In this column we’ve reflected all year long on the confessions held by the Christian Reformed Church. This was timely because the CRC must soon decide on a new Form of Subscription—the document signed by officebearers in every congregation to indicate their agreement with the teachings of our creeds and confessions. At issue: how tightly should we bind our leaders to these creeds? Should we insist on verbatim compliance, or should we drop the “sign on” procedure entirely?
That’s a tough question because two key roles of the confessions are in constant tension: (1) their foundational status as the documents that gave birth to our faith community and (2) their ongoing role as “arbiter” of our continued and shared orthodoxy.
That first function—of serving as our constitutional documents—compels us to keep them as is. The creeds and confessions act as historical way markers, clearly showing us the direction this branch of Christ’s church took at a critical juncture. The latter function—serving as a test of fidelity to Reformed doctrine—requires an extensive revision of those historical documents and of the collection as a whole. Why? For a number of reasons:
- We no longer hold to a number of things clearly stated and taught in them—things we now consider embarrassing and unbiblical (see footnotes to Belgic Confession Article 36 and Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 80).
- While we may still uphold the teachings of the confessions, their formulation and argumentation no longer serve our purposes well today: language, modes of thought, context, and even Bible translations and interpretations have changed significantly.
- Many crucial issues demanding our confessional response aren’t even mentioned in the confessions: secularism, racism, the modern welfare state, and the global economy.
The more we keep the confessions the same, the better they root us historically. But the more we change or add to them, the better they serve as doctrinal standards for this day and age. It’s this tension that I keep picking up on in conversations about the topic. Might we do two things to resolve this?
First, we could take a leaf out of the Reformed Church in America’s playbook. That denomination shares our creeds and confessions but doesn’t favor changing or updating them; it allows them to play only that first role of grounding the church’s teachings in history without requiring strict adherence.
Second, we could elevate Our World Belongs to God: A Contemporary Testimony (already long since adopted by the CRC) to a higher level by making it the document that the new form of Subscription asks CRC officebearers to sign on to. That Testimony addresses very well the concerns raised above with respect to the historical creeds. And as a Contemporary Testimony it’s regularly revised and updated, so it will stay in step with the world in which we find ourselves as a church.
Some worry that agreeing to a dynamic testimony rather than static, historically-fixed documents will lead to doctrinal chaos. I don’t. The Scriptures remain our only rule for faith and life. The Holy Spirit within our churches continues to lead us to bring to expression the living faith that is rooted in our hearts. And we would still be guided by our historic confessions as we keep redrafting our Contemporary Testimony.
This two-step approach would make it unnecessary to adopt the Belhar Confession or any other—we could place appropriate language in the Testimony to chime in with such confessions, but within our own specific context.
A modest proposal—what do you think? We’d love to hear your thoughts on it.
- What place do you think the confessions should have in our church life? Should they serve as our "constitution"? Should they serve as "the arbiter of our continued and shared orthodoxy"? Both? Explain.
- Do you believe CRC officebearers should be required to sign on to our creeds and confessions at all? Why or why not?
- Should the Canons of Dort, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Belgic Confession be given a thorough overhaul to bring them into our millennium? What improvements would you suggest if we did so?
- What do you think of De Moor's modest proposal to require officebearers to sign on to our Contemporary Testimony instead of the historical Reformed Creeds? What are the plusses? What are the dangers?
- Since "Our World Belongs to God" already deals with contemporary themes such as racism, justice, and poverty, do we still need to adopt the Belhar Confession as well? Give reasons for your answer.