Alternatives to Changing the Belgic Confession?

14Theistic evolution is a significant doctrinal challenge facing the Canadian Reformed Churches. When I say “theistic evolution” I mean such ideas as the biblical Adam and Eve sharing an ancestry with primates. I mean such ideas as God bringing Adam and Eve into existence in the wombs of hominid (human-like creatures) females, instead of through immediate creation with physical dust of the earth. These ideas exist in the Canadian Reformed Churches and to allow them to continue will spell the death of biblical orthodoxy for us.

There is a proposal circulating at the moment which targets this false teaching. The proposal seeks to do that by having General Synod 2016 make a change to article 14 of the Belgic Confession. This change would explicitly rule out the ideas mentioned above, making clear that these notions have no place in Reformed churches which submit to God’s Word.

It is fair to say that a majority of Canadian Reformed members would agree that this teaching is wrong and dangerous. Were a survey to be conducted, I am confident that most of our people would agree that theistic evolution should have no place in the Canadian Reformed Churches. Yet, as the proposal illustrates, we have this situation where it currently does have a place. We have a problem in that this teaching has been allowed to go on and consequently more people are being confused or led astray by it. But how do we deal with this serious issue? For whatever reason, there is some reluctance to change the Belgic Confession. We would rather pursue other alternatives first before doing something as momentous as what this overture is proposing. In this post, I want to briefly explore four of the most commonly mentioned alternatives. At the end, it will be clear that, realistically speaking, there is no other choice.

Discipline?

Some have argued that a change to the Belgic Confession should not be necessary. Instead, what needs to happen is that those who are teaching theistic evolution should be placed under discipline. The confessions are clear enough as they are and it’s obvious that this teaching is unorthodox. Churches just need to muster the courage to discipline the members who are denying what we confess. This argument was made by Irish pastor Martyn McGeown in a recent issue of the Protestant Reformed magazine, The Standard Bearer, as he commented on the BC 14 proposal adopted by Classis Ontario West of March 11, 2015. It’s easy for Rev. McGeown to stand on the sidelines across the pond and make this argument. Rev. McGeown isn’t Canadian Reformed and doesn’t understand the gravity of the situation in which we find ourselves here. I doubt any outsider can comment responsibly on what we’re facing.

We are facing a situation where there is now considerable confusion about whether this teaching conflicts with the Three Forms of Unity. This uncertainty exists even amongst some who are office bearers. In my last installment, I quoted from a Canadian Reformed pastor who affirmed that we need to have ecclesiastical clarity on whether theistic evolution is outside the bounds of the Three Forms of Unity. At least one other pastor has publically opined that those accused of teaching this are not really teaching this at all, thus there’s no problem that needs to be addressed. How can discipline take place when there is so much confusion and uncertainty in our churches about whether the promotion of theistic evolution is happening and whether it warrants discipline? Moreover, discipline does not address others who, while themselves not amenable to theistic evolution, think it should be tolerated within our Reformed churches. Finally, the proposal itself mentions that discipline has limitations when dealing with a widespread doctrinal challenge: in our churches, discipline is typically dealt with in closed session at ecclesiastical assemblies and decisions rendered are often considered to be binding only in that particular case – after all, how can a discipline decision made in closed session be publically binding upon the whole federation? (See Van Oene, With Common Consent, pages 154 & 213). Even if one only takes into account the office bearers and their awareness of these sorts of decisions made in closed session, what happens when a discipline case is only appealed up to the classis or regional synod level? Only the office bearers in that classical or synodical region might be aware of the decision, and then only the currently serving office bearers. This approach simply does not work in our context. We need an official binding statement made in public that applies right across the federation.

A Doctrinal Statement?

Others might be inclined to say that we should have a doctrinal statement from Synod, rather than a change in the Belgic Confession. What this alternative involves is Synod issuing a statement or position paper which condemns the false teachings we’re currently faced with. One could perhaps envision Synod 2016 coming out with a point by point refutation of the errors of theistic evolution, and a corresponding point by point statement of what the Bible teaches about human origins.

All I really need to say here are two words: “Nine Points.” If those words don’t ring a bell, the Nine Points of Schererville were issued by a URCNA Synod in response to the false teachings of the Federal Vision movement. These Nine Points (followed later by Fifteen Points at the next URC Synod) created confusion and controversy in the URCNA, and consternation amongst many in our churches. Many CanRC observers thought that this “extra-confessional” statement was all too reminiscent of what happened in the Netherlands before and during the Liberation of 1944.  Extra-confessional synodical statements were made binding and this was a major cause of the Liberation.

In view of the reception of the Nine Points among us, it is really reasonable to expect a CanRC synod to issue a doctrinal statement or position paper? If that should somehow happen, would it actually bring clarity? What would be the status of such a statement? Would office bearers be expected to subscribe to it? Would it be confessional or not? If not, could it still be used to prosecute false teachers in our churches?

All of the questions asked about the Nine Points would be asked here too and we would be faced with an unhelpful quagmire. This is obviously a non-starter for our churches. We have to be realistic. Because of our history, we just don’t “do” doctrinal statements or position papers. Moreover, there are many issues that might warrant a position paper: divorce and remarriage, homosexuality, Christian education, and so on. There’s really only one issue that would truly benefit from a change to our confessions, and that’s this issue of theistic evolution.

A Footnote?

Similar to the doctrinal statement approach is the idea of a footnote added to article 14, or perhaps article 12. Rev. Clarence (a.k.a. “Klaas”) Stam floated this idea in an article in the April 20, 2015 issue of Clarion. At first glance this sounds like a fine way to avoid changing the text of the Confession while still bringing clarity to the issue at hand. However, it actually confuses things even more and raises more questions than it answers. Questions like: what would be the status of such a footnote? Does anybody know what the status of our one existing footnote is (in BC 36)? When office bearers sign the Form of Subscription, would they subscribe to this new footnote? When members of the congregation make Public Profession of Faith, do they express commitment not only to the Three Forms of Unity, but also to this proposed footnote? Can a member be placed under discipline for teaching something contrary to a footnote? If it’s proposed to make such a footnote binding in any way, wouldn’t it die under the protest of “extra-confessional binding”?

All those questions need clear answers before a footnote is a reasonable alternative. I think we can all recognize that, like a doctrinal statement, any footnote proposal is not going to be well-received in the Canadian Reformed Churches. Not only are there all those questions, but there really is no precedent for it — the one existing footnote (in BC 36) did not appear in response to a serious doctrinal challenge. There is, however, a precedent for responding to false teaching by amending the Confession. Doing this leaves absolutely no ambiguity in terms of status. It really is the only way forward for the Canadian Reformed Churches.

A Study Committee?

Making a substantial change to the Belgic Confession is not a light matter – it should never be done recklessly or on a whim. Adding or taking away from articles should be done soberly and with careful reflection. Consequently, some might say that this proposal is moving too quickly. Rather than make a change right now, Synod 2016 should appoint a committee (perhaps a church) to study the matter and then report to Synod 2019 with analysis and recommendations.

In response, this proposal was not developed on a whim. Those involved with producing it (myself included) have been addressing these issues for several years already. We’ve had to do that because this false teaching has been circulating in our churches for no short period of time. There is an urgent need to address this unbelief sooner rather than later. Appointing a study committee will allow yet more time for these wrong ideas to dig deeper roots in our circles. Rather than giving that time, the appropriate response is to take action now by making this well-considered change to the Confession.

Furthermore, appointing a study committee dignifies this teaching and could give the impression that it is one where Christians might legitimately disagree with one another. It could be perceived as saying that Scripture is not really clear on the matter. However, there are certain issues where the biblical lines are clear and discussion is inappropriate. An analogy might help to make this clear.

Imagine if a group of people in our churches started teaching that celibate homosexual relationships fall within the bounds of the Reformed faith. After all, there is no place in our Reformed confessions that explicitly and obviously rule out such relationships. Should we appoint a study committee to look into this? Isn’t Scripture clear that such relationships are unacceptable in the sight of God? Why would we dignify an unbelieving approach to Scripture by appointing a study committee on such a matter? This is what our Dutch sister churches did by appointing a study committee on women in office. If Scripture is clear, there is nothing to study. There is only the call to believe what God’s Word plainly says. It is as clear from God’s Word that Adam and Eve were created from literal dust (with no evolutionary history) as it is that homosexual relationships are illicit.

Conclusion

Should this proposal (or another like it) find its way to Synod 2016, it will be assigned to an advisory committee. It could happen that the advisory committee looks at this sort of proposal and decides that it is not the best answer to the problem facing us. An advisory committee could advance a different approach. However, I maintain that there is no other viable or helpful way to address the issue of theistic evolution at this stage of the debate in the Canadian Reformed Churches. What we need is a stand that is both clear and unambiguous in its status in our churches — and we need it sooner rather than later. In short, we must make this change to article 14 at Synod 2016.