Previous article in this series: September 1, 2012, p. 467.
In a previous article I began an examination of the decision by the 2012 Synod of the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) to replace Dordt’s Formula of Subscription (FOS) with a new Covenant for Officebearers (CFO). I noted the history of this movement in the CRC since the 1960s and especially the origins of the current movement to replace the FOS, starting with an overture in 2003. I began an examination of the problems with this new CFO, noting that it invites, encourages, and sanctions criticism of the creeds.
In addition to that grave problem, the CFO also rejects the Reformed understanding of the authority and place of the creeds.
First, the document begins with a weakly worded sentence about Scripture: “We believe the inspired Word of God as received in the Old and New Testaments of Holy Scripture, which proclaims the good news of God’s creation and redemption in Jesus Christ. Acknowledging the authority of God’s Word, we submit to it in all matters of life and faith.” In light of the long-standing criticism of the first eleven chapters in Genesis in the CRC, one is left wondering what this sentence means.
Second, aside from its weak wording, why is a statement on Scripture included in a document intended to be a sort of subscribing to the creeds? By including this statement the CRC has redefined what subscription is. Subscription according to the Reformed understanding is not and never was intended to be a statement about Scripture. It is a statement about the Reformed creeds. Fundamentally it is the statement that officebearers “heartily believe and are persuaded that all the articles and points of doctrine contained in” the three forms of unity “do fully agree with the Word of God.”
With this wording the FOS presupposes the Word of God and the officebearer’s submission to the Word of God. In the matter of subscription an officebearer’s declaration of his willingness to submit to the authority of God’s Word in all matters of faith in life is not the issue. If he will not submit, he is not even Christian. Further, for one to state that he submits to Scripture is redundant and unnecessary in light of the creeds’ own statements on Scripture and candid use of Scripture for the establishment of all their doctrine. If the officebearer commits himself to the doctrine of the creeds, he has committed himself to submit to Scripture.
At the heart of this controversy over subscription, a point recognized by many who overtured the synod about the CFO, is Dordt’s phrase “do fully agree with the Word of God.” The issue is not merely having or not having that phrase in the document. Rather, the issue is the place and force of that phrase in the CFO. In the FOS that phrase is the reason officebearers will “diligently teach and faithfully defend the aforesaid doctrine [of the three forms of unity], without either directly or indirectly contradicting the same.”
Do the creeds in their articles, doctrines, and doctrinal formulations fully agree with the Word of God, so that to disagree with the creeds is to disagree with the Word of God, so that a theological controversy in a Reformed church can be settled on the basis of an appeal to the creeds alone, and so that for disagreement with the creeds an officebearer must be deposed? This is the issue.
“Do fully agree with the Word of God” is the monumental declaration that opens Dordt’s Formula and is the basis of the idea of confessional subscription, of all that follows this statement in the FOS, and of the necessity of a Reformed officebearer’s signing the Formula, if he is Reformed.
What is the reason that an officebearer must subscribe to the creeds, must teach and defend the creeds, must refute and contradict all errors that militate against the creeds, and must exert himself to keep the church free from errors? The creeds “do fully agree with the Word of God.”
Why may not the Reformed officebearer criticize the creeds except by way of gravamen? In their articles and points of doctrine, they “do fully agree with the Word of God.”
What is the basis of the creeds’ authority; why may and must the creeds bind; why is teaching, preaching, knowing, and confessing the creeds vital to the life of every Reformed church and to the office of every Reformed officebearer? Why is rejection of the creeds, ignorance of the creeds, or contradiction of the creeds fatal to an officebearer, church, and denomination? In their articles and points of doctrines they “do fully agree with the Word of God.”
In the FOS the creeds claim nothing for themselves, but only claim what Scripture teaches. Their authority can only be derivative. With derivative authority they must bind, and they may not be criticized except in the way of gravamen.
Since the creeds teach the Word of God and fully agree with it, the only attitude of the Reformed man, the Reformed church, and the Reformed denomination toward them can be one of being subject to them, while at the same time recognizing the possibility—though unlikelihood—that they may be changed.
The real implicit accusation of the man who refuses to subscribe to the creeds in this sense—the sense of Dordt—is to accuse the creeds of unfaithfulness to and disagreement with the Word of God. A Reformed man either subscribes to the creeds or criticizes them through the proper method of gravamen.
Rejecting this whole understanding of Dordt and the Reformed churches, the CRC now says, “We also affirm three confessions—the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dordt—as historic expressions of the Christian faith, whose doctrines fully agree with the Word of God. These confessions continue to define the way we understand Scripture, direct the way we live in response to the gospel, and locate us within the larger body of Christ.”
Subscription in the CFO is reduced to affirming confessions as “historic expressions of the Christian faith.” They are not even described as historic expressions of the Reformed faith. Although in response to a number of protests from within the denomination, the phrase “whose doctrines fully agree with the Word of God” was inserted by the committee of pre-advice at synod, the connection of that phrase to what follows in the FOS is lost and with it the whole binding character of the creeds. Dordt’s concern with this phrase was that by it Dordt bound the officebearer not merely in a general way to conform his teaching to the creeds, but rather actually to teach and faithfully defend the doctrine of the creeds, and not to contradict it. That phrase in its connection with the rest of the Formula governs the officebearer’s whole attitude and behavior toward the creeds. The issue is not whether this important phrase is included in some way in the CFO, but how it functions in the CFO.
Furthermore, in the next paragraph the CFO takes a turn for the worse. “Grateful for these expressions of faith, we promise to be formed and governed by them. We heartily believe and will promote and defend their doctrines faithfully, conforming our preaching, teaching, writing, serving, and living to them.”
Gratefulness now is the motivating reason to teach and preach the creeds. Not because they teach what Scripture teaches, not because the articles and doctrines of the creeds do fully agree with the Word of God, but gratefulness for historic expressions of faith, which is simply a promise to be governed by these historic expressions, in separation from Scripture. Now an officebearer does not have to believe, teach, and defend the creeds because they agree with Scripture and because Scripture alone is the infallible rule of faith and life, but Scripture and gratefulness for historic expressions of the faith have claims on the submission of the church. Why should an officebearer teach the content of a document merely because he is grateful for it? I am grateful for Homer’s Iliad, but that does not mean I am going to conform my preaching and writing in the church to it.
There are other serious issues with CFO.
The CFO follows the weak and unnecessary paragraph on Scripture with a bad paragraph on the ecumenical creeds: “We affirm three creeds—the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed—as ecumenical expressions of the Christian faith. In doing so, we confess our faith in unity with followers of Jesus Christ throughout all ages and among all nations.” First, this article is redundant in light of the Belgic Confession’s statement that the Reformed faith “receives” these three creeds. Second, the issue is Reformed subscription. Just about anyone who says he is Christian will affirm the three ecumenical creeds. The Reformed reception of these three ecumenical creeds, however, is not a confession of faith in unity with all who happen to have these three creeds as their confession. The Roman Catholic Church has these three creeds, but the Reformed confession of those creeds is fundamentally opposed to Rome’s. It is not a confession with Rome, but it is a confession against Rome. This comes out most clearly in the Heidelberg Catechism’s explanation of the Apostles’ Creed, which at virtually every point is opposed to Rome.
There is also the candid move by the committee to place on a par with the three forms of unity the trite poem Our World Belongs to God: A Contemporary Testimony. By including it in the CFO with the three forms of unity and requiring the officebearer to sign it along with the three forms of unity the CRC has placed it on a par with the three forms of unity.
In glowing language the committee expressed their hope that it will “revitalize confessional identity and engagement” in the CRC. In the CFO the little poem receives the honorable designation of “Reformed expression of the Christian faith.”
But if the three forms of unity will not revitalize confessional identity, neither will Our World Belongs to God. Either that or the confessional identity that it will revitalize will be as trite as the testimony itself. As a poem it is open to severe criticism for aesthetics. As an official creed, which is what the committee wanted and essentially received because the officebearer must now subscribe to it, it is practically worthless. It is not an expression of the Reformed faith, but a product of theological shallowness that manifests a loss of doctrinal vitality; it evinces an understanding that is enamored of pretty expressions and bored with or offended by sound doctrine. As such it is also a thin string on which to hang hopes to “revitalize” any meaningful “confessional identity.”
The CFO also removes Dordt’s severe, but just, penalty for an officebearer’s contradicting the creeds publicly or privately before making such sentiments known to consistory, classis, and synod in the way of a gravamen or for refusing to submit to their judgment: de facto suspension from office. This was the important provision of Dordt that reinforced its view of the seriousness of confessional subscription and keeping one’s vow. Removing Dordt’s penalty from the CFO is other evidence that war has been declared on the creeds.
It is not, then, the act of revising the FOS as such that is so appalling for its audacity. For the CRC did not revise the FOS. It replaced it and replaced subscription as well. It is not even the bold act of replacing the FOS that is astounding. It is possible that the FOS could be replaced with something better. Rather, it is the bold, unashamed, and audacious replacement of the FOS along with the open admission of long-standing violations of its provisions, the public failures to discipline the false teachers, and the replacement of the FOS by a CFO that is intended to allow wide latitude from the creeds, sanctions open disagreement and assault upon the creeds by clergy and professors in the CRC, and to do that with the stated purpose to revitalize confessional identity in the church.
This new CFO is a collective refusal by the CRC to subscribe to the creeds. Having collectively refused to sign the creeds, the CRC gives public notice that it refuses to be Reformed. To be Reformed is not merely to have a certain history or to have a certain document as an historic expression of faith. To be Reformed is to stand in such a relationship to the three forms of unity as is expressed in the FOS, a relationship that as of June 12, 2012 no longer exists between the CRC and the Reformed creeds.
This decision ought to serve notice to many in the CRC who still may confess and live the Reformed doctrine and faith: Your denomination has now officially parted ways with the Reformed creeds and faith. The creeds are now officially, what they have for so long been practically: “historic expressions of the Christian faith.” Nothing more. Merely “expressions” to be openly criticized.
Let every officebearer and Reformed man or woman whose heart still pulses with love for the creeds, because in their articles and points of doctrine they “fully agree with Scripture,” demand subscription with Dordt’s form and set themselves for the promotion and defense of the Reformed faith once delivered to the saints.