Generous Orthodoxy

Our Feature on Living Faith
Living Faith is a declaration of faith of the Presbyterian Church in Canada and a reliable guide to understanding the Christian faith. In its introduction it states, “The living God became the person of Christ and walked in our midst in a world that to an astonishing extent shared many of the same problems we do now. If God could get involved with the grim fabric of life, then so can God’s church! So too must the faith we confess.”

You can buy a copy of the “little green book” from the Book Room at the national office, or download it for free from the resources section of For as many months as it takes, Theology 101 will examine this subordinate standard, chapter by chapter.

The first time I read Living Faith I knew I could be a Presbyterian minister. Truth be told, when Living Faith was presented to the General Assembly in 1984 I had already been ordained for three years. I had served my first congregation and returned to graduate school and I was unhappy with what appeared to me to be the only theological options being served up in our church at the time. Either I had to accept the Westminster Confession of Faith as a statement of eternal truths set down once for all time, or I was expected to throw it over altogether and tie my faith to the latest theological fad. Neither, quite frankly, appealed to me, and so Living Faith filled a void in my own understanding of our church’s faith.

Living Faith was first received and commended by the General Assembly in 1984 “as an acceptable statement of faith and as useful in worship and study.” In the years that followed the little green book came to be widely used in worship and study groups and enjoyed general acceptance across the church. As a result, in 1998 it was adopted by the General Assembly as a subordinate standard or confessional statement and took its place alongside the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Declaration of Faith Concerning Church and Nation. French and Korean translations have been adopted, and Living Faith has been used as a model statement by other denominations.

In comparison to many statements of Christian belief, Living Faith “is more poetic than discursive, more narrative than descriptive and, as a result, more metaphorical than theologically precise.” But as a kind of prose-poem it sets forth the faith that lies at the heart of historic Christianity, from a Reformed and Presbyterian perspective. As a statement of generous orthodoxy, Living Faith has provided a broad theological consensus in our church for almost a generation.

The first thing Living Faith says about being a Christian is that it’s not about us. It’s about the “one true God whom to know is life eternal, whom to serve is joy and peace.” It reminds us that God is before we are and that we find our fulfillment as human beings in knowing and loving and serving God. In 10 chapters Living Faith introduces us to life with God by speaking of God as creator and ruler, God in Christ, God the Holy Spirit, the Bible as God’s word, our faith in God, God’s church, our call to follow God’s crucified Messiah, our part in God’s mission, and our hope in God.

In all that it affirms Living Faith focuses on the central truth of the Christian tradition, namely that the triune God of grace was in Christ bringing salvation to the world. It appeals to the older and newer testaments of the Bible as sacred texts that bear witness to God’s action in Christ. And it relies on the creeds and confessions of those who have travelled this road ahead of us, not because they always got it right, but because in the holy catholic church we believe that those writers too deserve a vote when we’re trying to figure out the meaning of the gospel for our time.

Living Faith also tries to set out what we believe with an eye to where the world is today. It speaks, therefore, not only about doctrinal themes but also about nuclear war, the economy, the family, sexual ethics, justice and other religions. As we use it in the second decade of the 21st century, we should remember that it was written in the early 1980s. Many of the same issues are still before us and are perhaps even more pressing. But things have also changed. What are the issues that our faith must address today? What are the questions with which we wrestle? How is Living Faith relevant in our time?

For example, Canadian Presbyterians are living today in what philosopher Charles Taylor calls “a secular age,” among people of Christian faith, people of other religious faiths, and people of no religious faith at all. As a denomination we seem to be preoccupied with talk about vision and the future, mostly driven by anxiety around our institutional decline. Does Living Faith have anything to say to us as a changing church in a changing context? Does it help us understand who we are and whose we are as God’s people? Does it help us discern our mission at a time when the plausibility structures for Christian faith have crumbled in our culture, and when the church has lost much of its credibility? A good statement of Christian belief should do so.

In this regard, it might be argued that although beautifully written, Living Faith does not always read with the conviction of a contemporary confession. A confession is more than a creed with propositional or poetic statements. It is an attempt to bear witness to Jesus Christ as Lord when the stakes are high. It is the church saying: “This is who we are. This is where we stand. This is what we believe. This is what matters to us.” The Presbyterian theologian Walter Bryden said that, “It is easy to make statements of our faith, but confessions are wrung from women and men on their knees in prayer,” usually in times of crisis.

Nevertheless, one of Living Faith’s real strengths is the note of prayerful praise it sounds throughout. This emphasis—along with its prose form—is what makes it so user friendly in weekly worship. It reminds us that faith does not seek understanding alone; it seeks the face of God in doxology. Living Faith has given our church a generous orthodox language with which to worship God, using our heads and our hearts. For that we should be grateful, for there is nothing more magnificent than the majesty and mystery of God.

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About John Vissers

Rev. Dr. John Vissers is principal of the Presbyterian College, Montreal.