Faith began in the 1940s! Sometimes the journey is the biggest share in the reward. As the great Canadian Presbyterian theologian Walter Bryden put it, when the Westminster was only 300 years old, a Confession of Faith becomes dated the moment it's printed. (My paraphrase.)
What we believe matters, in the same way having footings beneath a foundation matters. We lay sound footings so we can build great things upon them. We can forget they're there at times, but we can never take them for granted.