Same Horse, Different Color
'We, the undersigned, Professors . . . Ministers . . . Elders and Deacons .. . do hereby, sincerely and in good conscience before the Lord, declare by this our subscription that we heartily believe and are persuaded that all the articles and points of doctrine contained in the Confession and Catechism of the Reformed Church, together with the explanation of some points of the aforesaid doctrine made by the National Synod of Dordrecht,1618-'19, do fully agree with the Word of God. . . .We promise, therefore, diligently to teach and faithfully to defend the aforesaid doctrine, without either directly or indirectly contradicting the same by our public preachingor writing' (Form of Subscription).
A knife that cuts two ways
In the Christian Renewal of January 20, 2001 an article appeared entitled 'Synod Escondido 2001 and the Creation Days: Some Cautionary Observations. 'This article was written in light of calls being sounded for this summer's synodical assembly to endorse and reject certain interpretations of Genesis 1-2 involving the matter of creation days. One of the cautions advanced was that the United Reformed Churches must be careful not to expand the constitutional basis of the federation by officially supplementing the Confessions with other 'positions' or 'interpretations' that would be required for either membership or holding office in a United Reformed congregation.
Some may have read that caution and surmised that I was either endorsing, or sympathetic to, a non-traditional interpretation of Genesis 1-2, and therefore I was trying to create room among the churches for such an interpretation. That conclusion, however, does not follow at all from anything I have written. The issue at stake is simply this: What should be the standard among the churches for inclusion and exclusion, for ecumenicity, for holding office, and for ecclesiastical identity? What should be the basis for our unity?
This is the heart of the matter. As I wrote in that article, 'Among the blessed features of the Three Forms of Unity is that they were designed to function-and are able to function-as the basis for church unity. Biblical ecumenicity is jeopardized both by subscribing to less than the Three Forms of Unity teach and by requiring subscription to more than they teach.'
With this W. Robert Godfrey agreed in his article published in the same issue of Christian Renewal. The church's Confessions serve to demarcate, and unite us in, the essentials of the truth. The churches need to exercise a kind of biblical latitude and tolerance along these lines.
However, as we're going to see, resisting attempts to require subscription to more than the Confessions is a knife that cuts two ways. My purpose in this article is to explain to you how the United Reformed Churches can be endangered from an entirely different quarter, when others seek official endorsement of their vigorously defended *theological formulations*.
Subscription to what? (1)
We need to be clear, first of all, regarding the function in the church of what we call 'subscription.'
It has nothing to do with paying for the magazine you are now reading (well, nothing directly to do with it). In church language, to 'subscribe' means to signify by one's signature that one believes something heartily, promises to teach, defend, and promote something faithfully, perhaps even to die for something. That 'something' is the blank we need to fill in: 'By my signature I hereby subscribe to _________________.'
Now, in the church we could fill in that blank with a number of answers.The first obvious one is: 'I subscribe to *the Bible*.' That's a good answer, because the church is no more than a religious club if shared commitment to the Bible is not at the heart of her life.
For some Christians, that answer is enough. 'Give me the Bible . . . just the Bible . . . nothing but the Bible.' Many mistakenly understand the Reformation slogan sola Scriptura to mean this-which it doesn't. The concern of the Reformers in sola Scriptura was not to eliminate the church's tradition and authority, but to subordinate them to the authority of the Bible. Sadly, many Christians have thrown out the baby with the bathwater in reaction to Rome. Today they sound the cry, 'No creed but Christ! 'Meanwhile, they usually operate with hidden or unwritten creeds, like' nobody who drinks alcohol can be a Christian' or 'nobody who denies the pre-tribulation rapture can truly be saved.'
So by God's grace the Protestant Reformation gave us a second answer to use in filling in the blank: 'We subscribe to the Bible _*as faithfully summarized in the Confessions*_.'
You need to notice three important changes between the first answer and the second. Can you spot them?
One variation is obvious: to the Bible as the church's primary rule are added the Confessions as the church's secondary rule for faith and life.
But a second difference is equally important: the 'I' changes to 'we.' And this change marks a very significant feature of a confessional church, namely, that the speaker, the one doing the confessing, is the congregation, not the individual believer. These confessional documents belong to 'us,' to the confessing congregation who with one heart and voice acknowledges in summary form what God's Word teaches.
Then there's the third change, that the Confessions summarize the Bible.They don't repeat the Bible or explain every single teaching in the Bible, so they are not exhaustive. But they are faithful as summaries.
Perhaps you have watched your minister, elders, and deacons sign the Form of Subscription in front of the sanctuary. Here is part of what they were signing: '. . .we heartily believe and are persuaded that all the articles and points of doctrine contained in the Confession and Catechism of the Reformed Church, together with the explanation of some points of the aforesaid doctrine made by the National Synod of Dordrecht, 1618-'19, do fully agree with the Word of God. . . .'
These are pretty serious words-'heartily believe,' 'persuaded,' 'all the articles and points of doctrine,' 'fully agree with the Word of God.' Anybody under-signing them had better be ready for a lifetime of work in learning, defending, and teaching the content of the Confessions.
Subscription to what? (2)
I wish I could say that those are the only two answers ever given in the history of the church, but unfortunately that's not true. Throughout church history partisans have sought to get the church to force compliance with a particular exegetical interpretation or theological formulation not present in or required by the Confessions.
Synod Escondido 2001 will face this very request in connection with the creation days, specifically an exegetical understanding of Genesis 1-2.
But there are others sounding a call for synodical endorsement and rejection of particular theological formulations that are either not present in or not required by the Three Forms of Unity. Theirs is a third answer to fill in the blank, which goes like this: 'We subscribe to the Bible as faithfully summarized in the Confessions _*and formulated in Reformed theology*_.'
This third answer -- wanting the churches to subscribe to a particular theological formulation -- raises once again the specter of sectarianism, of elevating to the status of the Confessions a specific theological construction.
If you have surmised that this third answer frightens me, you're absolutely right. The reason is that there are significant differences between what a Reformed church does when she confesses her faith and what Reformed theologians do when they study God's Word and the church's Confessions.
Clearly we need to define words like 'theology,' 'theological,' and 'theologian.'
If we may define by etymology, theology simply means 'speaking to or about God.' Theology is God-talk.
In its most basic usage, every Christian is a 'theologian.' By that, people usually mean that every believer responds in his or her own words to God's speaking in the Bible. Hopefully, this believing response will be coherent, integrated, organized, and fully biblical. The believer is, then, one of three possible 'speakers' responding to God's speaking.
Next, the church's Confessions are 'theological' in the sense that they share these same features of coherence, integration, organization, and biblicity. Think of the Belgic Confession, whose articles are spiced with Bible references, organized with a clear flow, and comprehensive in terms of the 'big ticket' doctrines that make up the Christian faith. Or consider the Heidelberg Catechism, a good example of the Reformation's recovery of a simple teaching tool featuring the Apostles' Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord's Prayer. So the church is a second 'speaker' responding to God's speaking. In a certain, limited sense, the church's Confessions are theological.
But to identify a third 'speaker,' let me try a little test. When you hear the title of Louis Berkhof's big book, _*Systematic Theology*_, which of these two uses seems to fit?
If you answered, "Neither," you're right, for a lot of reasons.
Professor Berkhof's _*Systematic Theology*_ doesn't sound at all like the 'theology' of Joe and Jane Christian. Nor as far as I know has any church adopted his _*Systematic Theology*_ as its creed, so in his big book it's not the church who is 'speaking.'
You see, there is a third use of words like 'theology' and 'theological, 'referring to a specialized task, method, and product of a scientific sort. We are speaking, of course, of professional theologians who follow a careful theological method to teach theology in service to God and His people. This is what people do, for example, in a seminary. This use of 'theology' refers to scientific reflection upon the revelation of God
- embodied in Holy Scripture (biblical studies)
- which gives shape to the Christian church (ecclesiastical studies)
- whose content is distilled and studied systematically (doctrinal studies)
- which is administered through the activities of ecclesiastical office (ministerial studies)
Naturally, this third kind of theology is (and should be!) related to the Bible and the church's Confessions. Those whose life calling is to teach or pursue scientific theology are the third 'speaker' responding to God's speaking in the Bible.
Daddy, what's a 'theologoumenon'?
Especially in connection with this third, specialized kind of theology, people use a technical term to refer to theological inferential formulations, or teachings that are built by rules of logic and language on the basis of the Bible and the Confessions. That is the word_*theologoumenon*_. You can identify the parts of this word quite easily by breaking it up into its roots: theo + logoumenon. The first part refers, of course, to God. The second part comes from a Greek passive participle, meaning 'a thing that is said.' Put the parts together, and you get 'a thing that is said about God.' So the term _*theologoumenon*_ (plural, -mena) has come to refer to something taught by theologians about God, whose formulation is constructed by rules of logic and language on the basis of the Bible and the Confessions.
By now you should be seeing that confessional statements and theological formulations are not necessarily the same thing. To put it bluntly, the church does not (and should not) require subscription to a particular theological formulation in the sense of a statement that goes beyond the statements of either the Bible or the Confessions. The URCNA haven't adopted the theological formulations of Guido de Bres, Caspar Olevianus, or Zacharias Ursinus. We subscribe to the Confessions known as the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort.
Painful lessons from Reformed church history
This crucial difference between the Reformed Confessions and Reformed theology has been learned in Reformed church history through very painful experience. Some acknowledge that the Christian Reformed Church experienced this pain in 1924 when those who refused to accept the theologoumenon of common grace were officially expelled. Most would agree that the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands suffered this pain in 1944 when those who refused to accept the theologoumenon of presumptive regeneration (among others) were officially expelled. Along with others who have been writing in these pages, I believe firmly that the theological formulations of Herman Hoeksema or of Klaas Schilder should not have been officially condemned-nor be officially imposed!-upon the churches.
Sad to say, debates about _*theologoumena*_ freeze up like a motor without oil when people (usually trained in theology or teaching it) who want the churches to officially adopt a particular theological formulation vigorously justify their quest by insisting that their theological formulation belongs to the very heart of the gospel.
Let's go back for a moment to Professor's Berkhof's _*Systematic Theology*_textbook. One rather important consequence of understanding his book as the product of careful theological thinking and writing -- and not as a church Confession -- is that if someone disagrees with a particularly Berkhof-ian theological formulation of this or that point of doctrine, such disagreement does not necessarily make that person an unbeliever or a heretic. With all due respect for Berkhof's labor, the United Reformed Churches have not required subscription to his formulations. Nor to assorted thoughts of deBres, Olevianus, or Ursinus. At least not yet.
The TFU and 'covenant'
If anything lies close to the heart of the gospel, it would be the Bible's teaching about the covenant. If you miss this, you miss the gospel.
Yet, one could easily name six Reformed denominations that all subscribe to the Three Forms of Unity and each has a different theological emphasis regarding the covenant. There are differences of emphasis among the Protestant Reformed, the Free Reformed, the Canadian Reformed, the United Reformed, the Netherlands Reformed, and the Christian Reformed. Some would insist these differences are too strong to permit ecumenical rapprochement. In fact, some would dare say that the view of the covenant promoted in one or another of these Reformed denominations is heretical, another gospel, anathema-and may even try to get a synod to agree with them.
All the more reason, then, that you brush up on the four-year conversationsthe URCNA have been conducting, through the synodically-appointed committeefor ecumenicity and church union, with the Protestant Reformed Churches, the Free Reformed Churches, and the Canadian Reformed Churches. Reports and digests of these conversations have been published far and wide. Happily,the committee's labors have been done in the full light of day.
What is truly gratifying is the progress that's been made so far, under the Confessions, in talking about matters like covenant and church. Already before Synod Hudsonville 1999, the Committee for Ecumenical Relations and Church Unity (CERCU) published a statement of agreement representing its work with our Canadian Reformed brothers and sisters. Most of the committee's discussions and papers dealing with the covenant and the church were part of the agenda, and then the minutes, of Synod Hudsonville 1999.
Two gratifying decisions were made by the delegates to Synod Hudsonville1999 that we need to keep in mind as we head toward Synod Escondido 2001. First, these delegates voted to enter into corresponding relations with the Canadian Reformed Churches-and sang a song to celebrate that vote! Second, synodical approval of the committee's work was so carefully worded as to avoid misleading anyone into thinking the URCNA was adopting extra-confessional 'positions' on significant talking points. Any careful reading of the minutes will silence, before it is spoken, the suggestion that this committee is leading us down the primrose path.
Are the Confessions enough?
The URCNA seem to be churches in search of an identity. Some know who they were years and decades ago, but together we all want to know who we are and will be in the years ahead. This helps explain why the ecumenical and evangelistic attitudes being cultivated among the United Reformed Churches are so decisively important at this moment in history. We cannot afford to curl inward and dry up, which is to say: We must resist our all-too-human impulses toward becoming sectarian either in exegesis or in theology. We must be satisfied-truly satisfied-with the Three Forms of UNITY which serve as the boundary fence within which all of the churches and their leaders live and work freely.
The danger is that churches -- and a federation -- in search of an identity can become, by that very fact, easy prey for partisan theological aggrandizement. All of us face the temptation to take our exegetical and theological hobby-horses from the closet and ride them across the floor of our ecclesiastical assemblies. As others have observed, however, the URCNA Church Order was designed to foster the life of the churches by, among other things, preventing synodical tyranny -- including theological tyranny.
Several months ago, in an article published in these very pages, the pastorof Christ Church (URC, Anaheim, CA), Dr. Kim Riddlebarger, sounded the trumpet urging the United Reformed Churches not to abandon our blessedly relevant, spiritually invigorating identity found in . . . our Three Forms of Unity! Now, amid a debate about enforcing exegetical formulations beyond those Confessions, we need to heed that call by resisting the similar impulse to enforce among the churches any particular theological formulations beyond those Confessions. In terms of the creation-day discussion, you see, this is merely the same horse in a different color.
Nelson D. Kloosterman