Clarifying what we’ve always confessed

14On March 11, Classis Ontario West adopted an unusual proposal from Hamilton’s Providence Canadian Reformed Church: Providence wants an addition made to the Belgic Confession.

As they explain in their proposal, our confessions differ from Scripture in that they aren’t perfect or sacred…so they can be amended or edited. That has happened in the past: for instance, at the 1905 General Synod of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands a number of words were deleted from Belgic Confession Article 36 “in an effort to better conform to biblical teachings on the role of civil government.”

But why would a change need to be made now? Because “the Canadian Reformed Churches presently face a significant doctrinal challenge in the area of origins.”

What change does Providence propose? They want to replace the first line of the Belgic Confession’s Article 14 with the following to clarify “our confessional and biblical stance on human origins” (new wording is italicized):

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 are the biological ancestors of all other humans. There were no pre- Adamites, whether human or hominid. God made and formed Adam after his own image and likeness, good, righteous, and holy.

As the proposal notes, many believe that our confessions are already quite clear on this topic. However, the fact is some Canadian Reformed academics have joined together to argue that the confessions leave room for a great diversity of views on how mankind came to be. This group, Reformed Academic, includes some very prominent figures: Dr. Arnold Sikkema, Dr. Jitse Van der Meer and Dr. F.G. Oosterhoff. They have a diversity of views amongst themselves, and it can be hard to figure out just what they each believe about Man’s origins. On the group’s blog they have allowed their most outspoken (and clearest) member, Dr. Jitse Van der Meer, to outline what he considered strong evidence for the possibility that man and chimpanzees have a common ancestor.

Does that mean Dr. Van der Meer is affirming the evolution of man from some relation of chimps? Well, there is a nit that can be picked here: relating strong evidence for evolution is not necessarily the same thing as affirming evolution. As Dr. Sikkema noted in a response to the proposal, even a creationist like Dr. Todd Wood has acknowledged that there are strong evidences for evolution.

But, of course, there is acknowledging and there is acknowledging. While both Reformed Academic and Dr. Wood acknowledge the evidence for evolution only Dr. Wood acknowledges that God created Man over six literal days and not via a process that involved pre-Adamites and millennia upon millennia of death, disease, and disaster, which He thereafter declared “good.” Context is key.

In his response to the proposal Dr. Sikkema argued that Providence Church had misrepresented him in supporting materials by labeling him a “theistic evolutionist”:

I don’t “believe in evolution.” It’s not about belief. I don’t believe in Einstein’s theory of gravity either, but I do believe in a good, loving, and covenantally faithful Triune God…

Dr. Sikkema uses the term “belief” here in the sense of “place my hope in.” In that sense he believes in God, but not evolution or Einstein’s theory of gravity. However, no Christian anywhere “places their hope” in evolution, so if that is what it means to “believe in evolution” it is not surprising Dr. Sikkema rejects the label “theistic evolutionist.” As he has redefined the term it can’t be applied to anyone at all.

But what if we give the term a more reasonable definition? What if we say a theistic evolutionist is “someone who argues that God-directed evolution is a legitimate possibility”? Then the term applies. In a joint blog post (responding to the charge that, “evolution falls outside the tent of the Reformed confessions” Dr. Sikkema and the other members of Reformed Academic wrote:

…God-directed evolution does not exclude the direct creation of Adam, because everything that happens is under God’s direct control. Therefore, theistic evolution is not outside the boundaries of the Three Forms of Unity [i.e. the Heidelberg Catechism, the Canons of Dort, and the Belgic Confession].

Other objections have already been raised, some of note (an edit will be needed to acknowledge that Eve, too, was made in God’s image), but very few of which wrestle with what is at stake here. To paraphrase Douglas Wilson, did Adam bring death into the world (Romans 5:12) or did millions of years of death and dying bring Adam into the world? Providence’s proposal specifically and clearly rejects the latter and calls upon our churches to do the same.

The proposal’s critics are going to fall into one of two camps. There will be:

  1. Those who argue it isn’t necessary because they believe the Confession already rules out pre-Adamites.
  2. Those who argue it isn’t necessary but who won’t rule out pre-Adamites.

If the critics all fall into the first camp, Providence’s proposed addition isn’t needed. Conversely, if there are any who fall into the second camp, that will highlight why we need to clarify our Confession.

There will also be some who make a show of being in the first camp with carefully parsed statements such as, “it could be argued that the Confession already rules out evolution.” While that sounds very first camp-ish, it can be a clever way of saying, “some people – not necessarily me, mind you – could argue…” We should view such critics who won’t be clear as strengthening the case for Providence’s clarifying proposal.

Lots of work, research, and thought has gone into Providence’s proposal, and you should read it for yourself. Along with the supporting appendices, you can find it here.

A version of this post originally appeared in the March 2015 issue of Reformed Perspective.

Response to Dr. J. Visscher

Our purpose at Creation Without Compromise is to provide Reformed church members with resources to defend and promote the biblical teaching on origins.  We also aim to provide tools to office bearers to fulfill their subscription vows.  In that light, the CWC team is convinced that the proposal to add some words to article 14 of the Belgic Confession is worthy of careful consideration by all Canadian Reformed office bearers.  This is why you can find the proposal on our website.  The issues need to be studied and weighed carefully.  Objections have been expressed against this proposal.  Most recently, Clarion (June 5, 2015) featured an editorial by Dr. J. Visscher expressing his disagreement with the proposal.  To assist our readers in making a responsible judgment, over the next while we will post several articles related to the proposal.  We begin today with a response to Dr. Visscher.

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I would like to thank Dr. James Visscher for his response to the proposal to make a change to article 14 of the Belgic Confession. This provides an opportunity to address both his concerns and similar ones that have recently been expressed by others. Since most of his concerns are actually dealt with in the proposal itself and its supporting appendices, I will try to be succinct.

There is first an apparent ethical issue: names are named without any apparent due process. In response, the proposal is not about these individuals as such – indeed, they are only mentioned in the first ground of ten to prove that a certain problematic way of thinking exists in our churches. The individuals mentioned have publically written myriads of words. They are outspoken representatives of a way of thinking that either holds theistic evolution as credible, or at least wants to leave room for theistic evolution in our churches. If one pays attention to social media, one soon hears a fair number of these voices in our churches. Moreover, those involved with drafting and adopting this proposal have in fact at various times and places interacted with these brothers. To suggest that anyone has been condemned “rashly and unheard” is hardly, if at all, credible.

Dr. Visscher further notes that one of those mentioned in the proposal has publically claimed that he is not a “theistic evolutionist.” Why did he then allow his name to be included and remain on an online list of evangelical Christians who believe that evolution is true? Readers should further remember that, to his dying day, Jacob Arminius claimed to be faithful to the Belgic Confession and Heidelberg Catechism. More to the point, in the 1990s in the CRC, Dr. Howard Van Till also claimed that he was not a theistic evolutionist.

Finally under the heading of ethical concerns, Dr. Visscher mentions a case brought before a Regional Synod East. This discipline matter was dealt with in closed session and I fail to see how it can be discussed publically without the consent of all parties involved. What if one of the parties plans to appeal to General Synod? Moreover, if we are going to publically comment on decisions made in closed session by a Regional Synod, why not go all the way and actually share with readers the full text of the decision? As it stands, readers are only hearing one side of the story (see Prov. 18:13 & 17).

Dr. Visscher’s next set of concerns are about whether doctrinal issues should be addressed by a change to the Confession. He disagrees with the proposal’s approach. In response, I would ask Dr. Visscher how serious and widespread a theological error would have to be before the church federation rises to some kind of action and then, what action should she take? Dr. Visscher is long on critique and short on a constructive alternative. Moreover, in ground 2, the proposal proves that the error being addressed is not only unbiblical, but also an attack on the very gospel itself. As is documented in Appendix 3, the Reformed churches have in the past responded to these types of grave challenges with confessional additions (the Canons of Dort) or amendments (Belgic Confession art. 22). There are precedents. Finally, Dr. Visscher anecdotally mentions some of his professors who warned against “tampering” with the confessions. Again, I would direct readers to Appendix 3 for published quotes to the contrary from some of our theological forefathers, including Dr. J. Faber and Dr. K. Schilder. These men committed themselves in writing to the very opposite view that Dr. Visscher mentions. Why doesn’t he interact with this material?

Then there is “the textual issue.” Dr. Visscher feels that the existing confessions address the problem of theistic evolution quite adequately. This is precisely the point at issue. Reformed Academic asserts, and I quote, “Theistic evolution is not outside the bounds of the Three Forms of Unity.” Dr. Visscher and others say that it is; Reformed Academic claims that it isn’t and they have others who agree with them. Who is right? This is the question this proposal has been drafted to answer as it (hopefully) is discussed at General Synod 2016.

The last issue Dr. Visscher raises is about our sister-church relationships, especially those with whom we share the Belgic Confession. It should first be noted that the Canadian Reformed Churches already have their own unique edition of the Confession – again, readers should refer to Appendix 3 for the evidence. The Belgic Confession we have in our Book of Praise is not the Belgic Confession as originally written by Guido de Brès in 1561, nor is it the exact Confession of, say, the RCUS or URC. This has never been an issue. Moreover, at Classis Ontario West of March 11, 2015 there were fraternal delegates from the OPC, URC, and RCUS present as this proposal was discussed. They contributed to the discussion and all encouraged us to proceed in this direction. Contrary to the belief of Dr. Visscher (and others who share his opinion), we should expect that our faithful sister churches would be more concerned about our tolerating theistic evolution than about us making a change to the Belgic Confession to address theistic evolution. They would be far more concerned about us taking no action than taking this action. Finally, the proposal does leave the door open for Synod to decide that this is a substantial change (requiring discussion with sister churches) rather than a clarification (see Process, point 5).

Reactions like that of my colleague give the impression of being conservative. However, this type of reaction will end up sacrificing biblical orthodoxy on the altar of maintaining a human document as an immutable historical artifact. This is a “conservatism” that does not serve the ongoing defence and maintenance of biblical truth. Our confessions need to be living documents, expressing the biblical faith of the church and also, where necessary, responding to the most egregious errors of our day.

In conclusion, I urge readers to study the proposal for themselves — you can find it by clicking here. Also, please study carefully the three appendices (find them here) – these contain important supporting material. All of this is available online right here at creationwithoutcompromise.com