The Presbyterian Church has contributed some of the values and practices that are at the core of our way of life throughout US history. I will note two of those contributions and the rationale behind them (as I understand it). In some ways, we could say this is “the bad news” and “the good news,” so I’ll start with the bad.
Presbyterians understand human sinfulness to be universal and radical. By “sinfulness” I am not talking about specific transgressions of rules, laws, or commands. I am speaking of a condition of human life itself. In addition to being mortal and finite, we are sinful. The (pre-Presbyterian) Africa Bishop Augustine explained this condition using the Latin phrase,
Incurvatus in se,
life that is
curved in on itself
. This sinfulness/selfwardness is not an accidental part of human life – meaning that some persons are this way while others are not – but an essential part of who we are. Martin Luther, deeply influenced by Augustine, argued that those who have been justified by faith continue to struggle with this sinfulness, being
simul justus et peccator
, simultaneously justified and sinful. That’s what I mean when I say that Presbyterians understand sinfulness to be “universal” – it describes all of us, not just a few bad apples and rotten eggs.
We also understand sinfulness to be “radical,” meaning that it is rooted deeply within us, a part of who we are essentially and affecting every aspect of our being. That does
mean that we are utterly incapable of doing anything good or that there is no essential goodness to us at all. It does
mean that all desires of our hearts, minds and bodies are bad. To call all aspects of our life “sinful” means that we recognize our propensity to curve in or ourselves in every way. It means that our understanding, our heart, our conscience, even our bodily cravings are subject to this life turning in on itself. I know it sounds very finger-waggy to put it in these terms, but human life demonstrates rather consistently that there is honesty and wisdom here. Reinhold Niebuhr once famously said that sin is the “only empirically verifiable Christian doctrine.” Well said.
Because sinfulness is radical and universal, it stands to reason that we would structure our ways of life together with limits to power, such as systems of checks and balances. Now we can see why those early Presbyterians were so opposed to absolute monarchies and insisted that the three branches of government would hold one another in check. And we can see why there is such an accountability structure within the church, where the local church is accountable to the presbytery, the presbytery to the Synod, etc. For Presbyterians, granting decision-making power to a group provides more checks and balances than to grant such power to an individual pastor, so most of the decision-making power of the church is given to a council of elders (hence our name, from the Greek word
or elder.) Whether noble or nasty, whether an individual or a collective body, our sinfulness means that where there is power there needs to be limits, because each of us is disposed toward tyranny if we have unchecked power.
Now, the good news: God redeems; God saves us from our worst tendencies; God transforms us into the image of Christ, whose life and death was a way of unfurling himself in order to live and die for others. Even the coming of Christ was a way that God – the ultimate power who could easily be the ultimate tyrant – demonstrated God’s love toward us by giving us God’s only son. Niebuhr might have said that sin is the “only empirically verifiable Christian doctrine,” but the Apostle Paul counters that as real as our sin is, God’s salvation is “much more surely” real. The Scriptures typically describe this transformation as “love,” because love overcomes that propensity to turn in on ourselves and enables us to turn our minds, our hearts, our conscience, and even our bodily cravings outward in a way that can be genuine, mutually beneficial acts of justice, concern, or companionship.
One way early Presbyterians expressed this belief in God’s redemptive activity was in the claim that “God alone is Lord of the conscience.” By that, they meant that each of us – from private citizens to elected officials to elders in a church – has a freedom of conscience. That freedom was the bedrock on which the First Amendment was written. That freedom works in every direction as a safeguard: A church hierarchy cannot tell the individual believer what he must believe; a popular groundswell of sentiment cannot tell a leader how she must act. Each of us is free to follow our conscience. But, since each of us is always subject to sinfulness, our conscience must always be a guided conscience. The study of Scripture, the practice of community, the discipline of prayer, the call to justice – all of these churchy things are actually what liberate us from being enslaved to either tyranny from without or our own misguided passions from within.
The frank recognition of human sinfulness, and the good news that we are not forever entrapped in the warped world of human sinfulness, is the theological underpinning of many of our institutions. And while it seems to be the cause
to bash all things institutional, I would hope that we don’t throw the theological baby out with the institutional bathwater. There’s a lot of wisdom and insight here.
Mark of St. Mark