VII. What Do Our Creeds and Confessions Say?
We in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) are in the fortunate position of having not just one or two confessions, but a Book of Confessions. This is characteristic of Reformed churches. When we sense that God puts new challenges before us, together we rethink before God what we believe. I cannot recommend strongly enough that you take The Book of Confessions and read it through — maybe not all at one sitting, but not too many either, because you lose the threads. And there are threads. Before we go into details, I want to share with you a thread that I noted as I read the Confessions for eschatological notes. There are not too many eschatological references but they are there. But what is there in greater abundance — besides the constant subjects, the Trinity, the work of Christ and Scriptures, and the differing theological emphases of different ages — are the references to our common life here and now. These include:
References to the church, for God calls us not only to faith but to a life of faith in community (3.16,18,25; 5.124-141; 6.140-145,169-172; 9.20-26,31-40,43-50).
References to the Sacraments, inclusion in the community and food for the journey of faith (3.21-23; 4.065-085; 5. 169-210; 6. 161-168; 7.272-287;
References to good works which are done “to show gratitude to God, and for the profit of the neighbor” (5.117). (3.13,14; 5.115-123; 6.087-093).
References to civil authorities (3.24; 5.252-260; 6,119-122; and 8, the Barmen Declaration).
References to marriage and divorce (5.245-251; 6.131-132).
Our tradition is persuaded that our Creator is concerned not only with the parts, but with the whole. “The kingdom has drawn near,” Jesus’ first proclamation, was followed by healing of bodies and minds; by freeing persons who felt bound; by challenging authorities, religious and secular, when they stepped beyond their limits (the cleansing of the temple; on paying tax). The Christian gospel is not addressed to a part of life, but to the whole of it Reformed Christians have understood this; it is what they saw in the prophets and in the ministry of Jesus. They involved the church and its members in the whole of life. We are not to retreat into a .religious life; rather, we are called to transform our common life. Church and state, the world of labor and of education, the family and the economy are to be touched by God’s redeeming work. For God so loved the world, that God gave: Christ, the Spirit and the Christian community to participate in the work of transformation. That is the context in which Reformed confessions speak about the last things. The current edition of The Book of Confessions has an index, so one can find all the references. I will highlight only a few.
The Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds mention the four themes — resurrection, return of Christ, judgment and eternal life — with clarity and economy.
The return of Christ is confirmed in the catechisms: The Heidelberg (4.046,052), the Shorter (7.028) and the Larger (7.166), the Westminster Confession (6.180-182). (Note that since 1983 Westminster is numbered differently than in previous editions.) And in the Confession of 1967 (9.32,52).
The resurrection is spoken of in the Scots Confession (3.10,11,25), in the Heidelberg Catechism (4.057), in the Second Helvetic Confession (5.075), the Shorter (7.038) and the Larger Catechisms (7.197).
The last judgment is pointed to in the Scots Confession (3.11), the Heidelberg Catechism (4.046,052), the Westminster Confession (6.180-182).
Eternal life is set forth in the Heidelberg Catechism (4.042,052,058,059,076) and in the Confession of 1967 (9.11,26).
The four elements of the last things are affirmed by Reformed Christians but we speak more of what God requires of us and equips us for now, than of the last things. When we look at the whole picture of God’s will, what we see is very different from what the dispensationalists and millennialists teach. Because we see the kingdom both here and yet not fully here, our concerns are different. Listen to the Heidelberg Catechism:
What is the second petition [of the Lord’s Prayer]?
A “Thy Kingdom come.” That is: so govern us by the Word and Spirit that we may more and more submit ourselves unto thee. Uphold
and increase thy church. Destroy the works of the devil … until
the full coming of thy kingdom in which thou shalt be all in all.(4.123)
How rooted we must be in both this world and eternity, how deeply we need to understand the power of the kingdom already here and the hope of its full presence, that is, the dynamics of the Christian life, is beautifully expressed in the Confession of 1967. This is the inclusive language text prepared by Cynthia A. Jarvis and Freda A. Gardner. Read it slowly to savor the description:
God’s redeeming work in Jesus Christ embraces the whole of human life: social and cultural, economic and political, scientific and technological, individual and corporate. It includes the natural environment as exploited and despoiled by sin. It is the will of God that the purpose for human life shall be fulfilled under the rule of Christ and all evil be banished from creation. (9.53)
Biblical visions and images of the rule of Christ such as a heavenly city, the household of God, a new heaven and earth, a marriage feast, and an unending day culminate in the image of the kingdom. The kingdom represents the triumph of God over all that resists the will and disrupts the creation of God. Already God’s reign is present as a ferment in the world, stirring hope in all people and preparing the world to receive its ultimate judgment and redemption. (9.54)
With an urgency born of this hope the church applies itself to present tasks and strives for a better world. It does not identify limited progress with the kingdom of God on earth, nor does it despair in the face of disappointment and defeat. In steadfast hope the church looks beyond all partial achievement to the final triumph of God. (9.55)
”Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to do far more abundantly than all we ask or think, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.” [Quoting Ephesians 3:20-21.1(9.56)