In the May 1 issue of the Standard Bearer I called your attention to the beginning of the proposed merger between the Reformed Church in America and the Presbyterian Church in the United States. You recall, in 1962 the General Assembly of the P.C.U.S. and the General Synod of the R.C.A. approved of a joint resolution prepared by the General Synod Executive Committee of the Reformed Church and the Permanent Committee on Inter-Church Relations of the Presbyterian Church U.S. This resolution, adopted by both denominations, set up a “joint committee of 24” including twelve leaders of each denomination. This committee was mandated to meet regularly, and report annually, beginning in 1963, to the two highest bodies of these denominations. At this time I would like to give a summary of the reports of this joint committee which reports were also adopted by the two highest ecclesiastical bodies of the denominations involved.
Joint Committee Report — 1963
The report of the Committee in 1963 was understandably brief. The committee did not have much more than a half year of work before it had to draw up this, its first, report. After its appointment in 1962, the committee held three meetings of two days each. Its executive committee met several times additionally. The Joint Committee divided itself into three sub-committees. Subcommittee “A” dealt with “Doctrine, Liturgy and Christian Action.” It reported: “Recognizing the centrality of theology in all our discussions this subcommittee has undertaken an intensive study of the doctrinal standards, the vows “taken by ministers, elders, and. deacons, and the liturgical practices of the two churches . . . .”¹
Subcommittee “B” treated “Polity and Organizational Structure.” ‘It reported: “At the suggestion of this subcommittee a Manual has already been prepared by our two Stated Clerks entitled, “A Comparison Of Government And Organization In The Reformed Church In America And The Presbyterian Church In The U.S. . . .”¹, and several papers were prepared by authorities in these churches on matters as legal structures, incorporation articles, and polity.
Subcommittee “C” was concerned with “Cooperative Relations Between Program Boards and Agencies, and on Personnel Exchanges for Acquaintance.” It stated its objective to be: “To encourage and develop the greatest possible fellowship and mutual assistance between the members of both churches, their Boards, Agencies, Programs and Services in order to strengthen their total Christian witness.”¹
The recommendations of this first committee report to its two denominational bodies, the Assembly and the Synod, are brief and reserved. It concludes, “We affirm with gladness and appreciation the shared conviction that we have rediscovered a broad meeting ground both in theology and church government. Separated by national origin as we have been and by regional distance, it seems evidence of grace that our two churches are extraordinarily close to one another in the Presbyterian polity and the Reformed faith which we both share.”¹ I will summarize the recommendations which were adopted by both denominational bodies.
1. They recommended “attentive study” by all of the various “local churches, courts, boards, institutions and agencies” of the mandate originally given to this. Joint Committee (for this mandate, see article in the May 1 issue of the S.B.).
2. They recommended a continuance of this Joint Committee.
3. They recommended a specific program of study for the members of both denominations so that those of the one denomination would become acquainted with the history, doctrine, and practices of the other denomination.
4. Finally, they asked the General Synod and General Assembly to commend the work of this Joint Committee to the people of the two denominations, requesting their prayers and concern for the work of the committee.
The report with its recommendations was adopted by the General Assembly and the General Synod in 1963.
Joint Committee Report — 1964
In 1964 the Joint Committee presented a far longer and more significant report. This report, too, was adopted by both church bodies. Subcommittee “A” (Doctrine, Liturgy, Christian Action) presented the most material. They presented a document entitled, “The Witness of the Reformed Churches,” a brief statement of doctrine, which they urged the two denominations to adopt in their highest gathering. I would like to quote the entire document, but because of its length, I present only excerpts. In the introduction it begins:
The confessional standards of the R.C.A. and the P.C.U.S. are the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Canons of the Synod of Dart for the Reformed Church in America and for the Presbyterian Church the Westminster Confession and the Westminster Shorter and Larger Catechisms.
A comparative study of these two sets of standards reveals many minor differences, but complete basic unity. But all these differences can be explained by the simple fact that almost a century separates the oldest of the Reformed Church standards from the Presbyterian confessions . . . .
We can begin, therefore, with, the assumption that the standards of our two churches are one. The more important question is to inquire what the significance of this theological witness is today, and ask what distinctive things we have to say as Reformed churches to the world of the mid-twentieth century.²
The document, divided into three principal parts, begins in its first brief section by emphasizing that they have “nothing distinctive to say.” They continue by explaining this statement to mean that they believe that both denominations are founded on the historic truths of Scripture, and are not sects having “some strange forms of doctrine.”
In the second section of the document it is pointed out that “historically the Reformed churches have spoken this faith with their own particular accent.” This is done, according to the document, in three distinctive areas: (a) the sovereignty of God, (b) the authority of Scripture, and (c) the obedience to the Will of God. Concerning the sovereignty of God, it is stated:
In a world in which the boundaries of space and time defy our imagination and in which modern science has emphasized those aspects of the natural world which are most difficult to harmonize with the power; wisdom, and love of God, we find it especially important to declare our faith in the sovereignty of God. We believe that He is sovereign over nature . . . .
We also believe that God is sovereign over history, that as in the days of old, world leaders who deny His existence are still His servants . . . .
But the most central aspect of God’s sovereignty is the fact that it ensures the immediate and final success of His redemptive plan. For sovereignty is not an end in itself, but is in the service of God’s purpose, a purpose centering in redemptive love. Sometimes we have erred in celebrating sovereignty as though it were an end in itself, a display of sheer power for its own sake . . . .
This is the Lord in whom we have been chosen and called. Seen in this context (and not in that of sheer arbitrary power) we have no hesitation in defending and rejoicing in the Reformed emphasis on election and predestination . . . .
I have two remarks on the above. I do wonder about the intent of the statement, “Sometimes we have erred in celebrating sovereignty as though it were an end in itself, a display of sheer power for its own sake.” Who in these churches have done this? Or, is this a tendency in all of them collectively? I fear that the statement could well be an “opening” for the teaching of the “free will” of man in his salvation. Certainly we must not see the sovereignty of God as “sheer power for its own sake,” but we must remember that it is “sheer power” of God ever used to His own Name’s honor and glory.
Secondly, I do wonder if there was a deliberate avoidance of the term “reprobation.” The document mentions the “Reformed emphasis on election and predestination.” Possibly one could argue that such a statement amounts to the same thing. But one can not forget that more and more even in Reformed circles the idea of reprobation is out rightly denied—and consequently also election has taken on an entirely different idea.
The second are of distinctive Reformed emphasis is the “authority of Scripture,” according to this document. It states:
It is in the Holy Scripture of the Old and New Testaments that we are confronted by this sovereign Lord . . . . This unique revelation is recorded in the Bible, the written Word of God. Because it is the record of this unique revelation, we accept Holy Scripture as our sole authority . . . .
The Christian conscience, feeling and conviction, even the Church itself are to be rejected as, final authorities. All of them must always stand under the judgment of the Word of God, as must every human achievement and institution . . . .
The content and substance of our witness—Jesus Christ—is found in the Bible alone . . . .
We finally confess our faith in the self-authenticating power of the Word . . . . We would record our conviction that the truth of the Bible does not need to be demonstrated by human logic or evidence . . . .
Again here, though I have no complaint about the statements as such, I wonder if there is not the possibility of denial of the inerrant Scripture—and yet that one confesses the above. Within these two church communions there have been those who have denied the inerrancy of the Scriptures. To say that “this unique revelation is recorded in the Bible” is by no means the same as stating that those who have been truthfully Reformed have always maintained that Scripture is without error. Let these church communions be very clear on this point.
The third area of distinctive Reformed’ emphasis, says the document, is in the “obedience to the will of God.” It declares:
In a world which is confused as to manner of life and which has lost a compelling sense of responsibility, we affirm our faith that God’s will for human life has been made known in His law. The validity of that law has in no way been abrogated by the Gospel . . . .
In the concluding portion of the document, the two churches declared:
These three affirmations have been characteristic of our history . . . .
We call attention to the fact that this theological heritage contains the possibility of both weakness and strength for our churches. The weakness, too often realized in our history, is that the sovereignty of God, the authority of Scripture, the validity of the Law, become topics for theological debate, unrelated to the life of God’s people in the world. The strength can be realized only when our heritage finds expression in a Reformed style of life in which we bring every aspect of our lives under obedience to the mind of Christ because we see all of life as a means to serve God’s glory.²
Subcommittee “A” concluded that in the field of liturgy “differences within each of our denominations are often greater than the difference between the denominations themselves.” It further discovered that in the “crucial area of race relations” the two denominations were in fundamental agreement.
Subcommittee “B,” on polity, presented a brief report that it’ was continuing its study of the polity of the two denominations, but did point out that basically the two churches hold to the same form of church government.
Subcommittee “C,” on mutual acquaintance, reported how it has endeavored to promote contact between the membership of the denominations.
The Joint Committee concluded its report by presenting eleven recommendations which were also adopted in 1964 by the Assembly and Synod of these two denominations. In brief I could report that these recommendations are meant to lead the two denominations into closer fellowship and communion. They concern working together in mission fields, subscribing to one another’s church papers, having combined society conventions, sending representatives to their various church gatherings, establishing “federated or union churches in geographical areas where the interests of the two denominations meet, etc. Their conclusion is:
We have found such large areas of agreement in theology, worship, and polity that we have been led to the conclusion that there are no major impediments between our two denominations in these basic fields. If, therefore, the practical problems of our separate life and work can be resolved through these and other studies and if our conviction is correct that we can witness to the Gospel, and especially to the Reformation emphasis on the authority of Scripture and the Sovereignty of God as expressed in the Lordship of Jesus Christ, more effectively together than we can separately, we affirm prayerfully and hopefully that we envision the union of our two churches. We believe that the varied patterns of ethnic, regional, and historical identities which are found within both our denominations will be enriched and more mightily used for the Kingdom’s work within the larger context of faith and witness that such a union would bring.²
¹ Minutes of the General Assembly, Presbyterian Church in the United States, 1963, pp. 94-99.
² Minutes of the General Assembly, Presbyterian Church in the U.S., 1964, pp. 132-142.