Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Boastings of a Straight-Faced Presbyterian, Part One

I mentioned a couple days ago that I plan to take up Called to Communion blogger Tim Troutman’s challenge to post an article on the glories of Presbyterianism with a straight face. This post will be part one of two, and rest assured, my face is very straight.

The first locus I would like to address to demonstrate Presbyterianism’s awesomeness is our doctrine of Scripture. We confess:

We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the Church to an high and reverent esteem of the Holy Scripture. And the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, the majesty of the style, the consent of all the parts, the scope of the whole (which is, to give all glory to God), the full discovery it makes of the only way of man's salvation, the many other incomparable excellencies, and the entire perfection thereof, are arguments whereby it does abundantly evidence itself to be the Word of God: yet notwithstanding, our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts (Westminster Confession of Faith 1.5).

The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture (WCF 1.10).
Here we see that, despite the manifold internal evidence whereby Scripture demonstrates its divine authorship, it is ultimately through the testimony of the Holy Spirit whereby the believer is taught to esteem what has been written.

Does this leave any loopholes? Of course is does. Does it answer every conceivable objection? Not by a long shot. But Presbyterians are not rationalists who toss and turn at night over the possibility that a hole in our system might be poked, nor do we wring our hands over what to do if someone disagrees with us. If our Lord could appeal to what "is written" to answer the tests of the serpent, and if Paul could prescribe a remedy for heresy that consisted primarily in getting the gospel right even if he himself got it wrong, then despite its lack of perfect tidiness, we are content to trust the voice of the Spirit of Christ speaking in Scripture to Jesus' sheep. If he is our Good Shepherd, then we can hear his voice.

Concerning the role the church has in interpreting Scripture, we confess that

It belongs to synods and councils, ministerially to determine controversies of faith, and cases of conscience; to set down rules and directions for the better ordering of the public worship of God, and government of his Church; to receive complaints in cases of maladministration, and authoritatively to determine the same; which decrees and determinations, if consonant to the Word of God, are to be received with reverence and submission; not only for their agreement with the Word, but also for the power whereby they are made, as being an ordinance of God appointed thereunto in His Word (WCF 31.3).
Again, this does not preclude the possibility of confusion, but we live in a confusing world filled with false prophets and bad angels disguised as good ones (didn’t Jesus warn us about this?). But despite its lack of airtightness, this approach does pretty good justice to the distinction between revelation that is uttered under the direct inspiration of the Holy Spirit on the one hand, and the non-inspired interpretation of those utterances on the other. Sure, the church can make mistakes and must grow in her understanding of God's Word, but why should that be something we are afraid to admit? Paul wasn’t:

And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love (Eph. 4:11-16).
So to sum up, the Reformed understanding of the relationship between the church and Scripture is anything but pristine, but it does accurately reflect the nature of life in this age before the consummation. Indeed, on that Day all the loose ends will be tied up and all our questions will be answered. But until then, we who embrace our pilgrim status and are enabled to boast in seeming weakness and glory in seeming shame are content to labor, to learn, to grow, all the while knowing that God will guide his church into all truth.