COVENANT AND CREATION: Crossroads or Consensus?
BY JOHN P. ELLIOTT
columnist, member of
Presbyterian Church in America, Warrenton, Virginia
Anyone reading Christian Renewal and following the United Reformed Churches internet discussion group "co-urc" could easily get the impression that the URC is heading into rough waters. Over the past six months topics such as the covenant and the creation days have unexpectedly become the focus of debate and concern. Classis U.S. Southwest, for example, passed an overture rebuking the URC's Committee for Ecumenical Relations and Church Unity (CERCU) for misrepresenting the doctrines and positions of the URC on the covenant, although the federation has adopted no official position as such. The URC internet ring has had emails with the subject heading "hand grenade" making the rounds, while some correspondents warn about the "errors" of Norman Shepherd worming their way into the URC.
After following the emails for a month one family, new to the URC, wrote that they were sorry to see that the URC is divided. Divided? Are they right? Will the URC splinter into warring factions, just as the Orthodox Presbyterian Church did one year after its birth in 1936?
Since the heat of this controversy has been turned up over the past few months, my intention is to examine this "crisis" by taking a step back to 1992, to the, meeting of the Alliance of Reformed Churches in Lynwood, Illinois. This was the meeting in which, in my opinion, the yet to be born URC was conceived. I still remember it as a remarkable gathering of Reformed ecumenism. It seemed like everyone sent observers: the Canadian Reformed, the Protestant Reformed, Seventh Reformed in Grand Rapids (then still with the RCA), the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the Reformed Church US, the Free Reformed Churches, the Federation of Reformed Churches and a number of independents.
I think it is fair to say that most present in Lynwood had a relatively clear idea about the future. Everyone knew that the Christian Reformed Church would move to open the offices of elder and pastor to women, thereby forcing the secession of dozens of congregations. At a certain point in time - 1995 as it turned out - the seceding congregations would organize. But they would do more than form another denomination. The United Reformed Churches would become the focus of the reorganization and reunification of the Dutch Reformed community in North America.
This regrouping around the URC is in process. The United Reformed Churches began by inviting the 13 Orthodox Christian Reformed Churches to merge with it. Ongoing, extensive talks between the URCs and the Canadian Reformed Churches include a plan for future union. The URCs and the Protestant Reformed ecumenical committee reps are meeting. And plans are there for discussions with the Free Reformed and the Reformed Churches in the United States.
From the standpoint of the 1992 meeting it was again easy to see what a regrouping of the Reformed world would first require: a discussion of the issues which led to separation from the CRC in the first place. The URC would have to discuss common grace with the the Protestant Reformed. The Protestant Reformed would have to discuss presumed regeneration and baptism with the Canadian Reformed. The URC would have to revisit the CRC's reaction to the "Liberation" of 1944. And all of these discussions would be conducted within a shared tradition of Continental covenant theology.
But I distinctly remember another area of agreement in 1992: Creation. Along with women in office, theistic evolution was a source of concern for the churches gathered at Lynwood, along with a hermeneutic which allowed room for such views. If not for all then for most, six day creation was the biblical, Reformed position. And as a result it belonged to the fundamentals of any continuing church. An independently organized Confessional Conference organized the following summer built on that consensus.
I too had assumed that agreement on these two issues belonged to the foundation of the URC. As it turns out some people within the URC don't subscribe to that consensus. They have made themselves known this past year.
Who are they then? The faculty members at Westminster Theological Seminary in Escondido, California who belong to the URCs.
When it comes to creation, Westminster West is committed to propagating the views of its Old Testament patriarch, Meredith Kline. Professor Kline is the author of the "framework hypothesis" being debated in Christian Renewal and on the web. The Westminster faculty members want the URC to make room for Kline's theology. In reaction to the controversy some writers have suggested that the URC should adopt a synodical statement affirming six-24-hour-day creation. Others in the URC warn against an extra confessional statement, arguing the confessions are sufficient. I understand the latter concern. But that needs to be separated from the real issue: is the URC ready to give equal time to the framework hypothesis? Is that what those present at the 1992 Alliance meeting had in mind for a future denomination? Is that the consensus of the URC and those churches seeking to realign with it? I think there is more at stake here than a little intellectual freedom for Meredith Kline and his followers.
If toleration of Westminster's framework hypothesis blasts a breach in the URC's consensus on creation, then the overture from Classis U.S. Southwest reprimanding the Committee for Ecumenical Relations and Church Unity (CERCU) will effectively shutdown its discussion of the covenant and other theological matters with other federations/denominations.
On the surface, the faculty at Westminster (the authors of the overture) seem to have a legitimate objection. They argue that the committee is formulating policies and doctrines without approval of the URC's synod. If this were the Christian Reformed Church, that might be a serious matter.
But the URC does not need a synod to decide what everyone in the denomination already agrees on: namely, the CERCU should engage the Canadian Reformed and Protestant Reformed Churches in a wide-ranging discussion of issues to move towards unity as Reformed churches. The URC's ecumenical committee has more than a fiat from "synod"; it represents the consensus of the whole denomination.
Unhappily, the overture contains more than just procedural objections to the work of the committee. It implicitly limits the discussion of the covenant to parameters defined by Westminster.
This should not come as much of a surprise to anyone who looks at Westminster Seminary's history. Westminster West was founded on the heels of the "Norman Shepherd controversy" at Westminster East in the late 1970s. Shepherd taught systematic theology at Westminster and came into conflict with some of his colleagues about his views of the covenant. Shepherd argued that he taught a classic, continental view of the role of faith and works in the covenant. His opponents said he taught "works righteousness." Prof. Cornelius Van Til stood with Shepherd. And Prof. Jelle Faber of the Canadian Reformed Churches wrote a series of articles in the Clarion defending Shepherd. One of Shepherd's most fervent opponents was Robert Godfrey, now president of Westminster West Seminary.
Apparently, the Shepherd controversy has never ended at Westminster. Now the URC is being invited to resurrect the struggle against Shepherd on terms defined by the faculty in Escondido.
It is not my purpose to debate the merits of the framework hypothesis, the theology of Norman Shepherd or the abilities of Meredith Kline. There are other articles in this supplement devoted to some of these matters.
What I am asking the reader to consider are the implications of this challenge to the prevailing consensus in the URC on the doctrine of the covenant and on the creation days. At its formation a majority in the URC seemed to hold to a narrow definition of the creation days and a broad definition of the covenant. There are voices asking the URC to reverse that - freedom for the framework hypothesis and a limited view of the covenant. If this view prevails the OCRC will likely not join the URC, and a barrier will be erected for the Canadian Reformed over covenant theology. Is this what those who would form the URC intended in 1992? Is that what the URC intends today?
JOHN P. ELLIOTT