(Reprinted from the February, 1991 Chalcedon Report, No. 307)
One of the great fallacies of the modern age has been the trust in documents, contracts, by-laws, and constitutions. In the area of civil government, we can indeed say that constitutionalism marked a major advance in history, but a serious question remains. Did the writing of the documents create the advance, or was it a change in the people? It can be seriously argued that it was a major shift in faith and thought that led to the results too often attributed to the documents. As people have changed, their constitutions and charters have become worthless. The U. S. Constitution retains, at the hands of the courts and the people, little of its original meaning. All the same, for all too many people, their hope for the future is in documents such as the Constitution.
Two strands among others have been discernible in U. S. History. The first can be called "in the Constitution we trust," or, "In paper we trust," and the second, "in God we trust."
There is nothing wrong with written documents, with constitutions, creeds, confessions, contracts, and the like. They have a necessary place in life. The problem is one of trust. Do we depend on a written document for our security, or do we recognize that, "Except the LORD build the house, they labour in vain that build it" (Ps. 127:1). Our civilization has become highly literate and verbal, and we place undue trust in words rather than life, faith, and action.
I recall a truly dangerous man whose treatment of his wife was physically brutal and dangerous; yet when he said, "But I love her," he felt that all should be excused and forgiven. He even offered to put it into writing, as though a written statement by him would protect his wife! He was in this sense very modern: the written word was equated with reality.
In 1927, the nations of the world gave expression to this illusion when they united to sign the Briand-Kellog pact outlawing all wars forever! Only those alive at that time can recall the exhilaration expressed in the press and in public school classrooms. Supposedly the pact was a giant step for mankind: war had been legally abolished!
The illusion continues. Many pacts and treaties have been signed, for example, with the Soviet Union, and all have been broken at will. Still the treaty making continues, and still foolish people believe progress has been made.
But nations are not alone in their trust in paper. Churches are very prominent sinners in this respect; Catholics, Protestants, charismatics, all are ready to trust in paper statements.
In the past decades, I have distressed many very, very superior young friends by questioning their efforts to insure the faithfulness of their newly organized church by strictly drawn creedal statements, by-laws, rules, and regulations. Recently, a family in a charismatic church described to me the rigid controls which governed every family and person, and I could only comment, "Don't they believe in the Holy Ghost?" Where written documents give a total prescription for the life and mind of the members, there is no place given for the work of the Spirit.
The early church formulated a few creeds and issued a limited number of rules to cope with such pressing problems as heresies, the treatment of the clergy whom persecutors had maimed, castrated, or blinded, and so on. The goal was not total prescription.
But total prescription is the intent of all too many churches. Those who sometimes profess the greatest zeal for the Faith, or for the Holy Spirit, are often the most prescriptive! The early Quakers, with their emphasis on the Spirit as against the word, quickly drew up lists of rules prescribing for clothing, speech, everything, and they soon had nothing to do with the Holy Spirit! In fact, the same over-prescription marked virtually all the Anabaptist groups, and a like deadness fell upon them all.
Today many earnest and orthodox groups draw up very thorough statements of faith and conduct as their safeguard against a deteriorating church. Such statements are usually remarkably mature and able documents; some are literary gems.
But they have a common problem. Neither Catholic nor Protestant statements, have proven safeguards in the past. Many of the confessions and creeds of the past are of very great importance; they are milestones in the development of theological knowledge and awareness. We would be greatly poorer without them. They are standards. Now a standard is not an entrance requirement but a goal. This is a very important fact. A standard cannot be required in the same way that Scripture is mandatory. Moreover, the faith required of the clergy and church officers is not on the same level as that of a catechumen. The new convert needs instruction in the basic elements of Christianity; he cannot be expected to understand everything at once. The church must not expect maturity in its converts from the beginning. This means that no place is allowed for growth if a full knowledge is required at once. Where there is such a demand, we have an over-prescriptive situation. Instead of room for growth being assumed, the rules demand instant maturity, and they result instead in acquiescence and no growth: submission replaced maturation.
There is another aspect to this. In politics, over-prescription means socialism, the totally regulated nation. All things are regulated, and the supposedly perfect set of rules will produce a supposedly perfect social order. Over-prescription or over-regulation within the church creates a socialist church. It may not think of itself as such, but whenever and wherever a church over emphasizes its own rules and regulations, it has accepted the basic premise of socialism.
St. Paul, in Ephesians 4:30, declares, "Grieve not the Holy Spirit of God." The alternative to grieving God's Holy Spirit is to "be renewed in the spirit of your mind" (Eph. 4:23). This is a remarkable statement: our innermost being is to be renewed, our human spirit is to be remade by the Lord and by His Spirit in order that we "put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness" (Eph. 4:24). Our inner transformation by God's Spirit enables us to change our lives and actions so that we grieve not the Spirit but rather give expression to His directing power. The outside prescription is, in the main, the faithful preaching of God's Word, the Holy Spirit, working on our spirit, leads us into the ways of knowledge, righteousness or justice, holiness, and dominion. A church becomes the ecclesiastical analogue of the socialist state when it places its trust in rules and regulation, statements, and documents. We do better by trusting in God than in paper.
Does no one believe in the Holy Spirit? Or do men think that, compared to the regulations we lay down, He is impotent? Are we abler than God Almighty at arming the believer's mind and life? Have we forgotten the place and power of faithful preaching and teaching? Does a sound faith come by over-regulation? St. Paul tells us, "Faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God" (Rom. 10:17).
There are today a number of important moves toward church reform and renewal. They are all exciting and wonderful developments, and nothing I have written here is meant to discourage or downgrade their great importance and my delight in them. My concern is that they do not repeat the errors they are denouncing by an undue trust in paper. Our position must be: in the Lord, in God, we trust.
Paper money is a fitting symbol of our time, a preference of paper over gold and silver. Let it not be said of the church that it prefers its paper prescriptions over the Holy Spirit.