On Essential Tenets, Part 1 of 3: An Inherent Problem
The Encyclopedia of Philosophy includes an amusing article on "Nothing." Apparently, the very act of naming nothing suggests that said name actually refers to something, when in fact it refers to no thing at all. This becomes the source of great mischief.
I am concerned that we may have fallen prey to a similar mistake in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). The mere fact that our ordination questions refer to "the essential tenets of the Reformed faith" does not in and of itself mean that such actually exist. And this question of their existence is a prior question which we must consider before any efforts to identify and list the same.
All deacons, elders, and ministers of the Presbyterian Church are asked to affirm that they "sincerely receive and adopt the essential tenets of the Reformed faith as expressed in the confessions of our church as authentic and reliable expositions of what Scripture leads us to believe and do." But what does this really say? What does this accomplish?
The words "essential tenets of the Reformed faith," at the heart of this question, are problematic, and this has had profound consequences for the church. In fact, there is an inherent problem in the language. On the one hand, "essential" means, of course, "of the essence." It means that something is necessary and indispensable. It suggests that which is eternal and unchanging. "Essential" is a strong word, an absolute. To attempt to modify it in such a way a way as to suggest that something might be merely "relatively essential" would be nonsensical.
By way of contrast, the Reformed faith has usually, at its best, understood itself in more tentative terms. That is to say, we have understood that God has both reformed and is also still reforming both the church and its faith, according to the Word of God. It is always possible and desirable that we might be more faithful and more obedient than we ever have before.
So it is that we have regarded no formulation of our faith as final. We have not said that our puny words formed the essential, necessary, eternal, unchanging, and indispensable tenets of the Reformed faith. Such would be contradictory. We have said what we have believed in certain times and places, but we have not claimed that what we have said then and there was binding on all Reformed Christians in all times and places.
To come at this another way around, we have regarded the Scripture as irreformable, but we have not regarded our creeds and confessions of faith to be irreformable. The former is undeniably essential. The latter, necessarily distinguished from the former, is not and cannot be essential.
So, given that all our confessions of faith about God and his Christ are reformable, then by definition they can hardly be essential, necessary, and indispensable. Essentials are locked down tight forever. But that is not the nature of the Reformed faith.
Indeed, if we were to regard our formulations of the faith as essential and therefore irreformable, that would not be Reformed; if our formulations of the faith are in fact Reformed, they are by definition open to ongoing reformation. To express this contradiction most pointedly, if the tenets are "essential," they are not Reformed; if they are reformable, they are not essential. There is an inherent problem with the language being used. The mere confluence of the words does not imply that they have an actual referent.
So it is that the language of "essential tenets of the Reformed faith" is inherently wrong. It does not work, and it cannot work. This is the prior question of reality with which we must deal before making any effort to identify or list the essential tenets, and a negative answer here precludes such endeavors.
Please note carefully that I am not here objecting to the wording or content of any particular list of so-called essential tenets. Some of them may be very fine articulations of the faith. Instead, I am objecting to the entire project as impossible. We need to be doing something else entirely. Stay tuned!