My remarks in presenting the report of the Commission on Theology to the 2016 General Synod of the Reformed Church in America; June 13, 2016.
Thank you, Mr. President.
The Commission on Theology exists to serve the General Synod, and thereby the church, by reflecting theologically on matters of interest or concern to the RCA. Those two things lie at the heart of what we do: serving the Synod, and theological reflection. And it is those two things that members of the commission take delight in doing.
But what is theological reflection? What should it do?
Some say it’s about giving answers. Others say it’s about asking questions.
Some say it’s about stating eternal truths. Others say it’s about responding to the moment.
Some describe the work of theology as a passing on of what has been received. Others say it’s a fresh act of expression.
Some see it as a divine gift. Some understand it as a human work.
Theological reflection may be all of these, and more. Or, at times, perhaps none of them.
Often, theology finds that it cannot say definitively what something is. It has to be content with saying what it is like, and what it is not. But the “is” sometimes eludes theology. Karl Barth said that the work of Christian theology is like painting a bird in flight. The painter can’t capture the flying of the bird, but only suggest it. Theological reflection often must humbly recognize its limits, as the reality of God transcends those limits, and “the finite cannot comprehend the infinite.” God is infallible, but theology and theological reflection are not.
So those who serve through theological reflection often find that the best they can do is place some rough boundary markers, or plant some tent poles, that mark a territory in which a variety of faithful Christian witness and practice can all reasonably exist.
This happened in the fifth century, when the ecumenical Council of Chalcedon wrestled with the mystery of how the two natures of the Lord Jesus Christ should be understood. Jesus is divine. Jesus is human. But how, exactly? Rather than a very specific formula that spelled out exactly how, the bishops in Chalcedon instead sketched a territory that said what was “out” without being too clear about what was “in.” They did that with a series of negative statements: Christ is (quoting now) “recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation.”
I believe that Chalcedon has something to teach us about theological reflection, including the theological reflection that the Commission on Theology does in service to the General Synod. And it is this: rather than issuing pronouncements that purport to settle all questions and solve all mysteries, perhaps what we ought to try doing more often is to sketch the boundaries of Christian witness on difficult issues, including human sexuality.
That might not be satisfying to some. A number of my brothers and sisters in the RCA appear to yearn for short, definitive statements that can then be placed on the web site, easily quoted, and thereafter used in disciplinary and judicial actions.
But here’s the thing: the biblical, theological, pastoral, ethical, and scientific realities resist the formulation of such pronouncements.
Yet if not short statements, it’s fairly clear that the church doesn’t want lengthy statements, either. In truth, most papers of this commission and others are read by very few who are not delegates … and perhaps by not all of the delegates. As my friend Matthew van Maasstricht put it, “The Minutes of the General Synod are where good papers go to die.”
At the 2013 General Synod, the delegates were debating a motion to direct the Commission on Theology to write something on human sexuality. And some of the language used in overtures and advisory committee reasons and floor discussion anticipated a “comprehensive paper” on human sexuality.
A “comprehensive paper.” On this topic. Help me out here: Isn’t that a book?
I’m no pessimist. But anyone who expects that such a lengthy treatment on this topic by the Commission on Theology would be widely read is far more optimistic than I.
Serving the Synod through theological reflection is the task and joy of this commission. Last year we presented “The Word Became Flesh: Setting the Context for the Church’s Discussion of Issues Involving Sexuality.” It was a theological statement on human sexuality focused on what we in the RCA affirm, unwittingly antitipating what General Secretary Tom De Vries said in his report on Friday, “What unites is far greater than what divides us.” It was the hope of the members of this commission that we in the RCA can be better prepared for difficult conversations about our differences as we first state what we have in common.
We intended “The Word Became Flesh” as a first step, to be followed by another, (sorry) more “comprehensive” paper. But two things led us to reconsider, and, in reconsidering, to ask this Synod for more direction.
First, we all knew that the Special Council would be meeting. None of us could anticipate what exactly the Special Council would produce. So we couldn’t anticipate what work the delegates of this synod would have to do here in response to the Special Council. We believed that a paper from us would either distract from your work of processing the recommendations of the Special Council or be swallowed up in all that work. We were concerned that it would be viewed as conflicting with the Special Council report. It was clear to us that a new paper on sexuality sent by us to this synod would not help the synod but rather make its work much more difficult.
In the end, the members of the Commission felt it best to place ourselves, in a sense, under the “Season of Restraint” that last year’s Synod implored of assemblies and office bearers, and so decline to offer a report at this time.
But to be honest, and with regret, we do not know what the Synod would like us to do, if anything. We thought that last year’s paper was good and helpful. But we do not know how helpful the Synod found it to be, nor do we know what was lacking in it that would require another paper.
For these reasons, the Commission on Theology has suspended its work on the topic of human sexuality until the General Synod gives it more specific direction.
Even as we stand ready to respond to such direction, we continue working on topics that have been assigned to us (these are noted in the written report in the workbook), and we will eagerly take up the items assigned to us by this Synod.
It is joyful work. Scripture teaches us neither to fear work nor to worship it, but rather to take on the work God gives us as a response to God’s great love for us.
As I and the other commission members anticipate that work, I am reminded of the words of John Henry Newman:
May [God] support us all the day long, till the shades lengthen, and the evening comes, and the busy world is hushed, and the fever of life is over, and our work is done! Then in [God’s] mercy may [God] give us a safe lodging, and a holy rest, and peace at the last.
Mr. President, this concludes my report.