REQUEST FOR A NEW CONFESSION
In various Church publications it has been reported that the Christian Reformed Synod, at her next session in June, will have to deal with an overture which requests the Church to draw up a new confession. One notice of this appears in the RES NEWS EXCHANGE from which we quote.
Classis Chatham (Ontario) decided at its January meeting to overture the annual synod of the Christian Reformed Church to declare that “It is necessary and desirable to re-express the faith of the church in a new Confession which will replace the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism and the Canons of Dordt as a statement of the Truth and as our standard of unity.”
The classis appended 5 grounds to the overture:
1. This action is necessary because the framing of the Three Forms of Unity was historically conditioned: they cannot be understood without a knowledge of the doctrines of the Roman Church, the Anabaptists and the Remonstrants of the 16th and 17th century. The confessions state the Truth in a way that was influenced by the heresies they had to oppose. Today the Creeds need the interpretation of theological and historical experts; they cannot serve as an adequate expression of the faith of the ordinary members of Christ.
2. This action is desirable because the Holy Spirit has given insights since the Synod of Dart, and the evil spirits have planted heresies since that date, which are neither expressed nor addressed in our present confessions.
3. Every church member is not only expected to agree with the Confession, but he should intelligently and enthusiastically share in it. Therefore it is desirable to have a statement of the Truth which is more obviously relevant.
4. It is desirable to re-express our faith in confessional form, because the present documents, which have served us for centuries, are in danger of veneration, due to their antiquity and our ignorance.
5. It is desirable to re-express our faith in confessional form, because a paralyzing unbelief keeps telling us that the Church of the living God cannot do today what it was called to do in the tties of the Reformation.
The Wallaceburg church, which initiated the action, recommended that the Synod seek the assistance of all church denominations which subscribe to the same doctrinal standards or adhere to a similar tradition for the re-expression of faith in confessional form. The Classis did not accept this recommendation on the consideration that it would entail a committee of twenty years. It was observed however, that the rules of correspondence among churches would require contact with ‘sister’ churches in the formulation of a new creed.
The classis also proposed to the synod “That its position on the necessity and desirability of a re-expression of our faith in confessional form, may in no wise be construed either as an acknowledgement that the Three Forms of Unity are not in harmony with the Scriptures or as a weakening of the binding character of the Three Forms of Unity. All members and officebearers are bound to uphold the unabridged content of the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism and the Canons of Dart, until a new confession of this faith has been endorsed by the churches.”
It was reported that the overture did not arise from a spirit of anti-confessionalism, nor from disagreement with the confessions, nor from the spirit of a new theology.
The annual synod of the Christian Reformed Church will meet in June.
The Christian Reformed Church is not the first denomination either in this country or abroad which has faced the question of whether or not to write a new confession. In fact, the United Presbyterian Church has already written such a new confession called The Confession of 1967.
But the writing of new confessions is always dangerous business. We are not saying that it is wrong to do this; certainly it is not more wrong for the Church today to write new confessions than it was for the Church in the years immediately after the Reformation. But it is dangerous business nonetheless. For a confession belongs to the whole Church. It is a confession which must express the living and earnest faith of all the people of God for whom the confession is written. It is not the work and may never be the work of a few theologians. It is not the work exclusively of an ecclesiastical assembly—although they may be ultimately responsible for its formulation. But it is the work of the whole Church of Christ. The whole Church must be actively engaged in a very real way. But if this is true, then the Church of Christ must also possess a lively faith which is deeply and profoundly interested in the truth of the Word of God; it must be a Church which loves that truth, studies it, discusses it, and has that truth as the pulsing and vibrant principle of her whole life. It is the lack of this within today’s Church which makes writing confessions so dangerous. I well recall that Rev. Hoeksema, in Seminary, was wont to make the remark: “The Church today is not spiritually strong enough to write confessions.” This, I am afraid, is true. If it persists nonetheless, what it produces is something less than God’s truth.
But the overture referred to above does not merely ask for a new confession. It asks for a new confession which will “replace” the present Three Forms of Unity. This is something else. And to evaluate this rather startling request, it is necessary to take a long and hard look at the grounds. For, after all, even the Presbyterian Church which adopted the Confession of 1967 did not go quite this far.
The overture makes, I think, two points in ground 1. The first point is that because the Confessions were historically conditioned, they cannot be understood apart from a knowledge of the times in which they lived. The result of this is that the Confessions need the interpretation of experts and are not any longer of any use to “ordinary members of Christ.” In a limited sense this ground is true. There are parts of the Confessions which make references to existing conditions, existing heresies, existing circumstances within the Church. But this is not true of all of them by any means. And there is no truth in the assertion that this fact removes them from the understanding of the “ordinary” people of God. At least, if it is true, it ought not to be so. For, on the one hand, the truths set forth, even in opposition to existing conditions and heresies, are truths which stand in their own right and can be understood even apart from the historical circumstances under which they were written. But on the other hand, every child of God is (or, at least, ought to be) a student of the past. He need not be an expert; but if his faith is to be a faith which binds him in communion with the saints with whom he shall dwell in glory, he ought to know that faith and know the history of the Church as she struggled to express that faith. If it is true that most members of the Church do not know the past, this is but a sign of the fact that the Church today is too spiritually weak to write confessions. It is proof against a new confession; not for it.
The second point which the ground makes is that the truth was influenced by heresies of the times. It seems as if this ground is saying that the truth set forth in the Confessions, insofar as it was influenced by heresies then existing, is not the truth of the Scriptures. This is not true. It is true, of course, that the truth was then set forth, as it always is, in opposition to attacks against it. But this is historically always the way truth develops. It does not develop by the research of some man sitting alone in some ivory tower of theological contemplation far removed from the life of the Church. The truth is developed and set forth as that truth comes under attack. It is hammered out as a weapon of warfare by saints who stand on the battlefield of faith. Or, to put it a little differently, God uses the persistent and unrelenting attacks of Satan to spur His Church on in the development of the faith. Heretical attacks against the faith force the people of God to go again and again to the Scriptures to find what God has said concerning the truth. And this truth is set forth in Confessions. This is the way it has been ever since the ancient Nicean Creed.
The second ground speaks of the fact that new heresies have risen and new truths have been developed with the passing of the years which are not incorporated into the Confessions or answered by them. This is, no doubt, true. But this is not an argument for Confessions which replace the old ones. This is an argument for the writing of an additional confession which takes cognizance of the fact that doctrine had developed.
The third ground states that a new and more relevant Confession is desirable because only this will guarantee that every church member makes the Confession of the Church a living Confession in his life. There is an assumption here which is quite dangerous. That assumption seems to be that the truth as set forth by our fathers is not relevant to our modern age. And if this is the assumption, then the additional assumption is that the truth itself is changeable. This is rather commonly asserted today even in Reformed circles. Witness, e.g., what is happening in the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands. But this is false. The truth of God is eternally relevant. It is just as relevant today as it was over 400 years ago. If the Church then confessed the truth, as the Classis which dealt with the overture insists, then the Confessions which were written at that time are relevant today too. The trouble is not in the Confessions. If the Church today does not “intelligently and enthusiastically share” in the Confessions, the fault is with the Church, not with the creeds.
The fourth ground speaks of the fact that the present Confessions have become the objects of veneration. Two reasons are given for this: the antiquity of the Confessions and our ignorance of them. This is a strange ground, and several remarks could be made about it. First of all, it is an unproved assertion that the present Confessions are being worshipped. To me, quite the contrary seems to be the case. In the second place, if by veneration is meant honor, what is bad about this? These creeds are indeed from antiquity. But this is in their favor. They have stood the test of the years. They have proved to be what the Church needs for over four centuries. They have expressed the faith of the Church in ages gone by and serve to unite that Church with the Church of today. In the third place, if the creeds are being worshipped out of ignorance, the cure is not to write new confessions, but the cure is to call the people of God to know their creeds, so that these creeds may once again be the living confession of the saints.
The fifth ground speaks of the fact that “a paralyzing unbelief” charges the Church with an inability to live as the saints did in the days of the Reformation. This too is a strange ground. In the first place, I have not heard such a charge brought by unbelief. The charge most often on the lips of unbelievers is just the opposite. They say: Your confession and life is outdated, old-fashioned, belonging to a dead era, not in keeping with the temper of modern times. But apart from this point, and in the second place, I do not really care what unbelief says to me; nor should any Church which wants to be faithful to the gospel. Surely, whatever unbelief has to say to the Church ought not to be the motivation to write a new Confession. Surely, unbelief does not have the final say in this important matter of the Church. Surely, unbelief is not going to tell the Church what she must do with the truth of God. To insert this as a ground strikes me as most peculiar.
The general impression is left with me that this overture is once again an expression of dissatisfaction with the truth of the Scriptures. The Classis affirms that this is not the case. But the grounds suggest this strongly. If this is true, then it is only one more attempt to follow the way of a Church which rapidly moves down the slippery road of apostasy.