Previous article in this series: February 15, 2008, p. 220.
All the zealous efforts for unity in the church have one common thread that must not be overlooked. The one common element is this: unity is only in and on the basis of the truth. Unity built on smiles and pleasant talk is pseudo unity. Unity built on compromise with the truth, thus on a blurring of the truth of Scripture or on outright heresy, is a unity forged with Satan’s blessing. Ultimately that is the unity of the antichristian church—all the churches around the world united on the basis of the lie, supporting the one who will claim to be God, directing the worship of all men to this impostor.
To understand why truth is the genuine unity of the church, we must come to appreciate the profound reality that the church is the body of Christ. God has set Christ to be the head of the church (Eph. 1:20-22). God has from eternity known each member of that church, chosen each in Christ, and given each one to Christ. Every member of the church is grafted into Christ by a living faith. Christ lives within every member by His Spirit. Christ rules each member from the throne erected in the heart. This union with Christ makes the innumerable host of the members of the church to be not a pile of rocks, not a faceless mob, but a living body.
Not only does Christ rule over each member, He rules in and over each congregation. Christ is especially present in the special offices. He preaches the gospel, He administers the sacraments, and He exercises Christian discipline in each faithful church. But consider, now, that this same Christ is truth. For Jesus Himself declared, “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me” (John 14:6). God determined to reveal Himself in His Son, in whom “dwelleth the fullness of the Godhead bodily” (Col. 2:9). God speaks of Himself by the Word, and Jesus is that eternal Word (John 1). And God’s “Word is truth” (John 17:17).
In perfect harmony with this, Scripture teaches that the church is built on the truth, for her foundation is “the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone” (Eph. 2:20).
Paul’s inspired epistle to the Ephesians is the book of the Bible that more than any other emphasizes the truth of the church as the one body of Christ. After setting forth (in the first three chapters) the doctrine of the one church, grounded eternally in election in Christ, redeemed by Christ, and united (Jews and Gentiles) in Christ, the Spirit so beautifully caps this teaching with the admonition “to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” And why? “There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; One Lord, one faith, one baptism, One God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all” (Eph. 4:3-6).
Since the truth is the unity of the church, the confessions play a significant role in genuine church unity. Reformed believers rightly call confessions “the forms of unity,” recognizing that the confessions unify. Reformed churches the world over, holding up the standards of the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dordt, have a common bond in the Reformed truth. Presbyterian churches worldwide, maintaining the Westminster Standards, have a common bond in the truth.
Such a confessional bond, however important it is, does not necessarily result in or demand institutional unity. That is to say, no one should imagine that all the churches who have the three forms of unity should get under one umbrella-organization. This call has been made, and is being made today.
Such an idea has appeal. A worldwide Reformed organization would concretely manifest unity in the Reformed community—the heartfelt desire of every believer. For each of the member churches, it would mean that every single Reformed church becomes one’s ally, rather than an adversary. Besides, the stigma of being small would immediately be gone, as each of the hundreds of small congregations and denominations would be part of a conglomerate of hundreds of thousands. This would result in recognition, perhaps even grudging respect, in the world. And it might yield resources heretofore unknown for the witness to the Reformed faith. Very appealing!
But this organization of all who are Reformed, or all who are Presbyterian, or both, is neither desirable nor right, for important reasons. First and foremost, all who officially subscribe to the Reformed confessions are not Reformed. Sad to say, the history of the churches of the Reformation is a history of decline and deformation. Churches once strong in the Reformed faith begin to ignore their confessions. Heresies explicitly rejected in the confessions are heard in the preaching and teaching of churches officially maintaining the Reformed confessions. But no discipline is exercised. Thus the creeds are ignored. Every Reformed church faces this battle. The confessions must live in the souls of the people and be vigorously upheld if a church is to deserve the name “Reformed.”
But there is another significant reason why it is not right or feasible to have all Reformed churches unite, even if it were possible to eliminate all those churches that no longer hold to the Reformed confessions. It has to do with truth. Truth must be understood, not in some cold, static way, as a mere standard of orthodoxy. Rather, truth is organic—like a living tree. The truth of God is an organic whole. Every part of the truth is connected to every other part, and to the living principle of life in the organism, Christ Jesus.
A significant implication of that organic view of truth is that there is development in the truth. Now the whole truth that God requires us to know and believe is contained in Scripture, but the church draws that truth out and expresses the doctrines clearly. The ancient church had the whole truth, even though few of the doctrines had been clearly set forth. The truth is not like a wall of bricks, so that the truth possessed by the early church was merely the bottom layer of bricks. That would mean that the early church had only part of the truth. Rather (taking the organic view) the ancient church had the whole truth, but in seed form. In time that seed would sprout forth, grow into a sapling, and, eventually, develop into the glorious tree that the church enjoys today. Even when the church had but the seed of the truth, everything that would ever be developed in the truth the early church had in principle. But through the ages, there would be development in the truth—the tree would grow. That development would be through the work of the Spirit of truth.
We should notice that this development in the truth is intertwined with the writing of confessions. The truth came into clearer focus oftentimes through the necessity of combating one particular heresy or another. That new clarity of expression would be set down by the church in creeds. In addition, any subsequent development of doctrine would arise out of the existing confessions as the church lived out of her confessions. Such development would not only be based on the existing creeds, it would be within their parameters.
All this has a direct bearing on the proposal that all who hold to Reformed confessions ought to join together. Implicit in this is the idea that all these churches are within the bounds of the Reformed confessions, even though all have developed differently and have different emphases. The premise is: If a confession does not specifically speak to a doctrine, then the confessions will allow any teaching on it. For example, since the confessions do not specifically address common grace, the well-meant gospel offer, or the covenant of grace, these are non-confessional matters, and one can hold varying positions on them and still be within the bounds of the Reformed confessions.
The Reformed churches have not always taken this narrow view of the teaching and authority of the confessions. For example, the Christian Reformed Church did not hesitate to condemn premillennialism on the basis of the confessions, even though the Reformed confessions do not explicitly address the doctrine of the millennium. Written before the various views on the millennium arose, the creeds do not specifically condemn pre- or post-millennialism, nor affirm the a-mil position. Nonetheless, the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism do teach that Christ is the eternal king of His church, a doctrine that premillennialism denies. On that basis, the CRC condemned premillennialism as heresy and deposed Rev. Harry Bultema in 1918.
The PRC view the issue of common grace the same way. Obviously the creeds do not address common grace directly, having been written before it was an issue. However, we are convinced that the creeds leave no room for common grace, and, in fact, condemn it. If that is true, then allowance for common grace may not be an option for any church holding to the Reformed confessions.
Similarly, the three forms do not contain a doctrine of the covenant of grace. That does not mean that any view of the covenant is within the bounds of the confessions. In the 1950s, the PRC adopted a document that demonstrated that the confessions would not allow for a conditional covenant of God made with all the baptized children. The PRC are roundly criticized for adopting this document (the “Declaration of Principles”), but to my knowledge no one has ever demonstrated that the content of the document is wrong.
For upholding the position that the Reformed confessions will not allow a conditional covenant of grace, the PRC are criticized as being too narrow. She is urged to view the covenant as a non-confessional matter. But the PRC, so thankful to God for the rich treasures of God’s truth entrusted to her care, are not about to enter any union that would jeopardize these precious truths. To do so would be to spurn the blessing of the Spirit in these advances in the truth. It would be rank disobedience and ingratitude.
Unity in the truth, unity in confession, demands that only churches that hold to the truth that is consistent with the confessions bind together.
The alternative is compromise. John Calvin, in his sermon on Ephesians 4:1-5, expressed the Reformed abhorrence of unity based on compromise:
It was very necessary that this should be added, to show that peace will never be good or allowed by God, yea, rather it would be an evil, unless it has a good basis. For what sort of a peace would it be if nowadays we were to join the papists? We should have to forsake the pure doctrine of the gospel and to set up ourselves against God and defile ourselves with all kinds of filthiness and abominations. But it would be better if the whole world were sunk, and we with it, than to seek such a peace.
Jehovah’s rhetorical question recorded by Amos (3:3) sets the demanding standard: “Can two walk together, except they be agreed?” Churches must agree in the truth if they are to walk together. They must discuss, debate, and define carefully, probe, explore, and expound until they are convinced that they agree in the truth.
What is left for the Protestant Reformed Churches?
Is it so, for the PRC, that seeking unity with other churches in this world is limited to establishing church relationships with churches that are the fruit of PR missions?
Has the PRC made her “distinctive positions” high walls that preclude any relationships with existing churches?
Is the work of the Committee for Contact with Other Churches to be simply the task of looking for churches that are exactly like the PRC? Or of finding those who are close and remaking them into Protestant Reformed Churches?
The answer to all these questions is no.
… to be continued.