Prompted by a conversation earlier today, I went back to 'The Faith of the Church', the first document produced, in 1959, by the Joint Commission on Church Union, the body whose work laid the theological foundations of the Uniting Church in Australia. My friend and I had been talking about how to distinguish between what is primary and what is secondary in the Christian faith. The relevant passage from 'The Faith of the Church' is reproduced below. The language is gendered, the prose a product of its 1950s context, and there are potentially jarring echoes of certain kinds of piety, albeit all mixed with some strong rhetoric. But what is notable is the way it orients the church to scripture and tradition through the framework of grace, or more precisely, the one who is gracious, namely the living Jesus Christ.
1. Our commitment is made in faith
The position in which we stand as churches and human beings is one of grace. God has dealt with us graciously, and he has done so with us as with men who are unworthy. There is only one way in which to receive this grace and that is by faith. We would wish to see the biblical teaching of justification by faith through grace written out in the corporate life of the Church and in the life of Christians in their personal and social relations in our day.
The Church on earth must ever learn the meaning of justification by faith.
a. We would express it in the way we hold the faith. By our reverence before the witness of scripture and our humility before the confessions of believing men, but above all, and through all, in our awareness of the Living God, we would show that we are grasped by a holy love and power which is not our own but which was made manifest for us in Jesus Christ our Lord. The knowledge which we have of divine things is given to faith. But faith is not a way of knowing what has been objectively given, apart from a relation of trust and obedience which is conditioned by the One who grasps and holds us.
The Church will therefore guard against allowing that which is necessary but secondary to play a dominant part in her life. No system of Church government, no rules or precedents, no system of doctrine or ethics, no technique of evangelism, no tradition of men regarding the ordering of worship, is sufficiently free from error to be permitted to hold anything but a subordinate position in the life of the Christian Church. Only by setting forth as the primary ground for her existence God’s justifying act in Jesus Christ, apprehended in the Church by faith, can the Church prevent a proper concern for law from deteriorating into legalism, a proper concern for morals deteriorating into moralism, a proper concern for theology from deteriorating into intellectualism, a proper awareness of the grace set forth in the sacraments from deteriorating into sacramentalism.
The Church’s message is not even of justification by faith, lest the holding of that should become a justifying work. The Church’s message is of her Justifier. We preach not ourselves (not anything to do with ourselves — our doctrines, our practices, our religious experience, or our faith) but Christ Jesus as Lord and ourselves your servants for Jesus’ sake. He only is the Justifier of the Church’s life.*
*Joint Commission on Church Union, The Faith of the Church in Theology for Pilgrims: Selected Theological Documents of the Uniting Church in Australia, edited by Rob Bos and Geoff Thompson (Sydney: Uniting Church Press, 2008), 59-60.