Grace Presbyterian Church
June 24, 2018, Pentecost 5B
The Confessions:Scots Confession – Born in Conflict
I don’t remember when it was precisely, but it was sometime when I was in college. I was home for the weekend, and we awoke on Saturday morning to find a flyer inserted in our front door. This wasn’t uncommon itself, but the flyer was distinctive, to say the least. It was from a local Baptist church. I can’t honestly remember what particular flavor of Baptist it was, but it wasn’t Southern Baptist (which my family was when I was growing up).
The main distinguishing feature of the flyer was a diagram offering a … uniqueillustration of the various branches of the Christian church, one which by using various arrows and curves purported to illustrate just how far the churches included had strayed from the “one, true church.” Catholics were the farthest-strayed, but Episcopalians and Lutherans were also pretty far from the mark. I wasn’t a Presbyterian yet but I do remember noticing that they didn’t do to well, either. Methodists weren’t super-far from the “truth,” but they were strayed still. And you’ll not be surprised, given the source, that the “one, true church” in the particular religious galaxy of this flyer, was the Baptist church.
What may blow your mind was whythis was held to be so. You see, while all these other denominations had departed from the “one, true church” at various points in history, the Baptist church could (again, according to this diagram) claim a direct and uninterrupted line of descent from (not Jesus, but) John the Baptist.
Yes, somehow, John the Baptist founded the Baptist church. (If you wonder why more modern translations tend to refer to him as John the Baptizer, this kind of silliness is at least a small part of the reason why.) In case it’s not clear from my tone of voice or facial expression, there is no biblical student or scholar worth anything who would support such a claim.
In this ongoing reflection on the ten confessions that are found in the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s Book of Confessions, we have reached the series of four confessional documents that have their origins to some degree in the heady and challenging days following the Protestant Reformation. The Scots Confession, as its name suggests, was born in Scotland, a founding statement of what became the Church of Scotland, an ancestor and still-colleague church of the Presbyterian Church to which we belong. Among other things, the very structures and ways of business that give us the name “Presbyterian” – including the gathering in councils ranging from our church’s own session meeting Monday night to the church-wide General Assembly that just concluded in St. Louis yesterday – has its roots in the church that came into being in the formation of this confession. These are our roots, or at least a major part of them.
The making of confessional statements, far from being a random thing, is quite rooted in scripture. Our reading from Deuteronomy includes one of the first great confessional statements of scripture – “Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord alone.” You can note that the great thematic statement is followed by instruction – “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” – that would be echoed by Jesus in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and then by direction on making that statement (known as the Shemafor the Hebrew word with which it begins) a core tenet of your life and a principal point of instruction to your children – a part of your identity, so to speak.
So no, with such scriptural foundation it’s not uncommon for churches descended from one of the Reformation traditions to put forth declarations of their faith that served both as confessions or statements of faith and as documents for organization and instruction in the teachings and ways of that particular tradition. The newly-forming Protestant church in Scotland, still technically under the rule of a Catholic queen-in-absentia, put together the Scots Confession to provide both foundation and direction for their fledgling church. It was never used alone; such continental statements as the Geneva Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism and Second Helvetic Confession also held official status in the Church of Scotland. (The latter two are the next two statements in our PC(USA) Book of Confessions.)
The Scots Confession has much to recommend it. It places a great emphasis on the church’s obligation to the right study and interpretation of scripture, for example, is so significant as to be called one of the “marks of the true kirk” (Scottish for “church”), along with right administration of the sacraments and proper church discipline. Its instruction on the sacraments speaks beautifully and movingly of the grace of God by which we are able to partake in that sign of Christ’s gift to us. It even has the self-awareness, in its preface, to acknowledge that, as any human endeavor, it might be wrong, and to invite those who read it to examine it for error.
There’s a lot about the Scots Confession that simply doesn’t hold water anymore. There are statements in this confession you will never catch us reading as part of an Affirmation of Faith. There are elements that serve as eloquent reminders that for all the value it does have, the Scots Confession, or any other confession of this period, is too much of its time and context to be fully and unreservedly transferable to our time. There’s a reason we continue to make confessions, in other words.
Remember, the Scots Confession was created in the wake of the Protestant Reformation, in the year 1560. One of the things we don’t talk about on Reformation Sunday is the amount of conflict, even violence, which happened after the Reformation; armies in battle, peasants’ revolts, and even outright assassinations. Scotland was not immune; the murder of a supporter of Reformation was answered by the murder of a loyalist Catholic cleric.
In short, the establishment of Protestantism in Scotland was anything but peaceful, and the Scots Confession reflects that in its vituperative sentiments expressed against the Catholilc Church, vitriol far beyond that appropriate for condemnation of the abuses that had become established in the Church at that time.
Even the one most striking element of the Scots Confession is at least somewhat tainted by this viciousness. Remember how Chapter XVIII of the confession speaks of “notes of the True Kirk”; the Word rightly preached, the Sacraments rightly administered, and proper church discipline? These notes, as striking and effective as they are, are couched within some of the most vicious language against the Catholic Church, and a round of anti-Semitism as well. Such a pattern is found throughout; strong, even brilliant instruction and formation of the church mixed among bitter and violent lashing out against those not part of this “true kirk.”
It’s not as if division is new in Christianity. As we are reminded in today’s reading from 1 Corinthians, even the early church fell into division. We see those who boast about having been baptized or converted by Paul, and those who brag about their conversion by Apollos, a preacher/evangelist who helped lead the Corinthian church in Paul’s absence. Then there are those, the really smug and self-righteous ones, who see others squabbling and place themselves above the fray by boasting that their onlyleader is Christ. You know that kind, right?
Division in the church wasn’t new at the Reformation, and it didn’t end there. Division continues to plague the church, especially its Protestant realms, and that division can be quite vicious at times, with one church quite willing and ready to brand another as being not even Christian. We can’t be that. We have fought and battled and called each other names to the utter ruin of any witness we might have in the world. We can’t be that in this age or any age. If that kind of thing is something in which you engage or sympathize, stop it. STOP. IT.
Another difficult aspect of the Scots Confession, one less made explicit than thoroughly implied in its creation, is the degree to which the Confession expects a church that is more or less an arm of the state. The Scots Confession expects a Scotland that will claim it as its own and support it fully. It expects to be, in every way, TheChurch of Scotland.
Clearly this should be something we do not understand as applying to us, living as we do in a nation in which the First Amendment to the Constitution explicitly prohibits that kind of state support for any religion. And yet, it sure seems like some of our Protestant brothers imagine themselves as a church with special power in this particular nation, one in which an attorney general makes free to cite scripture badly to support a particularly oppressive or punitive policy action. (If you’re going to cite Romans 13, you’d better be ready to explain how verses 8-10 fit into your detention scheme. Better yet, don’t cite scripture to explain your detention scheme.)
Being an official “state church,” however, isn’t the only way a church can fall into the trap of relying too much on the establishment. It’s possible to be too comfortable with other power structures, like industry or finance, not just the state itself. And that kind of dependency limits a church. It becomes too afraid of losing what it has. It cannot speak a prophetic word or take a needed stand against injustice or oppression or exploitation or the ruination of God’s created world for fear of old pastors’ pensions being ruined. That’s a church that is every bit as compromised as one beholden to a king or emperor.
We can’t be that church. We must not be imprisoned by our desire to remain respectable, to wield influence, to keep a “seat at the table” of those who see the world as merely something to exploit, and God’s children as merely cogs in their machines.
When we give away our ability to bear witness against these schemes, whether of government or industry of any kind, we might as well quit and go home. There’s really no point in our pretending to be a church of Jesus Christ any more.
Some of the lessons these confessions teach us are lessons in what not to do, and the Scots Confession offers more than a few. But it does also offer a glimpse into what the church should look like; a structure that sustains the church even today; a beautiful course of instruction on the sacraments and on the continuing power of scripture read under the Holy Spirit. May we always be able to engage in the challenging work of discerning what our ancestors in the faith have to teach us, both for the good and for the … not as good.
For lessons of both kinds, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #624, I Greet Thee, Who My Sure Redeemer Art; #321, The Church’s One Foundation; #378, We Wait the Peaceful Kingdom; #695, Change My Heart, O God
Image is of John Knox, principal driver of Scottish Reformation and of the Scots Confession