It’s been some four hundred years since our confessions were penned. During that time our church, guided by centuries of study in the humanities (such as biblical studies and linguistics) and the natural sciences (such as biology and astronomy) has earnestly and prayerfully studied Scripture and creation revelation so that we may accurately confess and address God’s Word to each new generation. And folks like Abraham Kuyper have wonderfully widened our biblical vision on the reach of God’s kingdom.
We’d expect that all of that would trigger major revisions to those confessions, especially since every officebearer must subscribe to them.
Substantive changes, however, are underwhelming: in the Belgic Confession there is one substituted paragraph limiting the role of government and one dropped paragraph that was nasty to Anabaptists. In the Heidelberg Catechism we placed Q&A 80 in a smaller font because it’s uncharitable to Roman Catholics. That’s it.
Why no further upgrades? Because the confessions are historical documents representing our founding, heritage, and identity as a confessional denomination. So we shouldn’t mess (much) with them.
But that’s problematic when we also insist on keeping these creeds and confessions as the present-day arbiter of orthodoxy. Then all that spiritual growth from our interaction with Scripture and the Spirit’s movement in our world becomes unnecessarily constricted, something the confessions’ authors never intended (see “Reformed Matters,” p. 34).
We did add Our World Belongs to God: A Contemporary Testimony (already once revised), which elegantly summarizes our biblical faith in our contemporary context. It demonstrates much of that growth of our understanding and clearly addresses our society, culture, and Zeitgeist. Yet it remains the poor stepchild, with subordinate standing to our confessions.
The revision of the current form of subscription contemplated by Synod 2012 is a good move . . . but it doesn’t go far enough.
The revision of the current form of subscription contemplated by Synod 2012 is a good move, presenting in more contemporary language our denominational covenant. But that doesn’t go far enough. We need to make the Contemporary Testimony what we sign on to instead of the historic confessions. That way we affirm our current understanding of Scriptural teaching and of creation revelation and always keep before us the necessary challenge of praying, working, and reflecting together on how our key sign-on document should be updated to keep us ever biblical and relevant.
That alone is the safe path for us: to continually re-confess our faith as we follow the Holy Spirit into each new age.
Of course, we shouldn’t dream of jettisoning our historic confessions. As my colleague, Rev. Gordon Pols, puts it: “Our posture to our historical confessions should be the same as that to our parents: we honor them.” To honor them means we don’t mindlessly and robotically obey them as we mature. It means we fully recognize what they taught us and the direction they set us on. As we grow, we continue to heed their guidance. But we also continue to find our own calling in the light of Scripture and the Spirit’s leading. As the church in the third millennium, we affirm our roots as we publicly profess our owned faith.
We could also carefully describe that ongoing relationship to the historic confessions (including also the Belhar?) in the Contemporary Testimony itself. That would allow many more officebearers and profs to sign the form of subscription without holding their nose.