The writing of a new confession of faith is not undertaken lightly, for “any proposed change to the Book of Confessions should enhance the church’s understanding and declaration of who and what it is, what it believes, and what it resolves to do (Book of Order, F-2.01).”[i]
As a teaching elder who exercises his ministry as a professor of theology at a PCUSA-related institution, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, I write in response to the action of the 225th General Assembly (2022) to form a special committee to write a new confession of faith for consideration for adoption by the Presbyterian Church (USA).
I believe that the time is not right for a new confession of faith. Rather, what we need today is:
*a confession of our present inability to make a common confession of faith
*and, nevertheless, a clarification of what we would confess, were we able to
A review of the history of, and the theological rationale for, Reformed confessions of faith will help us understand our situation.
Distinctive Characteristics of Reformed Confessing
Reformed confessions have three distinguishing characteristics: they emerge from the church’s shared identity in prayer, worship, and service; from a conviction that God has given the church a Word from Scripture that the church must declare; and from the church’s awareness of its specific historical context. Today, we will ask whether proposals for new confessions of faith share these features.
Shared prayer, worship, and service. Reformed confessing had its first blossoming at the time of the Reformation. In fewer than fifty years (1523––1566), twelve confessions of faith were composed. Some were directed to the civil authorities and the citizens of particular towns––Bern, Basel, Lausanne, or Geneva. Often these confessions were prepared to present the Protestant position in public debates with representatives of the Roman Catholic Church.
Other confessions embraced larger geographical units––Scotland, France, or the Netherlands––where representatives of the churches had assembled to declare in writing their loyalty to the teachings of the Reformation. As religious minorities, they knew how much they needed one another’s encouragement and guidance.
What made this Reformed confessing distinctive was that it arose out of particular communities that shared a deep life of prayer, worship, and service. Reformed confessions were not to be imposed from on high. Rather, they were to come from below––from debate and discussion on the ground among people who knew each other personally and lived out the Christian life together.
This is not to say that Reformed confessing spoke only to a local context. On the contrary, those who composed and endorsed a Reformed confession of faith understood themselves to be speaking to the church as a whole. Members of a particular community of prayer, worship, and service made their confession, but they shared it with others.
They shared it because they hoped that others would benefit from it. Representative is the preface to the Scots Confession:
We are considering our own weaker brethren, to whom we would communicate our deepest thoughts, lest they be troubled or carried away by [Satan].
Moreover, those who made confession welcomed correction. In the words again of the Scots Confession:
If any man will note in our Confession any chapter or sentence contrary to God’s Holy Word, [may it] please him of his gentleness and for Christian charity’s sake to inform us of it in writing . . . [and] we shall give him satisfaction from the mouth of God, that is, from Holy Scripture, or else we will alter whatever he can prove to be wrong.
A Word of the Lord from Scripture. This statement from the Scots Confession identifies a second key dimension of Reformed confessing: a confession of faith is to be based on an explication of Scripture, in the confidence that the Bible sets forth a living Word of God for us today.
Reformed confessing has aimed at clarifying biblical teaching, while rejecting its misinterpretation and distortion. John Calvin had declared that his Institutes of the Christian Religion were a guide to reading Scripture, and Reformed confessions have followed suit. That does not mean that the confessions simply collected scriptural proof texts. Rather, Reformed confessions have sought to set forth a biblical theology that offers a compelling and cohesive vision of life before God.
This commitment to setting forth God’s living Word in Scripture has meant that Reformed confessions have been characterized by a pattern of affirmation and negation. They have affirmed the great truths that the Reformation sought to recover from the New Testament and the ancient church, such as “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit”; “Jesus Christ is Lord”; and “there is salvation in no other name.” On the basis of these positive truths, Reformed confessions have rejected nontrinitarian theology, loyalty to other gods, and salvation through one’s own efforts or through the mediation of church authorities.
It is important to note that in Reformed confessions, the affirmations have always had theological priority. Indeed, in the Reformed manner of making confession, only in the light of God’s gracious, saving work can false teaching be identified and rejected. For this reason, Reformed confessions have focused on, and given most of their space to, explicating God’s redemptive acts in Jesus Christ. Secondarily, however, they have not shied away from discussing where other theological positions have gone wrong.
This pattern of affirmation preceding negation is most evident in three later Reformed documents included in the Book of Confessions. In explicating the Ten Commandments as a guide to Christian living, the seventeenth-century Westminster Larger Catechism identifies the “duties required” by each commandment, prior to the “sins forbidden.” In the twentieth century, the Theological Declaration of Barmen makes the pattern even more explicit. Each of its six theses begins with scriptural citations. Next, and as a theological explication of those Scriptures, comes an affirmation of the God whom we know in Jesus Christ. Only then is there a rejection of false teaching. The Confession of Belhar adopts a similar pattern: “we believe” always precedes “we reject,” and the positive affirmations of “we believe” are developed more fully than the negations of “we reject.”
An awareness of the church’s present historical context. Reformed Christians have understood their confessions of faith to emerge from a shared life of prayer, worship, and service; to be based on Scripture; and to be historically situated. Reformed confessions of faith seek to relate God’s Word to their particular historical contexts.
Other Christian traditions have regarded particular confessions of faith as timeless statements. Eastern Orthodox churches use only the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed from the fourth century. The Roman Catholic Church recognizes three confessions of the early church––the Nicene-Constantinopolitan, the Athanasian, and the Apostles’ Creeds––while taking the Apostles’ Creed to be the most ancient and basic of them. In the sixteenth century, Lutheran churches adopted the Book of Concord, which includes the three ancient creeds as well as key dogmatic statements composed by Luther and Melanchthon. Nothing has been added since.
In contrast, Reformed churches have argued that new historical circumstances may call forth new acts of confession. As the preface to the Confession of 1967 notes, “No one type of confession is exclusively valid, no one statement is irreformable.” For nearly two hundred years, Presbyterian churches in the United States adhered to one confessional document, the Westminster Confession of Faith, but amended it several times in light of changing historical circumstances. In 1967, the United Presbyterian Church (USA), arguing that Westminster alone was inadequate, adopted a new confession of faith, the Confession of 1967.
This does not mean that the church adheres only to contemporary confessions of faith. Older confessions may also speak powerfully into the present.[ii] In worship, Presbyterians regularly confess the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds. For nearly three hundred years, the Reformed church in Basel asked its members to take an oath of loyalty annually to their confession of faith of 1534. At the time of adopting the Confession of 1967, the United Presbyterian Church (USA) created a Book of Confessions that included key confessional statements from the ancient church, the Reformation (including Westminster), and the twentieth century. The church continues to ask teaching and ruling elders to affirm the confessions’ “essential tenets” and to be “instructed and led” by the confessions.
In emphasizing the historical character of every confession, Reformed churches have understood that confessing requires both confidence and humility. The church is to make confession only when it believes that it truly has a new Word that the Lord commands it to speak––and then the church is to speak boldly. Nevertheless, the church also acknowledges that it may have heard wrongly, that it may have mistaken its words and its agenda for God’s. The church sets forth a new confession of faith in a spirit of calling upon God to make right in its words what the church itself is not able to.
In historical practice, this has meant that Reformed churches have been generally reluctant to promulgate new confessions of faith. The great twentieth-century Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth asserted that only a status confessionis, a situation in which the very life of the church is at stake, justifies the composing of a new confession. He himself felt this was the case during the time of Nazi Germany, thus leading to his involvement in writing the Theological Declaration of Barmen in 1934. However, over the next thirty-four years of his life, he did not see a compelling reason for the church to prepare another confession of faith, despite the many challenges that the church faced from new forms of heresy and injustice.
In sum, according to Reformed understanding, a new confession of faith is most likely to speak authoritatively when it has met three conditions: 1) it has emerged out of the church’s shared prayer, worship, and service; 2) it has been written in the confidence that the Scriptures set forth positive affirmations of God’s living presence and work among us; and 3) it is understood to be historically situated––necessary for the present moment but open to reform.[iii]
Why a New Confession?
The flurry of confession writing at the time of the Reformation was motivated by a desire to clarify the church’s foundational teachings about God in Jesus Christ. Today, the interest in adopting new confessions has been accelerated by a concern to declare the church’s commitment to justice. Although General Assemblies and their agencies have already adopted numerous statements on justice, the church (in part? as a whole?) seems to keep wanting something more. Just what, then?
Over the last sixty years, the Presbyterian Church (USA) has adopted three confessions of faith: the Confession of 1967, “A Brief Statement of Faith” (1991), and the Confession of Belhar (adopted in 1986 by the Dutch Reformed Mission Church in South Africa, and approved by the PCUSA in 2016 for inclusion in its Book of Confessions). The 223rd General Assembly (2018) voted to initiate consideration of Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” (1963) for confessional status. However, the King family, which owns the copyright to the document, refused the denomination permission to use it.
The three overtures that came to the 225th General Assembly (2022) suggest that the church has not “kept up” with current social movements for justice. While noting that various PCUSA statements and position papers have repudiated racism, the overture from the General Assembly Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Relations contends that the church has not yet investigated “the extent to which our own institutions and common life have benefited from the sins of racism and racialized supremacy.”[iv]
The overture from Arkansas Presbytery asserts that the church has not attended adequately to theological anthropology and interconnected ethical issues, “such as love, justice, sexual identity, equality, immigrant status, ecology, and reconciliation.”[v] The overture from the Synod of the Northeast includes “A Confession for Such a Time as This,” which accuses the church of helping “to maintain systems that perpetuate injustice” against persons of color; of participating “in violence against women, LGBTQI+ persons, and others”; of making choices that “have led to the deaths of countless [migrants]”; and of failing “to be good stewards of God’s very good creation.”[vi]
The overtures from Arkansas Presbytery and the General Assembly Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Relations acknowledge the importance of the Confession of Belhar but argue that it does not go far enough. The Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Relations makes the point succinctly: “false teachings will continue to find a foothold in the hearts of believers, in the practice of congregational life, and in the structural and institutional life of the PC(USA) [until it] develops, adopts, and lives into its own confession.”
Taken together, the overtures and the Assembly action suggest that new confessions function primarily as calls for justice. Moreover, they will be directed, first, to the church, asking the church to confess its complicity in injustice and to reform itself. Older confessions are inadequate, because they do not speak directly to specific injustices that contemporary American society perpetuates and in which the church itself participates. Adopting a confession will commit the church as a whole to work more fully for justice, than do the church’s present, fragmentary efforts.
What are we to make of these arguments? Would a new confession truly accomplish something that other General Assembly documents have not? The special committee may wish to give greater attention, than do the overtures, to the deep commitment to justice already set forth not only in the Confession of Belhar but also more broadly in the Book of Confessions, for the “Book of Confessions as a whole enriches our understanding of what it means to be Reformed Christians [and] helps us escape the provincialism to which we have been prone.”[vii]
A Confessional Concern for Social Justice
It would be good for the church to recall the treasure that it already has in its Book of Confessions. Social justice has been an enduring confessional theme since the Reformation. The church has long seen that its teaching about God in Jesus Christ has practical implications for the Christian life personally and communally. God’s righteousness in Jesus Christ is the foundation for our commitment to justice.
As noted earlier, the Westminster Larger Catechism explicates the Ten Commandments as a comprehensive guide to the Christian life, including a commitment to justice. Representative is the sixth commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.” The “duties required” include “comforting and succoring the distressed, and protecting and defending the innocent.” Among the “sins forbidden” are “hatred, envy, . . . oppression, . . . and whatever else tends to the destruction of the life of any.”
The eighth commandment, “Thou shalt not steal,” requires “rendering to everyone his due,” moderation in use of “worldly goods,” and “an endeavor by all just and lawful means to procure, preserve, and further the wealth and outward estate of others.” Forbidden are “man-stealing [slavery], … fraudulent dealing, … injustice and unfaithfulness in contracts, … engrossing commodities to enhance the price [what today we call “monopolies”], … and all unjust or sinful ways of taking or withholding from our neighbor what belongs to him, or of enriching ourselves.”
The ninth commandment calls for a commitment to “preserving and promoting … truth, … [and] defending [others’] innocency.” The commandment rejects “holding our peace when iniquity calleth for either a reproof from ourselves, or a complaint to others” (compare “For Such a Time as This,” which laments that “we have not spoken up and out against the vilifying” of others).
The concern for justice is a steady drumbeat in the church’s confessions from the twentieth century. According to the Theological Declaration of Barmen, the church “calls to mind the Kingdom of God, God’s commandment and righteousness, and thereby the responsibility both of rulers and the ruled” for “justice and peace.” It rejects a political order that would “become the single and totalitarian order of human life.”
Later twentieth-century confessions help specify what constitutes justice. The Confession of 1967 includes concern for racial and economic justice, areas also identified for attention in a new confession. C67 calls for breaking down “every form of discrimination based on racial or ethnic difference.” The church labors “for the abolition of all racial discrimination.” Moreover, “enslaving poverty in a world of abundance is an intolerable violation of God’s good creation. … The cause of the world’s poor is the cause of his disciples.”
C67 is also significant in calling the church to repent of its own failures––something that the overtures to the 225th General Assembly (2022) emphasize. According to C67, “congregations, individuals, or groups of Christians who exclude, dominate, or patronize their fellow [human beings], however subtly, resist the Spirit of God and bring contempt on the faith which they profess.” Similarly, “a church that is indifferent to poverty, or evades responsibility in economic matters, or is open to one social class only, or expects gratitude for its beneficence makes a mockery of reconciliation and offers no acceptable worship to God.”
A Brief Statement of Faith calls on the church is “to hear the voices of peoples long silenced, and to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace.” A Brief Statement particularly affirms human equality (God “makes everyone equally in God’s image, male and female, of every race and people,” and calls both “women and men … to all ministries of the Church”) and responsibility for the environment (“we exploit neighbor and nature, and threaten death to the planet entrusted to our care”).
While emphasizing race, the Confession of Belhar’s commitment to justice goes well beyond it. The church “must stand by people in any form of suffering and need. … [It] must witness against and strive against any form of injustice.” Like C67, Belhar does not hesitate to call the church to account: “We confess our guilt, in that we have not always witnessed clearly enough in our situation” (part of the “Accompanying Letter”).
Where does this leave us? A new confession of faith may specify additional social groups who cry out for justice today. Moreover, a new confession may use more accessible, present-day language to speak of what justice requires. But a new confession will not break new ground in emphasizing the church’s responsibility for justice. Perhaps our need is less for a new confession of faith, and more for renewing our commitment to what our present confessions already demand.
Shared Life, Scriptural Word, & Historical Context
Reformed confessing takes place in responsible freedom before God. As the special committee meets in prayer and thoughtful deliberation, it will seek to respond faithfully to a God who is free to call the church to new insight but also to direct the church to earlier insight. Therefore, lessons from the past may strengthen the church’s ability to make confession in the present. Let us return, then, to what we have identified as distinctive characteristics of Reformed confessions of faith.
Will a new confession of faith emerge from a shared life of prayer, worship, and service? In an era in which secular rhythms of life reshape (and weaken) church participation, Presbyterian congregations often have a limited sense of a common life. Moreover, congregations do their ministry largely in isolation from each other. Presbyteries once cultivated a shared identity of prayer, worship, and service, but now focus for the most part on “business.” Life at higher judicatory levels has become increasingly defined by struggles for power behind a veneer of prayer, worship, and service.
The special committee, representing the church’s diverse constituencies from different parts of the country, will do its work at an even more abstracted level. The current budget of $40,000 translates to approximately $2,500 per member, enough for only two or possibly three in-person gatherings, with other meetings presumably to take place by Zoom. Members will have limited opportunity to shape a common life in a short amount of time over long distances, although it is possible that they could ask a future Assembly to extend their work.
An additional challenge faces the special committee. The originating overtures have already identified what in their view needs to be confessed; now the rest of the church simply needs to be brought up to speed. This easily gives the impression that the special committee will simply deliver a new confession from “on high.”
To be sure, the General Assembly approved formation of the special committee by a margin of nine to one, but there is less evidence of a groundswell of support or interest at the church’s grassroots. The special committee will have its work cut out for it to relate a new confession of faith to the many local contexts in which Presbyterians gather to pray, worship, and serve. For a “[new] confessional statement should prove itself foundational to the church’s life and faith before it is proposed for inclusion in the church’s confessional standards”[viii]––even if that takes many years.
Will a new confession of faith be written in the confidence that the Scriptures set forth positive affirmations of God’s living presence and work among us? A striking feature of the overtures to write a new confession is their spirited criticism of the church. Indeed, they begin not from new insight into God’s redemptive work in the world, but rather from the church’s manifest failures to work for justice. The Confessions of 1967 and Belhar do not hesitate to call the church to account, but they do so only after an extended presentation of a biblical vision of reconciliation.
For the overture from Arkansas Presbytery, the church is failing because it lacks an adequate theological anthropology. The Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Relations sees the problem as a church that is unrepentant: indeed, the church will not be able to develop new confessional statements until it first looks backwards and practices “the act of confessing its complicity.”
“For Such a Time as This” takes a similar tack. Rather than moving from affirmation to negation (as do Barmen and Belhar), it first “rejects” specific sins of injustice, next “confesses” the church’s complicity in those sins, and only then “affirms” God’s gracious work in the world. Representative is its first thesis:
We reject the twin heresies of white supremacy and racism …
We confess that we have … helped to maintain the systems that perpetuate injustice against persons of color …
We affirm that God created all people unique and beloved in God’s image. …
A difficult challenge again faces the special committee: Does it clearly have a living Word of God to offer to the church––indeed, that it must risk offering the church, because earlier confessions have not? Is that Word framed by a careful exposition of Scripture? If so, will the committee be able to affirm that grace precedes law, that God’s promise precedes God’s condemnation, and that our recognition of God’s saving work precedes our ability to repent of our sin?
Will a new confession of faith acknowledge our present historical situation––and will it speak confidently yet humbly into the present moment? The overtures to write a new confession tell us that certain ideologies and practices of social injustice threaten the very life of the church today. The special committee will determine whether the church indeed finds itself in a status confession that demands a new confession. But the committee may also determine that the church is already clear about what it is called to say and do. Writing a new confession of faith is not the only way––and not necessarily the best way––to combat heresies and injustices.
The special committee will carefully reflect on why the church keeps calling for new confessions but often forgets about its earlier ones. How can the Book of Confessions as a whole better inform the life of the church? How can teaching and ruling elders more fully live out their vows to the confessions? If the church adopts a new confession, how can the church truly live into it, along with its other confessions?
None of the overtures to write a new confession acknowledges its own limited historical perspective, or that the church may be able to speak to some justice issues (racism) more clearly than to others (“corporate capitalism”). The overture from Arkansas Presbytery rightly identifies theological anthropology as a major concern but does not add that the church may need more time than a special committee will have, to take adequately into account the relation of new scientific research to the church’s key theological affirmations about what it means to be human.
Similarly, one may affirm “For Such a Time as This” in its condemnation of xenophobia but wish to note, as the statement does not, that every country has a limited capacity to receive immigrants fairly and helpfully. To be sure, saying that an issue is “complex” can be a form of avoidance, but it can also be a recognition that the church’s judgments are still too limited and fallible to be helpful on certain matters. God sometimes asks of us patience, not abstract declarations that are little more than empty slogans.
Given these concerns, I believe that the church is not yet ready to prepare or adopt a new confession of faith. We still have much work to do in the three areas that we have identified as necessary preconditions for Reformed confessing.
Shared prayer, worship, and service: National church structures are called to strengthen congregations and local ministries. In a time in which many congregations have dwindling numbers and resources, this support and encouragement is all the more important. Moreover, congregations benefit by shaping a common life. Only as Presbyterians learn to pray, worship, and serve together ––to deepen communion (koinonia), both within their own congregations and with other communities of faith ––will we grow in our capacity to make confession together.
A Word of the Lord from Scripture: Sociological studies have determined that most Presbyterians do not read the Bible regularly. Few Presbyterians attend worship weekly, to hear the Scripture read and proclaimed; even fewer attend Bible study classes. Moreover, while pastors read the Scriptures to prepare for preaching or teaching, many do not read the Bible devotionally, as a “two-edged sword, piercing to … the thoughts and intentions of the mind.” Only as Presbyterians grow in their experience of God’s living Word in Scripture, will we grow in our capacity to make confession together.
Awareness of our particular historical situation: Presbyterians’ historical context has changed dramatically in recent decades. Membership numbers have steeply declined, and the church’s social influence has diminished. Presbyterians are used to thinking of themselves as part of an important cultural majority, but increasingly we are a minority. Indeed, Christianity itself is for most Americans now just one religious/spiritual option among many. Only as Presbyterians learn to understand their new historical situation, with both its possibilities and its limitations, will we grow in our capacity to make confession together.
It is striking that none of the overtures calling for a new confession of faith mentions either the minority status of Presbyterians (and Christians) in American society, or one other matter of grave concern. Over the past sixty years, even as the church has been writing new confessions, it has experienced deep conflict and division. Ministers, members, and congregations have left the PCUSA and joined the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC), ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians, or other denominations.
Some of the social justice issues to which the originating overtures call attention remain deeply controversial among those Presbyterians who remain in the PCUSA. If the day comes that the church is ready to write a new confession of faith, the church will need not only bold words but also pastoral sensitivity to those who in Christian conscience hold a different position.
A Call to Confess
I have come to a preliminary conclusion that the special committee is called not to write a new confession but rather to confess the church’s present inability to make a common confession of faith.
*Our shared identity is too fragile. We first need to strengthen our practices of prayer, worship, and service both within and between our congregations, and in our presbyteries and other judicatory bodies.
*Our encounter with Scripture is still too haphazard. We first need to deepen our disciplines of receiving the Scriptures as setting forth a living Word of God.
*Our assessment of our present historical context is not yet realistic enough. We first need to acknowledge and understand the increasingly secular context in which we are called to set forth the gospel.
I would therefore like to see the special committee move in a direction that in my judgment is more pressing and promising than a new confession of faith. The committee will have done the church a great service if it clarifies what we would confess, were we able to. By this I mean, a confession that precedes any call for justice with a recognition of God’s faithfulness to a church that is weak.[ix] In my words:
We confess that Jesus makes his disciples “salt of the earth, the light of the world.” Presbyterians (and Christians) in North America are now in a missionary situation. This is not reason for despair. Christianity has been and will be a creative force, when it is in the minority. The Holy Spirit will be teaching us how to witness in word and deed to God’s good news in Jesus Christ in a society that is increasingly indifferent to our message, yet that desperately needs it.
We confess that “the glory which [the Father] hast given [the Son], [the Son has] given to them, that they may be one even as we are one” (John 17:22). Presbyterians (and Christians) in North America are called to work for unity with one another, a unity that God has already secured for us on the basis of God’s truth and righteousness in Jesus Christ. The work of building unity through justice and reconciliation is hard and sometimes discouraging, but God blesses it. As we learn to be the salt of the earth, the Holy Spirit will be teaching us just how much we need one another, as we pray, worship, and serve.
[i] See “The Assessment of Proposed Amendments to the Book of Confessions,” added to the introduction of the Book of Confessions by the 209th General Assembly (1997). This document should guide any consideration of writing or adopting a new confession.
[ii] “The Confessional Nature of the Church,” added to the introduction to the Book of Confessions by the 209th General Assembly (1997), carefully discusses the need for a balance between adherence to the church’s adopted confessions and freedom “to hear a new and perhaps different Word from the living Lord.”
[iii] For additional reading about the character of Reformed confessing, see Karl Barth, “The Desirability and Possibility of a Universal Reformed Creed,” in Karl Barth, Theology and Church: Shorter Writings, 1920–1928, trans. Louise Pettibone Smith (New York: Harper and Row, 1962).
[iv] GA Committee Report: Theology, Worship, & Education–01.
[v] GA Committee Report: Theology, Worship, & Education–08.
[vi] GA Committee Report: Theology, Worship, & Education–13.
[vii] From “Confessional Nature of the Church.”
[viii] From “Assessment of Proposed Amendments.”
[ix] See Joseph D. Small, Flawed Church, Faithful God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018).