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Constitutional Interpretation

Reflection on the new Foundations of Presbyterian Polity



I discovered the Historic Principles of Church Order in the late 1970s as a new reader of ordination exams. Or they discovered me. It was like finding the missing piece of a jigsaw puzzle that had been there all along. These principles in the Book of Order (F-3.01)offered me a perspective to grasp how polity provisions in this part of our church’s Constitution fit together as a living framework for Presbyterians.

Principles declare our intent, as well as our identity. They are an implicit covenant, a bridge between the biblical witness and our intentions for our fellowship and mission. The Form of Government displays how we have chosen to translate the basics of our faith into mission.

The new Foundations of Presbyterian Polity, remindeds me of James Joyces’ way of summarizing Thomas Aquinas’ concept of beauty as “wholeness, harmony, and radiance,” I am struck in particular by how the new Foundations is an artful weaving together of material from the first four chapters of the former Book of Order in a fresh and coherent way.

The confessional framework of this material is the lattice that makes it work. This produces music inherent in how the text fits together. The result is a progression of thought that resonates and bears witness to the message of faithful mission. All this is done in clear, crisp language that is direct and organized.

Grouping polity principles together is rooted in the earliest years of our Presbyterian heritage. When the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland determined in 1577 that the First Book of Discipline drafted by John Knox and his five colleagues in 1560 needed revision, they began with “a concise statement of general principles” for church order.

The revision of the first edition gives evidence of the effect of change on how we Presbyterians revise our governance on the basis of principles as new understandings of ministry develop. This first revision is also where “presbytery” became an institution.

The basic question regarding the new Foundations is how we understand F-2.02: “‘Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda, secundum verbum Dei’ that is, ‘The church reformed, always to be reformed, according to the Word of God' in the power of the Spirit.” In short, our order is always a gift, never a given.

The Reverend William E. Chapman is the author of History and Theology in the Book of Order: Blood on Every Page, Finding Christ in the Book of Order, Mission Symphony: Notes for the Third Millennium, and Distinctively Presbyterian.

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