The Limits of ECO’s Confessionalism

A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians (ECO) is a sister denomination to my own EPC. ECO began as a church in 2012, composed of congregations departing from the PCUSA. I have a few friends ministering in ECO, and I have made some efforts at better institutional unity between our churches. At the EPC’s 2017 General Assembly I sat on the Standing Committee (i.e. temporary committee limited to that meeting) on Fraternal Relations. I convinced the rest of the committee to recommend to the Assembly that the Permanent Committee on Fraternal Relations should be instructed to begin dialogue with ECO aimed at forming a fraternal relationship. This recommendation was approved by the Assembly and encouraging work has begun in that direction.

I mention this to make clear that I like ECO. My hope is that the EPC and ECO formally unite as one church. But there are some significant barriers that need to be overcome if that union is to occur. The most substantial barrier is the issue of confessionalism and doctrine. The EPC is a confessional church: our church teaches, and our pastors and other officers, vow to affirm that the Westminster Confession and Catechisms contain the system of doctrine taught in the scriptures. The Westminster Confession and Catechisms are our doctrinal standards and form one part of our church’s constitution. ECO is not a confessional church in the same way. ECO is in the final stages of reorganizing their doctrinal and ordination standards, but the results are all but set prior to their 2019 Synod this January. ECO has a collection of documents called ECO Confessional Standards, which includes the Apostles’ Creed, The Nicene Creed, The Heidelberg Catechism, The Westminster Confession and Catechisms, and the Theological Declaration of Barmen. However, Confessional Standards is not constitutional for ECO. Instead, they have an additional doctrinal document, Essential Tenets, which is their constitutional doctrinal statement. Essential Tenets affirms the contents of the Confessional Standards as faithful expositions of God’s word. The officers of ECO must vow to “receive, adopt, and be bound by the Essential Tenets of ECO as a reliable exposition of what Scripture teaches us to do and to believe, and…be guided by them in [their] life and ministry.” While not as strict or robust as the subscription vows of the EPC, it is generally comparable. However, officers in ECO must also vow to be “guided by” the Confessional Standards.

So how is ECO not confessional in the same way as the EPC? The first reason is the most obvious: ECO affirms more doctrinal statements than the EPC. The Westminster Confession and Catechisms explicitly teach all the doctrine of the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, and are in close agreement with the Heidelberg Catechism. But the Theological Declaration of Barmen represents a substantially different theological approach from the Westminster Standards, even if its specific conclusions are compatible. Secondly, officers of the EPC vow that they believe the Westminster Standards contain the system of doctrine taught in the scriptures. That is an extensive, exhaustive, vow about the nature of scripture and its teaching. The Westminster Standards do not merely agree with scripture, or affirm its central teachings, but contain the system of doctrine taught by the Bible. On the other hand, ECO’s officer must affirm that the Essential Tenets are a reliable exposition of what scripture teaches. In other words, the doctrines addressed by the Essential Tenets are reliable expositions of scripture’s teaching insofar as they actually touch on scriptural issues, but are not expositions of the system of doctrine in scripture. This should be clear since ECO’s Confessional Standards contain far more nuance and information than the Essential Tenets. The scope of the EPC confessional ordination vow encompasses far more than ECO’s, which affects the nature of confessionalism. Thirdly, while the EPC does have the additional document “Essentials of the Faith,” the undisputed doctrine of the church and its officers is the Westminster Confession and Catechisms. Not so with ECO. The Confessional Standards for ECO is a guide to scripture’s teaching, a guide which the officers of the church are not obligated to affirm beyond what the Essential Tenets teach. This is the reason for the difference in ECO’s ordination vows: they are bound by the Essential Tenets, but are only guided by the confessions. The Essential Tenets do not possess the breadth of the Westminster Standards, or the other documents in the Confessional Standards, and beyond the limited breadth of the Essential Tenets the officers are only guided, not bound by their church’s confessions.

The nature and content of the Essential Tenets is a confessional problem as well, one that ECO will likely need to address in the long-term. ECO currently has a theological council assessing their confessional standards, but their work timeline appears to expire after the 2019 Synod. The self-professed purpose of the Essential Tenets is to “call out for explication, not as another confession, but as indispensable indicators of confessional convictions about what Scripture leads us to believe and do. Essential tenets do not replace the confessions, but rather witness to the confessions’ common core. This document is thus intended not as a new confession but as a guide to the corporate exploration of and commitment to the great themes of Scripture and to the historic Reformed confessions that set forth those themes.” So the Essential Tenets are not to intended to be an additional confession of faith, but serve as a testimony of the shared core of the Confessional Standards. It unfortunately fails on both counts.1

The Essential Tenets as Witness to the Confessional Standards

There are a number of instances where the Essential Tenets teach doctrines that are simply absent from its confessional heritage. This is not a situation where perhaps one confessional document fails to touch on a subject while the others manage to do so, but a circumstance where the doctrinal formulation is absent entirely. Even accounting for the uniqueness of the Barmen Declaration within the Confessional Standards, the Essential Tenets teach doctrines not contained within the Confessional Standards, and sometimes teaches doctrines which contradict them.

In Essential Tents II.A (The Trinity) it states, “The ongoing act of creation is further manifested in God’s gracious sovereignty and providence, maintaining the existence of the world and all living creatures for the sake of His own glory (underline added).” The Westminster Confession and Catechisms and Heidelberg Catechism teach that the work of creation is completed at the end of the six days of Genesis 1 (WCF 4.1, WSC 9, WLC 15, HC 26). This completed (not ongoing) work of creation is one of two ways in which God executes his decrees, the other way being his ongoing providence which is distinct from the completed act of creation (WCF 5, WSC 8, 11, WLC 14, 18, HC 26-28, which is an exposition of the Apostles’ Creed). This statement cannot be substantiated from the Confessional Standards, and even contradicts it.

An older edition of the Essential Tenets included a commentary which stated, “The Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed is the decisive dogmatic articulation of Trinitarian faith. It establishes the vocabulary, grammar, and syntax of Christian theology.” The current official introduction says, “The Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed provided the church with a clear and succinct understanding of the person of the person of Christ and the nature of God, uniting the universal church in its most essential doctrines.” Yet the second sentence of the Essential Tenets I (God’s Word) states, “The Son eternally proceeds from the Father as His Word (underline added).” This is simply wrong. The eternal Son of God is begotten of the Father before all worlds…begotten, not made. Jesus does not proceed from the Father. The difference between “begotten” and “proceeding” is stark in the Nicene Creed’s treatment of the Holy Spirit. The Nicene formulation is repeated in the Heidelberg Catechism’s exposition of the Apostles’ Creed (HC 23, 33) and the Westminster Standards (WCF 2.3, WLC 10). This error is either sloppiness of the worst degree or an intentional departure from the theology and vocabulary of the Confessional Standards. The irony is that the orthodox, Nicene formula is later expressed in Essential Tenets II.A (The Trinity), “The Son is eternally begotten from the Father, and the Spirit proceeds eternally from the Father and the Son.”

Essential Tenets III.C (Covenant Life) teaches that “through the work of the Holy Spirit, the word proclaimed may indeed become God’s address to us (underline added).” This hesitating language cannot be found anywhere in the Confessional Standards. Even the Karl Barth-authored Barmen Declaration never says anything like this. HC 842 states that the preaching of scripture is God’s proclamation, to believers of God’s forgiveness, and to unbelievers of God’s judgment if they do not repent. It is God’s address when proclaimed, whether or not the Holy Spirit works in the hearts of the hearers. WLC 160 and WCF 21.5 instructs those who hear the preaching of scripture to respond to it as God’s word, since it is that. The Holy Spirit’s enlightenment is necessary to be persuaded and assured of scripture’s truth, but it remains God’s address to us whether or not that persuasion occurs (WCF 1.4).

A prominent section of Essential Tenets III.C (Covenant Life) focuses on the means of grace in the church:

Within the covenant community of the church, God’s grace is extended through the preaching of the Word, the administration of the Sacraments, and the faithful practice of mutual discipline.…Third, the community of the Church practices discipline in order to help one another along the path to new life, speaking the truth in love to one another, bearing one another’s burdens, and offering to one another the grace of Christ (underline added, emphasis original).

The grace extended in discipline is here categorized alongside preaching and the administration of the sacraments. Laying aside the vocabulary of “grace being extended,” this section is a reformulation of the marks of the true church. Where it substantially differs from the Confessional Standards is in the area of discipline. The Essential Tenets presents discipline (as a means of “extended” grace alongside the word and sacraments) as something that is accomplished by encouragement and admonition among members of the church. The language used is reflective of Galatians 6:2 and Ephesians 4:15. Discipline here is about moral regulation, not punitive, corrective action. This former sense of discipline is good and ought to be encouraged. It is affirmed by the content of the Confessional Standards. However, when the Westminster Standards and Heidelberg Catechism speak of discipline in connection to “extending” God’s grace, it is always in this latter, punitive sense, and is always in connection to the government of the church, not the general community of the church.

HC 85 is the best example of this. Discipline is the means of opening and closing the kingdom of God (i.e. “extending” and “retracting” grace) by excluding people from the church through withholding the sacraments from them (cf. WLC 173). WCF 23.4 places the power of discipline in the government of the church, not in mutual, communal discipline. WCF 30 teaches what this looks like, and is intricately tied to the government of the church and the sacraments. WCF 30.4 shows that the progression, mirroring HC 85, is admonishing sinners to repent followed by suspension from the Lord’s Supper if they do not show repentance. This is an exercising of the use of the keys of the kingdom.

The mutual discipline described by the Essential Tenets is affirmed by the Westminster Standards and Heidelberg Catechism as good (e.g. WCF 26), but is not described as the “extending” of grace in the same category as the preaching of the word and administration of the sacraments. Discipline is a means of grace due to its sacramental function, of which the power of administration resides with the officers of the church, not the “mutual community” of the church.

Essential Tenets III.D (Faithful Stewardship) is the most bewildering portion of the document. It begins,

The ministries of the church reflect the three-fold office of Christ as prophet, priest, and king – reflected in the church’s ordered ministries of teaching elders, deacons, and ruling elders. We affirm that men and women alike are called to all the ministries of the Church, and that every member is called to share in all of Christ’s offices within the world beyond the church. Every Christian is called to a prophetic life, proclaiming the good news to the world and enacting that good news. Every Christian is called to extend the lordship of Christ to every corner of the world. And every Christian is called to participate in Christ’s priestly, mediatorial work, sharing in the suffering of the world in ways that extend God’s blessing and offering intercession to God on behalf of the world. We are equipped to share in these offices by the Holy Spirit, who conforms us to the pattern of Christ’s life (emphasis original).

What is baffling about this section is the total lack of connection between it and anything in the Confessional Standards; none of its contents speak to the specific offices of the church. The Westminster Confession and Catechisms were famously written to be acceptable to Anglicans and Congregationalists. Anglicans do not recognize the office of ruling elder, believe the diaconate is a teaching and sacramental office rather than an office of service, and believe that office of bishop is distinct from teaching elder. The Congregationalists did not, and many still do not, believe in the distinction between teaching and ruling elders, and many held that the diaconate was an office that expired in the apostolic era. The Westminster Assembly did approve a form for presbyterian church government, but that document also included a fourth office of teacher (i.e. seminary professor) and is not part of the Confessional Standards or currently used by any denomination. Nothing in the Confessional Standards substantiates the claim that the offices of the church reflect the three-fold office of Christ as prophet, priest, and king. WLC 45 states that Jesus executes the office of king by providing officers for the church: there may be prophetic and priestly functions to the pastoral office, but the connection between pastoral ministry and the offices of Christ is found in Christ governing his church as king by the preaching of his word and administration of the sacraments (WCF 30.1-2). Similarly, there is nothing in the content of the Confessional Standards to justify the claim that all the offices of the church are open to men and women. This is an important point to which I will return later. The Westminster Confession and Catechisms, along with the rest of the Confessional Standards, do not proscribe believing in the officers of the church as described in the Essential Tenets, but the Essential Tenets cannot honestly claim to represent the teaching of the Confessional Standards on this point.

None of ECO’s confessions teach that all members of the church are called to share in Christ’s offices, either in the the church or in the world. The Westminster Standards teach that Christ’s offices are about his mediatorial work to the church (WCF 8.1, WSC 23-25, WLC 42-45). With the exception of the office of king, all of Christ’s offices are internally focused on the church; the external aspect of Christ executing the office of king to the world is in “taking vengeance on the rest, who know not God, and obey not the gospel,” which does not fit the thrust of what the Essential Tenets affirm on this point. The Christian is called to share in the benefits of Christ’s mediation (WCF 8.6, WSC 32, 36-38, 88, WLC 57-59, 65-83, 154), not the offices that Christ executed to secure redemption. This sharing in the benefits of redemption is not about our actions, but about what Christ has done for his people.

Similar logic is present in the Heidelberg Catechism. HC 31 teaches that Christ’s offices are what he has done and is doing for the church as a result of his redemptive work. He was anointed by the Holy Spirit for these offices, and HC 32 states that the Christian shares in Christ’s anointing, not by sharing in his offices, but by reaping the benefits of and responding to redemption. None of the responses listed map onto what the Essential Tenets teach.

On a foundational level there is a meaningful difference between how the Confessional Standards and the Essential Tenets describe the offices of Christ and the Christian’s relationship to them, and this difference is mutually exclusive. Either the offices of Christ are an expression of his mediation for the church in securing redemption for his people, in which we share in the benefits that is our salvation (Westminster Standards, Heidelberg Catechism), or the offices of Christ are about his relationship to the world, and the Christian’s participation in those offices is about engaging the world outside the church (Essential Tenets). These are drastically different understandings of Christ’s mediation. These differences can be seen in how the Essential Tenets describes the Christian sharing in Christ’s offices.

It describes the prophetic ministry of the Christian as being about “enacting the good news.” The Confessional Standards’ understanding of the good news is that it is something enacted by Christ in his incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension. The good news is not something we enact, it is something historically accomplished by Christ. The Apostles’ Creed is the summary of this good news as an historical act, and is affirmed by the rest of the confessions: Heidelberg Catechism (HC 19, 22-23), The Westminster Standards (WCF 7.6, WSC 31, 86, WLC 59-60, 72) and Barmen Declaration (§1, 6). Shifting the enactment of the gospel into the hands of Christians rather than Christ is by definition an inverting of the gospel. The kingly ministry of the Christian is described as a calling to every Christian to “extend the lordship of Christ to every corner of the world.” This idea is entirely absent from the Confessional Standards because Jesus is lord over all, now, and does not need our help in increasing his lordship. The Essential Tenets might be trying to say something like, “evangelize so that people may submit to Christ as lord” or “go into every facet of culture and redeem it to reflect God’s purpose for creation,” but the phrase is too ambiguous to definitively mean these things. Even if it did mean them, it still cannot be defended as the teaching of ECO’s confessions on the lordship of Jesus. It is also poor wording to say “every Christian” is called to extend Christ’s lordship to “every corner of the world.” Finally, the Essential Tenets equate Jesus’ priestly office with his mediatorial role. But Christ’s mediation is his entire work of redemption, including executing the offices of king and prophet (WCF 8, WLC 36, 38-42, HC 15-18, 36) not only in his death and continual intercession, but in his incarnation, life, resurrection, and ascension.

Outside of specific doctrinal differences between the Essential Tenets and the Confessional Standards, the Essential Tenets either employ a very different vocabulary or is lacking in key emphases found in ECO’s confessions. The language of “we/us” makes it difficult to discern whether the Essential Tenets are speaking of humanity in general or God’s people particular in a number of places (e.g., “Although we are each deserving of God’s eternal condemnation, the eternal Son assumed our human nature, joining us in our misery and offering Himself on the cross in order to free us from slavery to death and sin.”)  The Essential Tenets are lacking the clarity of the creeds and confessions in this area, and this obscurity of language makes it easiest to read it as a non-Reformed document. The Tenets only contain a single reference to justification, “We are declared justified, not because of any good that we have done, but only because of God’s grace extended to us in Jesus Christ,” and this single sentence hardly reflects the theological core of the Westminster Standards or Heidelberg Catechism, much less their actual doctrinal articulation in this area. “Grace” as term seems to be used as God’s general condescension and blessing to humanity (“This grace does not end when we turn to sin”) rather than an emphasis on Christ’s redemptive work. Covenant theology is at best limited (“We are elect in Christ to become members of the community of the new covenant. This covenant, which God Himself guarantees, unites us to God and to one another…Baptism is a sign and seal of the covenant of grace”). Sin is presented as a twisting of our nature and inclinations, not violations of God’s law (“No part of human life is untouched by sin. Our desires are no longer trustworthy guides to goodness, and what seems natural to us no longer corresponds to God’s design”), and God’s law is described as a guide rather than a perpetual moral obligation (“As we practice the discipline of regular self- examination and confession, we are especially guided by the Ten Commandments”). The resurrection of Christ is relegated to two, indirect references, “This mystery of the incarnation is ongoing, for the risen Jesus…has now ascended to the Father in His resurrected body and remains truly human” and “In the Lord’s Supper…His resurrection life may nourish…us.” The Essential Tenets are not intended as an exhaustive summary of the Confessional Standards, but it fails to present the doctrinal center of ECO’s confessions effectively.

The Essential Tenets fail as an explication of ECO’s confessions, and unsuccessfully witnesses to their shared theological center. The Tenets often assert doctrines absent from the Confessional Standards, and occasionally contradict the confessions and creeds. The Tenets also emphasize doctrinal points that are not central to the confessions while simultaneously failing to prioritize critical aspects of ECO’s confessional heritage.

The Essential Tenets as a De Facto Confession

The Essential Tenets were not designed to be a new confession, but to be a guide for ECO’s actual confessions of faith. It fails this goal and has become a de facto confession for several reasons.

The first reason relates to the other aim of the Essential Tenets: they are not dependable guides to the Confessional Standards. Since they are different enough from the Confessional Standards, yet remain normative for ECO, the role they play is as an additional statement (i.e. confession) of faith.

Secondly, the Confessional Standards are filtered through the Essential Tenets. ECO’s various confessions only have a secondary, implicit authority as a result of their affirmation in the Essential Tenets. Since the Confessional Standards are not constitutional in and of themselves, their authority rests upon the degree to which the Essential Tenets affirms their content as biblical. In other words, the Confessional Standards are subordinate to the Essential Tenets doctrinally, which has the necessary effect of making the Essential Tenets a confession of faith.

This is more evident from the third reason, namely ECO’s ordination vows. All officers of the church, as well as non-ordained leaders, must affirm, adopt, and be bound by the Essential Tenets as a faithful exposition of scripture. This is explicit, confessional subscription language. The remaining confessions only serve as a guides, and do not command the same kind of acceptance as the Essential Tenets. This is expressed by the level of agreement required for the Essential Tenets versus the other confessions. To be “guided” by the confessions allows for flexibility in the particular doctrines to which officers of the church assent. No such flexibility exists in the accepting and binding of the Essential Tenets. In 2015 ECO provided guidance on this issue: “In no part of ECO polity is there a sense that some sections of the Essential Tenets are more important than others. Our call is to be in agreement with the whole document as a faithful expression of our reformed faith, the Book of Confessions, and the Word of God.” This does not mean that all articles and specific details of the Essential Tenets are of equal importance, but that all must be affirmed and adopted by all officers of the church. This is different from the EPC (and OPC and PCA) which allow for teaching elders to declare scruples they have with the Westminster Standards, and permit presbyteries to grant confessional exceptions to those scruples if they do not undermine the Standards’ system of doctrine. Because the guidance of the Confessional Standards are accessed for ECO’s officers via their affirming the Essential Tenets, and since ECO’s ordination vows do not allow exceptions to the Essential Tenets, where differences exist between the Essential Tenets and Confessional Standards officers and leaders of ECO are required to side with the Tenets. The effect of this is that the Essential Tenets are not only a de facto confession, they are the cardinal confession for ECO.

There are some odd applications of this. The question of creation as ongoing or completed is probably considered minor by most people, but the Essential Tenets strikes a definitive position on the topic with a conclusion contrary to the Confessional Standards. This requires ECO’s officers to either affirm creation as ongoing (contrary to the confessions) or to forfeit their ordination. The doctrine moves from minor to major because of this. A more obvious idiosyncrasy is the subject of women’s ordination. The Essential Tenets make affirmation of women’s ordination a non-negotiable article of faith for officers and leaders of ECO, while claiming at the same time that the Tenets are a faithful witness to the Confessional Standards. Yet none of ECO’s confessions speak to the issue. So all of ECO’s officers must affirm women’s ordination, even though the Confessional Standards do not speak to the subject. The irony is that none of the authors of the Confessional Standards could actually be ordained in ECO! The council members of Nicaea and Constantinople, Zacharias Ursinus, the Westminster Divines, and Karl Barth would all be disqualified from eldership in ECO because they could not affirm a doctrinal assertion which claims to represent the shared theological core of their work. ECO has every right to require this affirmation from their leaders, but it is erroneous to state that the Essential Tenets are a faithful witnesses to the common theological core of the confessions and that the Essential Tenets are not a new confession of faith.

The point at issue for the EPC is not women’s ordination per se (the EPC does ordain women after all), but the relationship between the Essential Tenets and the Confessional Standards. The Essential Tenets require belief in doctrines not affirmed in the confessional Reformed tradition, and de-emphasizes important articles of faith (e.g. the resurrection of Christ, justification). The nature of the EPC’s affirmation of the Westminster Standards settles the matter for us when it differs from the Essential Tenets. Mandating assent to doctrines absent from the Westminster Standards is a non-negotiable for the EPC. Because of how the Essential Tenets differ from the Confessional Standards, the EPC will need to be persuaded of meaningful and decisive reconciliation between the documents on ECO’s part before serious doctrinal discussions can really happen between our two churches. So sorting out the confessional differences within ECO (resolving the conflicts in nature and content of the Essential Tenets and Confessional Standards), and then sorting out the resulting confessional differences between ECO and the EPC, will be absolutely necessary before steps towards formal unity take place. And that sorting out can only happen through ongoing conversation and mutual assessment.

1. ECO initially adopted the PCUSA’s Book of Confessions, which at the time also included the Scots Confession, the Second Helvetic Confession, the Confession of 1967, and a Brief Statement of Faith. The Essential Tenets were first published by the Fellowship of Presbyterians (now The Fellowship Community) a precursor to ECO. So the Essential Tenets were originally intended to witness to the common core of a much broader set of confessions than is currently contained in the Confessional Standards. However, the Essential Tenets of ECO still maintain that as written they are a witness to the common theological core of the the current confessions of ECO, and that claim should be treated on its merits and application, not its history.

2. It is interesting to note that in ECO’s official version of the Heidelberg Catechism, the following lines are eliminated from Q&A 84: “The kingdom of heaven is closed, however, by proclaiming and publicly declaring…” in favor of “On the contrary…” There is a proposal before ECO which will be taken up at their 2020 Synod to adopt the Heidelberg Catechism as published by the RCA and CRC, which contains the original wording.