Previous article in this series: March 15, 2006, p. 268.
The Declaration of Principles sets forth the Protestant Reformed Churches’ understanding of and convictions concerning what the Reformed creeds and church order teach about grace, the preaching, the covenant, and church government. It is not intended to be a complete development of any of these, but only gives some of the principles and important elements of each.
The Declaration repudiates the teaching that God has a common grace to all men. In that connection it rejects the view that the preaching of the gospel is a gracious offer of salvation to all men, or a conditional offer to all who are baptized. However, the Declaration insists that the preaching comes to all, and God seriously commands all who hear to repentance and faith, and that to all who come and believe God promises life and peace.
Much of the Declaration expounds doctrines connected with the covenant. It does not intend to set forth a complete doctrine of the covenant. It does, however, identify what conceptions of the covenant are excluded by the confessions and what the confessions demand. Briefly, the confessions rule out the notion that the promise of the covenant is conditional and for all who are baptized. Also, there is no room in the confessions for the teaching that faith is a prerequisite or condition unto salvation.
On the other hand, the Declaration demonstrates that, according to the confessions, all the covenant blessings are for the elect alone. Additionally, God’s promise of salvation is only for the elect, and He always fulfills His promise.
Finally, the Declaration rejects hierarchy in the church by insisting on the autonomy of the local congregation.
The question remains as to what is the proper place and function of the Declaration of Principles.
The Declaration of Principles is binding on the Protestant Reformed Churches, because it was adopted by an official decision of the synod of the PRC. Every decision of synod is to be “considered settled and binding, unless it be proved to conflict with the Word of God or with the articles of the Church Order” (Art. 31, Church Order). It is as binding as synod’s decision on baptism in the mission field, or synod’s adopting modifications to the Church Order. This is the Reformed order.
It is not binding as a fourth creed, however. That reproach is continually heaped upon the Declaration in an effort to “poison the well.” It immediately questions the validity of the document. It places the PRC in total isolation (the PRC are outside the circle of those who hold only to the Three Forms of Unity! They are a cult, having their own creed.) It turns the discussion away from the content, and presents the document in the most unfavorable light. Over the years, few indeed have been willing to engage in a serious discussion of the Declaration’s content.
Probably nothing will convince these critics that the Declaration is not a fourth creed in the PRC, but for those willing to consider the evidence, the following demonstrates it. First, the Declaration neither defines nor gives a complete description of the doctrines it treats. As such, those elements are essential in a creed. The Declaration delineates what the confessions rule out with regard to the covenant of grace, but does not set forth a specific doctrine of the covenant.
Secondly, it consists almost entirely of quotations from existing confessions and liturgical forms. Such would be a strange creed indeed—over four-fifths of it quotations from existing creeds.
That the Declaration is not a creed is evident from its preamble, which defines its use: “…to be used only by the Mission Committee and the missionaries for the organization of prospective churches….” A creed would never be so limited by a synod.
Fourthly, officebearers in the Protestant Reformed Churches are not required to sign the Declaration. They sign the Three Forms of Unity. To be sure, their signature indicates agreement with the doctrines of the creeds as taught in the PRC, and the Declaration sets that forth. Nonetheless, they sign only the Reformed confessions.
Finally, the Declaration is binding, as are all synodical decisions, but not in the same way that a creed is binding. This is evident from the fact that a gravamen is needed to change a creed; only an overture is needed to change the Declaration.
We maintain that adopting the Declaration of Principles is a legitimate, proper way for a Reformed church to deal with controversy over doctrines that are treated in the confessions. For example, if a question arises in a Reformed denomination about whether the confessions allow for theistic evolution, these churches are required to decide something. Their synod cannot merely quote the articles of the confessions that touch on creation, and say nothing more. That does not settle the argument, because the creeds do not explicitly address the teaching of evolution. The faithful Reformed church would be required to demonstrate from the confessions that evolution is not allowed. That takes a decision that interprets the confessions.
Similarly, when the controversy arose in the PRC about whether or not the confessions allow for a conditional covenant, the churches studied it, and decided that the confessions did not. That is what the Declaration demonstrates.
The proper use of the Declaration is, first and foremost, in mission work. That is the origin of the Declaration, and that is the synodically adopted use. By clear implication, both foreign and domestic mission committees must use the Declaration.
It could be argued that the Declaration does not apply well to missions in the twenty-first century, since it was written for use among the Dutch immigrants from the GKNV (Reformed Churches in the Netherlands, Liberated) in the 1950s. These people were raised in Reformed homes and churches, and thus they both knew Reformed theology and understood what the Declaration taught. But those among whom we work today rarely have a Reformed background. To lead them to the point where they can understand the Declaration and express agreement with it will take a very long time. Is it necessary for a mission group to be that theologically advanced before organization into a church?
My answer is, emphatically, yes. The goal of every Reformed missionary’s labor is the establishment of a Reformed church. If the church is Reformed, it will adopt the Reformed creeds. Before the church adopts these creeds, the members must understand them. Among other things, these members must understand that the Reformed creeds will not allow the teaching that God has grace upon the reprobate. It must be clear that the confessions reject the teaching of a well-meant gospel offer, and that they disallow the notion that the covenant is conditional. And one thing more. These Reformed confessions lay down a few principles of Reformed church government, the full expression of which is set forth in the Church Order of Dordt.
What is that, but to bring the mission group to the point where they can say—we agree that the Declaration of Principles accurately sets forth the teaching of the Reformed creeds?
The alternative for a Protestant Reformed missionary is unthinkable. It is to teach the Three Forms, but to maintain that since these confessions do not explicitly reject common grace, the well-meant offer, and the conditional covenant, these issues may be faced later as they arise in the life of the newly organized church. Some have argued that simply because these issues are so intimately connected with the history of the Protestant Reformed Churches, we ought not force mission churches to face these issues. These issues are a part of our history, and of Dutch Reformed theology, which does not apply to all situations, especially to foreign fields.
Such an approach is wrong on all counts. The Declaration demonstrates that these three errors are not allowed in the boundaries of what is confessionally Reformed.
In addition, these issues are not merely tied to the history of the PRC or to Dutch theology. Rather, these are issues of sovereign grace. Consider that common grace denies the total depravity of man. That is Pelagianism, the teaching of a British monk condemned by Augustine and the church almost sixteen hundred years ago. The teaching of a well-meant offer was the teaching of Arminius, but also of many in the Romish church before him, including Bishop Hincmar of Mainz in the ninth century over against Gottschalk, a martyr for the sake of the truth of sovereign, particular grace. The doctrine of a conditional covenant was taught by scholastics in the Middle Ages, as well as by the Frenchman Moyse Amyraud in the seventeenth century.
To organize a fledgling Reformed church without these issues clearly understood and settled is to leave a flock exposed to wolves. The issues will be raised. False teachers will bring in their damnable heresies. And if the starting point is that these are not confessional matters, the Reformed believer has lost a most significant help for understanding and defending the truth of sovereign grace. Without this solid foundation, the group will be split into factions or completely taken over by false doctrine. Much grief and division will be avoided if they adopt the explicit teaching of the Declaration of Principles early on.
The Declaration of Principles is a valuable aid to the Protestant Reformed missionary and the mission committees. It focuses attention on key doctrines that are potential trouble spots, areas where heresy will certainly be encountered today. If I were a missionary, I would insist that the Declaration of Principles be studied and adopted by the group before organization. If any trouble later arose over these issues, the record would indicate that the people were taught the truth about grace, preaching, and the covenant. Let the mission committees by all means use the document that synod adopted for use “by the Mission Committee and the missionaries” (Preamble).
Although its preamble limits the official use of the Declaration of Principles to mission work, this does not preclude other good applications. Surely there is profit in instruction on the Declaration in catechism—if not on the whole document systematically, then at least let the minister bring in the Declaration at key points in his instruction on the Three Forms of Unity. By this, the instruction on the confessions will indicate that the confessions themselves reject the errors treated in the Declaration. Surely there is a place in the organic life of the church to study the Declaration of Principles—in societies, discussion groups, in families, and in personal study.
We must point out one other obvious good and proper use of the Declaration, namely in the work of the Committee for Contact with other Churches.
Even a quick perusal of the Declaration indicates that it would be very useful to a church or denomination that was interested in getting to know the Protestant Reformed Churches. Samuel Miller, writing on the value of creeds, maintains that “the adoption and publication of a creed is a tribute to truth and candor, which every Christian church owes to the other churches, and to the world around her” (Doctrinal Integrity, p. 14). Though the Declaration is not a creed, it is a “tribute to truth and candor.” The fact is, there are scores of churches that go by the name “Reformed.” Virtually every one has adopted the same creeds—the Three Forms of Unity. What makes the Canadian Reformed different from the Netherlands Reformed, and the United Reformed from the Free Reformed, and the Christian Reformed from the Reformed Church US? There must be significant doctrinal differences that set them apart, else they ought not be separate.
The question ought to be faced by each one, Why are we a separate denomination from all the other denominations that call themselves Reformed? What makes us different? If it is simply a matter of emphasis or history, those are poor excuses for dividing the Reformed church world in North America.
The PRC has a ready answer to that question. It is found in the Declaration of Principles. We hold this truth dear. We stand on the foundation of the infallible Word of God and the Three Forms. If anyone is interested in knowing the PRC, here are the doctrines to which we have bound ourselves. We consider these doctrines to be biblical and founded on the Reformed creeds.
That is candor.
For the Declaration of Principles to be of much practical value, the Protestant Reformed Churches must use it, and even promote it, and that without apology. In the providence and grace of God, the Declaration of Principles preserved in her midst the truth of the particular grace of God and the unconditional covenant. Today, the twin-errors of common grace and the conditional covenant are destroying conservative Reformed and Presbyterian churches. The PRC, out of a love for the truth and a love for the church of Jesus Christ, must make every effort to warn the churches and point to the fact that these errors contradict the Reformed confessions.
To continue condemning the Declaration for how it was adopted, or as being “extra-confessional binding”—that helps no one, and, I fear, only betrays an unwillingness to discuss the issues. If others can demonstrate that the Declaration wrongly explains the creeds, let them point out to the PRC her errors, for the love of the truth and the church of Christ. That is to say, let them demonstrate that the convictions expressed in the Declaration of Principles are not biblical, and are not based on the Reformed confessions. When all the chaff of criticism is swept away, that is all that matters to a Reformed believer, namely, is this the truth of God’s Word, and is it confessional.