A Vital Call for the Vitals of Religion
In the denomination in which I serve as a minister--The Presbyterian Church in America (PCA)--we have confessional standards to which all our ministers voluntarily agree to submit, subscribe, and support. The language we use to describe this action is that of adoption. He must, our Book of Church Order requires, be "able in good faith sincerely to receive and adopt the Confession of Fatih and Catechisms" of the church as "containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures" (BCO 21.4).
That fact being stipulated, the adoption of the documents as containing the system does not mean a jot and tittle adoption of every "statement and/or proposition" (BCO 21.4). To put it another way, one is not automatically disqualified from being able to minister in the PCA because of a difference with the Standards. Instead, ministers and candidates for the ministry may take exceptions--at the discretion and permission of a Presbytery--to any differences or scruples they might have with the official doctrine of the church as contained in the standards. When this happens each exception is weighed and examined by the court of the church. Some exceptions are deemed acceptable and thus approved; others are not.
Of course, all of this raises the following questions: "By what standard is an exception deemed acceptable or not? Is there another repository of truth which may be mined and appealed to in order to determine whether or not an exception is acceptable?"
The answer to the latter question is "Yes!" The litmus test used to determine acceptance and approval of exceptions to the standards is this: "The exception(s) must not be the kind that is either hostile to the system or strikes at the vitals of religion" (BCO 21.4). In other words, all exceptions are acceptable as long as they don't strike at the vitals of religion. So far so good, right?
But this forces additional questions to surface. What are the vitals of religion? Where might one find the list of them? What types of exceptions are hostile to the system? Where might one find that list?
This is where things get quite interesting. The answers that I have heard to those questions, at least from my experience and in my opinion, is alarming. The vitals of religion evidently clearly exist. They are mentioned in the BCO, after all. But no one can seem to agree what they are or where they are codified. In the context of debate on the Presbytery floor, I've even asked for someone to articulate them! Many people seem to know what they are and where they are codified. But the problem is that often their particular lists differ from the list of their colleagues.
Evidently the vitals of religion are different for different people. And because different people make up different Presbyteries, they are, therefore, different for different Presbyteries. Furthermore, if history teaches us anything it's that the vitals actually change over time as well. What was once a vital and struck against the system in 1973 is no longer a vital today and therefore acceptable. And we should expect the same evolution and progression to continue. What is a vital today will not likely be a vital in 50 years from now.
This undefined language of the BCO is, at this point, highly subjective and allows for the acceptance of anything so long as it is agreed upon by the majority who determine that the exception is not threatening a vital.
From this we can conclude that a vital is what the contemporary majority at the time of examination determines a vital to be.
The only way to remedy this is to come up wth a list of vitals--that is, acceptable exceptions--or require strict subscription to the original documents. There are simply no other alternatives. And when the list of vitals is produced, no doubt, a sub-set of vitals-of-the-vitals will emerge, and then we are back to square one. Apart from strict subscription, all other solutions will allow for the contemporary majority to determine what is acceptable or not in the denomination.
At the end of the day, Even if we come up with a list of vitals for the entire denomination now it will reflect the contemporary opinion of the majority. So, really, the only option is full subscription to the old confessional standards. If this is rejected the PCA will be, in 50 years, what the PCUSA is today.