Since the Inter-Classical Conference met in South Holland, Illinois last November, I have read a number of reactions to it. Just this week I have seen three more reactions of a decidedly negative type. I have not been surprised, but I have been disappointed. I feel like calling, “Help!” Too often our critics do not seem to hear us or even make an effort to understand us. Perhaps this failure to communicate is the fault of those of us who were at South Holland. We need help.
Those of us at South Holland have all loved the CRC. Many of us were raised in the CRC. The rest were converted through the ministry of the CRe or drawn to the CRC because of our conviction that it was a faithful Reformed church. We came to South Holland out of a deep conviction that something was going terribly wrong with the church we loved. We came because we feared that the church we had known was disappearing. We came because we felt forsaken and abandoned by our spiritual mother. Some of us were angry and, yes, some of us were bitter. Some of us were frustrated and confused. We were all sad.
We experienced in South Holland a great time of fellowship and a profound sense of common commitment to the Reformed faith. We were not agreed on all points of doctrine or strategy. But we were one in our commitment to Christ, the Christ of the Bible and the Reformed confessions. We decided to act together to communicate our deep spiritual concern about the CRC to our synod, classes and councils. In our name the officers of the conference wrote a pastoral letter trying to express briefly our doctrinal, pastoral and spiritual concerns about our church. We tried to communicate our pain that synod violated our convictions and consciences. We tried to express the full measure of our distress and suggest ways that we might still be able to live together in the CRC.
What has been the response from those rather conservative or moderate people who do not agree with us? What have the “progressive” or liberal elements in the church had to say—those elements that have as their hallmark a concern for sensitivity and compassion? A few have expressed real concern. But many more have told us that we are schismatic. Some have suggested that we are not fit to come to the Lord’s Table because we have caused dissension in the church. We have regularly been told that the issue of women in office is not important enough to trouble the church over. Where is the effort at love and understanding for us in our turmoil? Can someone help me understand why so many in the CRC seem so deaf to our cries? The underlying response from many seems to be: Be quiet and keep paying.
Let me refer to the three recent responses that I mentioned earlier, two printed in the recent Calvin Forum. and one adopted by Classis Arizona.
Professor Jeffery Weima—whom I regard as a conservative in the CRC—wrote an article entitled, “Two Challenges to Our Reformed Heritage.” I agree fully with the thesis of the article. Our Reformed heritage is threatened by both liberalism and fundamentalism. (This same point was made in the first issue of the Outlook—then the Torch and Trumpet—over forty years ago.) I appreciate that he says some nice things about the conference. But to illustrate the threat of fundamentalism in the CRC by referring to the South Holland conference seems very unfair to me.
Weima mentions two fundamentalist issues of concern to him: theonomy and creation science. He says that he talked to “a number of delegates” in South Hoiland who were theonomists. I am sure that he is telling the truth, but I do not personally know of any theonomists who were there. Certainly no prominent theonomists were there and none of the leadership of the conference was theonomist. No effort was made to have the conference endorse any distinctively theonomist position. So why does Weima link the conference to the fundamentalist threat to the CRC? Is his statement just “guilt by association”? Why does he even raise the issue of theonomy? It seems to me that there are so few theonomists in the CRC that it poses no threat at all.
On. the matter of creation science, I am sure that a number of delegates to the conference are supporters of creation science. But again the conference in no way endorsed creation science. So why is fundamentalism in the CRC illustrated with reference to the South Holland conference? There are probably advocates of creation science in churches in Classis Grand Rapids East. So is Grand Rapids East a fundamentalist threat to the CRC?
Weima, I am sure, did not intend any character assassination by his remarks. But too often the conservatives in the CRC have been marginalized by caricaturing and trivializing their concerns. This kind of reaction has to stop. We need help.
Weima near the end of his article argues that claiming that the text has a “plain meaning” shows a fundamentalist mentality. He then cites Calvin as saying in a sermon on I Timothy 3:8–10 that the Scripture is not always easy to understand. I could not find the quotation in my edition of Calvin’s sermon on that text. Still the sentiment is clearly Calvin’s. However Weima’s conclusion that Calvin would not also speak of texts having “plain meaning” is simply wrong. In the very sermon Weima referred to, Calvin states: “Now these things are plain enough, and might be easily understood, if there were not such corruption amongst us, that made the speech of the Holy Spirit unknown to us, when He speaks of things in which we can not justly find any darkness.” Calvin is no fundamentalist but does speak of a text having a “plain meaning.”
Another article in the same Calvin Forum by Professor David Holwerda is entitled, “Hermeneutics Revisited.” When he revisits the question of hermeneutics, he illustrates his concern only with reference to the South Holland conference. (He might perhaps have referred to the discussion and defense of homosexuality on the floor of Classis Grand Rapids East as a hermeneutical concern. I am thankful that Weima did express his concern about that discussion.)
Holwerda has every right to criticize the letter from the South Holland conference if it is deficient in its remarks on hermeneutics. But I believe that he has misread the letter and its purpose. Good hermeneutics applies to reading letters as well as Scripture. The brief letter is not a treatise on scientific hermeneutics. Nothing in the letter denies the necessity or importance of good hermeneutics in reading and understanding the Scripture.
The conference letter makes two points very briefly on hermeneutics. It is not really arguing these points, but simply stating them. The first point is that the conference is convinced that the Scripture is clear in prohibiting the ordination of women. The letter makes no argument about perspicuity in general or about every text of the Bible being equally clear. The letter simply states that on this issue we believe that the Bible is clear. Almost all Christian churches for almost two thousand years have read the Bible as clear on this point. All conservative Reformed churches today read it that way. The CRC Synod of 1994 declared that the Scripture was clear on that matter (and Synod 1995 did not reverse that declaration!). The letter simply expressed our conviction that only by “hermeneutical gymnastics”—that is, bad hermeneutics—can this “plain meaning” of the text of the Bible be overturned.
The letter’s second point on hermeneutics is the very real pastoral concern that the hermeneutical fights over women in office have undermined the confidence of laypersons in their ability to read and understand the Bible. Holwerda does not respond to this concern at all. He seems to reject it as a “great bugaboo.” But some in the church do seem to have adopted a very relativistic approach to understanding the Bible. Others do seem to be willing to give the study of the Bible entirely over to professors.
Now I want to state clearly that I believe in professors and their value to the life of the church. So—I am sure—did every one at the South Holland conference. But I think that Holwerda is naive if he thinks that we are not facing a real hermeneutical problem in the e Re. I heard recently of a CRC minister speaking to two CRC college students (a young man and a young woman) who were living together and who had a sexual relationship. He told them that the Bible said their relationship was sinful. They responded that they did not read the Bible the same way he did. They did not think the Bible was clear on this matter. We already hear prominent leaders in the CRC (thankfully not many yet) saying that the Bible is not clear in declaring homosexuality to be sinful We face as pastors a hermeneutical crisis in the CRC and Holwerda does not help us at all on this point. He does not hear our distress.
Let me turn now to the letter of Classis Arizona. Much of what has already been said applies to this letter as well. But we need to make a few additional points.
First, the letter from Classis Arizona accuses the South Holland conference of taking a position on the perspicuity of Scripture that it never took. The conference did not generalize the Reformed doctrine of perspicuity and say that all Scripture is equally dear. We have no trouble asserting that the Reformed doctrine of perspicuity specifically teaches that the way of salvation is clearly revealed in the Bible. We do reject the implication of Classis Arizona that therefore nothing else in the Bible may be called “clear.” Let me illustrate. I believe that the Bible clearly says that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. I do not believe that one must believe that Jesus was born in Bethlehem to be saved. But I would and should still insist that the Bible is “clear” on this matter. So it is with the matter of women in office.
Second, the letter from Classis Arizona criticizes the conference for calling the CRC to return to a high view of Scripture. The classis states that those who support the ordination of women in the CRC do have a high view of Scripture. But the conference issued its call for a return to a high view of Scripture not just in relation to the women in office question. This call applies to many issues before the church. A high view of Scripture relates both to the formal authority of the Bible (infallibility and inerrancy) and to its relevance and application to the life of the church. Conservatives are not “one issue” people. We see the women in office issue as a symptom of far deeper problems in the CRC. The conference tried to show that by adopting statements of convictions on 12 areas of concern, including matters of doctrine, discipline and worship. A high view of Scripture is not being maintained in the CRC when leaders reject our synodical commitment to the inerrancy of the Bible or when leaders suggest that the Bible does not speak clearly on abortion, homosexuality and many other issues. (Classis Arizona ought to ask itself why the vast majority of the supporters of women in office in most denominations do in fact have a low view of Scripture.)
Third, Classis Arizona repeats the arguments for the ordination of women presented in a study report from 1973. The arguments of this report were never endorsed by any synod. Indeed, the Synod of 1994 considered these arguments and specifically rejected them. (I am always amazed at how “loyal” members of the CRC have such selective memories about what synods have done.)
It seems especially ironic to me that Classis Arizona quotes this sentence from the 1973 report on I Timothy 2: “It is clear from this passage as well that one cannot extract strong arguments in defense of the practice of excluding women from ecclesiastical office.” Classis Arizona thinks that it is fine for them to say that the meaning of I Timothy 2 is clear, but the South Holland conference cannot do that. Help!
Finally, Classis Arizona wants to reassure us that they really are orthodox and Reformed. They do that by claiming to agree with 11 out of the 12 convictions expressed by the South Holland conference and appealing for toleration on the matter of women in office as a matter “indifferent.” But how do they agree with the other 11 convictions? They say that they agree with them “extensively” and “broadly.” That is, they do not agree with them completely and specifically. They do not tell us where they do not agree, and so we cannot judge the extent or seriousness of their disagreements. But their affirmations of agreement cannot reassure us. They have not heard our deep fears about the direction of the CRC and have not helped us.
That one classis and two professors have recently tried to respond to the concerns of the South Holland conference is good. But they have missed the heart of our concern. We are largely treated as somewhat stupid, troublesome folk who simply cannot see that their concerns are really not very important. The reactions do not respond to our anguish of spirit. They do not grasp that we feel torn in loyalty between the Lord and His Word on the one hand and the CRC on the other. They do not hear the conviction of many of us that faithfulness to Lord may require us to leave the CRC. They have not helped.
We are constantly told that we have not done or said things correctly. Perhaps so. We are told that our proposals for improving the situation (like a call for repentance and the forming of theological classes) are wrong. Maybe they are. So what should we do? Should we assume like Roman Catholics the indefectibility and infallibility of our church? Should we ignore the “acids of modernity” that have corrupted so many Reformed churches in North America and around the world? We believe in Reformed Christianity. We want Reformed ministers to preach to us, Reformed elders to watch over us, and Reformed congregations for us and our children and grandchildren. We fear that we are losing that Reformed doctrine and life in the CRC. We see evidence of that all around us. But we are told in effect that we are just paranoid. Such a response is not adequate. We want to see that someone really listens, understands and cares. We need help.
Dr. Godfrey, editor of this department, is Professor of Church History and President of Westminster Seminary in Escondido, CA.