Monday, May 09, 2005

Discipline & dissent

The Westminster Confession is the doctrinal standard for the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and the Presbyterian Church in America. Church officers are required to subscribe to the WCF.

The WCF is a 17C document. It is a rather detailed creed, some 33 chapters in length, divided into various subsections.

When a candidate applies for ordination in one of these two bodies, he is asked to state in what respects, if any, he disagrees with the Confession. It is understood that in the case of such a lengthy creed, written 350 years ago, an ordinand might not agree with every line, and it would be unreasonable to expect him to.

What is expected of him is to honestly state whatever differences he may have with the Confession. It is then left to the discretion of the local Presbytery, subject to appeal (to the General Assembly), to determine if his disagreement falls within permissible bounds of dissent.

It seems to me that, in a fallen world, this is about the best compromise you can come up with. On the one hand, the ordinance doesn’t feel the need to play semantic games and redefine the creed to make it agree with him. He doesn’t have to pretend that a 17C creed doesn’t mean what it meant in the 17C.

On the other hand, it enables the presiding body to retain control over its doctrinal identity and enforce orthodoxy, while leaving itself the leeway to make judicious exceptions.

In addition, a Reformed body can also promulgate new policies which address contemporary issues that were not on the radar screen in the 17C, such as evolution, abortion, euthanasia, feminism, charismata, and so on. It doesn’t make the Confession speak where the Confession is silent. It doesn’t indulge in some revisionist anachronism.

Now you have only to compare this to the RCC and the development of dogma, where an effort is made, however forced and strained, to find some hook in tradition for a theological innovation. See how Ratzinger redefines Purgatory to make it a clearing-house for the salvation of Muslims, Jews and pagans. See how John-Paul II and Urs von Balthasar redefine the “descendit ad inferna” to justify universalism. And the devout Roman Catholic is expected to play dumb and pretend that this sort of special-pleading has a real basis in tradition.

This isn’t merely an isolated instance of specious reasoning. It becomes a systematic policy of specious reasoning. Special-pleading is now a normal and normative feature of Catholic theological method. This is standard operating procedure. Like a subculture, such as the Mafia, the RCC has its own honor code—an honor code which would be morally unacceptable outside the RCC, but is fostered and tolerated within the RCC.

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