Two years ago at the thirty-seventh meeting of the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council (NAPARC) W. Robert Godfrey spoke about his “Reformed Dream” of a super-synod of Reformed denominations as an expression of Reformed unity in the spirit of Jesus’ prayer in John 17.1
The dream is Godfrey’s. It is not Reformed.2
At the thirty-eighth meeting of NAPARC, held November 13, 2012, Rev. Daniel Hyde, of the United Reformed Church (URC), spoke on “From Reformed Dream to Reformed Reality: The Problem and Possibility of Reformed Church Unity.” He developed Godfrey’s dream and significantly advanced his ideas.3 Rev. Hyde candidly stated the problem as he sees it, proposed the way forward, and shed light on some fundamental issues that he apparently is willing to sacrifice in order to achieve his dream of unity.
The problem, he says, is that “Reformed churches are hopelessly divided in the spirit of Corinth.” “Let me press this deep into your hearts by saying something that I trust shocks you. We are so divided that we cannot have a Synod of Dort or a Westminster Assembly today.” The reason is that “we are too carnal and insufficiently spiritual for such an assembly.” He speaks of our “sins of arrogance, pride, and stubbornness.”
The carnal, unspiritual activities that earn his rebuke include “holding up ‘distinctives’ as virtually inerrant,” “revel[ing] in famous dates in our respective histories,” “hold[ing] up our church polity issues as being passed down from the Jerusalem Council,” and “infighting over preaching.” He pejoratively points out that Reformed men “bicker” over “creation days, the historicity of Adam, the relationship between justification and sanctification. . . .” He exhorts the churches to be more like Dordt, where differences existed
on . . . how to express the extent and intent of Christ’s satisfaction . . . . Some said Christ died for the elect—period…. Others said…Christ’s intent was not to save the whole world, however his death has an infinite and intrinsic value sufficient in extent to save the whole world. And there were even a few who affirmed an even broader sufficiency, saying that Christ died efficiently with intent to save the elect, but that he also died sufficiently for the whole world, with the intention of establishing a conditional covenant of grace such that everyone who believes will be saved.
At the same time he savages as “our own [Reformed] version of ex opera operato” the idea that “as long as we have the confessions, as long as we preach orthodoxy, as long as we have the means of grace, as long as we stick to the old forms—that somehow our bare external conservativism . . . makes us a true church.” Ex opera operato is the Roman Catholic teaching that the sacraments give grace regardless of the activity or faith of the recipient.
Over against this, he urges his listeners to pray for “the Spirit to bring revival,” for “the Spirit to cause us to devour the Word as in the days of our forefathers.” He calls for “reformation,” a work of the Spirit that we can see “in the church in the confession of the truth” and the evidence of which is found “in our confessional documents.” He desires “reconciliation,” by which the Spirit will lead us “to acknowledge our already existing unity on the basis of our publicly confessed faith.”
He points his audience to the Trinity as the pattern of our unity: “That the one true God is triune helps us to see that just as there are distinctions between the Persons, in the same way we are one, although with real distinctions that do not obliterate the union.”
This must have been an incredibly grating speech—intolerable—for any man with a Reformed bone in his body sitting at NAPARC. No Reformed man could agree with this proposal for unity, because it involves sacrificing confessional doctrines on the altar of pseudo-Reformed ecumenicity.
In the pursuit of this unity, Rev. Hyde pays lip service to the confessions as the means of unity. The issues about which he says churches “bicker” are not simply “distinctives,” but confessional matters. The days of creation are confessional for every Presbyterian, because the Westminster states unequivocally that God created “in the space of six days.”4
The “historicity of Adam” is Hyde’s allusion to the row in Reformed churches that allows ministers to deny the infallible history of creation in Genesis 1–3, and instead to argue about the historicity of Adam. By that phrase they do not mean the creation account of man recorded in Genesis, but simply that a man named Adam existed at one time or another, but came from hominoid ancestors, who came from monkeys, which came from a slime pit. The argument about the “historicity of Adam” is simply the latest line drawn in the doctrinal sand by ineffectual defenders of creation in churches that long ago sold out the historicity of Genesis 1–3.
The first issue is not the historicity of Adam, but whether Adam was created from the dust on the sixth day, as God’s Word says and as the confessions maintain. “We believe that God created man out of the dust of the earth.”5
Both issues of the days of Genesis and the historicity of Adam stem from the root of distrust—unbelief— of the word of God in Genesis, and thus from a denial of the infallibility and inspiration of Scripture, writings that the confessions call “holy and divine Scriptures,” as free from error and from man’s criticism as God Himself.6
Rev. Hyde’s reference to the “relationship between justification and sanctification” is curious, because that relationship has been settled in Reformed churches for nearly 500 years. These are his subtle code words for the Federal Vision heresy. Reformed churches are treating the Federal Vision as though it were almost exclusively a heresy about justification—a debate, mostly friendly, about the relationship between justification and sanctification. Almost to a man, they ignore the root of the Federal Vision in the heretical conditional covenant doctrine of universal covenant grace to every baptized child. This issue touches the fundamental Reformed doctrines of grace and the covenant. Fighting against it is fighting for the very life of a church. Hardly could it be construed as bickering.
NAPARC has been dead silent on the Federal Vision and tolerates in its membership denominations that exonerate and shelter Federal Vision teachers such as PCA minister Rev. Craig Higgins, who sat at NAPARC as a delegate. John M. Otis of the RPCUS wrote an excellent piece on Higgins, in which Otis demonstrated that Higgins’ teachings align perfectly with the Federal Vision, and in which Otis called for an investigation of his views.7
In the same vein, Hyde’s reference to Dordt as exemplary in tolerating differences is absurd because the extent of Christ’s atonement is not a minor point of doctrine. It is also ridiculous to suppose that the Canons of Dordt can be read as supporting three incompatible positions on the extent of Christ’s atonement, when they teach, “Christ effectively redeem[ed] . . . all those, and those only, who were from eternity chosen to salvation.”8 Dordt convened to deal with such intolerable differences in the churches. By its formula of subscription Dordt bound Reformed officebearers not to tolerate such differences, but to uphold the creeds and so doing to promote unity. How to express the “extent and intent” of Christ’s satisfaction is not an open question for a Reformed man.
While upbraiding his audience for bickering about substantive issues, Rev. Hyde did not chastise his audience for bickering over women in office. This issue was the cause of his own denomination’s tumultuous separation from the CRC—one of the largest splits in the Reformed churches in recent memory—and the ground for NAPARC’s expulsion of the CRC in 1997.
The question for Rev. Hyde is this: Is women in office worth bickering about and important enough to justify the separate existence of the URC as a denomination that differs not one whit in principle doctrine from her estranged mother? If it is not, those churches should repent, confess the sin of schism, and return to the CRC, and NAPARC should issue an apology to the CRC and invite her back.
The issues that Rev. Hyde censures Reformed churches for bickering over—creation, salvation by grace, and the covenant—are far more fundamental than the issue of women in office. If it came down to hard choices, I would rather have a woman teach me the truth about the creation days, Adam, justification and sanctification, grace, and the covenant, than to have a dishonest minister teach me that the days in Genesis 1 mean long periods of millions of years, that justification comes after sanctification on the basis of works, or that the covenant is conditioned on my faith. I would take Deborah over some false prophet.
Rev. Hyde’s ex opera operato statement about the preaching and the sacraments is astounding for a man who calls himself Reformed. True, he says we need preaching and the sacraments along with our reliance on the Holy Spirit, but the question is where can a Reformed believer find a true church where Christ and His Spirit are operating?
The Belgic Confession tells him. “If the pure doctrine of the gospel is preached therein; if she maintains the pure administration of the sacraments as instituted by Christ; if church discipline is exercised in punishing sin . . . . Hereby the true Church may be certainly known.”9 Rev. Hyde calls them “our bare external con servativism.” The confession calls them the “marks of the true church.” In such a church the Spirit brings revival, reformation, and reconciliation. This is also how the Spirit brings revival, reformation, and reconciliation. There never will be any reformation without sound doctrine, pure preaching, properly administered sacraments, and discipline.
Rev. Hyde’s statement about Dordt and Westminster intended to shock his audience is, therefore, not shocking at all. This is not because of division, but because of lip service to, or open contempt for, Dordt and Westminster that have created the division. The censurable arrogance is that of men who cast aside Dordt and Westminster, of churches that stubbornly refuse to discipline the heretics who proudly introduce novelties and false doctrine, and of the stubborn refusal of both to repent.
Rev. Hyde’s dream is the old nightmare of unity at the expense of the truth. His proposed unity at the expense of the truth is not Christ’s. Christ never prayed for this kind of unity. He does not work for this kind of unity. He is opposed to it and opposes, in the spirit of I Kings 22:17–28, those who promote it.
This unity is not based on the Trinity either, as Rev. Hyde suggests. He co-opts the Trinity to support a unity with real, significant, and fundamental doctrinal differences, as though the Father, Son, and Spirit hold different opinions on the extent of Christ’s atonement, the days of Genesis, Adam’s historicity, and the relationship between justification and sanctification, but peacefully coexist together.
Is NAPARC serious about the confessions that are the stated basis of its unity, or have they become window dressing for unity at the expense of the creeds? Did NAPARC issue a rebuke to Rev. Hyde for his speech? Did anyone at NAPARC speak up and say what a Reformed church thinks about these issues and about a Reformed minister who speaks this way about them?
The speech is proof that if one is enamored of this kind of unity—not Christ’s, Scripture’s, and the creed’s—he simply will not allow the truth to stand in the way of attaining it.
1 Godfrey’s original article “A Reformed Dream” can be found at http://www.modernreformation.org/default.php?page=articledisplay&var1=ArtRead&var2=123&var3=authorbi.
2 See my analysis of Godfrey’s dream in SB 88 (April 1 and 15, 2012): 301–04; 322–24.
3 A written version of Hyde’s speech can be found at http://theaquilareport.com/from-reformed-dream-to-reformed-reality-the-problem-and-possibility-of-reformed-church-unity/. All quotations are from this version.
4 Westminster Confession of Faith 4, in Philip Schaff, ed., The Creeds of Christendom (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998), 3:611.
5 Belgic Confession 14, in ibid, 3:398.
6 Belgic Confession 3, in ibid, 3:385.
7 See http://theaquilareport.com/discerning-roman-catholic-tendencies-among-professing-reformed-churches/.
8 Canons of Dordt 2.8, in Creeds, 3:587.
9 Belgic Confession 29, in Creeds, 3:419–20.