The Sum of Christian Doctrine
Is it really true that the Heidelberg Catechism contains “the sum of Christian doctrine” as stated in the October 15, 1994 Standard Bearer, “The Good Practice of Two Services, One Given to Catechism Preaching,” by Rev. Dale Kuiper, and so often affirmed in our circles? I can think of several important doctrines not covered by the Catechism. The obvious one, of course, is the doctrine of the last times. Much of the Bible is devoted to this important subject since it is an integral part of His coming into this world. Yet the Catechism chooses to ignore it except to mention that He is coming again as judge.
Another example is the doctrine of the efficacy of the blood of Christ. The Catechism devotes very little time to this subject, although we all agree that it is of central importance in the life of God’s people. The result is a general ignorance in our churches of the twofold purpose of our Savior’s blood sacrifice on the cross. We are all familiar with the fact that in the sight of God the blood of Christ is a payment for sin. As such it is a propitiation, a redemption price, a sacrifice which makes satisfaction for our sin. It is a covering for sin in the sight of God, for without shedding of blood there is no remission (Heb. 9:22).
But this is certainly not all. The blood of Jesus Christ also has a profound effect on us, His people. The author to the Hebrews makes this abundantly plain. He says, for example, that we are sanctified by the body and blood of Jesus Christ, not just in the sight of God, but also in our own experience. This is clear from the fact that the blood of Christ cleanses our conscience so that we can come with boldness to God’s throne of grace to ask for those things of which we have need (Heb. 10:22). Furthermore, he says that the blood of Christ, who through the eternal covenant offered Himself without spot to God, purges our conscience from dead works to serve the living God (Heb. 9:14). And he closes his discourse with this prayer: “Now the God of peace that brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, through the blood of the everlasting covenant, make you perfect in every good work to do his will, working in you that which is well pleasing in his sight through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.”
Curiously, the Catechism, in its one reference to my free and good conscience in Question and Answer 32, makes no mention of the blood of Christ. What is more, it seems to contradict itself when it says in Lord’s Day 23 that my conscience accuses me that I have sinned against all of God’s commandments and kept none of them. How can a free and good conscience, cleansed by the blood of Christ, still accuse me of all sin? It seems to me that the writers of the Catechism would have done well to explain this apparent anomaly. Since they did not, but rather chose to ignore it, among other things, I would suggest that we refrain from calling the Catechism, “the sum of Christian doctrine.” Perhaps we could call it the sum of what we choose to believe of Christian doctrine, which might well be quite another matter.
It is clear that your objections are not so much against my article, but against the high esteem the Reformed churches have for the Heidelberg Catechism. After all, the words “the sum of Christian doctrine comprehended in the Heidelberg Catechism” are taken from Article 68 of our Church Order, which requires the minister to preach the Catechism (ordinarily) each Sunday. That Reformed churches maintain that the Catechism contains “the sum of Christian doctrine” is further shown by the second question asked of the full consistory by the classical church visitors, “Is the Heidelberg Catechism regularly explained in the services for divine worship, so that no doctrine is left untreated?” Make no mistake, Reformed churches historically, and the Protestant Reformed Churches today, believe that all the doctrines of Holy Scripture are treated in the 52 Lord’s Days of our Catechism.
Your positions that “several important doctrines (are) not covered by the Catechism,” that the Catechism “seems to contradict itself,” that we refrain from calling the Catechism “the sum of Christian doctrine,” and that “we could better call it the sum of what we choose to believe of Christian doctrine,” are a far cry from the Reformed position on the contents of the Catechism and the value of its being preached. You ought to bring your objections to your consistory for instruction on this matter.
1. As to your contention that the doctrine of the last times is shortchanged by the Catechism, consider that its treatment of the Apostles’ Creed is sufficiently broad that the pastor may treat any aspect of Christ’s return that he believes the congregation needs to hear, including instruction against false eschatological heresies. In doing so, he must be guided by what A. 52 states, as well as by what the other two Reformed creeds teach.
2. As to your contention that the Catechism emphasizes the blood of Christ as payment for sin but does not do justice to another benefit of His blood, namely, “purging our consciences from dead works to serve the living God,” (or sanctification, or renewal), the following will show that the Catechism does this in many places.
a. L.D. I: “He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me sincerely willing and ready, henceforth, to live unto him.”
b. L.D. XX: “to make me by a true faith partaker of Christ and all His benefits, that He may comfort me and abide with me for ever.”
c. L.D. XXI: “and that I am and for ever shall remain aliving member thereof” and “readily and cheerfully toemploy his gifts for the advantage and salvation of others.”
d. L.D. XXVI, which explains what it is to be washed with the blood and Spirit of Christ, gives the twofold purpose of the Savior’s blood: “It is to receive of God the remission of sins, freely, for the sake of Christ’s blood, which He shed for us by His sacrifice upon the cross; and also to be renewed by the Holy Ghost, and sanctified to be members of Christ, that so we may more and more die unto sin, and lead holy and unblamable lives.” (See also L.D. XXVIII on the explanation of the Lord’s Supper.)
e. L.D. XXXII: “(Christ) also renews us by His Holy Spirit after His own image…” (this in connection with good works).
f. Really the entire third part of the Catechism, with its treatment bf the Law and Prayer, develops the truth that the believer is renewed unto good works, also the good work of calling, boldly upon God in prayer,
3. As to the “contradiction” between Q. and A. 32 and Q. and. A. 60 (regarding the conscience), have you never heard of the apostle Paul and the great conflict between his inward and outward man (Rom. 7:22-25)? Have you never experienced the accusing voice of conscience? Thanks be to God that the testimony of the Holy Spirit in our hearts is able to overcome that accusing voice, and give us peace with God!
—Rev. Dale H. Kuiper
Against Dordt’s Observance of Christmas
Firstly, let me say that I hold you, your fellow ministers, and the Protestant Reformed Churches in high regard, and we do appreciate your care and regard to us over the years from when we first made contact with you. More recently, we have really appreciated the love and care and sound teaching given to David Higgs and Chris Connors, and their respective families. May the Lord continue to bless all of you in His service and stablish, settle, and strengthen His people in the earth.
What prompted me to write was the Standard Bearer, vol. 71, no. 6, December 15, 1994, “Letters”: “Observance of Christmas.”
The matter I address has been entrenched in continental Reformed theology for some 400 years to varying degrees, so I do not expect Peter Torlach will change anything, but truth is mighty above all things in the hands of our God.
One of the great principles of the Reformation was that the Word of God was the only rule to direct us how we are to glorify and enjoy Him. Another was that the supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other than the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture. Yet a third was that all synods or councils since the apostles’ times, whether general or particular, may err, and many have erred. Therefore, they are not to be made the rule of faith and practice, but to be used as a help in both.
In the light of the above, would you please expound from the Scriptures the derivation and meaning, not of the birth of Christ, but of the term, “Christmas,” and the basis from the Scriptures for the instituting of this day of public worship of the living God on the 25th December, annually, as a commemoration day of our Lord’s birth. What I am driving at in making this request is the upholding of what we Reformed Christians have always aimed at: a casting off of the baggage of men, gathered over the centuries, and a reformation, as far as is practical, back to biblical, New Testament doctrine and worship, uncluttered and unfettered by that baggage which we (by nature) are so prone to add in our ignorance and with the “best of intentions.” If you are able to demonstrate that “Christmas” is not some of that baggage, I will be happy to accept it as a God-given part of His worship.
In your exposition of the Word on this subject, would you please deal with the fact that there is no reference to such a commemoration in God’s Word and, further, that it appears not to have been part of the worship of the early church for 200 or 300 years.
Would you also please explain its first appearance, which seems to have been associated with a church sliding away from its moorings of apostolic doctrine and worship and entering into sacramentalism and syncretism. Amongst other things, the mass of the Christ Child seems to have been associated deliberately with heathen feasts in order to make Christianity “fit in” and be more “appealing” to the unbelieving and heathen. :.
Coming to the Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 21, Section 1 on the regulative principle, it says in part: “the acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the holy Scripture.” Again I look for you to show me where the observance of “Christmas” is prescribed in the holy Scripture. It may be highly offensive to you, but to my understanding of the history of the “feast,” it comes possibly within the gamut of “suggestions of Satan,” for the reason of its close association and origin in sacramentalism and the mass. Its fruit, as evidenced in nativity scenes and worship of “the baby Jesus” and of “Mary, the Mother of God,” also points to its suspect origins. Please do not misunderstand my argument: I am not suggesting that these excesses in any way exist in your worship.
I found it offensive for you to attempt to use the Westminster Confession of Faith in support of your position. The WCF and associated Standards and Scottish Presbyterianism have always been clearly and emphatically opposed to the observance of Christmas. To get it clear what the Westminster Standards say on the subject of worship other than on the Lord’s day, let me quote and explain. The WCF, Chapter 21, Section 5, says in part that “religious oaths and vows, solemn fastings, and thanksgivingsupon special occasions” are part of the worship of God.
The surrounding context and the Directory for Public Worship make very clear what is intended here. The Directory under the headings “Concerning the Observation of Days of Public Thanksgiving” and “Touching Days and Places of Public Worship” should be carefully read. The clear teaching that will come out of such a careful reading is that all other days of worship called for by the church were special occasions called by the church for a particular purpose on a particular day by public notice—in the colloquial, they were “one-offs.”
For unambiguous clarity, here is a quote: “There is no day commanded in scripture to be kept holy under the gospel but the Lord’s Day, which is the Christian Sabbath. Festival Days, vulgarly called Holy Days, having no warrant in the word of God, are not to be continued.”
You may not see a conflict with the regulative principle, and the Synod of Dordt may not have either, but that does not mean there is not one. The historical Presbyterian Reformed Church clearly says “yes, there is a problem.”
The “how” of your worship of God in the PRC regularly includes worshiping God in the context of Christmas. That is “how” you worship him, amongst other “hows.”
Your argument against worshiping exclusively on the Sabbath day is a “red herring” not worthy of comment, as no such concept exists in Reformed circles to my knowledge.
The “kind of wisdom that we defenders of the regulative principle” must demonstrate is heavenly and not earthly. Your bringing in of the suggestion of “rigid, stifling (and divisive) legalism” smacks of the earth’s wisdom, i.e., “throw enough mud and some of it will stick.” My answer to such a charge of “legalism” in this matter is, who is it that is binding something on the people of God, that is not bound in His Word?
The Son has made us free. If any minister of our church were to call for the observance of Christmas, both myself and all my family, who are grown, responsible, believing members, would not attend because we would see it as an infringement of the liberty we have in Christ, as dishonouring to our Lord, and as, will worship.
(Elder) Peter Torlach
The term “Christmas,” according to Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, derives from a word meaning “Christ’s mass.” From this, nothing follows concerning use of the word by the true church. According to Baker’s Dictionary of Christian Ethics(ed. Carl F. H. Henry, Baker, 1973), the word “Sunday” is “derived from pagan sources and denotes the day devoted to the sun” (p. 653). This does not rule out Christians meeting for worship on this day or using the word to refer to the day on which they engage in public worship.
There is no basis in Scripture for the Reformed churches’ commemoration of Christ’s birth on December 25. Neither is there basis in Scripture for their observing a Day of Prayer on the second Wednesday of March annually. Nor is there such basis in Scripture for services of public worship in observance of “notable judgments,” “some special blessing,” and “days of public thanksgiving,” as allowed by the Westminster Assembly’s “Directory for the Public Worship of God” and as actually held by Presbyterian churches in the Scottish tradition.
The Reformed and Presbyterian churches have the liberty to observe these special occasions by worship services on other days than the Lord’s Day. This is really our liberty. It is our liberty in Christ Jesus. The Belgic Confession asserts this liberty in general terms: “it is useful and beneficial that those who are rulers of the church institute and establish certain ordinances among themselves for maintaining the body of the church” (Art. 32). The Second Helvetic Confession of 1566, in its day a Reformation creed of standing, distribution, and influence, expresses this liberty in specific terms:
Moreover, if in Christian liberty the, churches religiously celebrate the memory of the Lord’s nativity, circumcision, passion, resurrection, and of his ascension into heaven, and the sending of the Holy Spirit upon his disciples we approve of it highly (Chapter 24, in Reformed Confessions of the 16th Century, ed. Arthur C. Cochrane, Westminster, 1966).
That which churches maintaining the “regulative principle” do not have liberty to do is to introduce into the worship service itself, whether on the Lord’s Day or on a special occasion, any other element of worship besides those commanded by Scripture. As the Heidelberg Catechism explains, God requires in the second commandment that we not worship Him “in any other way than He has commanded in His Word” (Q. 96).
The “regulative principle” of public worship does not care on what day, in addition to Sunday, the church may gather for public worship, or that the occasion may be celebrating the birth of Christ or some notable judgment. The concern of the “regulative principle” is that when the church does gather for worship she worships God only as He has commanded in His Word, that is, by hearing His Word; using the sacraments; publicly calling upon the Lord (which includes congregational singing of the Psalms); contributing to the relief of the poor; and doing all in spirit and in truth (see Heid. Cat., Q. 103; John 4:24).
The Reformed churches that stand in the tradition of, Dordt do not accuse, and never have accused, their Presbyterian brothers and sisters who stand in the tradition of Westminster of any wrong-doing as regards their worship. It is perfectly alright in our judgment that the Scottish Presbyterians do not observe Christmas by a public worship service on December 25, or any other date. We make no effort to bind their consciences.
When, on the other hand, our Presbyterian brothers and sisters accuse the Reformed churches standing in the tradition of Dordt of transgressing the second commandment, because they do observe Christmas, we warn them, “Beware, lest in applying the good principle you ‘fall into a rigid, stifling (and divisive) legalism, and, thus, imperil the principle itself.'” This was, and is, my warning, not to those who choose not to observe Christmas, but to those who are inclined to charge Article 67 of the Church Order of Dordt, and the Reformed believers adhering to it, with violation of the second commandment.
You inform us what you would do, should any minister call for the observance of Christmas: flatly refuse to attend.
It may be profitable to you to know what I would do, if the situation were reversed. If the consistory decided to drop the observance of Christmas by a special worship service on December 25, I would acquiesce, although regretting the unnecessary giving up of a delightful, edifying service. If the consistory gave as its reason, that it desired to avoid practical dangers, e.g., the secular corruption of Christmas or the threat of Roman Catholicism, I would still acquiesce, although believing the thinking of the consistory to be faulty.
But if the consistory gave as its reason for dropping the observance of Christmas that observance of Christmas is per se violation of the second commandment, I would move heaven and earth to restore the observance and, certainly, to attend an observance myself.
It is a precious principle with us Reformed of Dordt not to allow our liberty in Christ to be infringed.