The CRC Synod in Review

Various magazines and papers from within Christian Reformed circles are reporting on the action of their last Synod. These reports indicate a great amount of activity—one is amazed at the amount of material that is treated within the span of less than two weeks.

The Outlook of Aug. 1977, through its reporter, Rev. John Piersma, summarizes the Synod as follows:

Surely we must say, “Old issues never die, in fact, they don’t even fade away!” 

If I had to characterize the ’77 synod I’d say that it was not marked by decisive and courageous action. Many issues were dealt with procedurally rather than substantively. Those who were prepared to debate the issues surrounding the ordination of Dr. Allen Verhey or the gravamen registered against the doctrine of reprobation as stated in the Canons of Dordt never really had a chance to speak their minds. These things were pushed off rather than faced—in my opinion to the possible hurt of the churches.

Many things were treated at this Synod. Several items remind how far there has been from the principles held by Reformed churches in past ages—and also by the Christian Reformed Church in the past. One obvious departure is that increasingly this synod and church (together with many others of our day) take action in non-ecclesiastical matters. There were, for instance, “guidelines” adopted on how to make “Christian ethical decisions when your government goes to war.” Or, there was appointed a “Task Force on World Hunger” which must report to Synod of 1978. This committee is also instructed to deal with the question of “international poverty.” Such nonecclesiastical matters ought to keep any body very active for a long time to come! But what of the affairs of the church?

Several ecclesiastical matters brought to this Synod have caught the attention of many within and without the CRC. One of these was the “Verhey Case.” No fewer than 34 appeals were made against the decision of Synod of 1976 approving the ordination of Dr. Allen Verhey—an approval made in spite of the fact that Dr. Verhey denied the literal account of some portions of Scripture. Dutton’s consistory specifically appealed to the Synod to reconsider its protest of last year. Dutton had protested the action of Classis G.R. East in approving the ordination of Verhey—yet Synod insisted that Dutton’s only course was to object to Verhey’s ideas by way of confronting him and his consistory with Verhey’s possible violation of the formula of subscription. 

This year, the Synod again neatly sidestepped the issue and ignored the legitimate objection of Dutton by deciding:

1. That synod consider the adjudication of the Dutton protest concerning Dr. Verhey’s views presently engaged in by the Neland Avenue consistory an adequate way of dealing with the matter. Ground: The requested examination of Dr. Verhey’s views is provided in this way. Neland Avenue plans to determine the validity of his views, to persuade him to conform to an acceptable view, if his views should be outside of our confessions, and to attempt to reconcile the parties in this protest in a pastoral way. 

2. That synod communicate the concerns about Dr. Verhey’s views raised in the appeals and overtures to Neland Avenue’s committee for discussion with Dr. Verhey, namely: 

—the nature of his hermeneutics, whether the event character of the Scriptures is excluded or called into question. 

—his understanding of the serpent in

Genesis 3.

—his understanding of the earthquake in

Matthew 28.

3. That synod ask the consistory of Neland Avenue CRC to report the result of its investigation to the 1978 synod. Ground: Since the appeals, overtures and communications have been addressed to synod, synod should receive a report of this investigation. 

4. That synod declare these actions to be its answer to the appeals, overtures and communications.

And that’s how Synod treated 34 protests, appeals, etc. It is in no way an answer to the original Dutton appeal against the action against G.R. Classis East. And it would seem highly irregular if not utterly improper for Synod to ask a committee from a local consistory to report its conclusions to Synod. Such is hardly an answer to legitimate protests and overtures. 

Another item debated on the floor of Synod was the question of dancing at Calvin College. According to the Outlook, the board of trustees reported:

. . . the Board instructs the Administration to implement immediately the development of social dancing in a Christian manner. . . . 

. . . the Board accepts the recommendation included in the report of the ad hoc Committee on Dancing that Calvin College “allow for social dancing as an acceptable and wholesome, on-campus, recreational activity for Calvin students and staff. . . .

A motion that “synod disapprove of the Board of trustees policy on social dancing” was defeated. Congregations and classes are invited to send reactions to this policy. These will be presented to the 1978 Synod—and then the policy will be implemented, probably in September of 1978. (In the meantime, almost everyone acquainted with Calvin is well aware that “parties with music” have been regularly held—a euphemism for “social dancing.” The only change in the future might be the numbers of such “parties” and the freedom to call “a spade” by its real name.) 

Another question of burning interest was the “confessional-revision gravamen” of Dr. H. Boer. This objected to the teaching of the Canons of Dordt concerning reprobation. Some of the 15-page document is quoted in the News Bulletin of the Association of Christian Reformed Laymen. These are some of the things Boer states:

By the doctrine of reprobation, therefore, I understand that creedal confession of the Christian Reformed Church which teaches an unchangeable decree made in eternity by God which has the same irrevocable binding power as God’s decree of election and which effects the declaration set forth in I/15 above (Canons of Dordt). . . . 

. . . It is my position that so sinister and doomful a teaching as reprobation, whereby a massive segment of mankind, generally considered in Reformed theology to be the great majority of the human race, past, present and future, is consigned to everlasting damnation before they ever came into being, must, if it is to be confessionally held, be directly, explicitly and unambiguously taught in Scripture itself. No consensus of theologians, no authority of the church, no weight of history or tradition is entitled to regard or obedience so long as such consensus, authoritative declaration or weighty tradition are not based squarely and fully on the Word of God written (Belgic Confession, Article VII, notably the words, “Therefore we reject with all our hearts whatsoever does not agree with this infallible rule.”) This is the essence, the heart, the soul, the sine qua non of my gravamen. . . . 

. . . I am a minister of the Word of God. I am not a minister of theological deductions, or of ecclesiastical conclusions, or of religious traditions that have only age and uncritical acceptance to commend them. I do not believe, and I refuse to entertain, that my election “ipso facto” requires a corresponding reprobation of others. I do not read in Scripture that the sovereign grace that elected me to be a child of God without regard to any merit on my part has as its logical and necessary opposite a sovereign wrath that damns men to an existence of everlasting death without regard to any demerit on their part. As I believe in sola gratia for salvation, so do I believe in sola Scriptura for my understanding and proclamation of that salvation, and even more for the Church’s understanding and proclamation of salvation. 

It is my belief that in taking this position I stand on firm Reformed ground. For that reason I submit herewith for synodical examination and adjudication this gravamen, this confessional revision gravamen, against what I judge to be a grievously unbiblical, therefore unRefomred, indeed, unchristian doctrine.

The same News Bulletin reports part of the minority report of the committee of Synod:

The minority would like to make some observations about the gravamen itself. We believe that it is a caricature of the Canons. It affirms what the Canons themselves most emphatically state would be a wrong understanding of them. In their conclusions we read that the Reformed Churches “detest with their whole soul” and “do not acknowledge” as true that God “by a mere act of his will, without the least respect or view to any sin, has predestinated the greatest part of the world to eternal damnation, and created them for this purpose.” Yet this is what Dr. Boer states they teach. In the Canons themselves we find evidence which does not warrant Dr. Boer’s conclusions. They were against “inquisitively prying into the secret things of God,” (1st Head, Art. 18) and tell us to have a “holy adorations of these mysteries.” (1st Head, Art. 12). The gravamen views the Canons as supralapsarian while it is generally held that our creeds are infralapsarian. 

The conclusion of the Canons wars against those who bear “false witness against the confessions of so many churches; for distressing the consciences of the weak; and for laboring to render suspected the society of the truly faithful.” If this synod submits this gravamen with all of its weaknesses to the church without comment, it would distress the consciences of many. The minority committee believes that it would be the height of irresponsibility to do so.

Synod decided: 1. That Synod accept the confessional-revision gravamen of Dr. Boer and declare it legally before Synod. 2. That Synod publish Dr. Boer’s gravamen in the Acts of Synod 1977 and declare that it is before the churches for their consideration. (The Synod adopted last year the policy: “. . . when the constituted synod declares the matter to be legally before it for action, all the signers of the Form of Subscription shah be free to discuss it together with the whole church until adjudicated by synod.”) 3. Synod appoints a committee to receive reactions of the churches—and advise the Synod of 1980 how to deal with this gravamen. 

There is something radically wrong when this sort of gravamen will allow one to ignore the formula of subscription which he has signed with respect to one important doctrine of the confessions—and for three years dispute or denounce the doctrine in the churches both privately and publicly. Even if the 1980 Synod were to reject the gravamen, how much doubt and question will be instilled in the minds of the unlearned, and how much confusion will be generated about this doctrine of the Reformed churches! Would these churches treat another’s “confessional-revision gravamen” this same way if it concerned the doctrine of the Trinity? The CRC has opened the door which leads to utter chaos with respect to its confessions!