The United Church is voting on changes to its doctrine. Every presbytery and every congregation will cast a ballot to decide whether changes will be made to the central document of the denomination, "The Basis of Union." Actually there are four choices:
- to approve a change which would make our doctrinal statement read that Scripture is the primary source of doctrine, and that the 20 Articles, along with the 1948 Statement of Faith are secondary sources.
- to approve a change which would make our doctrinal statement read that Scripture is the primary source of doctrine, and that the 20 Articles, along with the 1968 "A New Creed" (as it currently reads, it has been amended over the years) are secondary sources.
- to approve a change which would make our doctrinal statement read that Scripture is the primary source of doctrine, and that the 20 Articles, along with the 2008 "Song of Faith" are secondary sources.
- the fourth choice isn't so obvious, but if all three proposals are rejected, the doctrine of our church remains the 20 Articles.
Now if you've heard me preach, you know that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament are the primary source of faith in Jesus Christ. (No, more than that, they are the only way of knowing who this Jesus Christ is!) Yet I am very uncomfortable with the proposal to make the statement that "Scripture is the primary source of our doctrine" the primary statement of our doctrine. Passing any of these proposals would deeply undermine the community of the United Church. Let me explain.
The 20 articles clearly put scripture first: they defer to scripture, they declare their intention to merely represent what scripture already teaches. Yet in doing so, they articulate what the primacy of scripture means to the church. Without that, primacy tells us nothing at all.
Let me focus on one analogy, that of artwork.
For some, who accept the primacy of Scripture, the Bible could be described as a photograph. Each figure, each colour, each pixel it an accurate presentation of reality, rendered exactly as history unfolded. The Story is entirely, mechanically, and perfectly reproduced.
For others, who accept the primacy of Scripture, the Bible is more like a painting. Much of it, for sure, is Realist: detailed, accurate, like the focus of a Bateman print almost photographic in its quality. But other parts are Impressionistic, Expressionist, or even occasionally abstract. These parts tell the story truly, but don't communicate in the same way as a photograph. Still the Story is told in its own way, perfectly communicated in the manner of art, rather than the perfection of photography.
For others, who would claim the primacy of Scripture, the Bible is more of a palette, the source of colours for constructing all sorts of stories. They may very well dismiss the narrative arc that pervades the Scripture, the grand tale of Creation, Fall, Redemption and Restoration, and merely choose a bit of blue from Job, some red from the passion narratives, and paint a picture more compatible to their convictions. Indeed, perhaps it is better to say that the Bible becomes a source for a mosaic- cut into tiles, and made into a whole new glorious piece of art; or perhaps one extracts narrative threads and weaves a whole new tapestry. All the while declaring that Scripture is primary.
No doubt my tone has given away that I lean toward the painting viewpoint. I sympathize with the photographic perspective, since the same story emerges in the end. In fact, the 20 Articles allow for both perspectives, while, I think, favouring the painting. But I do not accept the validity of the third perspective. The palette/mosaic/tapestry approach is taken by people on the left and the right, as they create a Jesus and a faith in their own image, all the while claiming scripture as their source and inspiration. I see the third viewpoint as an error to which we all are prone, from which our creeds, confessions and the communion with other Christians through all the centuries guard us.
For a statement that seeks to express that our unity as a church consists of our shared confidence in Jesus Christ as revealed in Scripture, the vague generality that Scripture is primary can not stand alone. Definition and detail can not be subordinated to this statement, but need to be incorporated into it: which lo and behold, our current doctrine already does.