Sunday, July 09, 2006

Is the Virgin Birth Essential?

The Presbyterian Church is faced, once again, with a serious question about what are the essential tenets of Reformed faith and practice. We have always had to decide these questions in examining officers of the church. Lately, though, the question has been on the back burner. The recent adoption of the Peace, Unity, and Purity (PUP) report has, however, moved the question of essential tenets front and center.

The recent Theological Task Force of 2001, which produced the PUP report, was modeled on the Special Commission of 1925, which was also charged with finding a way forward through the endemic conflicts that wracked the church in those days.

The particular conflict that called the Special Commission into being was this question: is belief in the virgin birth of Christ an essential tenet of the Reformed faith? Nearly all Presbyterians in those days took it for granted that it was. To believe otherwise was to undermine the authority of the Bible. Believing in the authority of the Bible was certainly an essential tenet of the Reformed faith.

Two young candidates for ordination, recent graduates of Union Theological Seminary in New York, however, were not convinced of the virgin birth. New York Presbytery, always one of the most liberal in the denomination, was willing to ordain them. A minority protested, and brought their case the General Assembly. When the General Assembly of 1925 created the Special Commission, they handed the virgin birth question, along with others, to the Commission.

The Special Commission held that doctrine of the virgin birth of Christ is indeed true, and obligatory for Presbyterian ministers. They also held, though, that if some potential ministers, who were otherwise sound in the faith, were "insufficiently clear" in their understanding of the doctrine of the virgin birth, a presbytery could legitimately ordain them. The fledgling ministers were obliged to continue to wrestle with the doctrine. The Special Commission, though, understood that an ordination decision is a complex whole, based on all the beliefs, practices, and character of a potential church officer. They affirmed that the church depends on the presbyteries and sessions to make those judgment calls – guided, of course, by the constitution, but not more bound by one particular doctrine than they are by the whole.

The Special Commission report was adopted overwhelmingly.

So here is the standard of judgment that I read from the work of the Special Commission of 1925, and the similar achievement of the Task Force of 2001:

If a candidate for office in the church said "I know the Bible says X, but I by my own judgment don't believe X, and therefore I reject the authority of the Bible," that person should not become a minister, elder, or deacon of the Presbyterian Church.

If, instead, a candidate for office in the church said "I know the Bible says X, but I have not been able to wrap my mind around that idea yet, though I continue to wrestle with it," that person may become a minister, elder, or deacon of the Presbyterian Church if the presbytery or session regards them as called and qualifiable in other respects.


Dave said...

I do believe you have exactly hit upon where we find ourselves. I wonder if Moderator Joan Gray was thinking of the 1925 commission when she made her "wrap around" remark.

Gruntled said...

I expect that the moderator was not thinking about the Special Commission, but the phrase is apt.

Anonymous said...

"I know that Paul explicitly rejects sex outside of marriage, but I'm unable to get my mind (and other bodily organs) around that concept, and I'm not able to convince myself I have to abide by those exhortations, but I believe I still should be ordained an officer in the PCUSA." Where do you go with this type of response?

Gruntled said...

If I were on that examining committee, I would incline to vote no. If, though, this hypothetical candidate went on to say "but I will remain celibate until I have settled this question in my mind, and if I cannot ultimately live within biblical limits, then, of course, I will withdraw as an officer of the Presbyterian Church," I might vote yes.

Anonymous said...

Although your point is well taken, I believe you have taken Moderator Joan Gray out of context. Instead of disregarding the Biblical teaching, she seemed to embrace the traditional understanding. She stated, “I don’t believe that homosexuality is God’s will for creation. It’s uncomfortable feeling that way, but I am comfortable being uncomfortable…”

Following this analogy would be someone who can’t wrap his or her mind around the virgin birth, but will accept it as truth. Many conservative Presbyterians could probably accept this position.

Gruntled said...

Yes, Moderator Gray said that she believed the traditional teaching, though she had tried hard to understand why liberals disagreed. I think Anonymous was proposing a thought experiment in which a hypothetical candidate believed the liberal view, but was trying to understand the traditional position.

Both are examples of scrupling. They express ambivalence, with a clear leaning one way or the other. The difference is that the moderator embraces the orthodox position, and scruples the liberal one, while Anonymous' hypothetical candidate does the reverse.