The Harry Boer Gravamen
In a previous post (Toward a Hermeneutic of the Confessions I), I made two broad points about the Reformed confessions. The first addressed the status of the confessions as they now stand in the church to which I belong, the Christian Reformed Church (CRC). What I said was that the confessions are on the cusp of being canonized as they now read, no longer able to be changed. Interpretation can still change, but not the texts of the confessions. I’ll return to that point below and in subsequent posts. The second, which I will not address again here, is that the authority of the confessions and the authority of synods are and must remain different. When a synod claims confessional authority for its decision, as did Synod 2022, it’s likely to have far-reaching and extremely deleterious consequences for the church.
What I am working towards in these posts is a hermeneutic for the confessions. We, the CRC, claim to be a confessional church. What does that mean? How should the confessions function within the church? Two questions come to mind. One is about unity. We in the CRC often refer to the confessions as “the forms of unity.” But how do they unify us? A second is about biblical and theological truth. It’s important not just to find unity but to find unity in the right direction. How do the confessions help towards lead us toward truth?
With these questions in mind, I propose in this post to look at an instance when someone tried to change one of confessions, the Canons of Dort. The person was Harry R. Boer; the issue was the Reformation doctrine of reprobation—the notion that God saves some people but passes others by. And the story is not just about Boer’s ultimately unsuccessful attempt to change a confession but about how the CRC understands what it means to be a confessional church.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Harry—I came to know Harry Boer personally, and he preached at my ordination—spent most of his career in Africa where he was the founding principal of the Theological College of Northern Nigeria. Before Nigeria, he had spent a brief time—less than a year—as Professor of Missiology at Calvin Theological Seminary. It didn’t go well. The seminary was embroiled in a fight between traditionalists and progressives. Harry belonged to the latter group. In 1952, the synod of the Christian Reformed Church decided to sweep out both parties to the conflict, and Harry was let go. He went on to graduate school at the Free University of Amsterdam and from there to Nigeria. After his retirement (1978), he settled in Grand Rapids, where I came to know him.
Harry first brought his concerns about reprobation in the Canons of Dort to the official attention of the church in 1975. In a communication to synod, he asked a question: if the confessions are based on the “express testimony of scripture,” as the Canons of Dort themselves claim in Article I.15 (or did so in the translation current at the time), where in scripture does one find this testimony to the doctrine of reprobation? Where does the Bible explicitly teach reprobation as understood in the Canons?
Initially, the synod didn’t know what to do with Boer’s question, not because of the question itself (although probably that, too), but because it was a question. Questions don’t fit the ordinary categories for bringing things to synod. It was neither appeal nor gravamen. Appeals are made not to the confessions directly but to decisions made by ecclesiastical assemblies, a council, say, or a synod. Gravamina (plural of gravamen, which in Reformed church-order-speak are formal requests to change the confessions) do not ask but propose reasons why a confession should be changed. Boer was not asking for the Canons to be changed. That would come later. At this point he was asking synod to defend the Canons by providing biblical evidence for what the Canons teach about reprobation. The synod responded by doing what synods whenever possible: appoint a committee and put the decision off until a later synod (Acts of Synod 1975:105).
The 1975 committee was initially inclined to deal with Boer’s question pastorally: have a discussion with Harry and move on from there. But Boer was having none of that. He wanted an official answer to his question, an act of synod. All of which meant that the committee had to decide what sort of ecclesiastical animal Boer’s request was: appeal or gravamen.
They decided gravamen, and they proposed a distinction—one that has become important in the polity of the CRC. They distinguished between what they called a “confessional-difficulty” gravamen and a “confessional-revision” gravamen. The first simply puts an assembly, usually a church council, on notice that a person holding office in the church (or about to hold office) has some reservations about something or other in the confessions. Usually these are informal, an elder, say, notifying her council that she cannot affirm infant baptism. The council typically decides that as long as she doesn’t impose her views on the church, she is free to serve as an elder. If Harry had gone down this route, the route the committee initially encouraged him to take, he would have registered his difficulty with the doctrine of reprobation, and that would have been that.
But Harry believed that with respect to reprobation the Canons of Dort were wrong. Not only wrong, but they were wrong in a way that damaged the witness of the church. What they taught, Boer believed, was not what the Bible teaches. The texts they cite to prove their doctrine teach nothing of the kind. And so Boer chose the second kind of gravamen: a “confessional-revision gravamen.” When he filed his gravamen, in 1977 (Acts of Synod 1977:665-79), he put the issue in the form of an argument, proposing that:
- The inclusion of any teaching in the official creeds of the church implies that the teaching in question is unambiguously taught in the Scriptures of the Old and/or the New Testament.
- The ”express testimony of sacred Scripture,” (Chap. I, Art. 15), which the Canons claim teach the doctrine of reprobation is in fact not to be found in the Scriptures.
- The doctrine of reprobation ought therefore to be exscinded from or become a non-binding part of the creeds of the Christian Reformed Church. [Love that word, “exscinded.”]
In response, Synod 1977 appointed a blue-ribbon committee “to receive the reactions of individuals, consistories, and cIasses, to study the gravamen in the light of scripture, and to advise the Synod of 1980 as to the cogency of the gravamen and how it should further be dealt with by synod” (Acts of Synod 1977:133). This committee met frequently: ten times over the three years, most of these two-day meetings. (It’s worth noting that today no study committee would be given that kind of time and money to study an issue. We live in different and perhaps less reflective times.)
Boer’s gravamen framed the issue narrowly on the question of biblical grounds for the doctrine of reprobation. He did not want to address the doctrine of election broadly or reprobation as a deduction made from the doctrine of election. What he said was simple: the Canons claim that the Bible teaches reprobation, but it doesn’t. It teaches election, but it does not teach reprobation. To this point, he places this eloquent testimony near the end of his gravamen:
I am a minister of the Word of God. I am not a minister of theological deductions, or of ecclesiastical conclusions, or of religious traditions that have only age and uncritical acceptance to commend them. I do not believe, and I refuse to entertain, that my election “ipso facto” requires a corresponding reprobation of others. I do not read in Scripture that the sovereign grace that elected me to be a child of God without regard to any merit on my part has as its logical and necessary opposite a sovereign wrath that damns men to an existence of everlasting death without regard to any demerit on their part. As I believe in sola gratia for salvation, so do I believe in sola Scriptura for my understanding and proclamation of that salvation, and even more for the church’s understanding and proclamation of salvation.
The gravamen goes on to provide a detailed reading of the texts adduced by the Canons of Dort in support of the doctrine of reprobation. Working his way carefully through them, Boer finds little in the way of support for the Dort conclusions.
So how to respond to such a gravamen?—itself a rare event in the history of the CRC. An important question is where to begin. Does one begin with the Bible or with the Canons of Dort? If one begins with the Bible, the biblical conversation about chosenness becomes the frame from which to engage the Canons. Start with the Canons, and the conversation at the Synod of Dort becomes the frame from which to engage the Bible. The study committee started with the Canons. Not the Bible, the Canons. And thereby hangs the tale.
The report (Report 30; Acts of Synod 1980:486-558), after some initial matters and a reprinting of Boer’s gravamen, settles into a detailed history of what led up to and transpired at the Synod of Dort (1618-9)—the synod that produced not only the Canons of Dort, but the church order (which still today underlies the CRC church order), authorized a Dutch Bible translation, and affirmed the confessional status of the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism. Still focusing on Dort, the report writers next in their report provide close readings of the two paragraphs in the Canons that Boer believed were in error, I.6 and I.15, with new translations of these paragraphs on the basis of the Latin text.
On the basis of their study, the committee came to believe that Boer had not understood the Canons correctly. In the summary statement from the gravamen that I quoted above, Boer says, “I do not read in Scripture that the sovereign grace that elected me to be a child of God without regard to any merit on my part has as its logical and necessary opposite a sovereign wrath that damns men to an existence of everlasting death without regard to any demerit on their part.” But is this what the Canons say? Do the Canons claim that God condemns people to “everlasting death without regard to any demerit on their part.” No, the committee concluded (correctly in my opinion), what Canons teach is that God condemns sinners to “everlasting death” precisely on the basis of their demerits.
This, if I may say so, is a theological sleight of hand. What the Canons claim (along with much of traditional Reformed theology) is that all human beings because of Adam’s sin in Eden (note how Eve is slighted even in matters of original sin) and their own sins are worthy of hell (the “everlasting death” mentioned above). But God, for God’s own undisclosed reasons has decided to save some people. This decision of God is not actually “in time.” It’s not contingent on anything else. God just chooses. The elect go to heaven; the others, those “passed over,” go to hell. Thus, so the argument goes, those who are condemned are condemned for their own sins. God does not decide to reprobate them; God decides to punish those whom he does not save—that he passes by. Boer’s allegation that the Canons teach that God condemns people without regard to their demerits is not what the Canons teach.
Having come to this conclusion, the committee is able to dismiss Boer’s gravamen: what Boer condemns and takes to be unbiblical is not in fact what in their opinion the Canons teach. Boer is right that the scriptures do not teach reprobation (in the sense that it often has: God choosing for God’s own reasons to condemn some people to hell), but the Canons don’t teach it either.
But does this narrowly drawn conclusion adequately address Boer’s concern. I don’t think so, and neither, I suspect, did the committee. Having, in their opinion, put the Canons in the clear, what does the Bible actually teach about chosenness—about election and reprobation? That was the question underlying Boer’s gravamen.
The committee does two things in this regard. Having started with Dort, they go through the texts cited by Boer in his gravamen and give them readings mostly friendly to Dort. But then, in a section titled “Other Scriptural Material Which is Relevant to the Question at Issue,” they turn to the larger question: what does the Bible say about chosenness? It is a chance for the committee to back up, to address the biblical idea of election apart from the theology of Dort, but, alas, that is not what they do.
They open their discussion by talking about two “decrees” of God, a decree to pass some people by—not choose them for faith and salvation—and a separate decree to condemn those who have been passed by to everlasting punishment. They range through the scriptures looking for texts that teach these two doctrines. What they come up with is not impressive, but that is not the biggest problem here. The larger problem, a problem for the Canons and for much of popular theology ever since, is that they put together two different theologies which despite their protestations to the contrary do not play well together.
One is a long and intricate biblical conversation about chosenness. When the Bible speaks of chosenness, it is generally in terms of the mission of God in the world. God works out God’s mission through people chosen for the purposes of God: Abraham, say, or Moses, or Jesus, or Israel as a people, or the church. Paul speaks frequently of his being chosen to be the apostle to the gentiles as the central mystery of his life (see, for example 1 Corinthians 4:1-5). It’s with the meaning of chosenness that Paul struggles in Romans 9-11—the core chapters of the letter. Has God abandoned Israel, he asks, and answers no. The promises are irrevocable. Israel remains primary. God remains faithful.
This biblical conversation about chosenness is fraught with significance for the church. When the church begins to assume, as did ancient Israel, that God chose them not for others but instead of others, it begins to go wrong. The church begins to fundamentally misunderstand its mission. God chose us not for our own sake but for the sake of God’s mission to others—God’s mission to the world God loves.
But now this deeply biblical conversation about what it means to be chosen has gotten mixed up with another set of ideas, including the idea that God chooses individuals apart from any mission or purpose, chooses them for heaven or, by passing by them, for hell. In the report, the authors distinguish these two ideas only to say that they are not “contradictory but complementary.” Not so. This theology has deep roots, to be sure, but it fundamentally misreads the Bible. It brings to the Bible assumptions and ideas largely foreign to it.
It’s this that the study committee did not see. Because they started with Dort and not with the Bible, they read the Bible through Dort, not Dort through the Bible. They never got enough distance from the theology of the Canons to see how that theology forms a system quite apart from the Bible. They were so much embedded in the system that they could not, despite their efforts to do so, step back and read the Bible fresh.
Someone will say at this point, isn’t this what we always do? We bring our assumptions to the text of Bible and then find them there. But that is a counsel of despair. Our readings of the Bible are always provisional—a conversation, I have said many times, between what we know or think we know and what we can read in the text of the Bible. Or a conversation between conversations. We bring the biblical conversation—actually conversations—into dialogue the conversations of our own time, and often we discover to our amazement that the biblical conversation enriches and interprets our contemporary conversations
And this points to a way to read the confessions. The confessions represent another such conversation. Or, actually, several: the Canons and the Catechism, for example, are from quite different theological worlds. What we owe the confessions is to understand the conversation that drives their approaches to scripture and to the stuff of life—the stuff they were dealing with at the time. For Dort, that conversation had everything to do with a view of God’s grace that is not contingent on anything we do. It was assurance of salvation that drove the conversation. In preserving that radical view of grace, which indeed has deep biblical roots, the Dort divines had resort to ideas that are mostly not from the Bible—notions of eternity and heaven and hell and God’s honor and more. In our conversation with Dort, we owe it to them to sort these things out, to understand their project deeply enough to see where it remains instructive and where they were misled by assumptions that were in the air at the time.
In the big picture, Boer was right. We should from time-to-time step back to ask of the confessions: did they get this right? Or better, what did they get right in this teaching? How do their teachings help us? Harry may have misread Dort, as the study committee claimed, but he got the question right, which in the end is the more important thing.
If we were to do this—approach the confessions as a dialogue in partnership not only with the confessions but with scripture and with the long tradition of Christian reflection on scripture, the confessions would come alive for us. We would labor with the Dort divines to understand God’s grace. We would say to them, don’t separate chosenness from God’s mission. And they would say to us, don’t think that God chose us because of who we are or what we bring to the table. And we would say, yes, indeed. And they would nod and say, keep on reading the Bible for what you have seen that we did not.
But when the job is not so much to understand the confessions but to defend them, then we end up honoring neither the confessions nor the Bible nor our own insights. I suspect the confessions would take a livelier place in our theological discussions if we could find a way to honor them for what they are rather than for what we would like them to be.
But that’s material for another post.
4 responses to “TOWARD A HERMENEUTIC OF THE CONFESSIONS II”
Probing, thoughtful, helpful — thanks! Will ponder how this perspective can shape our thinking. “Chosenness for God’s work” is a key theme also in Leslie Newbigin’s account of election, if I recall correctly.
Thanks David. Newbigin is apropos here.
Thanks Clay. Enjoyed the walk through that story with special interest since my dad was also a friend of Harry and walked with him through this journey. I think your insight here is spot on regarding the way the confessions function in the life of the church.
Thanks for another helpful post.
P. S. I tried hard to use “walk” twice to honor the “peripatetic” writer. 😁
Thanks, John. Your father’s name does appear in the synodical material. And thanks for the walk😎.