What I Learned From My Dutch Reformed Brethren

14In the Canadian Reformed Churches the question has come up, “Can we change our confessions?” and many assume the answer must be and emphatic “No!”
because the confessions must be unchangeable. But as this post, by Rev.Williamson, shows, that is not how the earlier Presbyterian churches viewed their confession.

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It was my privilege to serve as a pastor for nearly two decades with the Reformed Churches of New Zealand (or RCNZ). And it was during this time that they adopted the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) as one of the doctrinal standards of their Churches having authority equal to that of the Three Forms of Unity. And what has impressed me more and more over the years is not only the fact that these Dutch immigrants did this rather remarkable thing, but also showed quite clearly by their actions the integrity of that adoption.

It was not long after the WCF was adopted that one of the pastors who came from the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands lodged what they called a gravamen against Chapter 2
1:7-8 of the WCF. The pastor who brought that gravamen to his Session, then Presbytery, and finally Synod, was a man of integrity. He did not start publicly preaching or teaching ‘his’ view of the Lord’s Day/Sabbath. No, he had too much respect for the integrity of Confessional Subscription.

What he wanted was either the removal of 21:7-8, or a newly written replacement for that section of the WCF. So he sought it by refraining from publicly teaching or writing anything contrary to the Church’s adopted Confessional Standards, while working within the assemblies of the elders of the Churches to effect a change that he could agree with. I was opposed to his gravamen, but I respected very much the way that he dealt with this matter. We remained good friends during the time when this was adjudicated – and also after he left New Zealand to serve in a different Confessional context in Australia.

One of the things that left a deep impression on me was the fact that even though this was an issue that could have become a serious source of conflict, it did not. The reason was that an orderly course had been followed. And when the Synod (or what I would call the broadest assembly of the elders of the RCNZ) determined that the churches wished to uphold WCF 21:7-8, my friend did not even want to publicly teach or preach what was contrary to this. He sought, instead, a place in a church that had not adopted the WCF as the RCNZ had. And it is my conviction that we Presbyterians would profit by learning from this example.

In our earlier history, as I understand it, we Presbyterians had a similar concept and conviction. Let me give two examples:

  1. The original text of the WCF 25:6 said “There is no other head of the Church but the Lord Jesus Christ. Nor can the Pope of Rome, in any sense, be head thereof: but is that Antichrist, that man of sin, and son of perdition, that exalteth himself, in the Church, against Christ and all that is called God.” I hope that everyone who reads this will understand that I am in complete agreement with the first part of this section of the WCF. But I am also thankful that the part which I have underlined, above, has been changed.I certainly believe that what the Scriptures say about the Antichrist has a valid application to the false claims of the Papacy. I also believe what II Thessalonians says about “the man of sin [or lawlessness]” can be applied—by the principle of analogy—against the Papacy. But I do not believe (as the authors of the WCF did) that the Papacy is what the apostles Paul and John specifically intended us to understand their words to mean. I am therefore in complete agreement with the deletion of the underlined words in the OPC and PCA version.
  2. The original text of WCF 25:4b said “The man may not marry any of his wife’s kindred, nearer in blood than he may of his own: not the woman her husband’s kindred, nearer in blood than of her own.” It is my recollection that Professor John Murray defended this original section of the WCF. But my interest here is to point out that in earlier times Presbyterians saw it as important to either agree with their Confession or change it so that it says in plain, understandable words, what the church actually believes. When they no longer held this view it too was deleted. And it is this integrity that I wish we could recover.

I have noted several instances, lately, in which the great Herman Bavinck has been cited in support of the assertion that no creed has as yet made six-day creation a confessional doctrine. And it is true that Dr. Bavinck not only admitted that historically “Christian theology, with only a few exceptions, continued to hold onto the literal historical view of the creation story” but then went on to say “not a single confession made a fixed pronouncement about the six-day continuum…” I have the highest respect for Herman Bavinck and am thankful, at last, to have my hands on his great work of Dogmatics in English. But even great men make mistakes. And the fact is that on this he was not correct. The Westminster Assembly of Divines did make a fixed pronouncement about the six-day continuum. They said in the WCF, and again in both the Larger and Shorter Catechisms, that God—by the word of his power—created “all things visible and invisible, in the space of six days.” And that they intended this to mean what our children take it to mean when they learn the shorter catechism, has been clearly demonstrated by Dr. David Hall.

I (and other six-day creation people) have been accused of wanting to excommunicate Hodge, Warfield and Machen because of their willingness to tolerate views such as the day-age view. This is a false charge. Did Luther and Calvin want to excommunicate Augustine because they found error in his teaching? Wasn’t the Reformation itself a liberation from blind obedience to false tradition—even if that false tradition was sometimes embraced by truly great men? I therefore refuse to be silenced by this sort of tyranny, and insist on my right to say that a serious mistake was made in the way this issue was handled by some truly great men. I think it should have been handled in the same way the two examples cited above [1 and 2] were handled.

Men who did not hold to the six-day view (so clearly expressed in the three Westminster Standards) should have been required to refrain from public teaching or preaching their different views unless and until those sections of the WCF and Catechisms were either removed or rewritten. I say this because I think it is a serious failure on the part of the eldership of the church to teach our children one thing (in the catechism) while the preacher teaches another thing. Had this restraint been required those who do not agree with six-day creation would have seen it as their duty to remain silent (in public utterance and writing on the subject) while they made diligent study in order (in private) to formulate what they had come to believe to be the truth in order to bring it before their Session, Presbytery and General Assembly, seeking a change in the Westminster Standards.

Had this been done it is possible that the church would have finally been persuaded that one or another of the various views was correct. Then the doctrinal standards could have been changed to clearly state the other view. Or at least it might have resulted in the church simply removing the sections of the WCF and Catechisms that say God created the world “in the space of six-days.”

As it is at present we have, in effect, taken on a new method of Confessional revision. We no longer insist that our Confession and Catechisms unambiguously state what we as a church unitedly believe, so that the words of our confession themselves are subordinately authoritative (meaning that while they can be changed when appropriate, as Scripture cannot, they nevertheless must be adhered to unless changed by due process). Now the doctrinal authority seems more and more to reside in whatever the majority is willing to allow, rather than in the words of the Confessions and Catechisms taken according to their intended and long-received meaning.

I think the brethren who brought the Dutch Reformed heritage to New Zealand exhibited something better than ‘our way’ of dealing with our subordinate standards, and we would do well to learn from their example.

G. I. Williamson is a retired minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, living in the Orange City, Iowa area. He is the author of study guides on the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Westminster Shorter Catechism, and the Heidelberg Catechism. This article was first published on The Aquila Report, and is reprinted here with their permission.

The Rationalistic Attack on Scripture (Louis Praamsma) — 4

Today we’ve got the final installment of Dr. Louis Praamsma’s article from the December 1979 issue of The Outlook (part 1 here, part 2 here, part 3 here).  Praamsma was responding to a weakening of the doctrine of Scripture in the CRC especially with men like Allen Verhey and Harry Boer.  Within five years, the exodus out of the CRC began.  Some of those who were the first ones to leave ended up at the Canadian Reformed Churches.  Now these people are watching with deep concern as history seems to be repeating itself.  One correspondent mentioned the old saying, “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.”

Will the Canadian Reformed Churches succumb to the spirit of the age?  If the experience of the CRC is indicative, this question will be answered by what parents tolerate in the elementary and high schools, who is allowed to teach at the federational seminary, the questions that are asked of seminary students/graduates at classis exams (and how the answers are evaluated), and where children are sent for post-secondary education.

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Bavinck and Machen

Must I mention more names?  Must I speak of Herman Bavinck who absorbed all the wisdom of liberal Leyden of his days and kept his faith, faith in an infallible Bible?  Must I mention Gresham Machen who absorbed all the wisdom of liberal Germany in the beginning of our century and wrestled with it until he had conquered it and then became that outstanding champion of truth?  Machen wrote, “I hold that the biblical writers, after having been prepared for their task by the providential ordering of their entire lives, received, in addition to all that, a blessed and supernatural guidance and impulsion by the Spirit of God, so that they were preserved from the errors that appear in other books and thus the resulting book, the Bible, is in all its parts the very Word  of God, completely true in what it says regarding matters of fact and completely authoritative in its commands” (The Christian Faith in the Modern World, 36-37).

The point is again that not the valiant Machen wrote those words, but that Machen, who wrestled with all the intellectual problems which then and now are brought in against inerrancy and had conquered them, wrote those words.

Must we draw the conclusion now that Augustine and Calvin, that Kuyper, Bavinck and Machen, not to mention many more, belonged to a certain kind of Reformed tradition which should be described in Dr. Boer’s words as “an unprincipled ruthless exercise that bends any desired Scripture in its foreordained meaning”?

Mind well what Dr. Boer means: he wants to tell us that those men made use of their own logical foreordination, not of that of God.

Escape from Unbelieving Rationalism

We should not draw that conclusion.  We should say that those theologians had escaped from that rationalism which wants to mould and model Scripture after a pattern of time-bound human logic.  Their eyes had been opened to the limits, the defects, often the arrogance of that human logic.  They knew that even the best-informed human scholar does not know everything.

Those “best-informed scholarly theologians” are now referred to as form-critics.  They always speak about documents which they can never produce.  They always refer to a tradition-behind-a-tradition which they construct with all the ingenuity of first-class detectives.  They are the professionals who know – know what?  Next year they will tell you which hypotheses are more probable than those of last year.

The Rationalistic Attack on Scripture (Louis Praamsma) — 3

abraham_kuyper

At the end of yesterday’s installment, Dr. Praamsma reminded us that attacks on the reliability of Scripture are nothing new.  Men such as Celsus and Julian the Apostate did everything they could to undermine the Word of God.  Today, as he continues, Dr. Praamsma briefly discusses how these challenges were met by Augustine and, later in history, by Abraham Kuyper.

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How Augustine Met It

The great church father Augustine was, before his conversion, vexed by this same problem which he could not solve.  In the New Testament, Christ was introduced by long and contradictory genealogies.

It is remarkable that although before his conversion Augustine was beset by intellectual doubts, after his conversion he believed the whole Bible as it was written.  “For Augustine, the Bible was the only truly reliable history book, because it was not written by men alone and because the choice of what is significant had been correctly made” (P. Brown, Augustine of Hippo, 322).

“Augustine teaches that, if we think we see a contradiction in Scripture, we may not say that the author was mistaken.  There may be a defect in the manuscript or the translation is not correct or we don’t understand the right meaning” (A.D.R. Polman, “Augustine” in Christelijke Encyclopedie, 1:382).

Augustine was moved by the Spirit to accept the Word of the Spirit without making objections.  He did not even object against the “discrepancy” between Matt. 27:7 and Acts 1:18.  The different versions of Judas’ death were not first discovered by theologians of our time; they have always been recognized.  Augustine found the obvious solution, writing: “He fastened a rope round his neck and, falling on his face, burst asunder in the midst” (Against Felix the Manichean, I.4).

Busken Huet versus Kuyper

Dr. Boer wrote differing Bible passages in two columns.  A man who did about the same was the nineteenth-century minister Conrad Busken Huet.  In letters (not columns) written to a lady friend, he tried to make clear the incontestable incompatibility of several comparable parts of the Bible (Brieven over de Bijbel).

Thirteen years afterward Busken Huet wrote scathing words at the address of a young minister who had dared to attack Modernism and who had taken a firm stand in favour of an unqualified belief in all the facts and figures of the Bible (Litterarische Fantasieen and Kritieken XV, 167).  That young minister was Abraham Kuyper and Busken Huet wrote about him that he was a courageous man but also a man behind the times.  Science had proven that orthodoxy was untenable.

But what was the special feature of the stand made by Abraham Kuyper?  It was the fact that he was a converted man; he had harboured the same doubts.  At one time he’d had the same reverence for the power of modern science as shown by Busken Huet; he had applauded when one of his professors had dared to say that modern man cannot believe any more that Jesus was physically raised from the dead.  But the almighty hand of God had changed his heart and now he believed like a child all the words of God revealed in the Bible, as true and without error.  This is what he wrote: “Each of the writers [of the Bible] was so moved and directed by the Holy Spirit that the page of Scripture which, after pencil and pen had been laid aside, lay before him, was as unalterably written down as though it had originated in an immediate divine creation.”  He added: “The Scripture is God’s Word, both as a whole and in its parts” and “Hence it was a verbal inspiration, not mechanically by whispering into the outward ear, but organically by calling forth the words from man’s own consciousness.  That means: by employing all those words that were on hand in the spiritual senses of the writer” (In Kuyper’s speech, “De hedendaagsche Schriftcritiek in hare bedenkelijke strekking voor de Gemeente des levenden”).

The point is not that the great theologian Abraham Kuyper wrote these words, but that the converted Christian Abraham Kuyper did so.  Much as Augustine had done, he had been forced to conquer all the intellectual objections of his age to which his own heart had responded.  He had accepted the Bible as it was and is, the infallible Word of God.  His wisdom appears in the four caveats which he adds to this lecture:

  1. We don’t have the original manuscripts.
  2. Scripture is not the book of a notary, but the work of a heavenly Artist who paints with a diversity of colours.
  3. If passages of Scripture seem to be contradictory, they should be brought into harmony in a spiritual way, not artificially.
  4. If there remain baffling problems (cruces), I should confess my ignorance.

The Rationalistic Attack on Scripture (Louis Praamsma) — 2

Karl Barth, prominent twentieth-century critic of biblical inerrancy.
Karl Barth, prominent twentieth-century critic of biblical inerrancy.

Today we’re continuing our serialization of an article from the December 1979 issue of The Outlook.  Dr. Louis Praamsma was responding to Dr. Harry Boer’s attempt to marginalize biblical inerrancy so as to make room for other aberrant views.  Part 1 is here, in case you missed it.  Here’s part 2:

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The Suggested Change

It seems that we now live in another climate.  A distinction is being made between infallibility and inerrancy; it is said that we certainly have an infallible Bible, which, however, contains many errors.

Dr. Harry Boer wrote a book about this topic (Above the Battle: the Bible and its Critics) which has been largely discussed by Dr. Alexander De Jong (Christ’s Church, the Bible and Me).  I need not repeat what has been said by these two able men.  I would recommend that every reader study the brochure of Dr. De Jong.

Alleged Discrepancies

In his book Dr. Boer adduces (mainly in parallel columns) some ten passages or groups of passages in which the Bible seems clearly to contradict itself with respect to specific data of circumstance, time, place, person, number, and phraseology.  As a point in case he refers (in his reply to Dr. De Jong) to the account of the death of Judas Iscariot both in Matt. 27 and Acts 1.

Apparently he is convinced of the fact that both stories cannot be true; one of them must be in error.  If the logic of Dr. Boer holds, it might even be assumed that both Matthew and Luke may have been in error; each one of them may have jotted down some rumour from the many stories circulating in the first congregations.  However, who is qualified to say what really happened?

But all this does not matter, in Dr. Boer’s view, as far as the infallibility of Scripture is concerned.  That infallibility, in his opinion, is “the massive idea of the unbreakable, ever-valid revelation of the creation, redemption, and consummation of all things in Christ.”

Echoes of Barth

It is small wonder that I, reading those things, was immediately reminded of the position of Karl Barth.

Barth, the man who with a mighty voice and great talent, once opposed the liberal theology of his days, also declared: “The prophets and apostles as such, even in their function of witnesses, even when writing down their witness, were real historical men as we are, and therefore sinful in their actions and indeed guilty of error in the spoken and written word” (Church Dogmatics I.2, 529).

Barth also once wrote: “As far as the relativity of all human words, including those of Paul, is concerned, I share the opinion of Bultmann and of all intelligent people” (Romerbrief, XXXI).

It was quite a remarkable, I am almost inclined to say, a most un-Barthian thing, to appeal to “intelligent,” i.e. critical people.

I was also reminded of something else.

A Much Older Problem

Is it only in our time, the time of refined historical methods, the time of endless hermeneutical problems, the time of an existentialistic relativism and loneliness without measure, that we are struck by “historical inaccuracies” and “discrepancies” in Holy Scripture?  We should know by now that the fight for the Bible is by and large as old as the Christian church itself.

The first adversaries of the church were not blind, even as the church fathers were not blind.

Among those early adversaries was Celsus.  He knew the Bible.  He claimed that it taught falsely that God changes His mind, that He chooses favorites among the human race, and that it is full of childish legends.  There was also Julian the Apostate.  He claimed that the Bible teemed with contradictions, obvious at first sight by a comparison between the genealogies of Jesus in Matthew and Luke.

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.

 

Did Adam have a belly button?

Why we need to clarify Article 14 of the Belgic Confession

AdamIn the fourth century a big battle was fought over a one-letter difference. The Church professed that Christ was homoousios – “of the same substance” – as God the Father, while the Arians argued that Christ was homoiousios, or merely “of a similar substance.” The two Greek terms used differed by only a single iota (the Greek “i”) but what was at stake couldn’t have been bigger: the Arians said Christ was like God but was actually a creature.

Today we’re contending with an issue that seems quiet small: our battle is over a belly button. On the side are those that profess Adam had no belly button, because he had no mother and because he was never born. As the Belgic Confession Article 14 puts it:

…God created man of the dust from the ground…

On the other side or those who say Adam may well have had a belly button and a mom, and ancestors, and may have shared one of those ancestors with the chimpanzees.

So this belly button battle quickly shows itself to be about matters much more important. It comes down to whether Adam brought death into the world through the Fall into sin, or whether God used death – millions of years of creatures evolving up from the primordial slime – to bring about Adam. The issue here is every bit as big as Christ’s nature: it’s about the character of God.

That’s why Hamilton’s Providence Canadian Reformed Church has proposed amending Article 14 of the Belgic Confession to clarify that Adam has no ancestors. They propose that the Article begin with these two new lines:

We believe that God created the human race by making and forming Adam from dust (Gen. 2:7) and Eve from Adam’s side (Gen. 2:21-22). They were created as the first two humans and the biological ancestors of all other humans. There were no pre-Adamites, whether human or hominid.

Their addition would add about 40 words to the confession, and remove any doubt as to what should be believed.

But is the change needed? Is there really anyone in our church circles that’s confused about Adam’s origins? Yes, and yes. Not only is there confusion in our churches, this same confusion exists in other Reformed churches including the OPC. Continue reading

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.