Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Reflections on The Scots Confession

Skipping ahead a thousand full years, during which I'm sure nothing whatsoever of interest happened in Christendom, we come to the Scots Confession. With these longer confessional documents, I'll be reading through and then commenting on what strikes me one way or another as I read. For those of you following along at home, I'll be including numerical references.

3.02 I find that the Scots Confession says a lot more about the creation stories in Genesis than Genesis itself does. According to the SC, "our first father" Adam is created and endowed with "wisdom, lordship, justice, free will and self-consciousness, so that in the whole nature of man no imperfection could be found". Precisely none of these things are supported by Genesis. The 'adam is given a shape, the breath of life, and the power to give animals names. Then the 'adam is split into two and becomes Adam and Eve. Nowhere that I recall in the story is Adam described as without any imperfection. This is, of course, the classic set-up for the Fall, which comes next, but like must of the theology around the Fall, does not really have much Biblical support.

3.03-3.04 This perfect image of God present in Adam and Eve is certainly profoundly fragile, because it is "utterly defaced" by one act of disobedience. Again, this is not a claim made in Genesis, but it is made in the SC. In Genesis, as I recall, the penalties for disobedience are pain in childbirth, inequality between the sexes, having to toil on the land to get food, and exile from Eden forever. There is no ontological defacement mentioned that I recall.

One of the most important things about Genesis is not mentioned, and wasn't really focused on (that I'm aware of) until the rise of historical criticism - that we were created to be gardeners, frolicking around and eating fruit without a care in the world. This is in contrast to other creation myths like the Babylonian ones, where humanity is created to serve the gods, and of course the king, as servants and slaves.

A catastrophic fall from grace is not presented as the result of the disobedient eating in Genesis - but pain, work and patriarchy are. As well as snakes having no legs.

Only later does the observation of total depravity lead one to look backward and impose the SC interpretation onto Genesis.

3.07 Chapter 7, titled "Why the Mediator Had to Be True God and True Man", is only one sentence long. It is written here that the answer to the question that the chapter poses is that the Mediator could not otherwise due to the "immutable decree of God". I am actually under the impression that the Incarnation was a tough sell for everyone, including the Jewish communities of the ancient world, and so I'm wondering where this decree can be found and why almost no one was aware of it?

3.08 It is very interesting to find here in the discussion of the atonement clear references to the Christus Victor theology mingled with penal substitutionary atonement. This is a lot more true to the Bible which does not present one concise explanation for how the atonement is achieved but rather a number of explanations, metaphors, images and so on. Of these, penal substitutionary atonement has always made the least sense to me by far, but it's hard to deny that one could draw that conclusion. It's just impossible to make a strong argument that penal-sub is the only conclusion.

3.11 Under the chapter heading "The Ascension" we read a lot about the Day of Judgement, and I must differentiate myself again on at least one point. We have the usual theology of election here, and it is presented as not only a bridle for carnal lusts but also an inestimable comfort, and I want to be clear that the idea that all unbelievers being cast into an eternal prison of darkness, worms and fire is anything but a comfort. Not only might I, or anyone reading this, be cast into the prison if we happen to be missing the right beliefs, but billions will be locked into eternal torture for nothing more than an accident of birth. This is not a comfort; this is a looming threat.

Not to mention that if the word "love" has any meaningful content whatsoever, that content must include 'not condemning people to eternal torment', whatever theological contortions one proposes based on God's justice and God's love being somehow at odds.

But this is well-trodden material with the Friars and Fool.

3.12 Ok, here's another great argument against the justice of eternal damnation - the theology of the Holy Ghost, which says that apart from the HG we have no capacity to perceive, understand or respond to truth and God's love for us. What this means is that if there are non-believers, it cannot be the fault of the non-believer, right? Isn't it just that the HG has quickened knowledge of God in some and not in others? How then can we be both unable to respond to God and also eternally deserving of punishment for not responding to God?

In a word, Arg.

3.13 I'm having more trouble with this antropology than I'd expected. In the chapter on "The Cause of Good Works" the claim is made that those who are not Christians and how commit misdeeds have no regrets when they do so because they are simply following their sinful natures.

Given that almost everyone, apart from sociopaths or the deranged, feel guilt and regret for their misdeeds much of the time, I can only draw two conclusions.

1. The Scot's Confession is incorrect in it's absolutizing of our sinful natures, or

2. Almost everyone has Christ in them, manifesting as their conscience.

In fact, isn't the conscience one of the 'proofs' of God that Paul mentions which convicts everyone, even non-believers, of their sinful nature? This Pauline assertion seems to contradict the Scots Confession on this point.

3.14 A breath of fresh air is found in the SC's definition of good works - either they honor God or they profit our neighbor. Sounds about right to me. Good is either good in and of itself or good because it is beneficent.

Just to belabor a point, eternal punishment is not good on either count.

3.15 On the Law, in brief. If perfectly followed, it functions perfectly, but for human beings it is impossible to follow perfectly. In this view, the Law is nothing but an engine for infinite condemnation.

It should be noted that this is not what the authors of the Pentateuch thought the Law was, this is what Paul thought the Law was. For Jews, the Law (Torah) is the standard of righteousness, but there is no expectation that human beings will follow it perfectly. That is why there is all that talk of God forgiving all the time. The Torah binds the people of God to God in reciprocal relationship - it is not an infinitely high pole that no one can ever vault.

3.18 I wonder whether the third sign of the true Kirk, that "vice is repressed and virtue nourished", can be leveraged now to support developing virtue ethics in the Protestant Church. Since we're a lot less concerned with differentiating ourselves from the "pestilent Papists", perhaps we can come up with some sort of system whereby vice is actually repressed and virtue is actually nourished.

Here we also have the Holy Spirit as the true interpreter of scripture along with the idea that scripture should be interpreted with reference to scripture, preferencing the words and actions of Christ. The three measures of interpretation given are the principal points of faith, the plain reading of scripture, and the rule of love. This is delightful, since what are the principal points of faith, what is a plain reading of scripture, and what constitutes love are of course...to be interpreted.

3.21 I am finding that I really enjoy the sacramental theology of the SC presented here, and this is part of what I want to promote at my own new church, what I have seen function so powerfully particularly in multicultural worship.

3.24 A little sprinkle of idolatry here, frankly, in the section on political powers and authorities, all but equating them with God's authority. Now, of course, the Kirk itself was making a bid for political power and authority in the vacuum left by the Catholic Church, so it isn't surprising that they would side entirely with the rules and never against those who resist their rulership.

As we all know, Jesus never condoned civil disobedience of any kind, and always attributed the highest intentions to those in authority. He never questioned those with political authority. Nope. Not Jesus.

3.25 For the concluding chapter, I wish there was anything about sanctification in here. Ah well.


Aric Clark said...

I mostly agree with the "three measures of interpretation" though I think a "plain reading of scripture" is awfully vague and difficult to accomplish - and also possibly wrong. I mean, it isn't "plain" that the book of Joshua is a revanchist manifesto for the House of David under Josiah, but I'm totally persuaded that that is what it is.

The other two measures though - the principal points of faith, and the rule of love are dead on (as I define them obviously).

Interestingly most of my disagreements with conservatives on biblical interpretation are split this way. The insist on plain readings, and I insist on certain points of faith and the rule of love as important to shaping those readings.

Doug Hagler said...

Unfortunately, the differences are not only in what "plain reading" (if such a thing exists) constitutes but also in what those important points are and what in fact love means...

Aric Clark said...

Oh absolutely. Interpretation and subjectivity all the way around. I just think there is a difference in how much stress we put on which of these three measures.