In the September 1 issue there appeared a contribution on this subject from Rev. J. Kortering, and we promised a reply in this issue. We now fulfill that promise.
In the first place, colleague Kortering seems to overlook the fact that in my earlier writing on this subject, I offered proof for my position, namely, the Formula of Subscription. He and I and every officebearer in the Protestant Reformed Churches have signed our names to this statement: “We . . . do hereby sincerely and in good conscience before the Lord, declare by this, our subscription, that we heartily believe and are persuaded that all the articles and points of doctrine, contained in the Confession and Catechism of the Reformed Churches, together with the explanation of some points of the aforesaid doctrine, made by the National Synod of Dordrecht, 1618-’19, do fully agree with the Word of God.” (italics added) Rev. Kortering makes no mention of this, but to me this is crucial. Why? Because it means that the truths expressed by the confessions ARE the truth of the Word of God. We have all vowed this.
In the second place, this means that the confessions are by no means on the same line with commentaries and Reformed writers. I mention this because Rev. Kortering seems to suggest this when he mentions them in one breath, although I cannot believe that colleague Kortering himself thinks this. He and I and every officebearer are bound—voluntarily bound, but nevertheless bound—by what the confessions teach. We are not bound by what commentaries or Reformed writers teach. I am not bound, by what Calvin or Keil or Meyer or Hoeksema or Ophoff teach. I am indeed bound—by my own subscription—to what the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Canons of Dordrecht teach. Why? Because I have the deep conviction that they have the authority of the Word of God to back them up. Hence, there is but one exception: if I become convinced that there is conflict between the confessions and Scripture, I have the right and the duty to file a gravamen and try to convince the churches that the confessions are wrong, meanwhile keeping silence in my public and private teaching.
In the third place, this means the following with regard to any subject on which our confessions speak, extra-confessional matters being excluded. It means that in my dogmatical studies, my exegetical studies, synodical study committee work—whatever it may be—I never start out from scratch. I never start out with zero. On the contrary, I start out with a bias, a commitment, a prepossession. To begin with a blank slate is impossible anyway from a psychological and spiritual point of view, whether we like it or not. Even in his own article Rev. Kortering is not without a bias; and it is striking to me that his own appeal is not to Scripture, but to Article 7 of the Belgic Confession.
Now let us make a practical application of this, in order to illustrate all this. Let us say that I am going to exegete and preach on I John 2:2, which teaches that Christ is “the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.” Do I start from scratch and say to myself, “I will have an open mind and investigate whether this text teaches particular atonement or universal atonement?” For me that is both impossible and dishonest. Why? I have vowed that the teaching of the Canons fully agrees with Scripture; and those. Canons (II, A, 8) teach particular atonement. That, therefore, is the teaching of Scripture as a whole, including I John 2:2. In my exegesis, I approach I John 2:2 with that bias, or prepossession, as well, of course, as with the bias that I John 2:2 cannot possibly contradict the rest of Scripture. But what if, in the course of my studies, I ultimately cannot harmonizeI John 2:2 with the doctrine of limited atonement? Then the course of gravamen is open to me; but meanwhile I remain bound by my vow until the matter is resolved, my conscience being freed by the very fact of my filing that gravamen.
Finally, I call attention to the fact that H. Hoeksema takes this position repeatedly in his Reformed Dogmatics. On pp. 3 and 4 he writes: “A dogmatician is no ‘open Bible’ student; nor is he an undenominationalist. He does not approach the Bible for the first time and as an individual, but as a member: a) of the church of the past; and, b) of a particular church in the present. It follows, then, that in applying himself to this science the dogmatician has respect unto: a) the generally accepted dogmata of the church catholic; and, b) the specific dogmata of his own denomination. By these the dogmatician is freely bound. He is bound by them because of his membership in his own particular church. And he isfreely bound because in the doctrine of that church he finds the purest expression of his own faith.” Cf. also pages 6 and 7 and pages 14 and 15.
I must dissent, therefore, when colleague Kortering speaks of over-reacting.