In the June 1 issue we published in toto the provisionally adopted new confession of the Reformed Church in America called “Our Song of Hope.” We suggested at that time that any Reformed person with some knowledge of our Three Forms of Unity would detect at once that the language of this proposed new confession differs sharply from that of the old creeds, and that there is an altogether different tone in “Our Song of Hope.” Personally, we feel that this difference is so obvious and that the tone and the language of this document is so completely foreign to a Reformed man that critique is hardly necessary. In fact, the language is so foreign and the ideas are so “far out” that one hardly knows where to begin criticizing. But perhaps this is only an indication of how far apart churches of the Reformed family, who officially adhere to the Reformed confessions, have grown, By the same token the appearance and even the provisional adoption of such a document as this in the RCA should cause any who still love the Reformed faith in that denomination to ask themselves seriously, “What are we doing here?”
In the present article we propose to present some general criticisms.
Our first point of criticism concerns the fact that the General Synod of the RCA gave this document “provisional acceptance” in 1974, with final action scheduled for 1978. Writes Dr. Eugene Heideman on page 2 of Our Song of Hope:
“Our Song of Hope” was given provisional acceptance at the meeting of the Reformed Church’s broadest judicatory, the General Synod, in June, 1974, with final action scheduled for June, 1978. Prior to the 1974 action, several thousand persons participated in discussions during the period 1958-1974. During the four years in which the document will have provisional status, the Reformed Church hopes that it will be widely used, studied and criticized, so that at the time of final action Our Song of Hope will not only reflect the faith of the Church and reverberate in the life of this world, but also magnify the name of our Lord. This book has been produced in order to encourage many in all the churches of Christendom as well as those beyond the walls of the churches to participate in the process and make their suggestions.
This is a telling paragraph. First of all, the question arises as to the meaning of this provisional acceptance. Does this mean that the RCA in this document confesses its faith, but is not certain as to the precise contents of that faith? Does it mean that it is—at least in the abstract—entirely possible that in 1978 the RCA General Synod will declare that Our Song of Hope is after all not the expression of their faith? Does it mean that possibly the document may undergo radical revision in 1978? It would seem that these are fair inferences. For the avowed purpose of this method is “that at the time of final action Our Song of Hope will not only reflect the faith of the Church and reverberate in the life of this world, but also magnify the name of our Lord.” And this can only mean that Our Song of Hope does not yet reflect the faith of the church. But this can only mean that this document is a contrived confession which is being foisted upon the denomination. And by means of this provisional acceptance the camel already has his nose in the tent of the RCA; and the danger is, of course, that in 1978 the entire camel will make his way inside the tent, crowd out whatever of a Reformed confession may be left in it, and confessionally upset the tent.
Worst of all, of course, is the fact that such contriving of a confession is contrary to the manner in which confessions come into being. Confessions are not made; they are born. They arise out of the bosom of the church. They are not artificially contrived, but are born usually out of conflict and frequently have even been written in the blood of the martyrs. They are not written so that they will eventually reflect the faith of the church; they express that faith when they are written. Go back in history to the time when the great confessional statements of Reformation times were written, and you will discover this to be true. Was the Belgic Confession written the way Our Song of Hope was composed? Were the Canons of Dordrecht provisionally accepted with a view to possible final acceptance four years later? Were any of the great ecumenical creeds prepared in this fashion? True, very little information is furnished us as to the precise manner in which Our Song Of Hope was prepared. We are only informed that from 1958 to 1974 “several thousand persons participated in discussions.” But I dare make an educated guess that this document is the work of some professional ecclesiastics, and that there was neither an expressed nor implied call out of the bosom of the churches for this creed. Its very language leaves this impression, too.
And what kind of ecclesiastical nonsense is proposed when it is stated that “This book has been produced in order to encourage many in all the churches of Christendom as well as those beyond the walls of the churches to participate in the process and make their suggestions”? Can Roman Catholics, Methodists, Baptists, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Greek Orthodox, and even non-church members participate in the process of preparing a confessional statement of a Reformed church? Obviously the intention of this document is to make the RCA offensive to none, pleasing to as many as possible. The aim is broadminded, colorless ecumenism. The result can only be that the RCA will become officially Laodicean, nauseating to the Lord Who walks in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks.
Our second general criticism of Our Song of Hope concerns the language of this document. It is vague, ambiguous, lacking in precise and specific formulations, totally without anything which would identify this document as a confessional statement of aReformed denomination. What is worse, this document is admittedly vague and ambiguous; and one can only come to the conclusion that it isintentionally so.
It is admittedly vague and ambiguous. For Dr. Heideman states in his Introduction, page 2, that even his commentary—and he served as secretary of the committee during 1971-74—does not represent the only possible interpretation. He writes;
2. The official document is the twenty-one stanzas together with the prologue and prayer.
3. The other material in this book has been prepared to assist those who study the document in detail. The Study Guide” has been prepared by the person who served as secretary of the committee during 1971-1974. It will help many to understand the issues involved in the lines and stanzas of Our Song of Hope, but does not represent the only possible interpretation. On the contrary, creedal statements usually grow in meaning as they are used. Therefore, the interpretation of the secretary must be regarded as a launching pad rather than the last word.
Notice that Our Song of Hope, first of all, is not capable of standing on its own feet. It needs interpretation in order to be understood. But a creed is already supposed to be an interpretation and setting forth in systematic form of the truth of Scripture. Here, however, we have a creed which itself needs interpretation. This is a violation of one of the fundamental requisites of a creed: it must be characterized by clarity. Instead, we have here an interpretation which needs interpretation.
If this were not bad enough, we also have a creed here which is capable of more than one interpretation! That offered in the “Study Guide” will help, “but does not represent the only possible interpretation.” Still worse: this creedal statement is going to grow in meaning as it is used! Who knows where this may end? It is obvious that this creed purposes to be all things to all men. The difficulty is that no truly Reformed man can be anything but totally dissatisfied with Our Song of Hope. For he will not be able to find the expression of his faith in it.
Later we expect to make specific criticisms by way of. comparisons between Our Song of Hope and the Three Forms of Unity. But we wish to point out one example of the ambiguity—it could better be called gobbledygook—of this document. Throughout Our Song of Hope you will find the term “world” used many times. In a footnote on page 1 we are informed that Our Song of Hope uses the term “world” to mean “that matrix of relationships, natural and historical events, and institutional structures within which the human race lives,”—whatever that may mean. I suggest that the reader take this definition and go back to the document as it appeared in our June 1 issue and substitute this definition wherever the word “world” appears. If the whole matter were not connected with the confession of the church and were not so dreadfully serious, it would be laughable.
More could be said along general lines. One might point out that the deliberate purpose of this new creed is not to separate the Reformed Church in America from other denominations; but it is exactly one of the purposes of creeds to distinguish and separate. One might point out that while the Three Forms of Unity are not being officially discarded and replaced by this new creed, yet that will be the effect, and soon the Three Forms of Unity will be totally unknown in the RCA. For “Without repeating all that has previously been set forth in creedal formulae, this new confessional statement will be used in public worship, in religious education, and in re-affirming the traditional faith in the contemporary situation.” (page 1) You see, the only result of the adoption of this creed will be the final and official death of the RCA as an identifiable Reformed denomination.
Next time we will turn to some specifics.