As I Was Saying

Synod 2017: Reflections from a Theological Geologist

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If I had to write a newspaper headline for Synod 2017 it would read “Tectonic fault lines in culture tear at Western Civilization. The Christian Reformed Church rather unselfconsciously goes along for the ride.” 

I made a “Synod 2017 Postgame Show” for Youtube to comment a bit on this. Here are some abbreviated thoughts.

As I watched synod on the Livestream I tried to listen like a theological geologist. Where are the plate boundaries beneath the surface of the hot spots where molten lava boils the water as it does at Yellowstone or causes eruptions like Mount Saint Helens?

I think there are at least four dominant tectonic plates moving beneath the CRC today. Many of us have multiple plates or voices within our own heads. These factions represent priorities or first dictionary definitions under “church” that go on to shape our understanding of the mission of the CRC.

  • Confessionalist: The CRC is to present to the world a pure, distinct, Reformed witness.
  • Progressivist: The CRC is to witness to justice and the shalom of God's kingdom in every square inch and beyond.
  • Evangelical: The CRC is to bring people to a saving faith in Jesus Christ for this world and the next.
  • Sacramentalist: The CRC is to embody Christ in the sacraments and itself for the world.

These assumptions of purpose are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but if they are prioritized in different ways, conflict will be understandable.

If you go back and watch the debate on the Do Justice blog, notice how many times its defenders will point out that it’s a blog. Progressives see the blog as an open, public space where various voices are welcome regardless of their confessional fidelity. They love the image of the church hosting such things. They would like to convince people to adopt particular practices or advocate for political change. This is how they see church serving the world. 

I doubt the confessionalists don’t understand what a blog is. Many of them are young and quite Internet savvy. The Internet has fueled the Young, Restless, and Reformed movement, and confessionalists churches around North America are growing nicely.

The progressives might say, “You’re not understanding what a blog is for,” and the confessionalists might say, “You’re not understanding what the church is for.”

At this point the evangelicals may chime in, “What really matters is that we present a clear appeal that each person give their life to Christ because this world will pass away, and the consequences of that decision is for eternity.”

A sacramentalist will probably quietly watch the debate and finally say, “I hope we get around to finally talking about liturgy and practice.” Sacramentalists will cross hotspots in surprising ways.

Most of us will recognize that each of the factions brings something valuable to the table.
No CRC confessionalist I know will deny the importance of Word and deed.

CRC evangelicals, like the apostle Paul, are always excited about helping the poor because Jesus did it.

Most CRC progressives I know won’t deny the importance of a personal relationship with Christ. And all factions are, in fact, recognizing the sacramentalist’s concern about embodying Christ in this fallen world.

So how can we move forward?

A theological geologist examining the rubble around the eruptions could determine that all four positions flow honestly from our tradition. They have a single source that, if worked a bit, might, with some theological fine-tuning, produce some good things.

The CRC’s long-term challenge is to not unselfconsciously ride along with the larger forces tearing the West apart. James Schaap’s observation at the 150th CRC anniversary is proven right again and again. Our fights are no longer our own, and we’re going to have to mine the resources we’ve been given to offer something distinctly Reformed (shout out to confessionalists) and helpful to partners and allies outside our boundaries (shout out to progressives). This means that we need to not only sit down and talk to one another but do our own church history homework (shout out to sacramentalists) to make Jesus’ name great among our neighbors (shout out to evangelicals).

Real geologists tell me that volcanism is a vital part of the planetary ecosystem that allows life on our glorious planet in the middle of hostile space. I suspect CRC volcanism is too.

About the Author

Paul will be one of our regular writers for “As I Was Saying.” He is pastor of the Living Stones CRC in Sacramento, Calif. He regularly blogs at

See comments (2)


thanks Paul, the 4 CRC "tectonic plates" remind me of when values/ideals conflict in gov't and which one takes priority... ie  national security vs individual privacy...  we all agree with all of 4 values to some extent, we just prioritize them differently...  hope that makes sense...

Thank you for this Paul. I think you've articulated the four emphases very well.