Full Text for American Religious Scene- Volume 34 - Official Documents (Video)

No. 34. >> Thanks very much for that answer, Professor. "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" must have been quite a sermon. Americans seem so callous to sin today. I wonder if any proclamation of the law could bring 21st Century Americans to such a point of fear that they would beg a preacher to stop because they could take no more. Now, if I wanted to know more about the groups you've mentioned, what are some of the official documents or confessions I could read? >>DR. LAWRENCE R. RAST, JR.: Nick, as I mentioned earlier, there are in the Reformed tradition a lot of local confessions. And I mentioned just a few in passing. And a couple in a little more detail. For example, the Westminster Confession has been a normative document for the Presbyterian Church in Scotland as well as English Presbyterians and Puritans, as well. The Synod of Dort, which we looked at in some detail, has its five Heads of Doctrine as they are called. And those are normative for the Dutch Reformed tradition. But there are also then these more obscured texts, as well. A number of confessions. For example, back in the 16th Century there is the Consensus Tigurinus, which was a document signed in 1549 that established a basis of agreement between two branches of the Reformed tradition. Namely, the Zwinglians in Switzerland on the one hand and the Calvin -- the followers of Calvin on the other hand. Both, again, in Switzerland. There has been the London Confession. There have been the Helvetic Confession. There are any number of these localized confessions that have characterized the Reformed tradition. And that's one of the things that led me to ask a little while ago whether it is appropriate to talk about "the" Reformed tradition or maybe it might be a little better to talk about "a" Reformed tradition. In other words, the Reformed Confessions, local in character and specific to their circumstances, don't have the same kind of breadth, if you will, and character in terms of defining and producing an identity within the Reformed tradition. Like say the Lutheran Confessions do for Lutherans. Now, that's not to minimize the importance of any of these doctrines. The Synod of Dort was extremely important and its conclusions continue to be normative. The Westminster Confession was an enormously important document and was especially so for the Presbyterian Church not only in England and Scotland as I've mentioned, but also for the Presbyterian Church here in the United States. In fact, as Presbyterians began to organize here in the United States, what became the United States, they began to ask themselves about normative confessional statements. And the Westminster Confession function has that normative statement. However, they did have a bit of controversy in the first part of the 1700s over just how that confession would function. What I mean is this: The question was: Do we accept the Westminster Confession unconditionally or conditionally? They use two Latin terms to describe the two ways of subscribing to the document. Namely, do we subscribe ***queau, that is because the Westminster Confession is a faithful exposition of Scripture, or do we accept the Westminster Confession quatenus or quatenus, you'll hear it pronounced both ways, that is insofar as it agrees with Scripture. A more than 20-year argument proceeded from 1710 on through 1730 and beyond, in fact, over this point. And this question was determinative for Presbyterians here in the United States. Would they accept all of the teachings without reservation as they were outlined in the Westminster Confession? Or would they reserve to themselves the right to disagree? A minority group held to them vigorously and unconditionally arguing that queau, because the Westminster Confession agrees with Scripture, it must be subscribed without any reservation whatsoever. However, most Presbyterians in America held to a more modest confessional subscription saying insofar as, quatenus, the confession agrees with Scripture, we accept it. What that then allowed certain Presbyterians to do was to modify or moderate their theological position. Saying that not all things in the Westminster Confession were absolutely binding. Therefore, there was a certain fluidity and flexibility that they were allowed as they interpreted just how it would be applied in American circumstances. Now, a little earlier in the course I brought up the case of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. When that group simply argued that they were accepting the Westminster Confession quatenus, that is conditionally, they were rejected by other Presbyterians who argued for a more vigorous position. They said: This isn't consistent with where most of our church has been for the last almost 100 years now. This is about 1810. And as a result, withdrew themselves to form a new Presbyterian Church. Since that time, most Presbyterians in America have adopted the Westminster Confession in a more modest or moderate fashion. Seeing it as a key and important historical document. But not necessarily normative. At least from a subscribing sense where they would say all points are absolutely necessary to be held. As we look at the text of the Westminster Confession in our studies in class, we'll see there are significant points of divergence among various American Presbyterians on this particular issue. But one thing that comes clear throughout that particular document is the centrality of this decree of double predestination. You know, I find your remarks regarding "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," the law that's proclaimed there, the ruggedness of that proclamation, and the manner in which it affected people, whether that would still be the case today. I often wonder that myself. But without that vigorous preaching of the law, proclamation of the law, in a lot of ways, the Presbyterian emphasis on the double predestinating act of God loses much of its punch, as well. And that's been one of the things that that particular tradition has struggled with as it's defined itself here in what's become the United States. There are other texts, as well. The Dutch Reformed communities around Holland Michigan, Northwestern Iowa and other places continued to look back to their Synod of Dort as well as to the Helvetic -- Second Helvetic Confession and also the Westminster Confession. In American Puritanism, the congregational church produced its own confession of faith. Namely, the Cambridge Platform. In that platform there is little to distinguish them from the general theological perspective that characterized the Reformed Church in the mid part of the 1600s. In fact, when it was adopted in 1648 by the congregational churches in New England, it made a little splash. But not much. Most people simply accepted it for what it was. At least in terms of its specific theological position. Where it would be a ground breaker was in its polity. That's in terms of the way the church was organized. For the Cambridge Platform would be a distinctively congregational document. And we'll talk more about that later. But again, what you begin to see is that even with the accepted documents and then adding into that this plethora of other Reformed Confessions, you see that it's very difficult to point to one particular text that becomes normative and descriptive of the entire Reformed tradition. Rather, each local geographical church tended to develop its own. Its own text. Its own meaning of that text. And application. And then used that to define itself. At the same time there was sufficient commonalty across these confessional boundaries. So that one can talk about at the very least a Reformed tradition. And in most of these cases, Nick, people would talk very specifically about "the" Reformed tradition. But the one question that would linger and the one question that was especially brought up by these two mid 17th Century documents, the Westminster Confession and the Cambridge Platform, the first in England, the second here in America, was the question of polity. And that is: How should we organize our churches? And that would be the next pressing issue for the Reformed.