The church order of the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) in a supplement to Article 5 includes some instructions about what one should consider when signing the Covenant for Officebearers. The Covenant, for those of you who are not familiar with the CRC, is a document that office holders in the denomination are required to sign to express their adherence to the creeds and confessions of the church. The instructions begin by stating that in signing the Covenant one “affirms without reservation all the doctrines contained in the standards of the church as being doctrines taught in the Word of God” (emphasis mine).
One could attempt to parse this statement. Does it mean what it seems to say? Merely that the doctrines in question are all taught somewhere in the Word of God, perhaps along with other doctrines that go in other directions? Or does it mean something stronger? That these doctrines—the ones included in the confessions—just are the teaching of the Word of God. That, in short, what the confessions declare is the Word of God.
And why “Word of God” instead of, say “Bible”? Does it mean to imply something about how the Word of God is contained in the Bible but not identical with it, the kind of distinction one might make, for example, about some parts of Leviticus. Or perhaps the last verse of Psalm 137? Is it suggesting that what God says and what the text says are not always the same thing?
Somehow, I doubt this. I doubt that this statement is anything but badly written. I suspect that the statement should be read as saying that in signing the Covenant one affirms that the doctrines taught in the creeds and confessions are fully supported by and express the teaching of the Bible. In fact, this is the way that I have heard this statement used in the church. When people dissent from something said by a confession or a synod, what’s trotted out is the idea of affirming the confessions “without reservation.” It’s an attempt to lock down certain ways of reading the Bible and the tradition.
But can one do this? Is it even possible? Can anyone actually affirm anything, let alone all the teachings of the confessions, “without reservation”? Aren’t reservations part of thinking? For me, they are. Ask me my name, and I’ll have reservations about my answer.
In fact, the instructions on signing the Covenant for Officebearers in the supplement to Article 5 of the Church Order go on to cite a number of things one might have reservations about. They say, for example, that not all the doctrines “are stated in the best possible manner” nor do they necessarily cover everything that the scriptures teach on a given matter. These constitute quite large exceptions. But still, that “without reservation” sticks out, does it not?
Take a creed. Take, for example, the creed no one much reads these days, the so-called Athanasian Creed (available on the denomination website here). You might note first of all that the creed is of questionable origin. Despite the title, it’s certainly not from Athanasius, the 4th century theologian and defender of the Trinity. It claims no council for its authority. But still, you plunge on into the creed, hoping to affirm it “without reservation.”
And then you run into the first two sentences, which read: “Whoever desires to be saved should above all hold to the catholic faith. Anyone who does not keep it whole and unbroken will doubtless perish eternally.” You pause, and what leaps up in your mind is, “Really?” Does God condemn to perish eternally anyone who doesn’t get the Trinity straight (what the creed means by “the catholic faith”)? That would be quite a lot of us. Are these theology wonderings “reservations?” And are they sorts of reservations prohibited for those who sign the Covenant for Officebearers? Just asking.
It seems that something has gone very wrong here. The church is asking for a blank check acceptance that no thinking person would want to give or should give. One would think that the creeds and confessions should invite our questions, that to engage with them is to ask just the sort of questions I raised for the opening of the Athanasian Creed.
Take another example, one closer to home: the first article of the beloved Belgic Confession. In that article, with great flourish, the confession declares that God is “a single and simple spiritual being.” You, along with me, might pause on the word “simple,” a word with a deep history in Christian theology but by no means universally affirmed as being true of God and certainly nowhere taught in the Bible. What’s more, the idea of divine simplicity has been questioned by the likes of Alvin Plantinga (see here on divine simplicity and Plantinga’s objection to it), someone usually thought of as a fierce defender of the faith.
With this in mind, as you read that statement from the confession, a reservation might slip into your mind. You might ask yourself, “Is God in fact simple?” Or, perhaps your focus falls on another word in the same statement, the word “being.” Is God in fact a “being”? Much of Christian theology historically says that God is not a being, at least not a being among other beings. As a matter of fact, the idea that God is not a “being” in this sense is a direct consequence of God’s simplicity. Divine simplicity and divine beingness don’t properly belong together. But there they are in the same confessional sentence, almost side-by-side. Was Guido de Bres, the author of the confession, confused at this point? You see how this goes? To read it is to ask questions, to reserve judgment, to evaluate what is being said against the history of theology and the scriptures themselves. But are you, am I, a signer of the Covenant for Officebearers, allowed to do this? Are these not mental reservations?
Does “fully agree with the Word of God”
But that’s just the instruction sheet for signing the Covenant for Officebearers. Plunge into the Covenant itself, and one comes up with another problematic phrase. The Covenant requires you to affirm that the Reformed confessions—they include the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort—are “historic Reformed expressions of the Christian faith, whose doctrines fully agree with the Word of God” (emphasis mine).
A bit of history here. The last part of that affirmation, “whose doctrines fully agree with the Word of God,” was not part of the language of the Covenant as it came to Synod 2012 from the hands of a study committee. The committee wanted the sentence to end with “historic Reformed expressions of the Christian faith.” But the synod was not satisfied with that, so it reached back into the language of the form of subscription that preceded the Covenant and that goes back to the Synod of Dort (1618-19). As it came from Dort, this form of subscription read:
We [those signing], . . . do sincerely and in good conscience before the Lord, declare by this our subscription that we heartily believe and are persuaded that all the articles and points of doctrine contained in this Confession and Catechism [the Heidelberg] of the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands, together with the Explanation [the Canons of Dort] of some points of the aforesaid doctrine made by the National Synod of Dordrecht, 1619, do fully agree with the Word of God [in alles met Goodts woort over een comen]” (Sinnema, 273).
Even if you allow that the Dutch in alles . . . over een comen is not quite “fully agrees,” this appears to be an example of synodical overreach. What can it possibly mean to say that a 16th century confession, bathed in the thought patterns of Reformation Europe, does “fully agree with the Word of God,” assuming that by “Word of God” it means the Bible. Does this mean what it appears to say? That what the confessions say is just what the Bible says? Does it mean that we can for all intents and purposes put the Bible on the shelf in deciding doctrinal matters and read instead what Guido de Bres wrote in the 16th century? One thinks not.
If you push this line of thinking at all, you see how misguided it is. Take almost any teaching (“doctrine”) from the confessions, and you will find exactly what you should expect: the teaching is laden with the assumptions of 16th century Reformation theology. How can it be otherwise? But these assumptions are not the same as those of the writers of the Bible, written long before and in very different contexts. When the Belgic Confession in Article 16 presents the doctrine of election, it assumes that election is about going to heaven or hell. This is not at all the way the Bible uses the language of election. It makes no sense to say that the confessions say what the Bible says. They may base their teachings in the Bible or give a certain reading to the Bible, but “fully agree?” Not hardly.
This does not mean that the confessions are wrong about they teach (although in some cases they may be), but rather that they approach the faith from the perspective of the Europe of the 16th century. The relationship between the Bible and the confessions is more complicated than is allowed for in the claim that they “fully agree with the Word of God.” This, as in the case of affirming the creeds and confessions “without reservation” is an example of synodical overreach—a example that tells more about 17th century assumptions about the Bible and about how the Bible works than it does about the Bible itself.
Another approach: primary and secondary theology
There is a better approach, one that honors the Bible and the confessions both and brings them into conversation with each other in ways that can instruct and guide the church. David H. Kelsey in his magisterial Eccentric Existence: A Theological Anthropology (Westminster John Knox Press 2009) makes a helpful distinction between primary and secondary theology. By primary theology, he has in mind the week to week, year to year reflection of the church on its own life and practices. For this distinction and much else he borrows from Alasdair MacIntyre (After Virtue, 175-283) the concept of a “practice.” For Kelsey, faith is a practice; hope is a practice; love is a practice. A practice in this sense is something we do together (Kelsey calls it a “form of socially established human interactivity”), something that has a distinctive shape and history, something that has its own standards of excellence and its own purpose or telos. If we think of faith as a practice in this sense it includes not just certain beliefs but a whole pattern of a faithful life, including standards of excellence (living one’s faith well) and purpose (serving the Lord).
Theology—”primary theology” in Kelsey’s presentation is itself a practice—the practice of reflecting in defined ways on our faith and life together. It’s what we do on Sunday mornings in the message. It’s what we do in council meetings during the week. It’s what we do in classis meetings and synods. Or what we should do.
We have not done this well lately, I think. We have not done it well because we are afraid to ask questions, especially at the synodical level. We have been too intent on reaching a decision rather than on the quality and depth of our discussion. As a result, our decisions have often been sloppily made. They do not meet the standards of excellence that are required of the practice of primary theology, which standards include a close reading of the Bible, attention to the church order, immersion in the best of Christian thought, and a willingness to engage each other as fellow members of the body of Jesus Christ.
But I think there is another problem. We have not done primary theology well because we have not done secondary theology at all. At least not publicly. By “secondary theology” Kelsey has in mind the sort of theology that takes step away from what has always been done and thought and looks at those things in the light of what have learned and are learning.
And what have learned that requires this sort of reflection? For one, we have learned over the past couple of centuries to read the Bible not just differently but better. To return to where we started, we now see that the “fully agree with the Word of God” language in the Covenant for Officebearers is reductive. It reduces the Bible to a set of teachings, teachings expressed in non-biblical language. We’ve learned at the very least to allow the Bible to express not just a single voice but many voices and to find God’s voice is the conversation among these various voices. All this needs not just more thought but more reflection on how our changing reading of the Bible affects how we approach the confessions.
I could go on. I might mention how in the past few years the ancient split between the western church of which we are a part and the eastern church has begun to heal. Western theologians are reading the theology of the East and discovering in it new resources for understanding our faith. I could also mention the ways in which scientific discovery has written a very different story about who we are as human beings and how this story has come to shape our thinking, even among those who also claim the biblical story.
But it’s precisely this sort of engaged thinking that seems to be missing in my denomination (the CRC) and beyond it in evangelicalism generally. What I see instead among those who are in a position to lead is timidity and fear. I’m sometimes told that the politics are all wrong. The forces of reaction have grasped control of the church, and we who still hope that the church will find its way forward should just move on. But this is not a matter of politics or personal preference; it’s a matter of grasping the truth as best we can. It’s a matter of being faithful.
Or so I think.