The character of the church's creeds
WHAT IS the character of the standards of a Reformed church, a church which aims at being a confessing church in the world by proclaiming the truth of God's Word? This question demands a composite answer. Such an answer has been provided by the late Prof. P. Biesterveld in his Schets van de Symboliek. He defines a doctrinal standard as "a writing wherein a church or group of churches pronounces what it holds to be the truth according to God's Word."1He pursues this subject by delineating the six characteristic purposes of these doctrinal statements:
- to present a correct and authentic summary of the doctrine maintained;
- to witness to this truth in the world;
- to preserve the unity of the faith among the several churches;
- to maintain the purity of the faith and oppose all heresy;
- to transmit this pure doctrine to posterity; and
- to demonstrate what the churches have always held to be the truth.
Our aim in this article is not to elaborate on these several confessional aspects outlined by Prof. Biesterveld. Rather will it be the underscoring of one of these, namely, the communal responsibility of preserving the true faith among the several churches. This communal aspect, let it be said at once, has juridical implications, because the community of believers is characterized by a common order. This order in turn manifests itself in the specific rules which such believers are to obey in the spirit of love.
Freedom and the creeds
Within the church there exists, indeed, Christian liberty. Such liberty presupposes that differences of opinion may exist within the church. What may not be presupposed, however, is that such liberty renders lawful the free and uncontrolled blowing of every wind of doctrine within the house of the Lord. God is the God of order; therefore His house "is builded as a city that is compact together" (Psalm 122: 3). It may not be divided against itself. To express the unity of faith, this doctrinal unity of believers who with one accord praise the name of their God and Savior in the words of their confession, has always been one of the aims of creedal statements.
Therefore these confessions have a juridical aspect. By the term juridical we do not mean to affirm that confessions are laws imposed by a government, even at times against the will of some of the people. Rather a confession, accepted without constraint by members and office-bearers of the church, is a communal possession and heritage, subject to common rules. Thus it is never "my own business" whether I deviate from the confession. If I disagree with some part thereof, I should follow a prescribed path. This path is carefully outlined in the order of the churches. Nor is the liberty of the church such that it may claim to have a confession and yet refuse to preserve it. The church must ever be watchful to keep its standards high and pure.
A well-defined place
It may seem strange to emphasize the above in the community of Reformed churches. The reasons for doing so will be pointed out later. Here we only affirm that from the beginning the confessions as mutual doctrinal agreements have had their fixed place within the Reformed churches. Calvin stressed the necessity of such a confession immediately after his coming to Geneva. He required subscription to such a doctrinal statement from every citizen and urged that in this matter the members of the City Council set a good example. Upon his return in 1541 an ecclesiastical constitution was adopted, which demanded of every future minister the declaration "that he would receive and keep the approved doctrine of the church."2
In the constitution of the Reformed churches of the Netherlands subscription to the creeds played a significant role. The earliest synods already required of all office-bearers an expression of their agreement with the Belgic Confession. On this matter the first synod, held at Emden, reported, "To demonstrate the doctrinal agreement among the Dutch churches the brothers consented in the subscription of the Confession of Faith of the Dutch churches." 3To this was added, "Also the office-bearers who are not here present will be admonished to consent to this subscription; the same shall be asked of all others who shall be called to the ministry, before they enter upon their duties" (art. 4).
The Synod of Dort (1618-19) adopted the Form of Subscription still used by many Reformed churches today. Hereby the office-bearers declare "that they heartily believe and are persuaded that all the articles and points of doctrine, contained in the confession and catechism of the Reformed churches, together with the explanation of some points of the aforesaid doctrine, made by the National Synod of Dort 1618-19, do fully agree with the Word of God. We promise therefore diligently to teach and faithfully to defend the aforesaid doctrine, without either directly or indirectly contradicting the same by our public preaching or writing." The expression "do fully agree" reads in the Latin text "per omnia consentire" (agree in all parts).4
The same rule obtained in the Swiss churches at that time. In a letter of the Genevan delegates to the Synod of Dort we read,
In our churches no one is admitted to the ministry or to an office, however learned or gifted he may be, unless he binds himself by oath to the Swiss Confession (Confession Helvetica), promising that he will teach in accordance with it and will propose, spread or propagate nothing strange to it either publicly or secretly, before he proposed it and received the right to it in a major assembly or synod.5
Allegiance to creeds restored
During the nineteenth century those in the Netherlands who remained true to the Reformed faith again stressed this position. The synod of the Dutch Reformed Church had so altered the Form of Subscription that it became possible to assent to the doctrine expounded in the ecclesiastical standards not because (quia) but in so far as (quatenus) they agreed with God's Word. As a result doctrines of all kinds were proclaimed from the pulpits and heresies were disseminated throughout the congregations. One of the first acts of the first synod of the Secessionists, held in 1836, was the subscription to a fraternal agreement, which essentially reproduced the venerable Form of Subscription adopted by the Synod of Dort (1618-19). The same was true in the days of the Doleantie. A conference of office-bearers was held in the city of Amsterdam in 1883. This paved the way for the second secession from the old Dutch Reformed Church. All members signed a register under the following declaration, "In placing their names on this roll the undersigned declare that they cordially agree with the three Forms of Unity as the agreement of ecclesiastical communion, not in so far as but because they agree with the Word of God."
The same requirement prevails in the Christian Reformed Church. Upon examination a candidate for the ministry signs the Form of Subscription. According to article 53 of the Church Order all ministers and professors of theology must subscribe to the Three Forms of Unity. "And the ministers of the Word who refuse to do so shall de facto be suspended from their office by the Consistory or Classis until they shall have given a full statement, and if they obstinately persist in refusing, they shall be deposed from their office."
What subscription involves
Two matters are involved in this act of subscription. The first is the solemn declaration that the confessions contain the doctrine of God's Word; that they are — to use the language of the Reformed fathers — a repetition of that Word of God and are always and in all parts subject to that Word of God. The second is the sincere promise to teach and defend this doctrine, not contradicting it in any way and following the prescribed rules of the church, should any doubts or objections to any part of this doctrine arise. Likewise these rules pledge everyone to refrain from spreading such doubts and objections, while subjecting them in accordance with this promise to the judgment of the consistory or one of the major assemblies.
To this promise it is possible to raise an objection. Does not this conflict with that libertas prophetandi which we seek to honor particularly in the Protestant climate wherein we proclaim the sole authority of God's Word? We would reply that by definition (per definitionem) this "freedom of prophecy" is by no means an unrestricted and individual freedom. It is limited by the fact that not every prophet is a true prophet; not every prophecy a true prophecy. The Bible itself admonishes, "Prove the spirits whether they are of God" (1 John 4:1). It urges especially the elders to "take heed ... to all the flock" since "grievous wolves" shall enter the church and not spare Christ's flock (Acts 20:28, 29). Yet this authoritative, binding character of the creeds upon all office-bearers has throughout the years been denied by many. The arguments employed and the direction taken by those who object have been masterfully set forth by Prof. A. D. R. Polman in the first chapter of his large work on the Belgic Confession. 6Today we are confronted in this respect especially with the views championed by Adolf von Harnack and Karl Barth.
Harnack and the creeds
During the winter of 1899-1900 von Harnack delivered his famous lectures on What Is Christianity? These embodied the thinking of the liberal theology of his day. In his lectures he stressed the ethical (moral) aspects of Christianity to the exclusion of the doctrinal. In his opinion the gospel is the message of human brotherhood. Such doctrines as the trinity and the two natures of Christ do not belong to its original message. These are but products of passing historical influences wherein the Hellenistic mind of the ancient church expressed itself.
It was Harnack's conviction that "no historical form of Christianity must be absolutized or regarded as normative or authoritative. Instead, we must recognize that, though we cannot be Christians except through the medium of concrete historical traditions, it is not these traditions but their ultimate historical source that can be the fountain of Christian faith and life, namely the gospel of Jesus Christ. Where the gospel, as Jesus proclaimed it, is believed, there is Christianity; and the gospel does not require a normative, historical form (in doctrine, dogma, liturgy, church polity, etc.) in order to produce belief."
His conclusion is that "Christians must live by the gospel, for which they must find free and unauthoritarian forms in their common life according to the exigencies of ever-changing historical situations."7
The intriguing point in von Harnack's exposition is that he appeals to the gospel for the sake of a free Christian attitude independent of historical circumstances and opinions. Yet this gospel is his own gospel — a historical, very liberal, and intensely personal Harnackian gospel including a severely critical attitude towards the inspired words of the gospel itself!
Barth and his influence
Karl Barth has upon more than one occasion expressed his hearty appreciation of the confessions. Their voice should be accepted and embraced as the voice of our fathers and brethren in the faith. It has ecclesiastical authority. But this authority is a spiritual, never a canonical authority. Everyone should read the confession as a first commentary on Holy Scripture and thereafter make his own decision. The confession is to function as a kind of horizon for our thinking and speaking. Of this horizon we should never lose sight. Yet within its confines we may feel free either to accept its terms and ideas or to contradict them. In this way Barth pleads for what he deems an actual and critical decision.8
In the Netherlands Barthian influences had played a significant role in the construction of the new Church Order of the "Nederlandse Hervormde" church. In this document the dynamic character of the act of confessing is stressed in such a way that, according to the famous tenth article, the church's communion with the confessing fathers does not exclude criticism of their confessions.
Discussions and deviations
Discussions on the character and binding authority of the creeds began in the "Gereformeerde" churches of that land during the thirties of this century. At a ministers' conference in 1940 Prof. Dr. F. W. Grosheide lectured on the theme "Living with the Creeds." Questions were raised at that time about Paul's authorship of the epistle to the Hebrews (Belgic Confession, article 4) and the validity of the Catechism's interpretation of Christ's descent into hell (Heidelberg Catechism, 44). Of greater import were problems raised in connection with the terminology which the creeds employ. Such questions were asked as: Should we discover influences of Greek philosophy (Aristotle) in the terms and distinctions employed by the creeds; is it permissible to criticize these terms or explain them in a sense which we deem to be more biblical?9
Since 1940 much has happened within those churches. In 1944 the "Liberated Reformed Churches" separated from that body. One of the issues concerned itself with the character of the creeds, specifically with the right of synod to explain its creeds and to make such an explanation binding on all office-bearers. Those who objected to this procedure spoke of "super-scriptural bindings." In 1946 these doctrinal pronouncements were retracted.
After this in the interest of possible union with the "Hervormde" church, some leaders in the "Gereformeerde" churches began to speak about a "reduction" of the creeds. How far this should go, no one defined precisely. Without a doubt this trend must be linked up with the old distinction between "fundamental" and "non-fundamental" articles of faith. Meanwhile a new feeling of confessional freedom seems to pervade these churches. In the "Liberated" churches a minister wrote a book dealing with what happens to man after death.10
In his views he deviated from the Heidelberg Catechism. Yet he did not submit his position to the judgment of the ecclesiastical assemblies. To this novel approach both his consistory and classis seemed to assent. Likewise the president of the youth organizations defended the position that images may be tolerated in the churches. He also failed to appear before the proper ecclesiastical assemblies with a gravamen (official protest) against the position set forth in the ninety-eighth question and answer of the Catechism.
Criticism of the creeds
To show how strong this new and free attitude towards the creeds is becoming we would refer to the recent book of the Rev. H. Volten entitled Around the Confession of the Church. On the Canons of Dort he remarks "that the question begins to press whether a gravamen should not be brought in, although this is almost impossible." According to him the Canons reason much too deductively from God's eternal decree and fail to demonstrate with sufficient clarity the relation of election to Christ. As to the Belgic Confession "the relation between general and special revelation is poorly, if not wrongly, expressed in article 2." The concluding words of article 5 "are at least disputable, because the truth of God's Word can never be perceived without faith." There are "shortcomings in articles 3 through 7, articles 27 through 30, and article 36." In article 16 the author discovers too much deductive reasoning from two virtues of God (his mercy and justice), "as if these two have nothing to do with each other."
Nor does the Catechism escape Volten's criticism. "The relation between God's justice and mercy in Lord's Days 4 and 5 has not been stated quite correctly." He uncovers "scholasticism" in the Lord's Days 5 and 6. The definition of faith in Lord's Day 7 he believes is productive of misunderstanding. The answer to question 41 is primitive and incomplete. Lord's Days 25 through 27 are not clear; 28 through 30 are too difficult and verbose. Others he criticizes as being too brief. Lord's Days 34 through 44 all betray defects; "they are not effective for our day." Small wonder that Volten concludes, "It is impossible to fix a literal binding; a distinction between form and content is inescapable, and it is useful to assume an essence and main points in the confessions."11Volten's criticism is no isolated phenomenon.
When a "Hervormde" pastoral letter criticized the following statement of the Canons: "That some receive the gift of faith from God, and others do not receive it, proceeds from God's eternal decree" (I, 6), Prof. Polman agreed. He regards this expression as a logical conclusion not substantiated by Scriptural proof. He argues, however, that no real confessional question is at stake here "because it is clear, that a critical attitude towards some formulas and pronouncements of the confessions and the use of others does not imply an attack on the gospel of God."12
And with this also Prof. G. C. Berkouwer fully agrees. Berkouwer speaks in this connection of an interesting analogy found in present-day Roman Catholic discussions of the creeds of that church. There the distinction is made between affirmation of the truth, which is unchangeable, and representation of the specific truth, which is affected by time and circumstances. On these grounds Roman Catholic theologians seem to be able to criticize the very words of the decrees of Trent, while insisting in the same breath that they are not criticizing the truth of these words.13
In essence Berkouwer agrees with such or a similar distinction. According to him, and this is his main thrust, faithfulness to the gospel may involve a critical attitude to the form in which the confessions speak.
It is not an indication of relativism when we speak of the problem of affirmation and representation, but it may mean — this all depends! — faithfulness to the gospel, namely, when we have recognized the faithfulness of the church to the gospel in its historical struggle, in all kinds of frameworks and formulae, and in that way integrally accept the confession.14
Thus he speaks of the possibility that "we learn to understand the confession in its human and defective character, and in that way try to understand what is the real doctrine of the church."15
Against this background of the historic position of the Reformed churches on the character and binding authority of its church confessions and of present-day discussions, I shall attempt to show what is at stake. Only then will it be possible to ask and answer the question whether there is a way out for a confessional church which truly wants to be confessing church in the world today.
I attempted to demonstrate, by an appeal to various decisions and documents, that the creeds have always occupied a clearly defined position within a confessional Reformed church which takes seriously her task of confessing in the world. It was further noted that recent discussions within several of these churches demonstrate the presence of problems in this connection. Specific words and phrases are under fire.
It is therefore not amiss that once again I raise the question: What is the character of the standards of the church? Perhaps I do not express myself too strongly, when I contend that this is a basic, a burning question within the fellowship of the Reformed churches today.
It is an ecumenical question. During the past summer the Reformed Ecumenical Synod again convened. Its avowed basis is the Holy Scripture of the Old and New Testaments as interpreted by the Reformed confessions. All members of such a synod must give public testimony that they adhere to these confessions. 16
It is also a pastoral question. It may well be asked what will happen when one unites with a congregation of likeminded, confessing believers with a determination to maintain distinctions between "essentials and non-essentials," between "affirmation and representation" of the truth confessed. What are the rights of the congregation, when such is openly done? What may the congregations expect of pastors who champion such distinctions? Who gives the pastors the right to appeal from the creeds to the Gospel, when these men preach to God's people who are by no means always in a position to follow the intricate evolutions of recent theological thought?
It is fully as much an ethical question. What does creedal subscription really mean? If such subscription implies a subjection to the substance but not the words of the creeds, is not thereby the door thrown wide open to an unethical and unallowable reservatio mentalis? Well may everyone who subscribes ask himself the pertinent question: To which creed am I subscribing — my own or that of the church? And should I be subscribing to my own creed, even in the most sincere way possible because therein I hear Christ's voice, what guarantee is there that I am not disagreeing with the confessing church which has legally called me to be its pastor?
A lesson from history
Several Dutch Reformed theologians at this point speak of the intent of the confessions. They fail, however, to answer the pressing and prior question: Is it always evident that there exists such an intent of the confession apart from the specific words which have been adopted? Is not the door flung wide open in such cases to individualism and subjectivism, to a degree of latitude in doctrine, perhaps even to a devaluation of Scripture when this idea of the vox humana (the relative historical context and content of human words) comes to be applied to the written Word of God?
We never live in a climate of reinkultur, a climate of experimenting which would leave our experience unchanged. Our problems — and this deserves to be remembered — are the problems with which former generations also wrestled.
Here history can teach a much-needed lesson. Sometime during the previous century the father of Dutch Modernism wrote his justly famous and significant work on systematics, The Doctrine of the Reformed Church. This man Scholten was an honorable fellow. In harmony with the so-called results of the Biblical sciences of his day he developed a liberal theology. But in all sincerity he called his systematics Reformed! This is apparent from his introduction,
One can conclude from my inquiry how a Reformed minister, faithful to his subscription, can adhere to the doctrine which, in its nature and spirit, is essentially and chiefly the Reformed confession, except for the free development of science; and that it makes quite a difference scrupulously to honor the letter of the creeds or heartily to consent to the spirit and principles of the Reformed Church and to continue building on the evangelical foundation of our fathers.17
Scholten wanted to be Reformed, Biblical, and confessional. His pupils, as one after another they filled the pulpits of the land, corrupted the Reformation, the Bible and the church confessions.
Creeds subjected to the Scriptures
All this makes the question most pertinent: What is the character of church confessions? Let us look at one of the oldest creedal statements of the Reformed Churches, the Scottish Confession of 1560. In its preface we read this statement:
If any man will note in this our Confession any article or sentence repugnant to God's Holy Word, that it would please him of his gentleness and for Christian charity's sake to admonish us of the same in writing; and we upon our honors and fidelity to God's grace do promise unto him satisfaction from the mouth of God, that is from His Holy Scriptures, or else reformation of that which shall prove to be amiss.18
Here the view is plainly stated that a confession should echo God's Word. A creed therefore is changeable; in fact, it should be changed if anyone can demonstrate that the Gospel is not clearly sounded therein. Such a change must even be called a reformation!
The Arminians in the Netherlands, who deviated in their doctrine of predestination from the Belgic Confession, strongly opposed the binding character of creeds. Their arguments were refuted by the church historian, Trigland, in the following manner:
In which sense should one subscribe to the creeds? Because they agree with the common opinion of all Reformed churches. But suppose your deviating opinion is indeed true and agrees with the Word of God? In that case you are right in this respect and the church is wrong. But in the mean-time you cannot be a minister of that church, because it does not recognize as long as it has that confession any other ministers as its own than those who accept its Confession as being in accord with Scripture. If the Reformed churches would change their Confession for another, the situation would be different. But this is not yet the case, because they know that their Confession agrees with the Word of God. If we do not speak in this vein, everything in our churches is unsettled, and all things are rendered free and uncertain. 19
Trigland's position is illuminating. He stresses that God's Word alone has final authority. It is possible, too, that the creeds in one or more parts must be changed. Yet so long as this is not done, the church confesses in and through its specific creeds the truth of God's Word. No one may claim for himself the right to change the words of these creeds or deviate from their evident meaning.
Those within the Reformed community today who wrestle with problems presented to them by the language, expressions or texts quoted in the creeds usually overlook another equally significant problem: that of the community of faith within the church, of the mutual agreement of all members be they scholars or unlearned men, men who are competent to read Kittel's Theological Dictionary or unable to do so, trained ministers or ordinary housewives. For all without exception the rule stands: our Forms of Unity are standards of the church. They are our common treasure. It is, therefore, an evil thing to speak of their intent apart from the meaning commonly attached to the words which they employ.
Real and imaginary problems
Are there, then, no real problems left at this point? Is it not a kind of confessionalism to adhere slavishly to the words and expressions of these venerable documents as these stand and are evidently meant? Should anyone defend the thesis that our creeds are sacrosanct, that in them once-for-all every aspect of the truth of God's Word has been summarized adequately, I would not hesitate to call him a confessionalist.
On the other hand, if there are real problems — and I read so much about this in today's theological literature — these must be presented and discussed and resolved in the assemblies of the church. This procedure alone does justice to both the church and those who have real difficulties.
Here I believe we should concern ourselves only with real difficulties. There are also imaginary difficulties. Among these must be reckoned objections raised against the language, style and syntax employed in the sixteenth century; to the quantity and quality of the texts quoted in the creeds; to the incompleteness of the creeds resulting from the fact that they do not meet all the needs and fail to challenge all the errors of our day. Who would not heartily agree with men who speak of the desirability of a new creed which could profess the name of our Lord in the language of and according to the needs of our time? How greatly the churches would benefit, if such a creed were framed and adopted.
Real objections are those registered against the evident meaning of words and expressions employed by the creeds. These are inspired by the tension between such words and the Gospel as we have come to understand it.
Should such difficulties arise, the only proper road to follow is that prescribed by the Form of Subscription,
We promise that we will neither publicly nor privately propose, teach, or defend the same, until we have first revealed such sentiments to the Consistory, Classis or Synod.
The way of the Spirit
Here the task of the confessing church, which is also communion of the saints, begins. Such a true church is not a court of law. Neither are its assemblies a place for endless dialogue. Rather, the true church is the house of prayer where we may confidently expect and experience the presence of the Holy Spirit who leads us into all truth. Asking for the Spirit's light, the church will find the way which leads into all truth.
At this point several distinct possibilities open up, when these difficulties are properly registered and processed with the ecclesiastical assemblies. The possibility is very real that by means of brotherly discussion the objections will be removed.
A second possibility which emerges is the possibility of changing the creeds. In such instances advice should be asked of all Reformed churches who hold these confessions in common with us. They are not the private property of one denomination!
A third possibility is that the church will deem it wise to elucidate an expression in her confession by means of an explanatory note. It may be — and this is a fourth possibility — that the church cannot feel free to change her confession and the objector cannot feel free to change his opinion in the matter, but that synod nevertheless declares that the deviating view, under certain conditions, can be tolerated within the church's fellowship.
A fifth possibility is that to the church's mind the objections raised betray such a heretical character, that the person who presented them and persists in them must be disciplined not only because he patently contradicts the confession but because he is at this point disobedient to God's Word. This is the way of the well-organized church. By following this road the church will enjoy the blessing of true fellowship in the common faith so strikingly set forth by St. Paul, "that we no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the cunning of men, by their craftiness in deceitful wiles. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ" (Ephesians 4:14, 15).