The Gereformeerde Kerken Repudiate the Canons

Some time ago it was reported in The Standard Bearer that the Gereformeerde Kerken in a synodical decision reminded the churches that the confessions have binding authority upon all as an accepted basis of fellowship. Even this decision was a qualified and ambiguous one: for the Synod “recognized that the manner of expression and the method of argument in the creedal standards should offer no obstacle to officers of the church to express their complete agreement” (RES News Exchange, Nov. 18, 1969). Besides, the Synod also appointed a committee to investigate whether and how a new contemporary confession of faith should be made. 

Since that decision was made, there have been further developments. The Synod accepted as its own a complaint against the Heidelberg Catechism, Question 80, particularly the statement referring to the popish mass as “an abominable idolatry.” But because, according to the Synod, there are other expressions in the Catechism which are objectionable, all of these matters were referred to the committee mentioned above. 

But now the Synod has struck a blow at the very heart of the Reformed faith. RES News Exchange, March 24, 1970, carries the following report:

The Synod of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands has declared that certain passages in the Canons of Dordt concerning the teaching of eternal reprobation are not based upon the clear givens of the Holy Scripture. The Synod reached this decision after considering a protest of a Dr. B.J. Brouwer in the Hague. He had raised objections in principle against the statement in the Canons which state that God decided by an eternal decree not to give to some men the gift of grace, but to leave them to their hardness and evil. 

The Synod declared that these passages in the confessional standard of the church stand in the way of a complete agreement with the three Forms of Unity. The declaration was referred to a commission which is making a study of the present creeds of the church.

Although I do not have any more details of the above decision in my possession, it can easily be ascertained which articles of the Canons of Dordrecht are at stake. They are the same articles which have been criticized for some years already by the same representatives of the so-called “new theology” who have been busy criticizing many important elements of the Reformed faith. One of these articles is Canons I, A, 6:

That some receive the gift of faith from God, and others do not receive it proceeds from God’s eternal decree, “For known unto God are all his works from the beginning of the world.”

Acts 15:18.

“Who worketh all things after the counsel of his will,”

Eph. 1:11.

According to which decree, he graciously softens the hearts of the elect, however obstinate, and inclines them to believe, while he leaves the nonelect in his just judgment to their own wickedness and obduracy. And herein is especially displayed the profound, the merciful, and at the same time the righteous discrimination between men, equally involved in ruin; or that decree of election and reprobation, revealed in the Word of God, which though men of perverse, impure and unstable minds wrest to their own destruction, yet to holy and pious souls affords unspeakable consolation.

Also involved is Canons I, A, 15:

What peculiarly tends to illustrate and recommend to us the eternal and unmerited grace of election, is the express testimony of sacred Scripture, that not all, but some only are elected, while others are passed by in the eternal decree; whom God, out of his sovereign, most just, irreprehensible and unchangeable good pleasure, hath decreed to leave in the common misery into which they have willfully plunged themselves, and not to bestow upon them saving faith and the grace of conversion; but permitting them in his just judgment to follow their own ways, at last for the declaration of his justice, to condemn and perish them forever, not only on account of their unbelief, but also for all their other sins. And this is the decree of reprobation which by no means makes God the author of sin (the very thought of which is blasphemy), but declares him to be an awful, irreprehensible, and righteous judge and avenger thereof.

Necessarily involved is also Canons I, B, 8:

(The Synod rejects the errors of those) Who teach: That God, simply by virtue of his righteous will, did not decide either to leave anyone in the fall of Adam and in the common state of sin and condemnation, or to pass anyone by in the communication of grace which is necessary for faith and conversion. For this is firmly decreed: “He bath mercy on whom he will, and whom he will he hardeneth,”

Rom. 9:18.

And also this: “Unto you it is given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given,”

Matt. 13:11.

Likewise: “I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou didst hide these things from the wise and understanding, and didst reveal them unto babes; yea, Father, for so it was well-pleasing in thy sight,”

Matt. 11:25, 26.The above articles constitute the substance of what the Canons say directly on the subject of reprobation. And while, as I stated, I do not know the details of the gravamen brought to the Dutch synod, nevertheless it is certain that, either directly or indirectly, all three articles are involved. 

What shall we say about this? 

In the first place, it should be evident to anyone who has the least understanding of our confessions—and especially of the Canons—that this is a matter of utmost seriousness. It concerns the very heart of the Reformed faith. This is true, first of all, in general, because an aspect of the doctrine of sovereign predestination is involved, namely, the doctrine of reprobation. But, in the second place, it is true because reprobation and election are inseparably connected. Tamper with the former, and you necessarily tamper with the latter. This is unavoidable. Deny the sovereignty of the former, and you necessarily deny the sovereignty of the latter. Make the former conditional, and you necessarily make the latter conditional. This, by the way, has also been true historically. And, besides, it has traditionally been that doctrine of sovereign reprobation primarily which has been distasteful to men and which has, been the object of attacks. As long as one spoke of election, and even of sovereign election, not many objections would be raised. But as soon as one began to speak of double predestination,praedestinatio gemina —including sovereign reprobation, therefore—then a storm of opposition would rise. This, you understand, is not because the doctrine of sovereign election is acceptable, while that of reprobation is not. It is rather because the crucial test of whether one actually believes the truth of sovereign election is in the question whether he believes the truth of sovereign reprobation. You see, when one wants to say, “Jacob has God loved, and Esau has He loved, too,” he has no election left: for there is no distinction left. This is the issue. Thirdly, this whole matter is of the utmost seriousness because this doctrine is of key importance. When you tamper with reprobation and predestination, you tamper by unavoidable implication with total depravity, definite atonement, irresistible grace, and the perseverance of the saints. No one, surely, saw this more clearly than our fathers at the time of the Arminian conflict and the Synod of Dordrecht. In the second place, this synodical decision only serves to emphasize the sad state of affairs in the Dutch churches. Think of it! 

In the very cradle of the Canons those Canons of Dordrecht are now repudiated! And let no one say that the Gereformeerde Kerken have not repudiated the Canons, but only a part of the Canons. This is not true. For the Canons, more than any of our confessions, stand or fall together. Besides, the Dutch churches can no longer say that they subscribe without reservation to the Canons—not in their entirety. It has become a fact that they do not mean the same thing by the “Canons of Dordrecht” as we and other Reformed churches do. 

But this is not the only sad aspect. For there is a history behind this decision, a history of doctrinal liberty. For, you understand, this repudiation did not come about suddenly. On the contrary, certain theologians have been criticizing the Canons on this score for several years. They have been doing this in writing and speech. They have been propagandizing the churches—not subversively, but openly. And they have done so with impunity. No one took them to task for it ecclesiastically—though it is completely contrary to the Formula of Subscription. And now, at last, when they have gained a majority sentiment in the churches, they have made their criticism official, with the result that the ecclesiastical stamp of approval is now placed upon this repudiation of the Canons. Here is a clear illustration of the dire results which accrue to any church which allows theologians to flout the Formula of Subscription, the dire results of so-called doctrinal liberty. In this manner the doctrine of Scripture is being undermined in those same churches. In this manner the entire heritage of the Reformed faith is being subjected to re-examination already. In this light, too, the decision of the Dutch churches about the binding authority of the confessions, weak as it is, is nothing but a hypocritical farce!

Yet, in the third place, there is at least something belatedly frank—hardly would I say “honest”—about this decision. For at least theGereformeerde Kerken, though apparently they have not yet composed a substitute confession on reprobation, are “telling it like it is.” Everyone may now know that they openly and officially repudiate the Canons’ teachings on reprobation. And this has the “virtue” of frankness. It is not so hypocritical as doing lip-service to the Canons and meanwhile criticizing and denying them. And make no mistake about it: there are others, both in America and in Australia, who entertain similar sentiments about the Canons. It is not my intention to go into the intricate details of this criticism of the Canons at this time. Suffice it to say, for the present, that in my opinion it all comes down to this, that they wish to substitute aconditional reprobation for sovereign reprobation. Perhaps at a later date we can present a study of the subject. My point is now that it would be the part of frankness and honesty, as well as the proper ecclesiastical way, if all those who entertain these sentiments would cease their propagandizing and their unofficial criticism and would openly and officially declare themselves. Then all will know where they stand. 

In the fourth place, what haughty conceit and proud high-handedness it is on the part of the Dutch churches to take it upon themselves to pass judgment on the Canons. For, mark you well, the confessions are not the exclusive possession of the Gereformeerde Kerken. With haughty disregard of all the other churches to whom the Canons belong, they have all by themselves declared that “certain passages in the Canons . . . are not based upon the clear givens of the Holy Scripture.” It is, of course, the perfect right of the Dutch churches to declare that theyno longer wish to adhere to the Canons. But it is definitely not their right to tamper with the Canons of Dordrecht independently of all other Reformed denominations. This might be a proper item on the agenda of a Reformed ecumenical synod (not the Reformed Ecumenical Synod, which is neither ecumenical nor a synod). But it is not the right of a single denomination. 

This brings me to a concluding observation. TheGereformeerde Kerken are placing all the churches with which they have correspondence before a clear choice: will they, or will they not, maintain correspondence with the Gereformeerde Kerken as churches with whom they share a common confessional heritage? As far as this writer is concerned, this action of the GKN is just one more reason why our coming Protestant Reformed Synod should heed the advice of its committee for foreign correspondence to break off even the seeking of limited correspondence with the GKN. If my memory serves me correctly, the Orthodox Presbyterian Churches have already broken off relations—to their credit! But what about the others? What about the unity of the Reformed Ecumenical Synod? What about the fraternal relations between the Christian Reformed Church and the GKN? Officially, at least, no denomination which acknowledges the Three Forms of Unity stands any longer on the same confessional basis as the Gereformeerde Kerken. It is a time of decision. Will those concerned have the courage to face the issue? Or will they try to avoid it? Or ignore it?