Tuesday, August 5, 2008

SOME OBSERVATIONS ON GENERAL ASSEMBLIES AND THE HOLY SPIRIT

Many of my more conservative brothers and sisters, whom I love and respect, left San Jose angry, frustrated, and disappointed — sure that we Presbyterians have lost our biblical and theological souls. And I hurt because they hurt. But I am convinced that the main power player at this assembly was the Holy Spirit, laying waste to the best-laid strategies of most of the affinity groups. The heart of our faith is the absolute conviction that God calls us to die to the old, so that we can rise to the new. And the dying and rising is not in our control — but in God’s.
Susan Andrews, General Presbyter of Hudson River Presbytery
And former Moderator of the General Assembly
In Presbyterian Outlook, Monday, 04 August 2008


Following PCUSA General Assemblies those who win tend to claim that the Holy Spirit was at work in what happened. I suggest that such a claim is dangerous.

I disagree with the Rev. Andrews for a variety of reasons, not the least that I am certain we disagree on the meaning of Scripture surrounding the actions of the General Assembly on homosex behavior. But that is not my point. When anyone claims that a human body has acted in accord with the intentions of the Holy Spirit I think some hubris is involved.

Presbyterians are people who hold our beliefs in tension. While we call on all who serve in the governing bodies of the denomination to listen for the Holy Spirit as we deliberate and vote we must admit that the intentions of the Spirit are not always clear. We claim that the Spirit operates through the governing bodies of the denomination but we also admit that “All synods or councils since the apostles’ times, whether general or particular, may err, and many have erred; therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith or practice, but to be used as a help in both.” (Book of Confessions, the Westminster Confession, 6.175)

The time between the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD and the Council of Constantinople in 381 AD is instructive. There were at least 15 councils during that time, many of which held that Arius was correct, that the Son was not fully divine. There were attempted compromises suggesting that the Son was of like being with the Father (homoiousious) not of the same being with the Father (homoousious). In the end, at Constantinople the decision of Nicaea was affirmed, after both Arius and Athanasius (his opponent) were dead. The doctrine of the Trinity was proclaimed as a central truth of the Church and has been so held by the main stream of the Church since then.

So today we would confess that the Holy Spirit was at work at Nicaea and Constantinople but not at any council at which the Arians or Semi-Arians won the day. In other words it is difficult to see the work of the Spirit in the present. In the present, in the midst of disagreements major and minor we often claim that the Spirit is on our side because we must be correct and those who disagree with us must be wrong! Only looking back in history (and then only with great humility) can we say there the Spirit was at work.

One of my concerns with some Charismatics that I met back in my college days was their utter assurance that the Spirit had spoken to them or through them. Some claimed that the Spirit had healed them with no proof that is no physical evidence that healing had taken place. I believe that the Spirit can and does heal miraculously but I think one should make sure s/he now has 20/20 vision before s/he goes off to drive a car. But of greater concern are those who claim that the Spirit has told them to do something or believe something without any substantiation.

The great test of a claim that the Spirit has spoken has always been the Scripture. Where the Scripture speaks there the Spirit also speaks. The Spirit does not speak against Scripture because the Spirit speaks in Scripture. To say that the Spirit speaks against Scripture is to say that the Spirit disagrees with the Spirit an utter impossibility. The Spirit is not human, making one decision one day and a couple millennia later saying the opposite. The human task is to determine what the Spirit says today by comparing human claims to Scriptural text. Of course that is not as easy as it sounds or we would not debate over its meaning.

Frankly this is one of my great concerns about GA 218. There was no great debate about what the Scripture says and how to apply the Scripture today. Yes we have had those debates in the past and they have not yielded unity. But from those who attended GA I hear that there was no debate over the meaning of Scripture that in fact there was little or no debate at all over the various decisions about homosex behavior. And that, alas, is a mistake.

Part of the problem is time. In the modern age time is of the essence. The Council of Nicaea lasted for over two months. The bishops took the time to get it right. I am sure there were no two minute limits on any bishop’s speech. Because the General Assembly must finish its work in a specific period of time we Presbyterians do not take the time to get it right, to have the full conversation. Instead we ask a small group, a Task Force to study the issue, give the commissioners the work of the Task Force, have a committee study the work of the Task Force, (along with a myriad of other matters) and then ask the Plenary, (the full General Assembly) to make a decision in a limited period of time. I suggest that this is a poor way to determine the intent of the Holy Spirit.

So did the Holy Spirit speak on the issue of homosex behavior at GA 218? I think no. Susan Andrews clearly thinks yes. We cannot both be right. What worries me the most is that we both went into the week of General Assembly and out the other side with our minds already made up.

Maybe the Holy Spirit will speak through the presbyteries. Maybe not. But unless we do the hard work of studying the Scripture together: translating, exegeting, and hermeneuting, how will we ever know?

Pastor Bob

P.S. I did not deal with the main theme of the Rev. Andrews article: Dying to the Old and rising to the New. All old is not bad and all new is not good. Again, only the Spirit can tell us what is good and what is bad. As I am sure the Rev. Andrews would agree, the heart of the faith is not dying to the old and rising to the new; the heart of the faith is dying to the old which is sin and rising to the new which is Christ. There is one sentence in the article that is definitely true: "And the dying and rising is not in our control — but in God’s." I pray that we will die not to the old but to the wrong, to anything that opposes the work of Christ in the Spirit and rise again to serve Christ according to the will of the Spirit.


3 comments:

Viola said...

Bob,
I believe you are right about councils and, assemblies, for that matter. When they are grounded in scripture there is the possibility the Holy Spirit will be listened to. The Holy Spirit does not lead beyond Scripture or beyond the truth of Jesus Christ. My husband who was with me at GA was appalled at the lack of scripture used in committees, etc. , and at the poor exegesis that was done to the little scripture that was used. So was I for that matter.
The Holy Spirit has already done a new thing, as has the Father and the Son that is provide us with redemption and make us new creations.

Cameron Smith said...

Pastor Bob,

Thanks for your thoughts. I was a Commissioner in San Jose, and I do agree with your analysis.

Forgive the sweep of my broad, forthcoming statement: We all know that the continuing lack of Scripture in GA deliberations is due to radically different hermeneutics at work in this diverse Church.

The dominant hermeneutic on display in San Jose, in my view, was one that actually did take the Word written seriously, but, one that would also take Calvin's Institutes just as seriously.

The key here is that the responsible Presbyterian needs to bring both Calvin and the Word into the 21st century. Hence, the need for some selective application and a good measure of discarding with ancient thinking.

As a pastor and someone who believes the Scriptures to be God's eternal, infallible communication to fallen humanity, that mindset disturbs me. (San Jose was not a good experience for me!)

It also bothers me that in our official rush to enthusiastically embrace the Post-Modern/"Emergent" perspective, both the orthodox/traditional/"Evangelical" view I embrace and the seemingly dominant view I described above are both deemed as equally valid ways to be Presbyterian in the PCUSA!

Oh, well. Thanks again.

Rev. Cameron Smith
Appomattox, VA

Pastor Bob said...
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