A Response to HPPC's Decision
On December 8, 1924, the Session of First Presbyterian Church of Dallas approved a “plan of organization for expansion program” that included “the promotion of a new church for Oak Lawn and Highland Park.” On December 14, 1925, the Session approved a resolution to raise, “our pro rata of the $10,000 appropriated to Presbyterian Church Expansion in Dallas.” In addition, a meeting was called “to be held in the Municipal Bldg. of Highland Park on Sunday, January 3, 1926, in the afternoon, of all persons desiring to organize a Southern Presbyterian Church in Highland Park.” April 25, 1926, the Session granted 52 people “letters to the Highland Park Presbyterian Church to be organized.” On May 9, 1926, another 32 people were transferred to Highland Park. Those 84 saints played a critical role in forming the Highland Park Presbyterian Church.
This past Sunday Highland Park voted to leave the Presbyterian Church (USA) for the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians, a new denomination founded last year. Their decision to leave our denomination is heartbreaking. I grieve the loss of this important congregation and their witness as part of our communion these past 87 years.
Their leadership cited as their primary motivation for leaving, “the PC(USA)’s lack of core theological beliefs; disagreement over the authority of Scripture and salvation through Jesus Christ alone; and the impact of PC(USA) governance policy and practices on the life of HPPC, particularly on the selection process for new pastors.” Their assertions might leave someone wondering, “Do we have core theological beliefs?” Of course we do. What does the PC(USA) believe about Jesus Christ and the Bible?
When teaching and ruling elders are ordained to office, one of the vows we take is to fulfill our ministry “in obedience to Jesus Christ, under the authority of Scripture, and be continually guided by our confessions.” (Book of Order, W-4.4003d) It is a summary of the first three ordination vows placing Jesus, the Bible, and our core theological beliefs in proper order. Jesus is Lord. Scripture’s authority is found in its unique witness to this truth. Our historic confessions guide our understandings of the Bible and the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
So what does the PC(USA) believe about Jesus? In 2002, the General Assembly overwhelmingly approved a document entitled, “Hope in the Lord Jesus Christ.” Within that document are these words:
Jesus Christ is the only Savior and Lord, and all people everywhere are called to place their faith, hope, and love in him. No one is saved by virtue of inherent goodness or admirable living, for “by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” [Ephesians 2.8]. No one is saved apart from God’s gracious redemption in Jesus Christ. Yet we do not presume to limit the sovereign freedom of “God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of truth” [1 Timothy 2.4]. Thus, we neither restrict the grace of God to those who profess explicit faith in Christ nor assume that all people are saved regardless of faith. Grace, love, and communion belong to God, and are not ours to determine.
Some Christians believe we are saved by our faith in Jesus Christ. Presbyterians do not. We believe we are saved by God’s faithfulness embodied in Jesus Christ, not by the authenticity and efficacy of our own faith. Further, we do not presume to limit God’s freedom to save whomever God wants to save. This belief recognizes the sovereignty of God, and the Lordship of Jesus Christ in all things, including the salvation of creation, a core theological belief for Presbyterians.
What does the PC(USA) believe about the Bible? Through the centuries, the Reformed church has made many statements about the authority of Scripture. In the 20th Century, the Confession of 1967 offered these words:
The one sufficient revelation of God is Jesus Christ, the Word of God incarnate, to whom the Holy Spirit bears unique and authoritative witness through the Holy Scriptures, which are received and obeyed as the word of God written. The Scriptures are not a witness among others, but the witness without parallel … The Bible is to be interpreted in the light of its witness to God’s work of reconciliation in Christ. The Scriptures, given under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, are nevertheless the words of men, conditioned by the language, thought forms, and literary fashions of the places and times at which they were written. They reflect views of life, history, and the cosmos which were then current. The church, therefore, has an obligation to approach the Scriptures with literary and historical understanding. (Confession of 1967, 9.27, 29)
This understanding of the Bible’s authority does not lend itself to absolutist claims that use isolated verses of Scripture to take theological stands. It is not a fundamentalist understanding of the Bible. It is a thoughtful articulation of how the authority of Scripture is understood within the PC(USA).
What about our core theological beliefs? Since the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy in the early 1900’s, the Presbyterian church has battled over a need to assert “fundamentals” of the faith,” a term invoked by Presbyterian lay leader Lyman Stewart, who published a series of essays that would become the foundation of a fundamentalist movement within Protestantism. Some see our lack of defined “essential tenets” as a lack of core theological beliefs. I do not. It keeps our theology in proper perspective to the sovereignty of God and the Lordship of Jesus Christ. So we debate essential tenets of the faith. We hold to the sovereignty of God in all things, and we debate what that means. We point to the total depravity of humanity, and we debate what that means. We debate predestination and its impact on the important decisions of discipleship. This does not mean we lack core theological beliefs, rather we refuse to make an idol out of our theology.
The Apostle Paul said, “You are the Body of Christ, and individually members of it.” Regardless of the votes we take, the truth is both Highland Park and the PCUSA are parts of the body of Christ that is the church catholic in the world. While we may not live into that reality very well, it is a reality nonetheless. As the legal battles over worldly realities continue, please keep all those involved in these struggles in your prayers. Let us pray that whatever resolutions are reached, all parties involved may continue to advance the mission and ministry of the body of Christ in and for this broken world, even in the midst of our own brokenness.
Rev. Joseph J. Clifford, D. Min.
Pastor, Head of Staff
First Presbyterian Church of Dallas