Robert D. Decker is professor of New Testament and Practical Theology in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
Summer is the time when most of the General Synods and Assemblies of various Reformed and Presbyterian denominations meet. In this issue and the next we shall report on some of the more significant decisions of these gatherings.
The Christian Reformed Church in North America: In response to conflict and tension between its Board of Foreign Missions and World Relief Committee over the past several years the CRC instituted a new agency to coordinate the work of these two. Both Foreign Missions and World Relief are now under the control of the board of World Ministries. Appointed director of this Board was Dr. Roger S. Greenway, professor of missiology at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.
The CRC synod again was faced with the “women in office” issue. The synod rejected the overture of Classis Zeeland to reverse the 1984 synodical decision which opened the office of deacon to women. By an overwhelming majority (130-24) the synod voted to appoint a Grand Rapids pastor, the Rev. Wilbert M. Van Dyk (Plymouth Heights CRC), to the post of academic dean of Calvin Theological Seminary. Van Dyk will also teach Homiletics (the art of preaching) part-time. When interviewed by the Synod Van Dyk said he finds two different biblical messages about the role of women in the church. “Scripture ‘clearly says that women ought to keep silent.’ But Scripture just as clearly directs all God’s people to use the gifts they are given, he maintained. Because the whole of Scripture shows a movement toward ‘inclusiveness, toward openness—beyond the Jews to the Gentiles, beyond the master to the slave, beyond men to the women,’ said Van Dyk, he personally has decided that it is not a sin ‘for a woman lo preach or exhort.’ But Van Dyk said he only makes this judgment privately; in his teaching and preaching, he accepts the Christian Reformed Church’s stand. ‘My commitment is to the church—you simply don’t run with your own notions.'” (The Banner, June 30, 1986)
In the light of the synod’s rejection of the Zeeland overture and its appointment of Van Dyk there seems little doubt as to the final outcome of the “women in office” issue in the CRC.
The same issue of The Banner also reports that, “A joint committee of six persons from the Reformed Church in America (RCA) and five persons from the Christian Reformed Church is discussing the relationship between the two denominations. In 1989 the synods of both churches intend to meet concurrently on the campus of Calvin College and Seminary.
“One consistory wanted the CRC-RCA committee to pay special attention to the RCA’s attitude toward Christian schooling and membership in ecumenical organizations. But our (CRC’s, R.D.) Interchurch Relations Committee had already identified 18 areas of potential difficulty in our relationship to the RCA. Synod did not wish to interfere by giving special instruction on these two topics. It also withdrew a mandate given by Synod 1985 to discuss ‘the specific theological and Christian practice issues which pose a barrier to us’ because it was unclear and redundant. Synod 1985 had ordered the discussion in the context of cooperation between the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee and RCA World Missions.”
The General Synod of the RCA took “specific steps toward the CRC, steps which the Rev. David Cooper of Wynantskill, New York, described as ‘progress toward possible merger.’ Cooper chaired the synod’s advisory committee on Christian Unity.
“At the advisory committee’s recommendation, the synod voted the permanent Commission on Christian Unity to continue study of the relationship between the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) and the RCA, and to make a progress report to the 1987 General Synod on the following issues that may need to be resolved:
2. Lodge membership
3. Requirement for Sunday evening worship
4. Ecumenical relationships
5. Women in the office of minister, elder, and deacon
6. Clarification on intercommunion
7. Barriers to increased cooperative work
“As study on these items proceeds by the Commission on Christian Unity, other cooperative efforts between the two denominations will continue.” (The Church Herald, July 5, 1986)
“Issues” 1 through 5 above are the significant ones. RCA people in general do not support the Christian schools. The RCA tolerates lodge members; many RCA. congregations do not have Sunday evening worship; the RCA is a member of both the World and National Councils of Churches; and the RCA has opened the offices of minister, elder, and deacon to women. It seems highly unlikely that the RCA will change on these issues. The question is, will the CRC change its stand on these issues and thus, in effect, repudiate the stand it took when it seceded from the RCA in 1857? Another question: should the CRC merge with the RCA, what effect will this have on the conservative clergy and membership of the CRC?
In other actions the CRC adopted a revision of thePsalter Hymnal, approved a new translation of the Canons, updated some of the language of the liturgical forms, appointed a study committee to investigate the possibility of a completely new translation of theHeidelberg Catechism, and adopted a “testimony of faith for our times, subordinate to our creeds and confessions,” called, Our World Belongs To God. The synod also “referred the report (on children at the Lord’s table, R.D.) to the churches for careful consideration, augmented the committee with two additional members, and gave them two more years to study thoroughly this important matter.” (The Banner, June 30, 1986) The Reformed Church In America: Ecumenical matters occupied a good deal of attention from the delegates to the 180th General Synod of the RCA which met at the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California.
This year’s General Synod broadened the front of specific ecumenical actions for the denomination. Concrete moves were made toward a group of Lutheran churches and toward the Christian Reformed Church. Simultaneously, the synod voted to continue its present levels of participation in the Consultation on Church Union (COCU) and in the World and National Councils of Churches (WCC, NCC) and to facilitate memberships in the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE).
Lutheran and Reformed theologians have discussed their churches’ contrasting doctrines for a number of years. Together, the theologians have concluded that fundamentally these two streams of Protestantism affirm the same faith. They have recommended that Lutheran and Reformed churches specifically recognize that both of them are Christian communions with legitimately-ordained clergy and faithfully-served sacraments.
As a specific step in Lutheran-Reformed relations, the synod voted to affirm that the chief Lutheran statement of faith, the Augsburg Confession, contains no unacceptable doctrinal position for Reformed people. Dr. M. Eugene Osterhaven, analyzing the Augsburg Confession for synod’s Advisory Committee on Theology said, “I just can’t imagine that a Calvinist would find any difficulty with this.” Five denominations, including the RCA, are in the process of enacting their mutual recognition of, and commitment to, each other. The American Lutheran Church, the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches, the Lutheran Church in America, and the Presbyterian Church (USA), together with the RCA are considering a ten-item list of mutual commitments. Included are such items as studying each other’s histories, praying for each other’s ministries, holding occasional joint communion services, sharing pastors between Lutheran and Reformed traditions, and the linking of one church in each RCA classis to a Lutheran congregation for joint study, mission planning, and common worship. The general synod approved the RCA’s participation in the plan. (The Church Herald, July 25, 1986)
It is striking that the more conservative churches of the Lutheran, Reformed, and Presbyterian traditions are not participating in this plan. Churches such as the Missouri Synod and Wisconsin Synod Lutherans, The Orthodox Presbyterian Church and the Presbyterian Church in America are not participants.
What is more striking is the almost incredible statement of Dr. M. Eugene Osterhaven concerning the Augsburg Confession: “I just can’t imagine that a Calvinist would find any difficulty with this.” It is true that the Augsburg Confession is brief and perhaps even ambiguous in its statements concerning the Lord’s Supper and the Lutheran error of consubstantiation. (Cf. Augsburg Confession 1530, Part I, Arts. X, XIII and Part II, Art. I.) Does Osterhaven not know that the Formula of Concord of 1576 (the apologia and further explanation of the points of doctrine set forth in the Augsburg Confession and part of the confessional basis of all major Lutheran denominations) is especially harsh in its condemnation of the Calvinist and confessionally Reformed view of the Lord’s Supper? (Cf. The Belgic Confession, Art. XXXV.) After condemning the Zwinglian view of the Holy Supper the Formula of Concord has this to say concerning the Calvinists: “But others are astute and crafty, and thereby the most harmful of all the sacramentarians; these, when talking of the Lord’s Supper, make in part an exceedingly high-sounding use of our mode of speaking, declaring that they too believe in a truepresence of the true, substantial, and living body and blood of Christ in the Holy Supper, which presence and manducation (act of eating or chewing, R.D.), nevertheless, they say to be spiritual, such as takes place by faith. And yet these latter sacramentarians, under these high-sounding phrases, hide and hold fast the same gross opinion which the former (Zwinglians, R.D.D.) have, to wit: that, besides the bread and wine, there is nothing more present or taken with the mouth in the Lord’s Supper . . .” (Art. VII). Either Osterhaven does not know what a Calvinist believes or he does not know the Lutheran error of consubstantiation, or he knows neither.
Finally, we wonder what effect the RCA’s participation in this venture will have on its talks with the Christian Reformed Church?