This year at the 2012 Synod of the Christian Reformed Church (CRC), after years of interviews, surveys, and revisions, the Form of Subscription Revision Committee presented its report and proposed replacement of Dordt’s venerable Formula of Subscription (FOS).¹
The Synod of Dordt (1618–19) adopted the FOS, and since then it has served as the standard of confessional subscription in Reformed churches. In lofty, sober, clear, and compelling language the FOS sets down which are the Reformed confessions, the place of confessions in Reformed churches, the nature of Reformed confessional subscription, and the penalty for the Reformed officebearer who refuses to subscribe or violates his subscription vow. It is a sobering exercise to read the Formula. It is a solemn and sacred act to sign it. Every man who is Reformed in heart and confession gladly signs it. It has served the Reformed churches well since Dordt. In periods of great reformations, Reformed churches have always returned to the Formula and with it to the creeds.
On June 12, 2012, the synod of the CRC unanimously set aside the FOS and adopted a new Covenant for Officebearers (CFO).² Thus the CRC news reported: “After years of deliberation and debate, the Christian Reformed Church has decided to set aside its historic Form of Subscription in favor of a new Covenant for Officebearers.”³
The news report was correct: the CRC has “set aside.” The CFO is no revision of the Formula, but is a setting aside, a replacement. It bears no resemblance to Dordt’s FOS at all; it was not intended to. When the committee was originally formed in 2005, its mandate was “clarifying the FOS.” The revision committee stated early on its understanding of its mandate: “clarification of the FOS required a more thorough restatement rather than a minor update of the language.” Taking the occasion for “clarification,” the committee simply defined that as “thorough restatement.” Synod agreed, and the committee thoroughly restated the idea of subscription, the place of creeds in the church, and the duty of officebearers toward those creeds. Whatever the CFO is, it is not the Formula of Subscription; whatever an officebearer does when he signs the CFO, he does not subscribe to the Reformed creeds.
The Formula’s longstanding opponents, who were crying for replacement of the FOS already in the 1960s—those rebellious officebearers who refused to sign the FOS and the dishonest officebearers who signed it and broke their vows by teaching publicly or privately against the creeds—must be rejoicing.
The CRC’s adoption of the CFO is the culminating act in a decades-long decline of the Christian Reformed denomination from the creedal, Reformed faith and a signal victory for the forces of opposition to creedal orthodoxy within the CRC.
The adoption of the CFO is the natural outworking of previous synodical decisions. At the root is the synodical decision that misquoted the creeds and the classes’ abuse of the FOS to depose unjustly faithful officebearers for their maintenance of the creedal doctrines of sovereign, particular grace and their denial of common grace in 1924. The judgment on that ecclesiastical sin is the loss of subscription entirely.
Closely related to the decision to adopt the CFO is the 1976 decision of the CRC, incorporated into Article 5 of the CRC Church Order, which gutted subscription of any real meaning. Defining that solemn and sacred act, the CRC said that “the subscriber does not by subscription to the confessions declare that these doctrines are all stated in the best possible manner, or that the standards of our church cover all that the Scriptures teach on the matters confessed.” Putting its own slant on that decision, the revision committee said that, “the supplement to Church Order Article 5 already grants that one does not subscribe to the particular formulation of a doctrine as that formulation is expressed in the confession, but only to the doctrine itself.” Since 1976 in the CRC, the understanding of the act of subscription is that an officebearer does not subscribe to the particular doctrinal formulations of the creeds. That was a fundamental departure from the Reformed understanding of subscription. The FOS itself stands as a witness against that undermining of its language.
That reckless attitude toward the FOS came from tolerating the open opposition to the creeds from men who had subscribed to them, but broke their vow by openly criticizing the creeds and teaching contrary to the creeds. From Harold Dekker to Harry Boer to many today, the Formula for a long time has been a dead letter in the CRC. The chairman of the revision committee, James Dekker, wrote in his blog: “The yearning to change or revise the FOS within the CRC has been around since the early 1950s. Then Calvin College German professor Clarence Boersma presented a gravamen detailing his difficulties with signing the FOS.” Now the CRC expects officebearers who would not keep the Formula to keep the CFO.
The origins of the current movement in the CRC to replace the FOS are simply the logical development of this history, as recognized by the committee that proposed the CFO: “In 2003, Fleetwood CRC in Surrey, British Columbia . . . overtured Synod 2004 to study the efficacy of the Form of Subscription (FOS) on the grounds that many churches in that classis no longer used the FOS because many individuals had difficulty signing it.”4 The issue was that “many” flatly refused to use the Formula, in rebellion against the clear stipulations of the church to which they belonged. Those who had difficulties with the Formula were not disciplined, but were allowed to become officebearers without signing it.
Having first officially abused it, then having officially undermined it, the CRC has now officially rejected the FOS. Historically this has been the way of apostasy for Reformed churches from Dordt on. Whatever the merits or demerits of the document itself are, the origin of it determines that the CFO will be a singular failure for the maintenance of Reformed orthodoxy in that denomination.
As the committee itself admitted, the “real issue” was not the FOS. The committee talked about those who had difficulties with the Formula and those who did not like its language. The committee itself wanted a document with language that “sings” instead of “plods along,” language “that is easily transportable across cultural and linguistic barriers,” and is not “subject to misinterpretation.” The committee insinuated that the Formula was broken.
But the language of the FOS transported perfectly well from the Dutch and Latin of Dordt into English and many other languages. Everyone understands what the FOS requires. That is why some would not sign it. It is not unclear. It is not broken. The language of the FOS is exalted, clear, and fitting for its stated purpose of being a personal vow of adherence to the creeds for the preservation of the uniformity and purity of doctrine that is vital to the existence of a Reformed church.
The issue was men who disagreed with the creeds and wanted an opportunity for open season on the creeds, which the FOS does not officially allow. The grave offense of the FOS is that in crystal clear language it sets forth the Reformed understanding of the place of the creeds in a Reformed church and the meaning of subscription to a creed, an understanding that long ago many who signed the Formula neither agreed with nor practiced.
The synodical news report also says that the CRC set aside “its” FOS, as though it was a parochial action of the CRC. But the FOS is the possession of Reformed churches. Subscription to the three forms of unity, in the language of the FOS, is according to Dordt’s definition what it means for an officebearer to be Reformed. The FOS, as given and declared by Dordt, marks who is and who is not Reformed among the officebearers. By setting aside the historic Reformed Formula, the CRC has separated herself from other Reformed churches and their official adherence to the Reformed creeds by Dordt’s FOS. As such she has lost the right to call herself Reformed. Barring the action of overturning this decision, the CRC is no longer officially a creedal, Reformed church in the accepted sense of the term.
Apart from its origin, the CFO itself is bad.
The adoption of the CFO officially opens the CRC to ecclesiastically sanctioned assaults on the creeds from all those in her midst who for years have chafed under the teachings of the creeds. Indeed this is the expressed hope of the members of the revision committee.
They talk about “discussion,” “confessional vitality,” and “confessional engagement.” The committee states that it “recognized that the FOS or any proposed revision of it was not the real issue. Rather, the deeper issue was that we begin what we hope will become an ongoing process of discussion and reflection on the confessions, the nature of confessional subscription, and the renewal of confessional vitality.” With this document, the committee says, “They have taken a significant step away from the mere signing of a fixed document.” The committee agreed that the purpose of any revision should be “unity with a secondary concern for purity.” According to the committee, “signatories promise to engage in committed, candid, and loving conversation as a community about the doctrines we hold dear and their confessional articulations.” The language of the CFO, “encourages open, honest, respectful dialogue over questions that arise.” According to the committee, “any regulatory instrument that is adopted by the church ought to be regarded as an invitation to the officebearers of the church to participate in this ongoing reflection rather than a document that precludes or hinders such reflection.”
The bold separation of unity and purity and the willingness, then, to sacrifice purity for the sake of unity ought to alarm any Reformed person. It especially signals bad things when a committee for the revision of the FOS talks this way. Unity and purity cannot be separated. The very name—three forms of unity—for the collection of Reformed creeds indicates this impossibility. In purity of doctrine there is unity. Indeed, the Formula’s main concern is “to preserve the uniformity and purity of doctrine,” by which it shows its love for the unity of Christ’s church.5
And this cries for the question: What is the ongoing discussion of and engagement with the creeds in the CRC, as envisioned by the revision committee, supposed to involve?
The committee indicates that this “discussion” will involve “dissent.” The committee envisions that the CFO will be “a promise to work through disagreements and to openly and honestly deal with questions that arise, rather than to have the first reaction be to stifle dissent.” According to the revision committee, the nature of this dissenting conversation on confessional questions and difficulties would involve what formerly an officebearer would be bound to express by gravamen. In explaining the choice of the word covenant in the name for the new document, “The committee and many respondents considered that covenant both encouraged discussion and respected the honest confessional questions raised by those who might otherwise have been discouraged by the thought of facing a council, classis, or synod in a long process [that is, of a gravamen—NJL].” The officebearer is free to disseminate and agitate for his dissent against the confessions, all in the name of discussion and conversation, and without a gravamen.
This is also the meaning of the language of the CFO itself, which replaces Dordt’s statement concerning the responsibilities of officebearers: “If hereafter any difficulties or different sentiments respecting the aforesaid doctrines should arise in our minds, we promise that we will neither publicly nor privately propose, teach, or defend the same, either by preaching or writing, until we have first revealed such sentiments to the consistory, classis, and synod that the same may be there examined.” Instead the Covenant for Officebearers speaks about a “promise to present or receive confessional difficulties in a spirit of love and fellowship with our brothers and sisters as together we seek a fuller understanding of the gospel.”
Dordt’s language assumes agreement with the creeds. By this language the committee assumes that there are confessional difficulties—grave confessional difficulties that under the FOS could be remedied only by gravamen.
By this language the CFO invites open disagreement and dissent with the creeds. It not only commits the CRC to dissent with the creeds, but also sanctions open dissent with the creeds, “in the spirit of love and fellowship” and a “seek[ing of] a fuller understanding of the gospel.” It gives its blessing to opposition to the creeds. It does not stifle dissent, but encourages it. The signatories are committed to it.
When it is not sanctioning dissent with the creeds, the CFO frowns on disagreement with those who so assault the creeds as implicitly being out of accord with the spirit of love and fellowship and a desire to seek a fuller understanding of the gospel. The dissenter will be free to disseminate his dissent, and the hearer must meekly receive it. Opposition is virtually impossible. Indeed, not loving.
The revision committee’s purpose of “revitalizing confessional identity” is not only an admission that denominationally the confessions are a dead letter, but also confuses confessional vitality with open criticism and debate about the creeds. If the CRC wanted confessional vitality it would not have adopted the CFO. It would insist that officebearers sign the FOS, or refusing, that they be suspended from office. It would have insisted that officebearers who signed the Formula teach the doctrines of the creeds. It would have insisted that officebearers who signed it preach the Heidelberg Catechism on Sunday. It would have insisted that no officebearer is free to contradict the doctrines of the creeds or simply to ignore them in his teaching, preaching, and writing. The way to confessional vitality is to uphold the FOS, not to replace it.
. . . to be continued.
1 “Form of Subscription Revision Committee II,” in Agenda for Synod 2012 [of the Christian Reformed Church], 448–61 (http://crcna.org/site_uploads/uploads/resources/2012_agenda.pdf). Quotes from the committee are from this source.
2 See crcna.org/site_uploads/uploads/crccomm/synod/2012/Advisory%20Committee%208A%2006-11-10-30.pdf for the document as adopted by synod 2012. Quotes from the CFO are from this source.
3 http://www.crcna.org/news.cfm?newsid=3538§ion=1. This and future quotations from the reports of the 2012 synod are from this source.
4 “Form of Subscription Revision Committee II,” in Agenda for Synod 2012, 448.
5 Formula of Subscription, in The Confessions and Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches (Grandville, MI: Protestant Reformed Churches in America), 326. This and future quotations from the Formula are from this version.