Doctrine as Guide to Social Witness

by George Hunsinger

George Hunsinger, who directs the Center for Barth Studies at Princeton Theological Seminary, recently wrote Disruptive Grace: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth.

A longer version of this article appeared in the Princeton Seminary Bulletin (February 2000). The Study Catechism can be obtained from Presbyterians for Renewal, 8134 New La-Grange Road, Suite 227, Louisville, KY 40222-4679. This article appeared in The Christian Century, April 19-26, 2000, pp. 456-461. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


One striking accomplishment of the recent Presbyterian Study Catechism is that it deliberately draws out the political implications of fundamental doctrines. In doing so, it takes a significant step toward erasing the false opposition between traditional faith and progressive politics.

Progressive political movements in the church are often portrayed -- by their adherents and their critics -- as opposed to "traditional" faith, as if the two were mutually exclusive. That this is a false choice is plain to anyone who knows such figures as Dorothy Day, William Stringfellow, Fanny Lou Hamer, Oscar Romero, André Trocme, Desmond Tutu and Karl Barth. These Christians saw no reason to choose between their love of Jesus Christ as confessed by faith and their love for the poor and oppressed. For them, traditional faith was not a hindrance but an incentive for political witness.

One striking accomplishment of the recent Presbyterian Study Catechism is that it deliberately draws out the political implications of fundamental doctrines. In doing so, it takes a significant step toward erasing the false opposition between traditional faith and progressive politics.

The Study Catechism was one of two catechetical documents approved at the 1998 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). That the catechisms were overwhelmingly approved (by an 80-20 margin) at a time when the church is wracked by division over various social issues is significant in itself. The catechisms are slowly seeping into the life of the church as they are used in confirmation, leadership training and congregational education.

The shorter "First Catechism" is designed for children of nine or ten. The longer "Study Catechism," which I will focus on here, unpacks the basics of the faith -- the Apostles’ Creed, the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer -- in a manner suitable for people 14 and older. It addresses traditional catechetical topics, such as Christ’s incarnation, death and resurrection, as well as contemporary concerns, such as the problem of evil, faith and science, and Christianity’s relation to other religions. And, as I hope to show, the catechism exhibits a generous orthodoxy as it balances concern for the church with concern for the world. Consider some examples:

THE INTEGRITY OF CREATION: Whether the human race will survive the next century in not clear. What is clear is that the means and mechanisms of self-extinction already exist. Ecological destruction is the slow version, while the quick version is nuclear war and its military analogues, and the intermediate version is overpopulation and the gross maldistribution of resources.

At the level of technology and social policy, Christians have no special expertise with respect to details, but they can offer orientation and direction. By ordering their common life and taking direct action in the world, they will always stand for the possibility of repentance and the reality of hope. They can challenge the technological imperative of "if it can be done, it will be done," seeing it as the symptom of a larger idolatry of human self-mastery and deceit. They can seek to break with destructive habits of consumption, heedless waste of earth’s resources and unrestrained pursuit of private gain at the expense of public good. They can discuss and implement simpler, more sustainable ways of ordering the church’s life and their individual lives. This becomes clear in the catechism:

Question 19. As creatures made in God’s image, what responsibility do we have for the earth

God commands us to care for the earth in ways that reflect God’s loving care for us. We are responsible for ensuring that earth’s gifts be used fairly and wisely, that no creature suffers from the abuse of what we are given, and that future generations may continue to enjoy the abundance and goodness of the earth in praise to God.

Here the catechism undertakes a modest act of theological repentance. Widely publicized criticisms have shown how the biblical injunction to "fill the earth and subdue it" (Gen. 1:28) has served to underwrite ecological irresponsibility. Such criticisms overlook the theological resources that scriptural communities possess, and the possibility of their learning from past mistakes.

Scriptural communities, whether Christian or Jewish, have always known that the earth does not belong to them. "The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it" (Ps. 24:1). They are only custodians of a world they have received as a gift, and disorders in their relationship with God have profound consequences for the earth: "The earth lies polluted under its inhabitants; for they have transgressed laws, violated the statutes, broken the everlasting covenant" (Isa. 24:5). These verses are among those appended to question 19. The catechism thus begins to orient Christians toward ecological responsibility.

NONVIOLENCE AND PEACE: Modern warfare has been the defining experience of the 20th century. More than 100 million people have died in the wars of this century, compared with 49 million in all previous centuries since the time of Christ. In 1995 world military expenditures amounted to more than $1.4 million per minute. Despite recent reductions, the world stockpile of nuclear weapons still represents 700 times the explosive power of the 20th century’s three major wars. Given these unprecedented horrors, are Christians to witness to nonviolence and peace? How do we understand the meaning of power? How should it be used? Is power inevitably violent?

Christians can answer these questions only in the context of their understanding of God’s power. Who exactly is the God to whom Christians bear witness? What forms of social action correspond to the prior and determinative reality of God? How is God’s power exercised in the world, and how is it related to God’s love? What does it mean to say that God is omnipotent? In asking such questions, we are in the vicinity of the first article of the Apostles’ Creed:

Question 7. What do you believe when you confess your faith in "God the Father Almighty"?

That God is a God of love, and that God’s love is powerful beyond measure.

Question 8. How do you understand the love and power of God?

Through Jesus Christ. In his life of compassion, his death on the cross, and his resurrection from the dead, I see how vast is God’s love for the world -- a love that is ready to suffer for our sakes, yet so strong that nothing will prevail against it.

By interpreting the divine power in terms of the divine love, the catechism establishes a basic orientation and direction for social witness -- the presumption that no social witness can be valid if it exercises or endorses power in flagrant violation of love.

Many questions remain. In the Christian tradition these questions concern the place of law, justice and coercion in the work of love, and the perceived need for recognizing "two realms," including a secular realm that is thought to necessitate power structures, authorities and policies that are not only coercive but at times violent.

Without entirely rejecting these traditional perceptions, the catechism calls them into question. It explains the first article of the creed on a christocentric basis, appealing to Jesus Christ’s incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection to validate the conviction that God’s power is immanent in God’s love. The witness of Jesus Christ clarifies the whole history of the covenant. It shows definitively that God knows no power but the power of love, and that God’s love is powerful. It reveals how free and strong God’s love is -- so free that God is "ready to suffer for our sakes, yet so strong that nothing will prevail against it."

Thus a challenge surfaces against too readily accepting any analysis that would pit "powerless love" against "loveless power" with the latter condoned as a necessary evil. Although loveless power cannot be denied as a terrible reality, the gospel includes the great promise that in the ultimate scheme of things there is no such thing as powerless or ineffective love.

Won’t trust in love, even suffering love, lead to accepting preventable evils and sacrificing attainable goods? The broad Christian tradition includes a variety of answers. Yet the cross of Christ seems to argue that social witness most fittingly takes shape through actions and policies of nonviolence, not excluding resistance and direct action, perhaps even to the point of civil disobedience, civilian-based defense and conscientious objection to unjust wars. Why should the grotesque sacrifices required by armed conflict seem more necessary and promising than the sacrifices that would be required by strategies of nonviolence? The unprecedented world-historical military crisis calls the church to reexamine whether it has fully taken the measure of the faithfulness required by its Lord.

The triumph of God’s suffering love, as revealed and embodied in Christ, is a theme that unifies the entire catechism. The catechism conveys the basic Christian conviction that in reigning from the cross, the suffering love of God has triumphed in its very weakness over all that is hostile to itself (cf. 1 Cor. 1:25). Here is one example of this theme:

Question 41. How did Jesus Christ fulfill the office of king?

He was the Lord who took the form of a servant, the perfected royal power in weakness. With no sword but the sword of righteousness, and no power but the power of love, Christ defeated sin, evil and death by reigning from the cross.

Relative to historical Reformed confessions, this catechism offers an interpretation of Christ’s threefold "office" (prophet, priest and king) that is unique in being thoroughly christocentric. It is not the office that defines Christ, but Christ who defines the office. Thus the royal office is defined principally in terms of the cross. The divine strategy for defeating sin, evil and death is fulfilled in suffering love. "God does not use violent means to obtain what he desires," wrote Irenaeus. God does not liberate us from our captivity, echoed Gregory of Nyssa, "by violent exercise of force." Since the greatness of the divine power is revealed in the form of the cross, how can Christian social witness fail to match?

An important test for nonviolent social witness is whether it can incorporate a strong element of justice. If this witness simply capitulated to evil, violence and abuse, it would be deficient not only in itself, but also in its testimony to God. God is not merciful without also being righteous, not gracious without also being holy, not loving without also being wrathful toward everything that tramples on love. Domestic and sexual violence, for example, illustrate how traditional pastoral counsels to submission can be tragically mistaken and abused.

True witnesses to nonviolence recognize that there is a time to resist and a time to flee as well as a time to suffer and submit. They allow for nonretaliatory initiatives of protest and self-defense. They find it hard to understand how one can love one’s enemies by killing them. They believe that sin can be forgiven without being condoned, for this is how we are all forgiven by God.

Question 81. Does forgiveness mean that God condones sin?

No. God does not cease to be God. Although God is merciful, God does not condone what God forgives. In the death and resurrection of Christ God judges what God abhors -- everything hostile to love -- by abolishing it at the very roots. In this judgment the unexpected occurs: good is brought out of evil, hope out of hopelessness and life out of death. God spares sinners, and turns them from enemies into friends. The uncompromising judgment of God is revealed in the suffering love of the cross.

SOCIAL JUSTICE: The catechism takes the same approach to social justice that it does to ecological responsibility and peace. It offers an orientation and direction -- no more, no less. It establishes work for social justice on the basis of traditional faith, especially as interpreted christocentrically.

To take one example: the tradition has often neglected scripture’s emphasis on the interconnection between lies and violence. Where there is the one, scripture recognizes, there is likely to be the other. Violence commonly relies on lies, and lies frequently prepare the way for brutality and abuse. In the long, harrowing passage on the divine wrath in the opening of his Letter to the Romans, Paul writes: "Their throats are opened graves; they use their tongues to deceive. The venom of vipers is under their lips. . . . Their feet are swift to shed blood." In explicating the commandment that forbids false witness against one’s neighbor, the catechism draws attention to this scriptural insight.

Question 115. Does this commandment forbid racism and other forms of negative stereotyping?

Yes, in forbidding false witness against my neighbor, God forbids me to be prejudiced against people who belong to any vulnerable, different or disfavored social group. Jews, women, homosexuals, racial and ethnic minorities, and national enemies are among those who have suffered terribly from being subjected to the slurs of social prejudice. Negative stereotyping is a form of falsehood that invites actions of humiliation, abuse and violence as forbidden by the commandment against murder.

To my knowledge, no previous Reformed catechism has named social prejudice and negative stereotyping as a violation of the ninth commandment. Nor has any sought to explain how the commandments against false witness and murder are interconnected. Confessing and repenting of social sins have rarely been emphasized in church catechesis as strongly as confession of personal sins. Finding a convincing basis within the tradition for redressing this unhappy imbalance has clear advantages for the church over other strategies. Anti-Semitism, misogyny, homophobia, racial prejudice and the demonizing of enemies -- all these social prejudices need to be attacked as part of the renewing of minds within the ordering of the church’s common life.

Some contemporary theology seems to focus on the problems of victimization to the exclusion of worrying about sin. Apparently one is either a perpetrator or an innocent victim. However serious the tragedies of victimization, they should not replace sin as an issue for Christian theology. When we speak of sin, we do not identify "victims" or "the needy" as people other than ourselves, or as people we stand above and reach down to help.

Question 64 of the catechism states that the mission of the church is to extend mercy and forgiveness to "the needy" in ways that point to Christ.

Question 65. Who are the needy?

The hungry need bread, the homeless a roof, the oppressed need justice, and the lonely need fellowship. At the same time -- on another and deeper level -- the hopeless need hope, sinners need forgiveness and the world needs the gospel. On this level no one is excluded, and all the needy are one. Our mission as the church is to bring hope to a desperate world by declaring God’s undying love -- as one beggar tells another where to find bread.

Concern for the poor and needy stands in inseparable unity with the forgiveness of sins, without displacing forgiveness or becoming a substitute for it. The catechism makes a similar move when it explains the fourth petition of the Lord’s Prayer:

Question 130. What is meant by the fourth petition, "Give us today our daily bread"?

We ask God to provide for all our needs, for we know that God, who cares for us in every area of our life, has promised us temporal as well as spiritual blessings. God commands us to pray each day for all that we need and no more, so that we will learn to rely completely on God. We pray that we will use whatever we are given wisely, remembering especially the poor and the needy. Along with every living creature we look to God, the source of all generosity, to bless us and nourish us, according to the divine good pleasure.

Concern for the poor and the needy has a solid basis in traditional faith, when linked with this petition. A person who fears and blesses the Lord "opens her hand to the poor, and reaches out her hands to the needy" (Prov.31:20).

FULL EQUALITY OF WOMEN IN CHURCH AND SOCIETY: The catechism presupposes that the full equality of women in church and society is compatible with the heart of the gospel -- a presupposition strongly contested today on both the left and the right. Some church bodies appeal to scripture to justify stereotyped accounts of women’s subservience. Some radical feminist theologians argue that the gospel itself must be radically challenged in order to achieve equality. The catechism quietly opts for another alternative:

Question 11. When the creed speaks of "God the Father" does it mean that God is male?

No. Only creatures having bodies can be either male or female. But God has no body, since by nature God is Spirit. Holy scripture reveals God as a living God beyond all sexual distinctions. Scripture uses diverse images for God, female as well as male. We read, for example, that God will no more forget us than a women can forget her nursing child (Isa. 49:15). "As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you,’ says the Lord" (Isa. 66:13).

Beyond that the catechism disallows male privilege, condemns abuse and affirms women’s full participation in the leadership of the church.

Question 13. When you confess the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, are you elevating men over women and endorsing male domination?

No. Human power and authority are trustworthy only as they reflect God’s mercy and kindness, not abusive patterns of domination. As Jesus taught his disciples, "The greatest among you will be your servant" (Matt. 23:11). God the Father sets the standard by which all misuses of power are exposed and condemned. "Call no one your father on earth," said Jesus, "for you have one Father -- the one in heaven" (Matt. 23:9). In fact God calls women and men to all ministries of the church.

Many questions remain to be addressed if we are to reconcile feminist concerns with traditional faith, but the catechism makes a start.

In these and other discussions, the new catechism insists that the chief criterion of social witness is conformity to the enacted patterns of the divine compassion as revealed and embodied in Jesus Christ. Within this context, one can find theological justification for concerns about the integrity of creation, peace, justice and the equality of women. It seems an event of some significance that a major American denomination has committed itself to the use of an educational instrument that grounds progressive political aspirations in the categories of traditional faith.