Which Line to Toe?

Editorial
| |

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 Because the confessions are historical documents representing our founding, heritage, and identity as a confessional denomination.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.

About the Author

Bob De Moor is a retired Christian Reformed pastor living in Edmonton, Alta.

See comments (22)

Comments

We have a lot of challenges in this discussion. It occurs to me that this is the third Banner editor that I can think of (after Andy Kuyvenhoven and John Suk) to advocate for taking a serious look at our confessional infrastructure.

1. People look to the confessions for different things:
1a. the ecumenical perspective: we can’t change confessions because they tie us to other denominations and churches in other lands. If we change them we lose something.
1b. the piety perspective: confessions as a guide to life and belief
1c. the unity perspective: the confessions define the basis of our denominational covenant
1d. the historical perspective: the confessions connect us with our ecclesiastical ancestors

Very quickly we get into the question of what is “the majority”. Each of us has our perspective on this. In practice it get imperfectly polled by voting at Synod. What we can say is that we don’t have consensus but we do have a sort of plurality of communities with enough either built into the system or enough fear of change that the current system endures. Will this change politically? Time will tell. If it does it will be votes at Synod that mark that change.

The CT is seriously flawed, overly political, and not anywhere close to the same standard of theological expression as the existing three creeds. There is reason to take a serious look at our confessional posture, but weakening the stature and status of the existing Forms of Unity while replacing them with worse ones is hardly the way to go.

As for the rest, what, pray tell, do you think needs to be changed in light of "all that spiritual growth from our interaction with Scripture and the Spirit’s movement in our world"? Why do you not then submit a confessional revision gravamen? It took Dr. Harry Boer the better part of 15 years (1967-1981) to get such a process in place. Granted, he didn't get the answer he wanted, and there are serious problems with both the answer given and the one Boer desired, but it is still the case that not one of the people objecting to the creeds or their status in the years since has bothered to use the process that he came close to sacrificing his entire career in the ministry to establish.

That's a shame.

Saying that the contemporary testimony should replace the significance of our confessions, in order to validate our 'current' understanding (as opposed to our historic understanding presumably), inorder to be updated and relevant, is a bit of a problem. It's unconvincing. Signing on to something that we do not expect our future grandchildren to be able to sign on to because we expect their current understanding to change from our own, certainly reduces the significance of any contemporary testimony....

When relevance and updating become the priority, rather than biblical truth and pre-eminence, then biblical truth will certainly suffer and be compromised.

And you can pretty well be assured that "updating" and "relevance" are often pseudonyms for "following the cultural norms of the world". It's not our confessions that need more relevance. It is our lives that need to become more relevant to Christ's claim on us.

I'd echo Eric's question: So exactly what is our Editor proposing that be changed. To say "we’d expect that all of that would trigger major revisions to those confessions..." and that officebearers now sign while "holding their nose" (presumably because our confessions smell so badly??) is to make pretty strong accusations. Yet there are no particulars.

I'm all for being up front with what one thinks. Conversely, to be so emphatic that our confessions are SO filled with error so as to need "major revisions," seems rather disingenuous or at least hyperbolic when not accompanying by even one small 'for instance', let along a "major" one.

On the positive side, this is a subject matter for the denomination (and the Editor) to take on. Indeed, I'd suggest taking of more of this kind of subject matter (maybe provide some 'for instances'??) than pronoucing political opinions on subject matters in which the denomination is ill-equipped (at best) to pronounce.

It occurs to me that quite a few people will be unfamiliar with Dr. Harry Boer.

Harry Boer was a Navy chaplain during WW2, taught at the seminary briefly after the war (the famous "seminary situation" ended his time there), and then went on to serve in Nigeria helping to found the Theological College of Northern Nigeria. In the late 1960s, he published some articles in the Reformed Journal questioning the doctrine of double predestination - that some are predestined to damnation (rebrobate) and that some are predestined to salvation (elect). This was on the heels of Harold Dekker's writings to the effect that God loves all men (this was the 1960s and we were not yet required to use gender-neutral language).

There were objections, and the pastor of Dr. Boer's calling church sought to silence Dr. Boer on Form of Subscription grounds. Boer noted that there was no real process for submitting objections to the creeds so that the church might discuss them openly - and his calling church didn't want there to be one.

Anyway, this all landed in the lap of Synod a couple times and by 1976, the formal process for objecting to the creeds was established. Dr. Boer was given the opportunity to submit a gravamen directly to Synod (bypassing his council and classis), which he did. In 1981, Synod gave its answer.

We also have from this experience, the beginnings of the "judicial code" now included in the Church Order and the principle that a retired minister may have his credentials transferred to any CRC he (or, now, she) may request.

I spent most of the 1986-87 school year researching and writing about the controversy and took on the Love of God (Harold Dekker) controversy the following year.

I agree with the earlier comments. The strategy here is the same that the FOS Revision committee has used- just keep saying the same things over and over without ever offering evidence and sooner or later it magically becomes the truth.

Just this past week we had occasion to counsel a reinvigorated believer who wanted to redo his baptism because it would mean so much more now than the one given to him as an infant which was largely ignored throughout his life. BC article 34, which was written to counter 15th century Anabaptists, spoke beautifully to this situation.

The truths affirmed in the 3 Forms do not change, and the errors they refute keep getting recycled - same general errors, different particulars.

These increasing appeals to contextualize our statements of faith are sophistry designed to usher in relativistic, tolerant, ever changing, believe what feels good theology.

The Belhar proposal is dangerous enough (glad to see there's about 3 dozen overtures against it), but the big monster in the room is the proposal to gut the FOS. If this happens, the CRC will have totally lost its Biblical footing.

Chad, What is the FOS Revision committee?

The FOS (Form of Subscription) Committee has been working for a number of years to not just revise, but totally eliminate and replace the Form CRC elders, deacons, and ministers use to show their subscription to our confessions. Our current Form of Subscription has been in use for nearly 500 years.

Like this article, they just generally refer to problems with the existing FOS, but in all their years never offer any specific substantial criticisms. The key phrase they seem to want to do away with is the clause that states that the signer acknowledges that our confessions "fully agree with the Word of God."

Here's a link to their latest report:
http://crcna.org/site_uploads/uploads/resources/synodical/FormofSubscrip...(2012).pdf

Chad -- Re: "These increasing appeals to contextualize our statements of faith are sophistry designed to usher in relativistic, tolerant, ever changing, believe what feels good theology." A harsh judgment, which speaks volumes about the great divide.

With regard to "contextualization," I am reminded of the story about the two men driving along a flat prairie highway in Kansas. The driver of the car is from Kansas, while his passenger is from a mountain town in Colorado. The weather is stormy and the wind is blowing. Snow is beginning to fall. Suddenly a grayish white object rolls into their path. The driver steers resolutely on, while the passenger tries to twist the steering wheel from his grasp to avoid the object. The car hits the rolling ball without apparent effect, as the driver from Kansas expects, since he knows it is a tumbleweed. His passenger from Colorado perceives it as a boulder, since from his experience this is what usually goes rolling across road after being loosened from the cliffs. Nevertheless, he continues to react the same way, even after experiencing the first encounter with the tumbleweed, thereby placing both occupants at risk.

The fact that we think something is so does not make it so, and we ignore context at our own peril.

Thanks for your comment, GLD. I really do want to understand the other side of this debate, but your story about the Kansas snow storm is an example of what has those of us on our side of the "great divide" scratching our heads; it is yet another broad generalization.

Please provide a specific example of how our lack of contextualization in regards to our current Confessions causes us to mistake tumbleweeds for boulders as your story suggests.

In other words, somebody please tell us why, exactly, are so many of our brothers "holding their nose" when subscribing to our confessions? How, exactly, are we being "unnecessarily constricted" by what we confess to be true?

I might add, Chad, that revising the FoS does not address the supposed problem.

In all the reports by the revision committee that I've seen, the problem is that some people are not signing the FoS or are signing it with "caveats" or "reservations". Changing the wording of the FoS will do one of two things: (a) gut it, so as to validate those who sign with such reservations (or refuse to sign it all together); or (b) put just a bit more lipstick on what these people consider to be a pig, but not address their concerns - because their concerns don't lie in the FoS, but in the creeds to which it points.

And that brings us back to the process established by Synod in the 1970s for objections to the creeds and confessions - submitting a gravamen. But neither the editor, nor these others, are apparently of a mind to do that. They seem to prefer watering things down until there are no standards at all. Sure, there might be on the books, but by changing the rules, re-wording the FoS, adding this or that, we effectively have something that looks like a standard but which holds no one accountable to anything in particular.

The CRC is a confessional church. It's who we are. Sever our connection to those historic confessions and you sever our connection to our own identity, and once you do that, we cease to have an identity. We become nothing. And if membership trends continue, that's where we're headed.

I see it has been 2 weeks since this thread of comments was posted, but I do have another question for the editor and Synod. Will adding the Belhar Confession to the statement signed while "holding their nose" really change how our church leaders address racism (and pursue justice and reconciliation)? An honest reading of the Bible, the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, Synod's previous pronouncements (especially God's Diverse and Unified Family) is pretty clear. SCORR and now Race Relations have done a lot, especially the recent "Facing Racism" DVD study and the DORR events.

Again, I ask, will adopting this document REALLY be to effect change in the CRC, or just be a pat on our back from ourselves, from South Africa, and from the RCA?

Jamie Smith weighs in - critically, but helpfully:
http://forsclavigera.blogspot.com/2012/05/confessions-generations-and-fu...

His second question was my own:
"While De Moor is pointing out the supposed historical limitations of Reformed confessions forged in the 16th and 17th centuries, in fact nothing in his argument can prevent the same stance and posture toward ancient catholic confessions like Nicea and Chalcedon. Should we also just tip our hat to those creeds, Bob, but then pledge our allegiance to an activist document written by North Americans in the 80s?"

I LOVE Jamie Smith's take (as cited earlier by Darrin).

Thanks, Bob - for coming up with a compelling and thoughtful approach on this issue. We would do well to listen.

I found Jamie Smith's response less useful, and his argument should be responded to.

His first point attempts automatic dismissal by associating with 'liberal Protestant' approaches. "That looks like liberal Protestantism and we don't like that. Therefore it's wrong." Not a great argument.

His second point 'nothing in DeMoor's argument can prevent the same stance and posture toward ancient catholic confessions like Nicea and Chalcedon' is based on fear. If we question X, then we might also open the door to questioning Y. Be very afraid.

In reality, we do this kind of re-thinking with the Bible all the time. We reinterpret in light of new understandings of language, archaeology, culture, and context. Why should theological decisions made centuries later be off limits? They were made in certain contexts under certain motivations (often more political than theological). Exploring them might actually prove helpful. Why should theology be the one and only field of human inquiry where we automatically defer to antiquity?

As for Smith's third point - focusing on boomers, that seems to be a red herring that distracts from the argument. Blaming some kind of over-generalized boomerism is less than helpful. Is anti-institutionalism really what is driving DeMoor's argument? I can hardly see that as the case. You might even say he is acting on behalf of the institution by hoping to prevent it from becoming an irrelevant ancient relic itself. Acting in ways similar to other mainline approaches should not be automatic grounds for dismissal.

There's actually a resurgence happening within many mainlines because disaffected *younger* evangelicals and others are finding a space where both ancient practices and progressive thinking are welcome. Where we live and act in light of history and tradition, but are not slavishly bound to it - as it appears Smith and many others would prefer in the CRC. To try to pin this on boomers leaves out the scores of younger folks (Driscollites aside) who want to follow Jesus without being forced into an intellectual corner.

I nod toward DeMoor's piece as a healthy, thoughtful, and not unrealistic approach.

I appreciate Bob as one who has both the calling and the courage to put a word 'out there so that others like me or others can engage them in community. However I share some of the very concerns cited by Mr. Smith in his article cited below, even though I am technically a power-hungry Boomer.

I lament there is such a shrinking edge of common theological accountability in our larger assemblies (Classis and Synod) that it has made both a form of subscription debate and a Belhar Confession addition... a joke. And even though the three forms of unity are non-canonical, centuries old, and have often created more division than unity they yet hold a measure of what our denomination needs to get her groove back.

What is it? The simple (sin-salvation-service)gospel message that has repeatedly brought renewal over those centuries.

In some respects, they are not ancient confessions. Every time institutional pride and post-millenial (we are bringing the Kingdom)leanings have moved us to the left, the truth of our sin has humbled us, the amazing nature of saving grace has stirred us and the stunning call to serve on mission with God has sent us.

Are there aspects of the atonement that we would nuance? Sure. Would we have added the idea of common grace into the catechism teaching on sin? I think so. But what exactly... can we not sign onto with a clear conscience?

I appreciate your article, also, Bob. I think there are some that are asking, perhaps quite reasonably, what are aspects of the form of subscription and the creeds that may cause office-bearers to hold their nose.

Not knowing these office-bearers and thus unable to furnish the specific answers myself, I'll admit I simply closed my eyes to sign the form and later tossed some salt over my left shoulder. My nose has never been all that bothersome for me. I would pose a few questions for this group, questions that have been formerly posed by more prominent academic members of this denomination.

Is it appropriate for the Christian Reformed Church to adopt offical stances on issues, whether metaphysical, theological, or exegetical, which continue to generate vigorous debate in evangelical philosophical and theological circles? Is this appropriate particularly when the only groundwork for determining the church's opinion is based on sixteenth century understandings of first century understandings of philosophy and theology? This, we would think to applaud, in the same world where the Middle Ages determined that most illness was caused by the imbalance of bodily humors and could be cured by a proper bleeding? Or do we feel, in general, that our knowledge of metaphysics continues to increase and at the same time we might be open to new ideas with no concrete solution?

Rather than blind subscription, is it perhaps more appropriate to trust a God who lives to guide our fellowhip, to reveal Himself toward intelligent discussion, even at the expense of less certainty about the things which had urgency to be declared in the winter of 1618 for political reasons. Some of us had ancestors that were actual casualties of that type of certainty.

We can choose a fear of the unknown, a potential scary slide down the metaphorical slippery slope of new ideas, or we can embrace the power of a God who fears none of that at all. Perhaps, we could recognize that Paul, Augustine, Calvin, Beza, Kuyper, and ourselves, that we all only see in part. Jehovah, Yahweh, and his son, Jesus, is our God, in whatever way that God himself brought that to be and with whatever foreknowledge and freedom that God chose to utilize. And to handcuff a denomination to the sixteenth century understanding of any of that or of Him, as a mandate, is the death of a twenty-first century church.

Berghoef's response to Jamie Smith's post is less than charitable. He seems to think that Smith uses fallacious appeals to emotion and guilt by association in order to dismiss more "liberal" approaches to church reform. But what does Smith actually argue? To my mind, the whole point of Smith's post is to call into question a revisionist attitude that actually stands in the way of authentic reform. Not to address the either/or that Smith calls to our attention is to fail to listen.

The difference between these two "attitudes", revisionist and reformational, might be thought of in terms of a contrast of their basic aims.

The basic aim of revisionism is to bring something in view in light of other insights gleaned from elsewhere. On this definition, to revise the confessions is to modify or transform them to "fit" with our contexts. The goal is to find a confession that works for us, in light of our "superior" (i.e. to that of our ancestors) insight into principles of historical change, the natural world, etc. Smith, it seems, wants us to understand that the revisionist attitude is rooted in what he has elsewhere called the "chronological snobbery of the Enlightenment" (hence his allusion to Bultmann) - the idea that we "moderns" are somehow more advanced and smarter than our forebears, that we have somehow progressed beyond their less sophisticated understanding of truth, including theological truth. The confessions, though "historically" relevant (how condescending!) no longer have binding authority over us as members of the church, since they are always open to radical questioning in light of "our" further insights.

Genuine or authentic reformation, on the other hand, has nothing to do with this revisionist attitude bequeathed to us by the Enlightenment. Instead of aiming to transform our core confessions in light of our changing understanding of the world, reformation aims to transform our understanding of the world (and our practices) in light of the wisdom that is "carried" in these confessions. Of course, the confessions themselves must be interpreted, and this means, as with any element of tradition, that we must find ways of "re-inhabiting" them such that we are able to receive the wisdom they speak to us. But as the church, to "confess" these documents is not to approach them with the sort of critical-ironic distancing required by people who are looking to "progress" beyond them. It is not enough even to give these documents places of "honour". If we believe that reform is continual (though not necessarily progressive) and that these documents embody the wisdom of the ages, then we will continue to allow them to speak to us today.

It seems to me that Smith wants to bring us to the point of recognizing an either/or at the heart of this debate. While liberal Protestants would have us believe that we can continue to confess an ancient wisdom while holding on to the notion that we have somehow progressed beyond the particular forms that have shaped our history - in a sort of Hegelian both/and of ancient worship and Enlightenment progress - Smith contends that the revisionist stance of progress in fact hinders our efforts at reform because it tempts us to think that we no longer need to remain in conversation with history, that we can "update" our confession to basically say the same things that ancient Christians said, only better. It is this dangerous assumption that needs to be bracketed - else we run the risk of hearing only the echos of our own voices like Gregorian chants in the halls of our worship.

Thanks, Bob - for coming up with a compelling and thoughtful approach on this issue. We would do well to listen.

I found Jamie Smith's response less useful, and his argument should be responded to.

His first point attempts automatic dismissal by associating with 'liberal Protestant' approaches. "That looks like liberal Protestantism and we don't like that. Therefore it's wrong." Not a great argument.

His second point 'nothing in DeMoor's argument can prevent the same stance and posture toward ancient catholic confessions like Nicea and Chalcedon' is based on fear. If we question X, then we might also open the door to questioning Y. Be very afraid.

In reality, we do this kind of re-thinking with the Bible all the time. We reinterpret in light of new understandings of language, archaeology, culture, and context. Why should theological decisions made centuries later be off limits? They were made in certain contexts under certain motivations (often more political than theological). Exploring them might actually prove helpful. Why should theology be the one and only field of human inquiry where we automatically defer to antiquity?

As for Smith's third point - focusing on boomers, that seems to be a red herring that distracts from the argument. Blaming some kind of over-generalized boomerism is less than helpful. Is anti-institutionalism really what is driving DeMoor's argument? I can hardly see that as the case. You might even say he is acting on behalf of the institution by hoping to prevent it from becoming an irrelevant ancient relic itself. Acting in ways similar to other mainline approaches should not be automatic grounds for dismissal.

There's actually a resurgence happening within many mainlines because disaffected *younger* evangelicals and others are finding a space where both ancient practices and progressive thinking are welcome. Where we live and act in light of history and tradition, but are not slavishly bound to it - as it appears Smith and many others would prefer in the CRC. To try to pin this on boomers leaves out the scores of younger folks (Driscollites aside) who want to follow Jesus without being forced into an intellectual corner.

I nod toward DeMoor's piece as a healthy, thoughtful, and not unrealistic approach.

Why would the CRC want to a become bland wishy-washy denomination? The point of the Forms of Subscription is that they point us towards the Bible, and that we speak our Christian faith with a distinctly Reformed accent. It is not perfect, but it at least has some salt to season the world with.

Mr De Moor, your editorial is weak sauce in a world crying out for flavoring. The Forms of Subscription provide a wonderful means of developing "one mind" so that we can be firm on our core beliefs while flexible on our edges. Let us make no mistake, the cost of unity is a high price. Cheap unity is as worthless as cheap grace.
Dave

I have a revolutionary idea! Instead of gutting the Form of Subscription, as the Banner editor Bob DeMoor is suggesting, why don't we go about gutting the allocation of Ministry Share money that the Banner needs to survive?

It seems, in terms of the need for adaptation in the face of our current cultural and church realities (which this editor is so sensitively attuned to), the Banner editor has demonstrated that this publication's reliance upon Ministry Shares is a practice whose time has come and hopefully will soon go. Why are we supporting with our tithes and offerings a publication whose editor so freely seeks to bring about the deconstruction of confessionally Reformed churches, churches that are supporting the Banner financially?

Please wake me up with this alternative reality dreamworld has run its course.

My perspective in reading this article may be a little different than most. While I was baptized and made public profession of faith in a Christian Reformed congregation, my family will soon be returning to the CRC after having been in a mainline denomination for the past six years. There are a variety of reasons for this, but one of them is that being away has given me a much deeper appreciation of our tradition’s robust emphasis on catechesis and the richness of our Reformed theological tradition. I want my children to receive that same foundation that I did, and that is most likely to happen within a community of believers whose leaders and teachers have committed to uphold a set of core beliefs.

We have a set of documents—the creeds and the historic confessions—that beautifully and sufficiently articulate these beliefs. The confessions were penned long ago; the creeds even longer. They have withstood the test of time; they have not needed major revisions and “upgrades.” Why the apparent compulsion, then, to both set them aside as our standard and to augment them with other statements addressing contemporary issues? Do we really value our heritage that little?

I really, really hope that the CRC does not follow the recommendations of this editorial. Continual “updating” of a contemporary denominational statement of belief is not the way to relevance; it is the way to set ourselves adrift. Let’s not go there. Let us instead recognize the creeds and confessions as the gifts of God that they are, unapologetically embracing (and, yes, subscribing to) them as our standards of belief and practice. Our witness in the world will be the most effective if we go into it with clarity about our own spiritual and confessional identity.

X