Book Review: Understanding Scientific Theories of Origins (Part 2)

See here for Part 1.

Scriptural Perspicuity

According to USTO, understanding the Bible on origins requires an understanding of the broader Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) thought-context.  This method has been championed at length by one of the contributors, John Walton, in his other writings.  This method is related to his view of the authority in the Bible.  In USTO, Walton and his colleagues write that, in the Bible, God has vested authority in the human authors.  Consequently, “the message of the author carries the authority of God.”  But also:  “our only access to the message is through the human author” (10).

But where does the Bible teach this about itself?  Shouldn’t the Bible be our starting point for how we read and understand the Bible?  This misstep has massive implications.  The opening chapters of Genesis are treated as if they are any other ANE text.  They are treated as human writings bearing a divine message, rather than as writings inspired by the same Holy Spirit who inspired the rest of the Bible (2 Tim. 3:16-17; 2 Pet. 1:21).  As a consequence, instead of going to the rest of Scripture for illumination on points requiring explanation, USTO goes to the ANE context.

This approach compromises on what we call the perspicuity (or clarity) of Scripture.  Scripture is a lamp for our feet – it sheds light (Ps. 119:105,130).  The meaning of Scripture is accessible, even to those without a background in ANE studies or the Hebrew language.  In referring to the Pentateuch, the apostle Paul wrote that the stories of Israel’s failings in the wilderness “were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come” (1 Cor. 10:11).  Those Spirit-inspired words were written to the Corinthian Christians, some of whom may have been Jews, but many of whom were not.  Paul expected that the Word would be clear and he understood that the book of Exodus, though written hundreds of years before, was intended by God to speak clearly also to the Corinthian Christians.

If we heed USTO, Christians today need background in ANE studies before they can properly understand the message of Genesis 1.  In fact, with this approach, the church has been in the dark for centuries until these ANE studies were conducted and brought to light what had previously been dark.  To the contrary, there is a simple and clear message in Genesis 1 and we should not allow academics to propose darkness where God has given light.  Yes, there are difficult passages in Scripture and the doctrine of perspicuity does not deny that given what Scripture itself says in 2 Peter 3:16.  However, historically, Genesis 1 was not regarded as a difficult passage.  Taken in the context of the entire Bible (letting Scripture interpret Scripture), what it is saying is so clear that a child can understand it.  It only became a difficult passage because of the challenges posed by unbelieving scientists.

Creation Without Compromise has previously featured work done by the late Dr. Noel Weeks on John Walton’s views of biblical background:

The Ambiguity of Biblical “Background” (Noel Weeks)

Critique of John Walton (Noel Weeks)

The work of Dr. Weeks goes into much more detail and I commend it to you for your further study.

USTO’s Interpretation of Genesis

This brings us into a more detailed consideration of the arguments for how to understand the Genesis account of origins.  USTO argues that Genesis 1 is speaking in terms of a functional ontology.  In the ANE thought-context, things comes into existence by reason of their function.  Genesis 1 is therefore not describing the creation of material, but the taking of that material and ordering it and putting it into use (102).

We should note the false dilemma presented between material and functional.  Genesis could be working with both categories.  In fact, if we maintain the approach of letting Scripture interpret Scripture, this might well be our conclusion.  Recognizing the functionality of what is described in Genesis 1 does not rule out its material nature or its historicity as an account of what really happened in those six days.  Interestingly, this “both…and” approach is what we find in article 12 of the Belgic Confession.  God created heaven and earth and all creatures out of nothing (non-material to material), and he also gave every creature not only its “being, shape, and form,” but also to each “its specific task and function to serve its Creator.”

Related to the foregoing false dilemma, USTO overstates its case in regard to the Hebrew verb bara’.  They argue that the verb is always used in Scripture to refer to things not material in nature:  “The verb bara’ does not intrinsically refer to materiality….” (106).  However, readers should know this is a disputed claim.  This comes from one of the leading Old Testament dictionaries:

Though br’ does not appear with mention of material out of which something is created, it is regularly collocated with verbs that do (e.g. Gen. 1:26-27; 2:7,19; Isa. 45:18; Amos 4:13).  More significantly, br’ is used of entities that come out of pre-existing material: e.g. a new generation of animals or humans, or a ‘pure heart.’ (Ps. 104:29-30; 102:18[19]; 51:10[12]; cf. 1 Cor. 4:6.).  (New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis, 1.731).

In fact, NIDOTTE states that John Walton’s view (which is what we encounter in USTO) is “somewhat misleading.”

Click here to continue to part 3.

“The Historic Reformed Understanding of Genesis”

QA 7 of the Heidelberg Catechism -- the first German edition in 1563.
QA 7 of the Heidelberg Catechism — the first German edition in 1563.

Creation Without Compromise exists because of concerns about origins in our Reformed churches.  In the “About” tab on this website, we state that we are “committed to the historic Reformed understanding of Genesis.”  In the November 6, 2015 issue of Clarion, Rev. Peter Holtvluwer wrote a review of our website and under the heading of “Improvements,” he suggested we fill out the meaning of that statement.  What do we understand by “the historic Reformed understanding of Genesis”?

Essentially, what we mean is the consensual understanding of the first chapters of the Bible that prevailed amongst confessionally Reformed and Presbyterian churches especially prior to Darwin.  In the Reformation era, our theologians agreed in emphasizing the literal understanding of Genesis as the ground for doctrine — this was coupled with an emphasis on careful methods of interpretation.  Hence, prior to Darwin, there was a definite consensus regarding how to read the first chapters of the Bible.  Occasionally there were dissenters from that consensus, but this dissent was not encouraged or tolerated.  After Darwin, we recognize that this consensus was challenged in significant ways.  Yet it must be remembered that the Reformed consensus was maintained in the church courts even after Darwin.  For example, we think of synodical decisions against Rev. J.B. Netelenbos and Dr. J.G. Geelkerken in the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (1920 and 1926) and Dr. Ralph Janssen in the Christian Reformed Church of North America (1922).

What are some of the features of this historic consensus?  First and foremost would be the insistence that the first chapters of Genesis describe history in a literal and straight-forward fashion.  While they may have some literary features, these chapters are not metaphorical or mythical, but plainly historical and should be interpreted as such.  What follows from that is creation in six ordinary days.  When Genesis 1 speaks of “days,” it means days more or less as we experience them today.  Moreover, if we take Genesis at face value, Adam was created from actual, physical dust of the earth by God.  He was the first human being.  He became a living being when God breathed life into him.  He did not have a biological father or mother, human, hominid or whatever else.  The first woman Eve was created by God from Adam’s rib.  She did not have biological parents either.  Together, they were the first human beings and the parents of all human beings who have since lived.  God also created all other kinds of creatures in the six day creation period – and these were created by his Word.  More could be said about what follows in Genesis – a literal snake speaking to Eve, a fall into sin, a worldwide flood, etc. – but I trust readers get the picture.  Everything I have said up to here was the historic consensus view in Reformed theology.

Some elements of this historic consensus have found their way into the Reformed and Presbyterian confessional heritage.  On the matter of creation days, we can think of the Westminster Confession’s statement in chapter 4.1 that “it pleased God…to create or make of nothing the world…in the space of six days, and all very good.”  In article 12 of the Belgic Confession, we confess that “the Father through the Word, that is, through his Son, has created out of nothing heaven and earth and all creatures, when it seemed good to him, and that he has given every creature its being, shape, and form…”  Article 14 goes on to say that “God created man of dust from the ground.”  Heidelberg Catechism QA 7 confesses that our depraved nature comes from “our first parents” Adam and Eve.  Other elements of the historic consensus are not found in our confessional heritage, arguably because they were considered to be so self-evident from Scripture as to not require such codification.  When most of the Reformed confessions were first written, the challenges that we face today regarding origins were virtually unthinkable.

Since this is just a short blog post, I’m not going to lay out all the evidence for the existence of this historic consensus.  William VanDoodewaard has done that for us at length in his excellent book The Quest for the Historical Adam (see my review here) and I refer readers to his research.  Amongst others, VanDoodewaard discusses John Calvin, Wolfgang Capito, Girolamo Zanchi, Lambert Daneau, William Perkins, William Ames, the Leiden Synopsis, Thomas Goodwin, Thomas Manton, John Owen, Bernard Pictet, Herman Witsius and Wilhelmus à Brakel.  According to VanDoodewaard, figurative interpretations of Genesis existed even before Darwin, but they were found amongst Roman Catholics, Socinians, and Anabaptists.  Reformed and Presbyterian churches would not countenance such interpretations.  He writes, “Anything that contradicted or failed to cohere with the literal reading of the Genesis text was rejected as subversive to God’s revelation.” (p.86)

Now the big question is:  why do we think that “the historic Reformed understanding of Genesis” is so important to maintain and defend?  It’s not because we’re conservative and just want to hold on to old-fashioned things because old-fashioned must be better.  No, it’s simply because we are convinced that the old consensus is biblical.  Old-fashioned often is better, but only when it lines up with God’s Word.  That’s where we stand.

Thus says the LORD:  ‘Stand by the roads and look, and ask for ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls…’”  Jeremiah 6:16a

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.

Should We Change the Belgic Confession?

There is currently a proposal circulating in our churches regarding article 14 of the Belgic Confession. This proposal, aimed for the floor of Synod 2016, seeks to address theistic evolution by making a change to the opening of article 14. This change will ensure that theistic evolution is officially recognized as unbiblical by our churches. Last week, I addressed those who might instinctively recoil at the thought of changing our beloved Belgic Confession. Can we actually make any substantial changes? As we saw, not only is this permissible in principle (and even necessary at times), but in fact it has happened several times throughout the 454 year history of the Confession, even as recently as 1983. The CanRC Belgic Confession in 2015 is quite different than the Belgic Confession first written in 1561.   I concluded that the question is not “Can the Confession be changed?” The question needs to be: “Should the Confession be changed?” That’s the question I want to address in this post.

A Weighty Argument

One of the weightiest arguments against making the proposed change is that our Three Forms of Unity are already clear on the matter. For example, QA 7 of the Heidelberg Catechism clearly says that Adam and Eve were our first parents. In its current formulation, article 14 of the Confession says that God “created man of dust from the ground.” Some would argue that these statements, especially taken together, settle the matter once and for all. Our current confessions already rule out such notions as Adam and Eve sharing ancestry with primates. Why make a change when our existing Three Forms of Unity are already sufficient?

In ground 4, the proposal acknowledges that, taken in the right way, our existing Three Forms of Unity should rule out any notions of theistic evolution. When the Catechism was first written, we can say with confidence that “first parents” meant what it appears to mean. When the Belgic Confession was first written “dust from the ground,” it meant what Calvin understood: Adam’s “dead body was formed out of the dust of the earth.”[1] Before the moment described in Genesis 2:7, there was absolutely no man-like creature, human or hominid (some kind of biological pre-cursor to man with an evolutionary history). In Genesis 2:7, a creature was formed from literal inanimate dust, God breathed life into his nostrils, and only then he became a living being. For centuries, orthodox Reformed confessors have recognized this as the plain meaning of the first sentence of article 14.

Laying Out the Problem

Yet here we are in 2015 dealing with this problem in our churches. And there is obviously a problem. Let me lay it out. We have a situation where some of us are saying that our confessions clearly rule out theistic evolution: as a Reformed confessor you cannot say that the creature who became Adam came into existence through the meeting of a hominid sperm and a hominid egg, nor can you say that the creature who became Eve was at one point a hominid toddler bouncing on her hominid father’s knee. You cannot say that Adam and Eve, as biological creatures, had parents or grandparents. I reckon that all this is correct and I have made similar assertions.

However, on the other hand, we have Reformed Academic saying things like this (see original source here):

We are all in agreement with all of Scripture and the Reformed confessions, including notably that Adam and Eve were real humans, in a real Eden with real trees (including a real tree of the knowledge of good and evil), and upon a real temptation by the real devil in the form of a real snake, really sinned, so there was a real Fall.

Statements like this are intended to put us all at ease. In essence, they’re saying, “Look, there’s no issue here. We believe the Reformed confessions too. We even believe in a real historical Adam who was the first human being. What’s the problem?”

The problem is outlined in the BC 14 proposal. The problem is that a CanRC scientist involved with Reformed Academic is on public record (see here) as being a supporter of evolution, by which is meant, “biologically, Homo Sapiens evolved through natural processes from ancestral forms in common with primates.”  If he is not a theistic evolutionist (as he claims), why has he never protested his inclusion on this list of “Prominent Christians Who Support Evolution”?  The problem is when another CanRC scientist argues publically that even our Lord Jesus, as a true human being, shared a common ancestry with chimpanzees (see here). The problem is that these scientists are outspoken and influential representatives of this way of thinking. They are regarded as leaders not only in their fields, but in the churches – they have even served as office bearers. The problem is when Reformed Academic and a fair number of others in our churches think that the above-mentioned views are tolerable — their voices can be heard loud and clear on social media.  The problem is further evidenced when the above-mentioned scientists refuse to answer publically five carefully worded questions posed by fellow CanRC scientist Dr. John Byl (see the bottom of this post).  If they’re not theistic evolutionists (or evolutionary creationists, or whatever the nom du jour), why not just give clear answers to these questions and be done with it?  There is obviously a pervasive multi-faceted problem regarding origins and it is not going away. Our church federation is not helped by anyone, especially those in leadership positions, naively pretending that there is little or no problem.  We need to deal with it. The question is: what is the best way to deal with it?

Moving Forward with Eyes Wide Open

First, we need to see that proponents of theistic evolution might readily agree that Adam and Eve are our first parents, as stated in QA 7 of the Catechism. Reformed Academic says that they have zero problem with that – rather, they affirm it wholeheartedly. But we need to ask: what would they mean when they say that? A theistic evolutionist would mean that Adam and Eve were the first Homo sapiens, and that they were endowed with the image of God in some fashion. This endowment supposedly makes them our “first parents” in the sense of being the first humans (the first Homo sapiens), although they are not our first parents in a purely biological sense. This is one way that some associated with Reformed Academic and others can insist that their views fall within the bounds of the Reformed confessions in their current state.

There is also another way. Proponents of theistic evolution might readily agree that man was created from dust, as the Belgic Confession says in article 14. Reformed Academic says that they have no problem with that either. But what do they mean when they affirm what BC 14 says? They could mean that humans are material and descended from lowly origins. They are descended from earlier life-forms (hominids) who may have originally emerged from the dust or dirt of the earth. In other words, to put it technically, the current wording of article 14, “dust from the ground” could still be understood mediately, as if the dust is indeed at the most remote origins of humans, but not the immediate material cause of Adam and Eve. In this way, theistic evolutionists can claim with a straight face that they maintain the Reformed confessions all the while holding something contrary to the teaching of Scripture. Whether we like it or not, even if we insist that what they’re saying is contrary to the true meaning of the Three Forms of Unity, our existing wording is being perceived as leaving this kind of “wiggle room.” That perception accounts for the present confusion in our churches about this matter.

Our situation is somewhat analogous to the situation with the Remonstrants before the Synod of Dort 1618-19. It could have been argued that the Heidelberg Catechism and the Belgic Confession were sufficiently clear to deal with the theology of the Remonstrants. The problem was that Arminius himself maintained that he was being faithful to the Confessions. Roger Nicole writes:

His attitude toward confessional standards was open to question, for a theologian of his caliber must have realized that there was a substantial rift between his views and the system of teaching as well as the express utterances of the Heidelberg Catechism and the Belgic Confession. Nevertheless, he paraded under the flag of allegiance and under the vows of conformity from the time of his ordination to his death. He repeatedly promised not to teach anything from the pulpit or the university chair which might be out of keeping with the standards.[2]

It was eventually recognized that the language of the Catechism and the Confession were often being reinterpreted to suit Remonstrant ends. Clarification was needed – Arminianism had to be clearly ruled out. The confusion was resolved by the Synod of Dort. We see the same confusion happening in our day with those advocating for theistic evolution and its toleration. Arguments and assertions are made that our confessions can be interpreted in such a way as to accommodate theistic evolution. In this present context, we need to have an unambiguously clear statement that theistic evolution is outside the bounds of biblical orthodoxy.

Despite the foregoing, even if the existing wording of our confessions is deemed sufficient, the churches need to know this officially, via some decision of an ecclesiastical assembly. In a discussion at Reformed Academic (see here), Rev. John van Popta made the same point:

I do think, however, that the teaching that Adam and therefore Jesus Christ share ancestry with “primitive parents” is a teaching that the church should examine and decide whether or not it falls within the pale of orthodoxy.

Naturally, given the widespread nature of this false teaching, it would be best to have this examination and decision come from our broadest assembly, namely a general synod. But if our broadest assembly is going to clear up the confusion in any helpful manner at all, it needs to have the matter put on its agenda in an ecclesiastical way. Whatever one might think about the idea of changing article 14, it remains that this proposal would put the matter on the agenda of a synod.  A synod could then decide the best way to deal with it for the good of our federation.

Conclusion

Indeed, the best way to tackle the issue at hand is to make the proposed change to article 14. Doing this has strong historical precedent. It is a proven way to deal with serious doctrinal errors in Reformed churches. Moreover, any other options are not presently realistic or helpful (more on that next time). Whatever we do, as Canadian Reformed Churches, we cannot let this matter rest and allow this false teaching to continue unarrested. The need for a clear message is urgent. To adapt the old adage: all it takes for false teaching to triumph is for faithful men to do nothing. It is high time for faithful men to do something bold to put the brakes on this dangerous and evil error in our midst.

[1] Calvin, Commentary Upon the Book of Genesis (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979), 112.

[2] Quoted by Louis Praamsma, “The Background of the Arminian Controversy,” in P. Y. De Jong (ed.), Crisis in the Reformed Churches: Essays in Commemoration of the Great Synod of Dort 1618-19 (Grandville: Reformed Fellowship, 2008 reprint), 46.

 

Can We Change the Belgic Confession?

Original Belgic Confession -- not exactly your CanRC BC!
Original 1561 Belgic Confession — not exactly today’s CanRC BC.

There is an overture circulating in the Canadian Reformed Churches which proposes a change to article 14 of the Belgic Confession (you can find it here). The change is intended to address theistic evolution. The hope is that this overture will find its way to the table of General Synod 2016. My purpose in this article is not to defend the overture as such. Instead, I want to tackle the broader question of whether the Belgic Confession may be changed. Upon first reading this overture, some readers will instinctively recoil at the idea. To address that reaction, in this article I will review some of the substantial changes that have already taken place in the 454 year history of the Confession. We’ll briefly consider some of the differences that currently exist between the CanRC edition of the Belgic Confession and the editions used by other Reformed Churches. Finally, we will hear some voices from the past about the possibility or desirability of making changes to our confessions.

Changes Prior to 1944

When the Belgic Confession was first written in 1561 it still needed a lot of refining. The Reformed churches of the Low Countries had put much effort into producing their confession, but the atmosphere of persecution meant that initial collaboration was minimal. The original format of the Confession was rough and in need of some editorial work. A synod was held in Antwerp in 1566. This synod made many changes to the Belgic Confession. Some of the changes were merely editorial – the synod pared down some of the original wordiness of the Confession and also deleted at least one witty remark from Guido de Brès.[1] But there were also several substantial changes made.

For example, Synod Antwerp 1566 revised article 5 to add a third function of Scripture: “confirming of our faith.” “Proceeding from the Father and the Son” was added to article 8. In article 16, the statement “the fall into which they had fallen” was replaced with “the fall into which they had thrown themselves.” Article 36 saw many changes at this Synod and one of the most substantial was the addition of an explicit renunciation of the Anabaptists.[2]

For the next 53 years, the text of the Confession remained relatively static. However, with the Synod of Dort of 1618-19 we again see some substantial changes. We often associate the Synod of Dort only with the Canons of Dort. The reality is that this Synod also made some significant changes to the Belgic Confession.

As a result of objections made by the Arminians, changes were made to many of the articles, many either cosmetic in nature or related to formulations.[3] However, there were also more weighty changes. For example, the attribute “almighty” was added to article 1. God’s preservation was added to article 2, as were the words “more clearly and fully.” One of the most significant revisions was made in article 22 in response to a theological controversy over the imputation of the active obedience of Christ. In Reformed orthodoxy, we believe that when Jesus Christ was obedient to God’s law when he lived on this earth, he did it in our place. His obedience is credited to our accounts before God. The German theologian Johannes Piscator had denied this. His teaching on this point had already been condemned and ruled unorthodox by the French Reformed churches and the English. The Synod of Dort followed suit by adding these words (in bold ) to article 22, “…and as many holy works as he has done for us and in our place.”[4] This change made it clear that the imputation of the active obedience of Christ was (and is) the doctrine of the Reformed churches. One is not permitted to deny this doctrine.

Finally, we should note a substantial change made in more recent times. At the Synod of Utrecht 1905, a group of theologians (including Abraham Kuyper) proposed a change to article 36 so that this article would better conform to biblical teaching about the civil government. As a result, these words were deleted: “all idolatry and false worship may be removed and prevented, the kingdom of antichrist may be destroyed.” Since then these words have often been relegated to a footnote in most editions of the Belgic Confession, including ours.

CanRC Changes

At Synod 1983, a new English edition of the Belgic Confession was adopted by the Canadian Reformed Churches. This edition featured many departures from previous editions. As in previous times, some of the changes were merely cosmetic, fixing up the wording here, or a formulation there. However, there were also several changes made that were more substantial. In fact, Synod 1983 considered these changes to be of such a weight that “the churches abroad” should be informed. Let’s briefly note just three of those changes.

In article 1, the words “which we call God” were deleted since it was felt that we do not call him “God” on our own initiative. Paul was no longer to be recognized as the author of Hebrews in article 4 and the book of Lamentations in that same article was to be mentioned as a separate book (previously it was included as part of Jeremiah). Article 9 saw several changes, including “always been maintained in” becoming “always been maintained and preserved.”

As a result of Synod 1983, the Canadian Reformed Churches have a faithful and elegant rendition of the Belgic Confession, but one that differs substantially in several places from editions used in other churches.

Other Reformed Changes

Our churches are not the only ones who have made changes to the Belgic Confession over the years. There are several significant differences that exist in the editions of the Belgic Confession held by our sister churches and others.   Let me give two examples.

The first is with what the RCUS did with article 15. Our edition says regarding original sin: “It is not abolished nor eradicated even by baptism, for sin continually streams forth like water welling up from this woeful source.” However, the edition of the RCUS says (bold added): “Nor is it altogether abolished or wholly eradicated even by regeneration; since sin always issues forth from this woeful source, as water from a fountain…” “Baptism” has been replaced by “regeneration.” It is not immediately clear why this change was made. The change has no basis in the original 1561 text, in the French or Dutch texts adopted by the Synod of Dort, or in the Latin text commissioned by Dort.

The second example is found not only with the RCUS, but also with the URCNA, FRCNA and others. In article 29, our CanRC edition reads regarding the true church, “It practices the pure preaching of the gospel…” Most other English editions read (bold added), “If the pure doctrine of the gospel is preached therein…” The word “therein” did not appear in the original Belgic Confession of 1561. It also never appears in any subsequent French, Dutch, or Latin editions. “Therein” seems appear out of thin air in the English edition adopted by the Reformed Dutch Church in the United States of America (now known as the Reformed Church of America) in 1792. It has remained with most English versions ever since.[5] Why or how it was originally added is unclear. What is clear is that this word became a substantial issue later on in debates about the missionary relevance of the Belgic Confession in the Christian Reformed Church.[6] Some argued that this word gives the impression that the preaching of the gospel is only meant for inside the church.

Our Forefathers

What have those who have gone before us said about this matter of changing the confessions? Above we already noted Dr. Abraham Kuyper’s involvement in making a substantial change to article 36. From his involvement in that endeavour, we can draw the conclusion that he was not averse to making changes he thought were necessary. However, Kuyper is often portrayed as a villain in our tellings of church history, so perhaps some would not be so impressed with his take on this. Then let’s turn to one often portrayed as a hero in our tellings of church history: Dr. Klaas Schilder. He said, “Every confession is capable of being revised. Of course, not every three years. It is a sign of impotence that we are still unable to do that. We have clung too much to traditions and had too little opportunity for study.”[7] For Schilder too, revision of the Confession, whether by addition or subtraction, could not be automatically ruled out. In fact, remarkably, he described the inability to do it as impotence.

As for Canadian Reformed theologians, we could turn to the late Dr. Jelle Faber. Dr. Faber was a student of Schilder and perhaps had learned something from him on this. In a 1979 Clarion article, Faber discussed article 36 of the Confession. He concluded (bold added), “Let us not return to 1561; let us also not undo the decision of 1905 – as some of our Dutch brothers propose – but let us rewrite the entire third passage of Article 36 of our Belgic Confession.”[8] Some twenty years later, Faber was speaking along similar lines: “The Canadian Reformed Churches have modernized the English text and in the course of this process they have even made some changes in the content of the confessions.”[9] Of course Faber would say this – he was personally involved with making all of those changes. He was on the committee that produced the revised Belgic Confession for Synod 1983. Therefore, we can conclude that also the esteemed Dr. Faber was not opposed in principle or practice to making changes to the Belgic Confession.

Conclusion

The case is solid that Reformed churches and theologians have never regarded the Belgic Confession to be an historical document that may never be changed. In fact, many changes have been made for several reasons, including as a response to serious doctrinal error. The Confession has never been a static document. What we call the Belgic Confession in our Book of Praise is not exactly the Belgic Confession that was written by Guido de Brès in 1561. It is not even a translation of the 1561 Confession – rather, it is what we call an edition. Like it or not, the fact is that we already have a Canadian Reformed edition of the Belgic Confession.

Moreover, we have sister churches who have their own different editions of the Confession. They have either made their own changes or not followed the changes we made. This has never proven to be any difficulty in our relationship with these churches – we can be confident that changing article 14 would not break this pattern. In fact, given the strong stand of some of our sister churches (RCUS and URCNA) on the issue of origins, we might expect that this proposed change would rather be encouraged and welcomed. At Classis Ontario West of March 11, 2015, fraternal delegates from the OPC, URCNA, and RCUS actually encouraged our churches to take this kind of action against the doctrinal error we’re facing.

We have always said that only the Word of God is infallible, inerrant, and unchangeable. In principle, we have always maintained that the confessions are man-made documents bearing ecclesiastical authority. The confessions of the church need to reflect the teaching of the Word of God in ways that are relevant to the life of the church today. If there is an obvious need to make a change, the change can and must be made.

So the question is not: can we make any changes to the Belgic Confession? History is full of instances where changes have been made, both by ourselves and others. History provides instances where our theologians have argued for changes. The question really becomes: is a particular issue of such weight and significance that a change should or even must be made to the Confession? That is the question our churches need to be considering today as they discuss this particular proposal.


 

[1] In article 34 on baptism, de Brès wrote of how it profits us not just once, but through our whole life. The original Belgic Confession added, “otherwise we would always need to have our heads in the water.”

[2] For documentation of all these changes and more, see Nicolaas H. Gootjes, The Belgic Confession: Its History and Sources (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 122-131.

[3] Gootjes, The Belgic Confession, 153-158.

[4] Gootjes, The Belgic Confession, 151-152.

[5] For some discussion of this change, see Wes Bredenhof, To Win Our Neighbors for Christ: the Missiology of the Three Forms of Unity (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2015), 26-28.

[6] Wes Bredenhof, For the Cause of the Son of God: The Missionary Significance of the Belgic Confession (Fellsmere: Reformation Media & Press, 2011), 238.

[7] Quoted by J. Douma, The Ten Commandments: Manual for the Christian Life (Phillipsburg: P & R, 1996), 69.

[8] J. Faber, “The Civil Government in Article 36 B.C.,” Clarion 28.24 (December 1, 1979): 512.

[9] J. Faber, “The Confessional History of the Canadian Reformed Churches,” Clarion 48.4 (February 19, 1999): 80.