In our societies, organized for the purpose of studying the Word of God, the after-recess program is very often quite a problem. We are all agreed without a doubt that the after-recess program is not and should not be intended for mere entertainment. The purpose of this program as well as the study of God’s Word in the first part of our meetings should be to build one another in the faith.
Our Confessions, which we may find conveniently located in the back part of our Psalters provide us with a wealth of material for after-recess discussions. How many readers of these lines have actually read the Belgic Confession and the Canons of Dordrecht through from beginning to end? How many have made any study whatsoever of any part of these works? The Heidelberg Catechism which is the third of the three confessions which we have accepted as churches is much better known unto us since we hear a portion of God’s Word explained to us from its viewpoint each Sabbath in our Divine services. But the Confession of faith and the Canons are for the greater share of us an unexplored mine of treasures. Most of us have at best a very vague idea of what these confessions contain. Yet they give expression to what we believe is the truth of the Word of God. And they certainly afford our societies an abundance of material which can be profitably discussed and guide us into our study of the Scriptures.
In the Belgic or Netherlands Confession you have thirty seven articles which deal with the truth as the Church in ages past through its search of the Scriptures was led by the Spirit to behold and believe. As a society we can profitably examine these expressions of our forefathers and benefit tremendously from five chapters which together provide us with fifty nine articles wherein the truth is positively expressed and thirty four articles which are directed at specific false doctrines. Here is material for years of society discussion. If indeed one such article can even be treated in one evening without doing injustice to it, then no society which sets out to study these confessions need complain that it has nothing fresh to study since it was but last year that they studied the Netherlands Confession or the Canons. In fact it would not at all even be without profit that we become better acquainted with our church order, and any society which one year studied the Netherlands Confession, the Canons the following season and the Church Order, which also may be found in the back part of our Psalters, the third year, will indeed after three years still find plenty of interesting discussion the following year to return to the Netherlands Confession. Personally we do not see how any Society which really makes an honest attempt to discuss these confessions can finish any one of them in a one year period.
It becomes advisable that we study these confessions together in our societies for the reasons we presented in the last installment of this department. Our study of them will be systematic; we are not so apt to let one or two go and pass by others because they are too difficult or else because we think that the doctrine contained in a certain article is so well known to us that we have nothing new to learn from it, and gathered with others who have studied that same article we may benefit from their remarks and explanations in regard to what is taught in the articles of these confessions. This makes the discussion of these things very beneficial for us. And our societies are just the place for such discussion.
Recently the undersigned was informed that there are congregations outside the circle of our churches which having three services each Sabbath make a practice in the third service to read one of the articles of our Netherlands Confession or of the Canons of Dordrecht. In the first two services, even as is done in our churches, The Law and the so called Apostolic Creed are read. There is surely no danger in having these articles read to us on the Sabbath, but how much more profitable is a discussion of these things together as a society? A natural result of attentively listening to the reading of these articles of our confession will be that questions arise in our mind. And if we are interested in the things spiritual, we will also want to have an answer to these questions. We will want to study the article itself more carefully so as to arrive at a proper understanding of what the author had in mind when he wrote it, and we will above all want to be able to see that the teachings of that article are indeed the truth of God’s Word. This is especially the case with that greatly discussed thirty sixth article of the Netherlands Confession. The footnote in your Psalter edition of it will make plain to you that this article has been the object of debate even by Reformed Synods since the time it was first accepted. Simply now to have this article read from the pulpit to us would certainly send us home with the impression that our churches teach something quite different from what we in our Protestant Reformed Churches hear in the preaching of the Word. In fact this may perhaps be said of all Reformed Churches in our land. Does any Reformed church in our land teach that our government is appointed by God that it “may remove and prevent all idolatry and false worship?” You see here is a nice thing not to cast around in your own mind and go home from church thinking to yourself and asking yourself, “Is that really what our churches believe to be the plain teaching of God’s Word?”, but it is an interesting subject to discuss together in society. Nor is this the only article that will cause questions to rise in the mind of the careful reader. And if you yourself do not see any questions immediately in the article, in your society there will always be others who will see them for you and be instrumental in opening your eyes to deeper and richer things. Reading these articles is a very worthwhile thing, but how much more profit is there not in a brotherly discussion of these things as men of one faith?
Let us remember however that they are but guides in this instance to our searching of the Scriptures. We may not and must not place these confessions on the same level with the Word of God. They are far from infallible, which fact becomes plain when one reads that thirty sixth article of the Netherlands Confession. We cannot prove any point of doctrine simply by quoting these confessions, and for ourselves we may not be satisfied that things which we find in these confessions which are new to us are the truth of God’s Word without investigating the matter ourselves. Indeed we are not all theologians who can wrestle with these deep dogmatic problems and delve into the intricacies of these problems. But if any point of doctrine troubles us, we certainly ought to search the Scriptures as the people of Berea did when Paul spoke to them of Christ. We ought to have that much interest in the truth, and we ought to know as clearly as possible what the churches wherein we have a name and a place to teach. For we ought to desire to know as much as we possibly can of the God of our salvation so that we may grow in that fear of the Lord which consists in reverence and awe before Him and so that we may praise Him for His glory.
Our study of these confessions, of course, must not have for its purpose the attempt to find fault with the expression of our fathers in regard to these doctrines of which they write. Such an approach to our confessions will in no way profit us at all. We may not despise these confessions. Even though they are the work of man and not to be placed on the same level with the Word of God, we must not forget that ever since the time of the Apostles the Spirit has not left the Church but rather leads the Church into further and further development of the truth. Christ did not leave us comfortless but sent the Spirit of Truth Who leads us into all the truth. Even though men individually are not guided infallibly in their teachings and writings so that we do not today have an authority on the truth in the same sense that the Apostles were such authorities, the Spirit does infallibly lead the Church of Christ into the truth. The Spirit has lead the Church so that today we have a further development of the truth then let us say the Church had it in the third and fourth centuries after Christ’s ascension to heaven. We may not despise then what God has given to us through our fathers in the land beyond the sea in ages past. Even though we, because the Spirit is still leading the Church further into the truth, can see things even clearer than our forefathers so that we can detect errors in what they put forth as that which they believed, we ought to approach these things into which the Spirit led the Church in the past with a sense of thankfulness and deep appreciation to God that we may have these things for our instruction and for guides into the study of His Word. If some of the rungs are missing in a ladder, you are prevented from climbing higher until you first put new ones in place of those that are gone. And if we break out of the ladder these rungs which lead us to a higher and richer insight of the truth of God’s Word and go and stand on that ladder where are the rungs of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, we must first put in these rungs which would make higher climbing possible. We ought to be thankful that God has led the Church to the high point where she stood when she by His grace made and accepted these confessions. Rather than to break down the rungs upon which we stand, let us set ourselves firmly upon them and searching the Scriptures seek to attain to a higher and richer insight into the truth. And let us do so also in our society life by using these confessions as guides.
The Church in the future will be led even more deeply into the truth by the Spirit, but the individual also needs to be led more and more deeply into that which the Church as a whole has seen and confesses. How many of our members see the truth as beautifully as it is expressed in our confessions?’ If you never read them, you surely do not. If you study them, you will see them even more deeply.
These conditions are the result of the searching of the Scriptures by our forefathers being spurred on by the heresies which were running wild in their day. Studying these confessions, comparing them with the Scriptures, we are guided by them in our search of the Word of God.
Understand, of course, that when we have been speaking of searching the Scriptures, we do not mean that we have to look to find what in the Word of God is the truth and what is not. The Word of God is not in the Bible in that sense that we have to search out what is God’s Word and what is man’s. By searching the Scriptures we mean that we read them, compare passages and seek not to find the truth in the Scriptures but to seek a deeper insight into the truth. In that sense it is too that the confessions of which we have been writing are valuable guides into searching the Scriptures. Through their study in the light of God’s Word we will arrive at a deeper insight into the truth. Here also the words of Christ apply, “Seek and ye shall find.”