I don’t remember much if any discussion in seminary about how to interpret the confessions. I don’t think this was because I was not paying enough attention—although, I may not have been. While it was often said that we—the Christian Reformed Church (CRC)—were a confessional church, not much was said about what this meant in practice nor about how a confessional church should go about reading and applying the confessions. It was assumed—still is, I think—that the confessions are transparent in a way that perhaps the Bible is not. After all, the confessions purport to properly construe scripture. In the language of the Covenant for Officebearers, required to be signed by anyone who holds church office in my denomination, the doctrines taught by the confessions “fully agree with the Word of God”  (accessed here).

But this is a mistake. For some time the church has needed a confessional hermeneutic: careful thinking about how to read the confessions. I intend this essay and others to follow to be first and perhaps halting steps in that direction: toward a hermeneutic for reading confessions in a confessional church. And in this way, I hope to call my own denomination and perhaps others like it to a conversation about confessionalism.

The historic Reformation confessions are now centuries old. In my denomination, the Christian Reformed Church, we have three confessions. Two of them, the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism were originally written in the 16th century; the last, the Canons of Dort, early in the 17th century. It was the Synod of Dort (1618-19) that recognized the three as Reformed standards.

They are at the point of a kind of canonization. Canonization begins to occur when an authoritative writing can no longer be changed. It’s past the point of editing. The Christian Reformed Church last edited a confession in 1985 when they removed a paragraph from Article 36 of the Belgic Confession that (in the original) said that “we detest the Anabaptists.” Synod 1985 placed this paragraph (already edited to make it less offensive in 1958) in a footnote on the ground that, “Such a change safeguards historical integrity regarding the creeds by leaving the paragraph in view” (Agenda and Acts of Synod 1985:789).

The Reformed Church in America (RCA), in contrast, decided not to edit out the offending paragraph but to retain it, noting that “the confession was written within a historical context which may not accurately describe the situation that pertains today.” In the joint 2011 CRC/RCA translation of the Belgic Confession (here), these two approaches to the confession lead to a messy set of notes on Article 36.

The differing approaches adopted by the CRC and the RCA signal where Reformation denominations are with respect to these 16th and 17th century confessions. The CRC made bold to edit the Belgic Confession as late as 1985, although only by excising a paragraph and putting the material they cut out in a footnote; the RCA decided not to edit at all. Between those two approaches is a step towards canonization. Once the text can no longer be edited, as in the RCA and probably by now in the CRC, the only way to deal with the sort of difficulties that presented by the language of Belgic Confession Article 36 is by interpretation. The RCA approach points the way: one must understand Article 36 and, one supposes, much else in the confessions in terms of their setting in the age in which they were written.

I’ll return to this below and in another later post. It’s important. It’s part of the reason why we should begin to reflect on how to properly read the confessions. But before I do that, I want to address a more immediate issue. For this, I will need to return to the ill-starred Synod 2022 and its approach to Question and Answer 108 of the Heidelberg Catechism. As many of my readers know, I have addressed some of the issues in several earlier posts (see this post, for example) do not want to repeat myself here, but there is something more to say—something I don’t think has been brought up before.

For those of you who are new to this, in brief, Synod 2022 declared its interpretation of Q&A 108 of the Catechism to be itself confessional. What this comes to is that when you read Q&A 108, you must, if you are a signatory of the CRC Covenant for Officebearers, read it in the way that the Synod 2022 specifies. Any other interpretation that goes contrary to the interpretation of the synod, they allege, is a violation of the covenant that requires those who hold office in the CRC to fully embrace the confessions. Anyone who does so can be brought up on charges by the church.

They made this ruling about their interpretation of Q&A 108 of the Catechism on the basis of a misreading of a 1975 synodical decision. I’ll not return to that. I’ve said enough. But here’s the point, which is new in this discussion and was not considered by Synod 2022: if Synod 2022 can do this sort of thing—declare its interpretation of a confession to be itself confessional—then any synod can do this. And there lies the rub.

Q&A 108 is part of the Heidelberg Catechism’s commentary on the Ten Commandments, in this case the seventh: “You shall not commit adultery.” The question the catechism poses is: “What is God’s will for us in the seventh commandment?” The answer in the manner used consistently by the catechism is that the reach of the commandment extends not just to adultery but to “all unchastity.”

But then, what is “all unchastity?” This the catechism leaves open to interpretation, but it says that unchaste acts can occur both inside and outside of marriage and include not just what a person does but how one talks and thinks (Q&A 109). Synod 2022 was not satisfied with these general observations but wanted to make sure that readers of the catechism also include in their interpretation of “unchastity” in Q&A 108 homosexuality—particularly same-sex marriage. Further, they wanted to claim that this interpretation has confessional status, which means that anyone holding office in the church must subscribe to it. And if so, no one is permitted to speak against it. They wanted to nail down their decision and end the discussion once and for all.

But as I said, if Synod 2022 can do this, so can Synod 2023. Or 2024. Or some synod down the road a piece. Suppose, for example, that a synod in the future decided for whatever reason to take up the next commandment, the eighth: “You shall not steal.” What does the catechism say the eighth commandment? It says, expanding the commandment along the same lines as it does with the seventh commandment, that God “forbids not only outright theft and robbery, punishable by law, but in God’s sight theft also includes cheating and swindling our neighbor by schemes made to look legitimate. . ..”

So, suppose that this future synod was convinced that “cheating and swindling” included pyramid schemes along the lines that have been alleged for the Amway Corporation. And suppose that this synod was so convinced by this interpretation of the catechism that it declared it to be confessional. From now one, this future synod declares, anyone who signs the Covenant of Officebearers must wholeheartedly, without mental reservations, condemn the businesses practices of Amway. Not only that, but anyone in, say, Calvin University who teaches to the contrary should be summarily dismissed. And further Calvin is required to rename the buildings named for the founders of Amway. And, the synod might add, preachers in the denomination should regularly condemn buying Amway products as contributing to the violation of the eighth commandment.

Is this likely to happen? Probably not, alas, but there is no reason why it couldn’t happen. If Synod 2022 can claim that its interpretation of Q&A 108 is confessional, then any synod can declare its own interpretation of the confessions to be confessional. What will happen as a result of this procedure is that what is confessional and what isn’t will be decided from year to year and from synod to synod. If one signs the Covenant of Officebearers in, say, 2021, one will have to reconsider whether to sign it again in 2022 or 2023 or whenever synod decides that some new interpretation of the confessions has confessional status.

Clearly, this will not work. But Synod 1975 already said that. It said clearly and repeatedly that synodical decisions—even interpretations of the confessions—are not themselves confessional. Synod decisions carry the weight of synodical authority, not the weight of confessional authority.

But that raises again the question with which I began: how should the confessions function in a confessional church at a time when the confessions are increasingly distant in time from the present moment? Take, in this regard, the question that has been exercising the Christian Reformed Church and most other denominations for the past decade and more: should the church officially recognize same-sex marriage as marriage? Should it welcome into its fellowship same-sex couples. Should it baptize the children of married same-sex members? Should the clergy solemnize same-sex marriages? Or, in terms of the catechism, are these relationships chaste?

To bring this question to the confessions is to bring a question nowhere considered in the confessions themselves. Nor, for that matter, in the Bible. No one in the 16th century thought about the chastity of same-sex marriages. Not only did such marriages not exist at the time; no one even considered whether they could exist. As late as 1971, when the CRC church first formulated policy for homosexuality, the study committee brought up the possibility of a civil union between same sex partners, suggested that it might have merit, but then quickly dismissed it as unlikely to happen.

What, then, in the absence of any direct consideration of the question can the confessions bring to the discussion? More than one might think. Take Q&A 108 of the Heidelberg Catechism and its key word, “chastity.” New questions about sexuality in our time should have prompted the CRC and its study committee to think deeply about what “chastity” means in our time.

In doing so, it would be joining an interesting cultural conversation. The conversation in our time is framed mostly in terms of consent and of the relationship between consent in sexual matters and power. The church has mostly been a step behind in this discussion. Long after the culture began to recognize that consent requires the ability to say yes and no, and for this reason there should be stricter rules about sex between bosses and those who work for them, teachers and those they teach, adults and children, and so forth, the church seemed oddly oblivious to the conversation. When matters of sexual abuse were first raised in my hearing, they were often framed in terms of legal liability. The concern was not so much with the victim as with preserving the institution. But here, in Q&A 108 and its discussion of chastity there existed a perspective on sexual relationships that the church could have brought to the conversation. What makes for chastity, we might have asked? And for unchastity? What is the relationship between chastity and power?

In this way of reading the confessions, what’s old—the idea of chastity in this case—comes into conversation with what is relatively new, with the idea of consent, and perhaps the two could, were this conversation to be carried forward, enrich each other. But this, this way of reading the confessions requires a different approach than the approach typically found at the synods I have attended.

With this in mind, I went back to a case where someone actually tried to change a confession. The case was brought by Dr. Harry Boer, who filed a confessional-revision gravamen—a petition to change a confession. The case was decided in 1980. Boer’s complaint was that the Canons of Dort taught what the scriptures do not teach: a divine decree of reprobation. Synod 1980 considered the case and decided that the Canons do not teach what Boer claimed they taught and therefore did not need to be revised.

My present interest in this case is not the doctrine itself (although I’m interested in that, too) but how synod handled Boer’s gravamen and what that tells us about how confessions should be interpreted. But that is for the next post. I hope you will stay tuned.

Until then,



  1. I can’t wait! I’m sure you realize that you are (indirectly) suggesting a hermeneutic of how the Bible deals with human sexuality when you bring up issues of consent. That single idea ought to become a brain splinter for a whole lot of people.

  2. Thanks for this. It raises two important and different tracks for more exploration:
    1. The importance of consent and moral agency in our cultural context and the unique and helpful way the Heidelberg Catechism approached the second tablet of the 10 Commandments in general and the 7th Commandment in particular. Lewis Smede’s treatment of the 10 Commandments in his book, Mere Morality, could be helpful.
    2. Resetting our “frozen in time” approach to confessions. Why have we not had any new confessions? In my view, that is not a good thing. Fresh articulations along the way would show more maturity and go a long way to prevent the unhelpful fixations we have about what dated texts mean or don’t mean. Confessional does not need to mean archaic.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: