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Heritage Day – Our Confessional Heritage

May 20, 2012

Our Confessional Heritage

A New Service Celebrating the Book of Confessions

A Service presented at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on Heritage Day, May 20, 2012

The recorded history of the White Plains Presbyterian Church began on May 27, 1714. On that day The Rev. Christopher Bridges received a donation of land from Mr. John Frost of Rye on which to begin construction of their planned first sanctuary. As we move toward our 300th Anniversary in 2014 we will hold special Heritage Days each spring and fall. Today we celebrate our confessional heritage.

A Festival of Banners (1968)

In 1967, the Presbyterian Church adopted a new statement of faith, the Confession of 1967. More importantly, it incorporated this confession within a Book of Confessions: ten statements reflecting the particularly Catholic, Protestant and Reformed witness of the church.

At that time many of these confessions were unfamiliar to Presbyterians in the United States. The very idea of a confessional heritage, rather than a single confessional standard, highlighted the historical, cultural and contingent nature of the act of confessing.

As these ten creeds, confessions, and catechisms were being incorporated into the liturgical life of local congregations, two members of the First Presbyterian Church in Port Jervis, NY, designed banners to represent the central ideas of each confession. These multi-talented members, Dick Avery and Don Marsh, also composed a liturgy to celebrate the new Book of Confessions which they called “A Festival of Banners.”

The White Plains Presbyterian Church commissioned a set of these banners in almost immediately. The banners were constructed under the leadership of two sisters, Marion and Eunice Salisbury. A “Festival of Banners” was celebrated at that time, and again in 1996. In the meantime the Presbyterian Church (USA) has adopted a new confession, the Brief Statement of Faith.

Though the “Festival of Banners” continues to be celebrated by Presbyterian congregations, the need to incorporate this new statement into the original liturgy presents us with an opportunity to think again about our confessions heritage. New developments in historical, biblical, theological studies make to original liturgy untenable today. Liberation theologies of the first and third world require the social history of doctrine to be explicit. Feminist, postmodern and post-colonial studies have questioned the relationship of faith and power. Critical reflections on religion and Empire are central to ethical reflection today.

Our Confessional Heritage (2012)

What follows is an entirely new service. Rather than celebrating an eternal deposit of faith which finds expression in each particular age, in this liturgy the story of each creed adds up to a narrative of gathering, nurturing and sending. In true Reformed style, our creedal statements are primarily about God – who God is, how God shares God’s self with us, and who we are – and may be – because of God. It refuses to separate faith and order, religion and politics, individual and community. Gifted by God, we are gifts to the world: to God be the Glory.

I have freely adapted the material of many others in creating this liturgy. Anyone interested in a copy of the full liturgy with music and prayers may contact me. In addition to the introductory material in the Book of Confessions, the following sections draw primarily on:

  1. Clifton Kirkpatrick, Introduction to Conversations with the Confessions (Geneva Press, 2005) – Introduction and Barmen;
  2. Edward Dowey, Jr., A Commentary on the Confession of 1967 and An Introduction to the Book of Confessions (Westminster Press, 1968) – Apostles’ Creed and the Westminster Standards;
  3. Richard Rubenstein, When Jesus Became God: The Struggle to Define Christiantiy during the Last days of Rome (Harcourt, Inc, 1999) and Kwok Pui-Lan, et al. Empire and the Christian Tradition: New Readings on Classical Theologians (Fortress Press, 2007) – The Nicene Creed;
  4. Jack Rogers, Presbyterian Creeds: A guide to the Book of Confessions (Westminster Press, 1985) – The Heidelberg Catechism and The Confession of 1967;
  5. Jane Dempsey Douglass, To Confess the Faith Today (WJKP, 1990) – The Brief Statement of Faith;
  6. The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary, adapting many others including introductory material in the present Book of Confessions  – The Scots Confessions and the Second Helvetic Confession.



The Presbyterian Church believes that from time to time we are called to confess our faith anew. We do this light of a rich theological heritage and in response to the needs of our age. Confessions declare both to the church and to the world:  who we are, what we believe, and what we are resolved to do. Confession is a contemporary expression of faith, engaged with the world and responsive to God.

The Presbyterian Church (USA) is unique in not having a single confession of faith, but rather a Book of Confessions – a collection of eleven creeds and confessions. Each was written in a particular time and place to express the faith of the church in a specific context. Two confessions were composed in the ancient world to express the faith of the church in the midst of Roman Empire. Six confessions were written in the reformation era to witness to the gospel in a time of theological and social upheaval.  Three twentieth century confessions respond to emerging issues: declaring the Lordship of Christ against the claims of the Nazis, taking up the task of reconciliation in light of social divisions, and affirming the common calling of the Presbyterian Church in beautiful and poetic language.

In 1968, symbolic banners were designed to accompany each of these confessions. When the Presbyterian Church adopted the Brief Statement of Faith in 1990, a new symbol was created. It appears in color at the top of our bulletin today. (These normally hang in our sanctuary. They were processed and displayed during this service).

The importance of the Book of Confessions does not lie in every specific article, admonition, or prohibition. What is important are the common themes that express the central truths of the Christian faith in all the different contexts in which the church lives and moves and has its being. These common themes – expressed in different historical and cultural contexts – guide our life today.

May we encounter the witness of the living church across the ages and Christ’s call to us this day.


THE WITNESS OF PENTECOST: The Apostles’ Creed, Second Century

According to church legend, after Pentecost the apostles were preparing to go out and preach in all parts of the world, using the languages the Holy Spirit had taught them. In order to ensure a common message, they compiled what we know as the Apostles’ Creed. Supposedly each of the twelve apostles had each contributed one line to the Creed.  Yet the Eastern Orthodox Church never knew this Creed, and the sixteenth century Reformers knew that the history was fabricated.

Nevertheless, the legend reflects the age-old desire of the church that its beliefs and practices be rooted in the witness of the early church. And in fact, the nucleus of the Creed is very ancient. It was a summary of faith used at the time of baptisms in second century. Standing in water, a candidate for baptism was asked, “Do you believe in God the Father Almighty?” He or she answered “I believe,” and was immersed in the water. A question and an immersion accompanied each of the three articles of the Creed: Father, Son, and Spirit.

The Trinitarian form comes from Jesus’ Great Commission in Matthew 28:19, “Baptize them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” In Latin, the word Credo,from which we get our word Creed, simply means “I Believe.”

Christians across the ages have been baptized into God’s family while confessing these ancient words. Let us now rise, remember our baptism.

                Do you believe in God?                                         I believe.

                Do you believe in Jesus Christ?                          I believe.

                Do you believe in the Holy Spirit?                     I believe.


THE SOVEREIGNTY OF THE TRUINE GOD: The Nicene Creed, Nicaea, 325

The Apostles’ Creed affirmed the threeness of God, but not the oneness, although there is no question that Jewish and gentile followers of Jesus believed that God is One. Therefore the Nicene Creed developed an understanding of the Trinity, which holds together the three and the one.

How the one and the many were held together was a crucial issue in the fourth century. When Constantine became the Roman Emperor he set out to Christianize the Empire. He gathered bishops from East and West to write a single statement of faith for a unified people. The Apostle Paul had written, “One Lord, one faith, one baptism”– and Constantine wanted to add, “One Church, One Empire, One Emperor.” This presented the bishops with an opportunity and a danger.

At that time the most popular understanding of the trinity compared the Father, Son and Spirit to the natural hierarchies of the Roman World. This model made it easy to imagine the emperor as an earthly representative of God, and the church as his instrument. But the Bishops at Nicaea insisted that the life of the Trinity was such that each person was distinct, equal, and fully divine without any subordination of one to another. Since the bishops believed that both the Church and Empire received its life from God, neither could be subordinate to the other. If necessary the church could thus stand over against the Empire, and had authority to speak prophetically to the Emperor.

Sadly, it rarely worked this well. Nevertheless, defining the sovereignty of the triune God was a courageous act for a group of bishops who had been called together by the Emperor of the Western World.

Let us confess our faith with the words of the creed shared by Protestants, Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox Church.

We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty,

maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God,

eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light,

true God from true God, begotten, not made,

of one Being with the Father;

through him all things were made.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life . . .



Scotland. 1560. A long period of Civil War suddenly came to an end when Queen Mary of Guise died in her sleep. The Scottish Protestants had driven French and Catholic forces from their country, and now they were on their own. Years of bitter fighting and much bloodshed lay behind them. But if they did not act soon, the chance to establish a Reformed Confession of faith as the creed of Scotland might be lost forever.

Parliament invited John Knox and five colleagues to prepare a confession of faith for the church and the nation. They did their work in just four days. It begins with a pledge of unconditional loyalty to the triune God who creates, sustains, rules, and guides all things. The confession then narrates God’s providential acts in history. This salvation history stretches all the way from creation, through the events of scripture in both the Old and New Testaments, and on into the future. The true church participates in this sacred history.

Strong dramatic language in the Scots Confession reminds us that its authors were no strangers to persecution and martyrdom. Knox himself had been an exile and spent two years on a slave ship for the sake of his faith. Small wonder that when the Reformation was finally established in Scotland, its confession should be militant, victorious, and exultant in tone, culminating in words from Psalm 68, “Arise, O Lord, and let thine enemies be confounded.”


THE CHRISTIAN LIFE EXPRESSES GRATITUDE: The Heidelberg Catechism, Germany, 1563

The Heidelberg Catechism was the first Reformed confession to appear in America. In 1609, less than a half century after it was written, it was brought to Manhattan Island by none other than Henry Hudson. Thus long before there was a New York City, the Dutch settlers of New Amsterdam were steeped in the Heidelberg Catechism, and when Presbyterians came to New York and the Middle Colonies, they found a Reformed presence to welcome them.

Of all the Reformed confessions, the Heidelberg Catechism is the most personal. The first question asks, “What is your only comfort in life and in death?” And the believer is enabled by the catechism to answer, “That I belong – body and soul, in life and in death – not to myself but to my faithful savior, Jesus Christ.” The question-and-answer style involves us in reflecting and responding from the heart as well as the mind. The confession is built around the themes of guilt, grace, and gratitude. The central idea is that the Christian life is one of thanksgiving.

The Catechism was written in 1553 at the request of Frederick III in order to provide a way for Lutherans and Reformed Christians to live together. The authors of the confession, Zacharius Ursinus and Kaspar Olevianus, intended their catechism to be an instrument of peaceful coexistence in a time of intense religious conflict.

Q. 1. What is your only comfort, in life and in death?

 A. That I belong – body and soul, in life and in death, not to myself but to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.

Q. 54. What do you believe about the holy catholic (i.e. universal) church?

A. That, out of the whole human race, from the beginning to the end of the world, the Son of God, by his Spirit and Word, gathers, protects, and preserves for himself, in the unity of true faith, a chosen community for eternal life. I believe that I am and forever shall remain a living member of it.




GUIDELINES FOR LIFE TOGETHER: The Second Helvetic Confession, Switzerland, 1566

Though the Heidelberg Catechism was intended to promote peaceful coexistence, a handful of Lutherans found its doctrine too Reformed, and they complained to the Holy Roman Emperor. Within three years Frederick III was ordered to appear before Emperor Maximilian III. He was charged with promoting heresy, and the peace of his province was threatened.

Frederick needed help.

Help arrived in the form of the Second Helvetic Confession, written by Heinrich Bullinger.

Bullinger was a towering figure in the sixteenth century reformations, perhaps the most respected in Europe. He was already a leading protestant in Switzerland when John Calvin appeared, and he was still preaching years after his close friend Calvin had died. Bullinger had written a personal statement of faith that he intended to leave as a legacy to his beloved city of Zurich. But when Frederick appealed to him for help, this personal statement was made public to support Frederick’s case.

Unlike many of our other confessions, this personal confession had not been written to respond to a crisis. Therefore the writing was ecumenical and generous, moderate in tone and catholic in spirit. It detailed how the Reformed faith is embodied in the practical life of the community, in worship, during church conflict, while comforting the sick, and through marriage and politics. Bullinger’s confession served Frederick well. He was not only acquitted of all charges against him, but earned the nickname, Frederick the Pious.


ORDER IN A TIME OF CHAOS: The Westminster Standards, England, 1643

England in the 1640s was in a state of revolution.  Parliament appointed the Westminster Assembly to write a constitution and a confession for a new Church of England.  It was a daunting task and the committee of writers was incredibly large.  The Westminster Assembly was comprised of 121 Puritan ministers of the Church of England, 30 members of parliament, and six Scottish advisors.  They met more than one thousand times over seven years to write these standards. And during the years they met, both the Archbishop of Canterbury and the king were beheaded.

The Presbyterians in Parliament eventually lost out to Cromwell’s Independents, and the

Westminster Standards were never widely established in England. With the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, Presbyterian clergy were ejected from the church. With the Act of Toleration, 1689, they obtained freedom of worship, but Presbyterianism practically died out as a free church. Though the Westminster Confession had been offered as “Humble Advice” to a revolutionary Parliament in a tumultuous age, it is the most patiently constructed; the most massive and intricate of the Reformed confessions. Its greatest contribution was not its puritan doctrine but advice on how to govern the church. Its greatest influence was to be felt in Scotland and the American colonies.


STANDING AGAINST OPPRESSION: The Barmen Declaration, Germany, 1934

It is spine-tingling to reflect upon the courage of Christians who proclaim the Lordship of Christ in times of intense struggle. When Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany in early 1933, he promoted the so-called “German Christians,” who subordinated the gospel to an anti-communist, anti-Jewish, nationalist and racist ideology.

A group of dissenting pastors, including Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer,  held the first meeting of what they called The Confessing Church in 1934 in a small city in Northern Germany called Barmen. The Theological Declaration which they issued called upon Christians to resist all Nazi efforts to subordinate the gospel to the nation, or to use it to promote hatred or justify violence. Notice the refusal of the swastika on the banner, and the proclamation of the cross. The flames indicate the martyrdom many in the Confessing Church received.

Germany and the world had to endure ten more years of Hitler’s tyranny, but the church’s witness was not futile. Albert Einstein stated, “Only the church stood across the path of Hitler’s campaign for suppressing the truth. . . . I am forced to confess that what I once despised, I now praise unreservedly.” Einstein saw the power of the gospel to enable the church to stand against the forces of oppression in his time. May we once again reclaim this confession as a rallying cry for the church of Jesus Christ to be stalwart in the cause of God’s justice in our time and place!


THE MINISTRY OF RECONCILIATION: The Confession of 1967, United States of America

As we have observed, all the creeds and confessions of our Reformed heritage arose in the context of social and political controversy. Though each of these implicitly addressed the issues of their time, the Confession of 1967 was the first Reformed statement to explicitly name the social problems of its own era. It asks the church to approach the Scriptures with literary and historical understanding. It issues a call to action, particularly in response to racial discrimination, national arrogance, changing understandings of sexuality, and economic injustice. It gives new shape to the task of peacemaking in a violent world, the equality of all people, new struggles for liberation and the ending of poverty.

The confession is built around a single passage from Second Corinthians, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to God.” Setting the story of Christ as the pattern for the church’s mission today, it calls on all Christians to be reconciled to God and to one another.

My sisters and brothers, let us recommit ourselves to the mission of Christ’s church, using these words from the Confession of 1967, as printed in our bulletin.

COMMITMENT, from the Confession of 1967

With an urgency born of our hope in Jesus Christ, let us apply ourselves to present tasks and strive for a better world. Let us not identify limited progress with the kingdom of God, nor let us despair in the face of disappointment and defeat. In steadfast hope, let us look beyond all partial achievement to the final triumph of God. Now unto God, who by the power within us is able to do far more abundantly than all we could ask or think, to God be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.


MINUTE FOR MISSION: The Pentecost Offering/Summer Mission Trip

Good morning, I am Olga Daniels and I am a member of the mission commission. We have three opportunities today to express our commitment to reconciliation: financial support for the ministry of this congregation, a special Pentecost gift for mission in our community, and signing up for a week-long, hands-on, mission trip.

The financial gifts, tithes and pledges which you will place in the offering plate in a few moments make possible the worship, education, witness, and stewardship life of this congregation. And it makes a difference.

A special gift toward the Presbyterian Pentecost Offering will both support children at risk, and help young adults volunteers who are giving more than a year of service to our church is mission throughout the world. Forty-percent of this offering will be given to the Mayor of White Plains’ Scholarship Program so that children in our community can attend summer camp program this year. The special offering will be collected next week on Pentecost Sunday, but you may, of course, contribute to it today by marking a pew envelope: PENTECOST.

Finally, there is information in your bulletin about the summer mission trip to build a community arts center in Stony Point, New York. This will be an old-fashioned barn-raising, and we are looking for 15 adults to join our youth and college students.

God is good. We have been called together to make a difference, and opportunity abounds. Let us share our gifts.


THE CHURCH REFORMED AND EVER REFORMING: The Brief Statement of Faith, PC (USA), 1991

Our newest confession, The Brief Statement of Faith, is distinctive in several ways. Emerging out of the church unions that created the Presbyterian Church (USA) in 1983, the statement is brief, liturgical and lyrical. It is designed for use in worship. Unlike the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, which move directly from Jesus’ birth to his death, the statement emphasizes the significance of Jesus’ ministry in Judea and Galilee. The Brief Statement emphasizes gender-inclusiveness. It underscores the role of both men and women in God’s covenant, uses feminine as well as masculine imagery for God, and affirms the ordination of both women and men. The statement also expresses concern for the integrity of God’s creation. We will use this confession in worship next week during our celebration of Pentecost.

And we continue to listen to God’s voice as it calls to the church today. In just the past few months this congregation has attended to God’s voice as it emerged from the ecumenical gathering in Accra, Ghana which issued a call for sustainable economic and ecological justice between the first and third worlds. We have heard it in our study of the South African Belhar Confession, a powerful witness to unity in diversity, and reconciliation with justice.  And we look forward to studying the New Social Creed developed with our ecumenical partners to shape our personal faith and public witness. [The Accra Confession was highlighted in the sermon Critical Connections. The Belhar Confession was studied over six weeks during Lent. Resources on The New Social Creed for the 21st Century can be found our our presbytery website.]

And still we listen.


BENEDICTION, from the Belhar Confession, South Africa 1983

And now may the Triune God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit

who gathers, protects, and cares for the church through Word and Spirit;

who has done this from the beginning of the world

and will do so to the end…

open new possibilities for life and the world.

And to this God, our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer,

be the honor and the glory, forever and ever. Amen.

Click here to learn more about the symbols on each banner or to read the confessions themselves.


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