It is rather well-known, though thus far little discussed, that the Christian Reformed Church has before it a gravamen by Dr. Harry Boer against the doctrine of reprobation as taught in the Canons of Dordrecht, I, A, 6 and 15. A “gravamen” is a charge of error against the confessions of a church. Since those confessions are the subordinate standards of a church—subordinate, that is, to Scripture itself—and since those confessions for their authority appeal directly to Scripture itself, it is in the very nature of a gravamen that it charges that the teaching of the creed is not the teaching of Scripture or is contrary to Scripture. It follows from this that the sole test to be applied when a church is confronted by such a gravamen is the test of Scripture itself.
In his so-called “confessional-revision gravamen” Dr. Boer petitioned the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church in 1977 to apply this test and with him to declare that there is no “express testimony of sacred Scripture,” as the Canons claim there is, to support the Reformed doctrine of reprobation as set forth in the Canons. The reader must bear in mind that I am stating the matter very politely. In actual fact Dr. Boer does not only “murmur at the just severity of reprobation” (Canons I, A, 18), but he growls and snarls at it and vilifies it, and concludes by calling it “a grievously unbiblical, therefore un- Reformed, indeed, unchristian doctrine.”
The Christian Reformed Synod of 1977 accepted this gravamen and, following its own rules, declared “that it is before the churches for their consideration.” The pertinent rule in this case in effect declares “open season” on the gravamen and thus, of course, on the confession. It reads: “. . . when the constituted synod declares the matter to be legally before it for action, all the signers of the Form of Subscription shall be free to discuss it together with the whole church until adjudicated by synod.” The synod further appointed a committee of nine (3 elders, 3 pastors, and 3 theological professors) “to receive the reactions of individuals, consistories, and classes, to study the gravamen in the light of Scripture, and to advise the Synod of 1980 as to the cogency of the gravamen and how it should further be dealt with by synod.” Finally, the Synod of 1977 advised “the churches that all communications concerning the gravamen be sent to the Gravamen Committee by June 1, 1979.”
Thus far there has been very little public discussion in print of this gravamen, and there has been no head-on debate on the issue with which the Christian Reformed Church is confronted in the Boer gravamen.
It was a hopeful sign, therefore—so I thought—when The Outlook (February, 1979) presented an article by the Rev. Nelson D. Kloosterman under the title, “Creed In Crisis.” For in a very real sense the Canons of Dordrecht are in crisis in the Christian Reformed Church. Note carefully: I do not say that the doctrine of reprobation or two articles about reprobation are in crisis, but theCanons themselves are in crisis. If the Christian Reformed Church heeds Dr. Boer’s gravamen, the Canons of Dordrecht will be destroyed and nullified as far as that denomination is concerned. The word “crisis,” therefore, is not too strong.
My hopes, kindled by the title of the Kloosterman article, however, were doomed to disappointment.
The Rev. Kloosterman utterly fails to meet the Boer gravamen head-on, to face its real claim, to demonstrate the fallacy of Dr. Boer’s exegesis of the “express testimony of sacred Scripture” which the Canons adduce, and thus to show that the Christian Reformed Church should reject the Boer gravamen.
In the first place, the Rev. Kloosterman claims to have objections against the procedural demands of Boer. Dr. Boer claims in his gravamen: “A gravamen, in its very nature challenges theScriptural validity of a given teaching. It overleaps creedal and theological authority and appeals directly to the Bible itself. Gravamina should therefore neither depend on nor be refuted by creedal or theological considerations. In a proper gravamen procedure neither creed nor theology has any authority.” In harmony with the above, Dr. Boer does two things in his gravamen:
1) He claims to have demonstrated that the several Scriptural passages cited by the Canons do, in fact, not prove reprobation at all.
2) He demands of the Christian Reformed Church either to furnish him Scriptural proof of reprobation or to abandon and to declare null and void the doctrine of reprobation as taught by the Canons.
In several paragraphs Kloosterman objects that it is both impossible and incorrect for the church to answer Boer “without referring to theological assumptions or confessional declarations.” And he claims that it is “doubtful that Boer’s procedural demand is acceptable or his definition of a gravamen defensible.”
Now if Kloosterman’s claim is true, then, of course, there is no “Creed In Crisis” whatsoever. Then Boer’s gravamen has no validity; in fact, it is not even a proper gravamen. And then the Christian Reformed Church has no case before it against the Canons. It can simply dispose of the Boer gravamen on procedural grounds, without facing the necessity of answering its claims and arguments. The crisis is nothing but a false alarm.
But Kloosterman is wrong.
When a creed is challenged—as it is in a gravamen—then you certainly cannot appeal to another creed to defend it. You surely cannot appeal to the opinions of theologians, however illustrious they may be. No, it is exactly the claim of that creed, “This is the truth of the Word of God.” It is exactly the authority of that creed that it is subordinate only to Scripture itself. And there is, therefore, but one court of appeal with respect to a creed: Scripture!
In the first place, this is plainly in harmony with the language of the Formula of Subscription, in which officebearers “declare . . . that we heartily believe and are persuaded that all the articles and points of doctrine, contained in the Confession and Catechism of the Reformed Churches, together with the explanation of some points of the aforesaid doctrine, made by the National Synod of Dordrecht, 1618-’19, do fully agree with the Word of God.” (italics added)
In the second place, Dr. Boer’s explanation of a gravamen is not his private concoction. Let me remind Rev. Kloosterman that in 1976, when matters pertaining to the Formula of Subscription and the fling of gravamina were under consideration at the Christian Reformed Synod (Acts, Article 64) a definition of a gravamen by Dr. D. Nauta was quoted from the Christelijke Encyclopedie; and in it is found this statement: “Such a gravamen mush be based directly upon the Bible.”
In the third place, in that same article in 1976, in laying down regulations about procedure in submitting a confessional-revision gravamen, his own Synod made reference to the statement from the Formula of Subscription cited above (Article 64, point c).
In the fourth place, the 1977 Synod of the Christian Reformed Church specifically instructed the committee on the Boer gravamen “to I study the gravamen in the light of Scripture, and to advise the Synod of 1980 as to the cogency of the gravamen. . . .”
It seems to me, therefore, that from a formal or procedural viewpoint Dr. Boer is in the right.
All of which would seem to suggest that for the Rev. Kloosterman—and for any others who think as he does—the crisis is even more serious than it first appeared to be. For if there is a crisis and one does not even seem to realize the nature of that crisis, then the situation is indeed serious. For how will one deal with a crisis if he does not see its real nature?
This writer has no way of knowing, of course; what the Gravamen Committee may or may not have received by way of reaction from individuals and churches. This, however, is obvious: thus far no one has dealt with Dr. Boer’s exegesis of the Scriptural passages cited by the Canons in public print.
Don’t come with opinions of theologians! Don’t even come with the views of commentators about this or that text! Face Boer’s arguments. Demonstrate that his explanation of the texts concerned is utterly incorrect. Show that Boer’s appeal to Scripture is wrong and that the Canons’ appeal to Scripture is correct. That is the issue! Nor is it difficult to do this. My very first reaction when I read Boer’s gravamen a couple of years ago was that it was some of the poorest, weakest exegesis I had seen in a long time. Nevertheless, that is the only proper way to deal with the Boer gravamen. If the brethren of The Outlook fail to do this, they deserve to lose the Canons in 1980. Moreover, seeing that the Boer gravamen has become public property in the Christian Reformed Church, The Outlook should gainsay Dr. Boer publicly, so that at least some of the Christian Reformed constituency will perhaps begin to under stand why Boer is wrong and the Canons are right.
Don’t shadow-box! Face the issue!
But I fear the crisis is even worse.
In the last part of his article the Rev. Kloosterman deals briefly with the material of the Boer gravamen. Again, however, Kloosterman fails to see the point; and, in so doing, he fails to recognize the real nature of the crisis. In fact, he in effect denies that there is any “Creed In Crisis.” What is really in crisis—such is the only conclusion one can properly draw from his statements—is not the Canons, but “some commonly held misunderstandings of the Canons.” Meanwhile, in a statement about the Conclusion of the Canons Kloosterman gives real reason to doubt whether he himself understands and believes the doctrine of reprobation as taught by the Canons.
In this part of his article Kloosterman writes as follows:
The central question facing the Christian Reformed Church lies at this point: Is Dr. Boer’s understanding of the Canons accurate? Is what he claims the Canons say really what they say? Or is his accusation against the church a caricature, reflecting some commonly held misunderstandings of the Canons?
I assert that it is the latter. In which case church education is the necessary corrective, not surgery on the creeds.
Quite in harmony with the above position, Kloosterman claims that Boer is fighting not the Canons, but L. Berkhof’s dogmatics. Writes he:
. . . It seems, however, that Boer’s argument is with L. Berkhofs Systematic Theology rather than with the Canons of Dordt. If that is so, a book review would have done the job. There was co need to agitate the church by way of such an appeal to synod.
Again, if Kloosterman believes this, he can only come to the conclusion that the alleged crisis of which the title of his article speaks is nothing but a figment of the imagination. There really isn’t any “Creed In Crisis.”
Now let us put this to the test.
What does Harry Boer understand the Canons to teach concerning reprobation? Both at the beginning and the end of the main body of his gravamen, he himself states it. At the beginning he writes:
Supporting data of Scripture must therefore establish in terms of “express testimony,” that is, plainly, unambiguously:
1. the existence of a divine decree
2. which has been made in eternity
3. which condemns a segment of mankind to eternal death as described
4. and which is characterized by distinctly positive as well as negative actions on God’s part.
In this gravamen the following paragraphs examine whether the data which the Canons themselves adduce as “the express testimony of sacred Scripture” in support of the doctrine of reprobation do indeed carry the weight of evidence they are alleged to contain.
At the end of this part of his gravamen Boer writes: “The analysis that has been-made shows that the texts adduced assume throughout rather than establish an eternal decree of reprobation. They fall altogether short of proving the biblical validity of the doctrine in that they do not show. . . .” And here Boer mentions the same four points quoted above.
Now if you compare Boer’s statements with Canons I, A, 6 and 15, you will discover that they are a rather accurate summary of the main lines of the doctrine of reprobation as taught by the Canons. There is no reason to criticize the Boer gravamen on this score. Boer does not misread the Canons, as Kloosterman alleges.
On the other hand, Kloosterman gives real reason to doubt whether he understands the Canons correctly and whether he himself believes the doctrine of sovereign, eternal, unconditional reprobation as taught by the Canons, He does this in several statements about the matter of divine causation in connection with a quotation from Boer. But especially does he give grounds for suspicion in the following paragraph:
Dr. Boer pays scant attention in a mere ten lines to the Conclusion of the Canons. That Conclusion is a very important statement (somehow lost on us, we admit!) which provides interpretative guidelines for the body of the Canons. It is this Conclusion which shatters those commonly held misunderstandings with which Boer argues.
This is, of course, the worn-out reference to the statement in the Conclusion in which the Synod repudiates the false charge, the calumny “that in the same manner (eodem modo) in which election is the fountain and cause of faith and good works, reprobation is the cause of unbelief and impiety.”
Kloosterman does not enlarge on his claim. But, in the first place, he is altogether wrong when he suggests that the Conclusion “provides interpretative guidelines for the body of the Canons.” Who in the world writes a lengthy creed, and then states that this creed must be interpreted and needs interpretative guidelines, and adds such guidelines at the end? Our fathers of Dordrecht were not fools! All they do in the Conclusion is repudiate various false charges made by enemies of the truth. In the second place, Kloosterman opens himself to the suspicion that he is guilty of the very thing which opponents of the Canons’ doctrine of reprobation have done in the past: they played this statement of the Conclusion over against Articles 6 and 15 of Canons I in order to make the Canons after all deny, or at least hesitate to teach a genuine doctrine of sovereign reprobation. G. C. Berkouwer did this in his Divine Election. James Daane more than once did the same thing; I once accused him of trying to make the tail (the Conclusion) wag the dog (the Canons proper). Harry Boer understands the Conclusion in the same way, but he is not satisfied with the alleged “drawing back at the brink” by the Conclusion. All of them are dead wrong in their interpretation. And now the Rev. Kloosterman seems to suggest that this position is after all correct. Let him be warned that all three of the men mentioned above have ended up by completely denying the Reformed doctrine of reprobation and repudiating the teaching of the Canons. A few years ago Dr. Berkouwer openly stated that he did not believe, the doctrine of double predestination!
But again, if this argumentation of Kloosterman is the answer of him and others to the gravamen of Harry Boer, then it follows that the crisis is even worse than it first seemed to be. For then Kloosterman is really in agreement with Boer on the doctrine of reprobation, while he himself does not even realize the true nature of the crisis in which the Canons are involved in the Christian Reformed Church. Facilely to suggest that “a book review (of Systematic Theology) would have done the job” and that there was no need of a gravamen is face-value evidence that Kloosterman does not even realize what the battle is all about.
And if this view is prevalent among the conservatives in the Christian Reformed Church, then there is not much hope for the Canons at the Synod of 1980.
And if the latter is true, then there is not much hope for the Christian Reformed Church as a Reformed denomination.
Make no mistake about it: this is not merely a case of a “Creed In Crisis,” but it is a case of the Christian Reformed Church in crisis, i.e., standing in the judgment. The issue in the trial is: do you openly and officially subscribe to the Reformed faith as set forth in the confessions, or do you openly and officially repudiate it? More about this later.