Soooo, we—we Christian Reformed (CRC) types, that is—seem to be having a discussion about confessionalism: what it means to be a confessional church. As is often the case with conversations like this in churches of whatever kind, we are backing into it. The CRC Synod 2022 declared its interpretation of Question and Answer 108 (Q&A 108) of the Heidelberg Catechism to be “confessional” (on this see my earlier blog post, https://peripateticpastor.com/2022/10/14/hold-those-gravamina-why-filing-a-gravamen-might-not-be-the-right-move-for-those-who-disagree-with-synod-2022/ ), thereby effectively doing the opposite of what it intended The synod intended to end the argument in the church about human sexuality once and for all. It said, basically, “No, you can’t do that” (think about human sexuality in new ways), and like a fed-up parent, it added, “and I don’t want ever to hear about this again.”
This, quite predictably, had the opposite effect: no synod or synodical decision-making in recent memory has been more talked about than Synod 2022. Questions have been raised, not only about the issues of human sexuality themselves but about synods and the confessions and whether synods can or should declare interpretations of the creeds or confessions to have confessional force. A central question in this discussion is whether a synodical interpretation has the same force as the confession itself.
In the post cited above I said no to that question. Synodical interpretations of the creeds are, well, just that: synodical interpretations. They are not themselves confessional. I rested my argument on the same Synod 1975 report and recommendations that Synod 2022 used to bolster its claim that it did have the authority to declare its interpretation of Q&A 108 of the Heidelberg to be confessional. To see who is right about this, read the 1975 material for yourself. It’s available at https://www.calvin.edu/library/database/crcnasynod/1975agendaacts.pdf, 44, 595-604).
In a long response to that post, Paul Vander Klay, a Sacramento pastor and YouTuber extraordinaire, took issue with my conclusions about the legitimacy of the synod’s declaration of confessional status (https://paulvanderklay.me/ ). Paul’s concern was not about the case itself but about whether my argument was likely to prevail in the denomination. Ecclesiastical politics in the CRC, he claims, are entirely against me and against anyone who would put forth similar questions about the Synod 2022 decision. Although, he allowed, my church order argument might have “some technical merit,” it is “disastrous for the affirming camp” (he means those who affirm the full embrace of LGBTQ+ people in the church) because it gives people and churches false hope. According to Paul, things are about to get worse for affirming churches and people in the CRC, not better. In other words, enough with the hope, already.
This is interesting because for a long time Paul has been promoting the idea of a holding a denominational conversation about what it means to be a confessional church. (See https://paulvanderklay.me/confessional-conversation/ ). He references confessionalism in his post, saying of me and others, “CRC affirming leaders have STILL not taken up the challenge of addressing confessionalism for their followers. Clay’s article on the surface tries to defend confessionalism against Synod but it really waters it down.” I’m not quite sure what this means, but it raises the issue of confessionalism: once again, what does it mean to be a confessional church?
For Paul, judging from an off-hand remark he makes in his post, confessionalism has to do with enforcement. “The confessional system,” he says, “only gets applied when councils, classes and Synod decides [sic] what to enforce and what we saw last year is that it is likely that future Synods will have the stomach to enforce the decision on the HC as will classes and councils.” Confessionalism is a hammer with which to enforce the unity of the denomination. Churches are confessional to the extent that they are willing to use the hammer.
But is this in fact what it means to be a confessional church? And has this been the way the confessions have traditionally worked in the CRC? The answer to both questions is emphatically no. The authority of the confessions is rather different than what Paul seems to have in mind. In this area, there is a distinction to be made between what people often say about the confessions and how the confessions actually function in the church.
Look with me for a moment at how confessions become confessions in the first place. We can distinguish two stages in the confessional process. The first is the event or events that lead to the creation of the confession in the first place. Confessions, in general, are attempts to grasp the gospel anew when the gospel is under existential threat.
Consider, for example, Guido de Bres and the others who put together what we now know as the Belgic Confession. The threat at the time was an active persecution of those who believed that for the gospel to survive the church needed to be reformed. De Bres himself died on the gallows for this cause. His confession had an apologetic purpose: to convince the authorities, especially the king, that what the reformers believed was in fact the simple gospel—the catholic faith, where “catholic,” Greek for “according to the whole,” means not Roman Catholic but what the church has always believed.
For the creators of the Heidelberg Catechism, in contrast, the threat to the gospel was ignorance, not persecuton. What passed for Christianity in the Palatinate in mid-16th century seemed to Elector Frederick III a morass of superstition, and so he commissioned the writing of a catechism, a catechism useful for teaching children and adults alike and broad enough to span the various theological opinions in his land.
For the Synod of Dort, the issue was the core Reformed teaching of the priority of God in salvation. The synod not only issued the Canons but consolidated the tradition by adopting the other Reformed confessions and issuing a church order—the church order that still underlies the present CRC church order.
Allow me two more examples, both from the 20th century, the Barmen and the Belhar Confessions. Barmen was written to counter the Nazification of the church in mid-century Germany. Although it has never been adopted by the CRC, it has, along with the Belhar, immediate relevance for our own time (see below). Belhar was written in the 1980s to rescue the gospel from the theology and practice of apartheid. The CRC has not given it full confessional status, either, instead adopting it as a “testimony.” We might better understand the power of confessionalism if we (the CRC) had leaned into these contemporary confessions.
The theological and moral power of these confessions is directly related to the historical moment out of which they come. Confessions may range over a variety of topics but the heart of any confession is its attempt to grasp the gospel from whatever threatens it. The rest of the confession must be interpreted in the light of this purpose or aim.
This way of understanding the confessions seems implicit in the directions given in the church order for those who sign the CRC Covenant for Officebearers, thereby affirming the confessions:
“The signatory does not by affirming the confessions declare that these doctrines are all stated in the best possible manner, or that the standards of our church cover all that the Scriptures teach on the matters confessed. Nor does the signatory declare that every teaching of the Scriptures is set forth in our confessions, or that every heresy is rejected and refuted by them.” They add that “The signatory is bound only to those doctrines that are confessed and is not bound to the references, allusions, and remarks that are incidental to the formulation of these doctrines, nor to the theological deductions that some may draw from the doctrines” (Church Order of the Christian Reformed Church, Supplement, Article 5).
What this comes to is that each of the confessions had a moment when the gospel seemed imperiled, and in that moment, a confessional statement was written to answer the challenge of the time. Every confession bears the marks of the age from which it comes and must be read with that in mind. And it’s not just what the confession says; it’s what it speaks against that matters. Our present grasp of the gospel depends on their grasp of the gospel in those defining moments. Through those moments and the church’s response to them, we trace our theological lineage.
By this standard, “Our World Belongs to God,” another document filed in the CRC in the testimony category, has perhaps a less compelling case to be recognized as a confession. (Full disclosure: I worked on “Our World Belongs to God” and contributed some of its language.) It’s writing was not so much a response an existential threat to the gospel as an attempt to state the faith in fetching and contemporary language. It’s perhaps best considered, along with the Apostles’ Creed, as a liturgical statement, most at home in worship.
The confessional moment is the first stage in a confession becoming a confession; the second stage is when the confessional document is included among the standards of a given church or denomination. It’s tempting when this happens to interpret the confession apart from its history—to interpret it as a part of a theological constitution. In short, as law and not covenant.
But this is a mistake. The confessions are not law. It’s not a perfect analogy but the confessions are rather more like the Declaration of Independence in the US than the Constitution. Both are powerful statements for the unity of the nation, but they work rather differently. The Declaration of Independence makes a moral claim on the conscience of the nation. It constitutes—to push the analogy—the “theology” of the nation. The Constitution is in contrast is law.
The difference between the two can be illustrated by contrasting the ringing words of the Declaration, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” with the leaden words of the Constitution that “representatives and direct taxes shall be apportioned among the several states . . . according to their respective numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole number of free persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.” The three fifths rule for many years was the law of the land. The Constitution has that kind of power, the power of law, but the Declaration has another kind of power, the power of conscience, drawing the nation eventually to reconsider the three fifths rule and to overturn it. Which power is greater, the power of law or the power of conscience?
You need both. Were we to lose the Declaration of Independence, we would lose something of the soul of the nation. But you also need law, those definitions and provisions that define how the nation is organized and run. In the church, too, you need both. The confessions, especially the confessions in their historical settings as attempts to grasp the gospel, are the soul of the denomination. The Church Order and various synodical decisions are ecclesiastical law.
You need both, but you should not confuse them. The confessions make bad law. Take as an example once again, Q&A 108 of the Heidelberg Catechism and Synod 2022’s attempt to make it into law. The article is in the section of the catechism that uses the Ten Commandments as a guide to Christian life. Q&A 108, along with Q&A 109, addresses the seventh commandment: “You shall not commit adultery.” The catechism, here as with others of the commandments, like Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, gets at the spiritual heart of the commandments. “What is God’s will for us in the seventh commandment?” the catechism asks. The answer is that “God condemns all unchastity.” We should, therefore, aspire to “decent and chaste lives.”
This answer permitted preachers and those sitting in the pews back in the days when the second Sunday service was devoted to the catechism to reflect on what “unchastity” might look like in the society of the day. Unchastity is always a violation of someone else’s or one’s own body for sexual purposes, but unchastity wears different faces in different times. The word “unchastity” forces the preacher and thoughtful readers of the catechism in our time to range over such issues as consent in sexual matters, both in and outside of marriage, how we look at others, and how we speak of others. What does it mean to be “chaste?”
Law reins in these wonderings, the incessant interrogation of our hearts and culture for what violates others and ourselves. Law defines; it does not aspire. It does not dream of a greater chastity. It does not mourn the unchastity of our lives. Law rules what’s in and out. Confessions, as I said, make bad law. Laws rule; confessions aspire.
If that’s true, if our confessions are more “declarations” than constitutional law, then what would a contemporary conversation about the confessions look like? We can’t answer that question until we first answer another: what in the present age threatens the gospel? Where in our time does the church experience an existential threat to the gospel itself?
In thinking about that question, what comes to my mind is Barmen. At the time, the German church was being bullied and co-opted by the Nazi regime under Adolf Hitler. The gospel of Jesus Christ was under threat, the threat of what we might call “German Christian Nationalism.” In the face of that threat, representatives of the German Evangelical Church, a coalition of confessing churches including Reformed, Lutheran, and United communions, gathered in Gemarke Church in Wuppertal, Germany, from May 29-31, 1934, to formulate a response to the merging of the church and Nazi ideology. The confession they wrote and affirmed was an attempt—a brave and eloquent attempt—to grasp the gospel anew against the forces that would destroy it.
What is the existential threat to the gospel today? You don’t have to look far. Evangelical Christianity has come to have less and less to do with the Jesus of the gospels and more and more to do with a bellicose version of right-wing politics: Christian Nationalism. The Jesus of this faith is all about power: “Jesus and John Wayne,” as Kristin Du Mez has it in her evocative book. As this faith grows in power and increasingly co-opts the name Christianity itself, so that when people think of Christians, they think of Christian Nationalists, is it time for Christians to gather and to write a new confession, a confession that calls the church back to Jesus—not the Jesus of evangelical preachers but the Jesus of the gospels?
I would love to be part of a gathering like that. Perhaps you would, too. And if we were to do so, to attempt to grasp the gospel anew in our time, would we not as a consequence of our work begin to read the older confessions in a new way? Not as ways to bind us to the past but as guides to the future. As statements that steel our courage to stand up for the gospel in our own time.
And would we not, as we worked and wrote, sense around us the spirits of Guido de Bres and Karl Barth (Barmen) and those who worked over the Belhar confession in the days of apartheid, urging us on, asking us to be bold in our grasp of the gospel.
And would we not, as we worked, welcome those who embrace the true gospel of Jesus—his teachings, cross, and resurrection—as sisters and brothers, regardless of whether they identified as gay or straight?
So let’s grasp the confessions, for they will show us the way, the way not of law but of gospel.