Proposed Revision of the Form of Subscription

The Form of Subscription, discussed in this second article on the subject, may be found on page 71 at the back of the Psalter Hymnal. Efforts are now being put forth to have this Form revised. A specific amendment is presently under consideration by the churches, action on which is scheduled for Synod 1976. The writer, Rev. Jelle Tuininga, is pastor of the Christian Reformed Church of Smithers, British Columbia.

“A solid commitment to the Church‘s creeds does not preclude a genuine investigation of all the data, but simply circumscribes the area within which and the point of reference with respect to which the questions discussed will be viewed . . . . At no time should the thought be entertained that this sort of general oversight constitutes a drag on the freedom of expression.” So wrote Professor M. H. Woudstra in his class notes some years ago. On that note we concluded our previous article. It was this alleged “lack of freedom” that constituted one of the chief arguments of Dr. Harry Boer and Rev. John Vriend in their call for a revised form. Before turning to a consideration of the proposed change itself, I wish to pursue this matter just a bit further.

In the same context of his other remarks, Professor Woudstra called for the publication of a theological journal as “a prime requisite for the exercise of proper freedoms within proper bounds and for the building of a theological consensus in dialogue with contemporary thought.” We now have such a theological journal, and that is one of the avenues in which we can discuss and develop our Reformed thinking. (Another avenue, I believe, is the Reformed Ecumenical Synod.) And that does not preclude discussion of the creeds, not even of cardinal points.

The creeds are subject to the Word of God, and we may not “consider any writings of men . . . of equal value with those divine Scriptures” (Art. VII of Belgic Confession). So the creeds are not “untouchable.” And Calvin Seminary and The Calvin Theological Journal are proper places in which new light may be shed on cardinal doctrines of our faith, and a “consensus” could arise to the effect that one or more of our creeds need revision. That is a possibility. But it would be the outcome of a responsible discussion by a number and variety of able men, and not the “brainwave” of one or two men. And such a discussion would be carried on within the common framework of submission to the creeds as we now have them—a recognition of their binding authority as long as they are not changed by the church, and until such a time as Synod would see fit to change them.

Such a “consensus” resulted in the changing of Article 36 of the Belgic Confession; and it could conceivably happen again. But the main point is: It would be the outcome of a common consensus in which responsible writing and research had ta~en place. And such a discussion should not (indeed cannot) begin by some theologian rushing into print and immediately calling into Question some point of the confession. The creeds are innocent until proven guilty, and no one may assume them guilty at the outset. The latter has taken place too often, and that is the reason why (to use Vriend’s words) it “tends to turn every necessary debate into a crisis of confidence among brethren.” That is not an inherent liability of the present Form of Subscription, but the result of irresponsible writing and action. I think Woudstra has outlined the proper attitude and action whereby there could be “a genuine investigation of all the data” in an atmosphere of trust. And then, I am convinced, the present Form will be seen to have the necessary room and flexibility for which some are pleading.

This points up lhe grave weakness that I see in the present proposed revision. It allows for any elder, minister, or professor who has come to have “any difficulties or different sentiments respecting the aforesaid doctrines” to go into print and “hang his wash” out in public, so to speak. For example, he may suddenly have “gone Pentecostal,” and after telling his consistory about it, he can go into print and defend his deviating view. He may even hold public speeches in which he seeks to explicate and defend his theories. He must only refrain from doing so in his “official”(?) preaching and teaching—which is another anomaly, but more of that later.

Now, if we really want to create havoc and unrest in the church, this is surely the way to do it. The man‘s views may be wholly unripe, and it’s possible that there has been no consultation or discussion with other colleagues, and yet he has a right to “defend these sentiments publicly.” Can you see this serving the unity and welfare of the church, and allaying suspicion in the church? It would open the way for each man “doing his own thing,” and that is directly contrary to what the church is all about. There’s no room for individualism in the church. That‘s why we have our three forms of unity. It is the church’s duty and privilege, says Woudstra, to make sure that the presuppositions to which it has committed its scholars are not violated. With a “free-for-all system as advocated by the proposed revision, the church could no longer guarantee unanimity of faith which is so essential for the well-being of the church.

Another weakness in the proposed formulation is its ambiguity. W hat are we to understand by that word “publicly”? And how are we to distinguish between “official” and “unofficial” teaching? As Classis Huron stated in its overture to the 1974 Synod, this distinction “raises a host of questions.” Are we to understand that a professor may not advocate or defend a deviating position in the classroom, but he may do so at a public gathering elsewhere? And what about a minister? Must he “toe the line” on the pulpit and in catechism classes, while he is free to advocate dissenting views in The Banner, in Men‘s Society, and in private conversations? What kind of a strange dualism would this be? I can imagine a parishoner saying: Will the real Mr. Office-bearer please stand up? Would it be possible for an office-bearer to lead such a’ dual life? And what kind of respect would he solicit from those among whom he labors? James would likely say: A double-minded man, unstable in all his ways. In short, the present proposed formulation leaves much to be desired in the way of clarity, and would seem to undermine the integrity of those having to sign it. Surely a document so vital for the welfare of the church, as the Form of Subscription is, must be crystal clear as to its meaning and intent. The proposed revision is anything but that.

Classis Huron, in its overture to the 1974 Synod, quoted Monsma to the effect that churches should not revise their Form of Subscription “in times of laxity and doctrinal indifference.” I would agree that we are living in such times now. Indeed, who could deny it? And I am wondering whether the spirit of the age is not also infiltrating the church—rather, I know that is the case—and whether that itself does not have something to do with the clamor for change among us, also in our creedal formulations. As stated earlier, I do not like confessionalism in the church. Article VII of the Belgic Confession is also part of our “credo,” and we must beware of the danger of elevating the creeds to the level of Holy Scripture.

But what is disconcerting is that many, if not most, of the proposed new formulations—liturgical, creedal, etc. lack the clarity and conciseness of language and doctrinal precision of the present forms. There seems to be almost a conscious attempt to avoid precise terminology needed so that he who runs may read and understand. Too often most articles of faith are stated in such a way that no one knows exactly what is meant, and so no one ought to object. It is meant to please as many “segments” of the church as possible. Everyone can more or less read their own interpretation into it.

As an example I mention the “Eenparig Geloofsgetuigenis” (Testimony of Faith) put out recently in the Gereformeerde Kerken by the Professors Berkouwer and Ridderbos, with special reference to what is said about the fall of man into sin as recorded in the first chapters of Genesis. What is said there in no way measures up to what our present creeds say about that event. The language is so general and imprecise (non-specific) that one is hard pressed to say: This is what is meant here. And I am convinced that this is purposely done in order to avoid conflict with those who no longer hold to the “fall and disobedience of our first parents Adam and Eve in paradise” as that has always been confessed in the Reformed Churches.

Well, that is just an example. But I think it lends weight to the argument of Classis Huron that times of “doctrinal indifference” are not particularly conducive to up-dating creedal formulations in a responsible, biblical manner. I could also mention the proposed new “translation” (sic) of our Form for Infant Baptism as put out by the Liturgical Committee in the CRC. There again you find something of the same tendency to get away from succint, clearly-formulated expressions (cf. p. 14 of the Dec. ’74 issue of THE OUTLOOK). In this whole matter I fully share the concern of the Rev. Piersma as stated in a previous issue of this paper: “I hope that we will not let anyone else, even the brothers from the GKN, formulate either the questions or the answers for us!” In the matter of changing the Form of Subscription we seem to be following their lead in suggesting the questions at any rate.

Doctrinal indifference” is reflected in attitudes toward creeds and creedal formulations. And today‘s theological and ecclesiastical climate is not one that is exactly propitious to precise and well-defined creedal formulae. An example of this can be found, I believe, in a recent publication of the AACS, will All the King’s Men . . . Dr. H. Hart, one of the contributors, writes that “long-existing ideas of authority and many other institutions of modern society . . . are in disrepute; . . . all are subjected to intense scrutiny. The authors of these essays believe . . . that there is sufficient ground to engage in this scrutiny. But in the case of the church such scrutiny can no longer count on the testimony of ancients, authorities, traditions or even confessions. Consequently, the Bible itself will have to be investigated anew” (p. 29).

Elsewhere Dr. Hart writes: “This serious situation implies an imperative, namely, that we begin to fundamentally restudy the Bible as much as possible outside the limits of established confessions, doctrines, theologies and other traditions, so that by transcending them they may be radically reformed by the Word of God wherever they have darkened our understanding of the scriptures” (p. 56).

Another of the authors, Dr. A. De Graaff, speaics in much the same vein:Since the creeds [of the Reformation, J.T.] reflect the fateful identification of the Body of Christ with the institutional church, they are not too helpful for understanding the place and task of the institutional church” (p. 98). Elsewhere: “Our confessions clearly reflect the age-old spiritualizing and narrowing of the Christian life. They lack a clear Kingdom vision. And . . . they also reflect the theologically conditioned, ecclesiastical controversies of their time of origin. As a result we are greatly in need of a new confession which clearly proclaims the healing power of Christ over all of life” (p. 107). (Readers are advised to check the reference themselves to get the full context.)

Though it is not my purpose to discuss these comments now, several questions arise in my mind: How well have these authors read and studied the confessions of the Reformed churches? What are they looking for in a confession—what is the purpose of a confession? And where is the evidence to back up the rather serious charges that are here laid against the confessions? And how does one square this with the declaration that all officebearers in the CRC make by signing the Form of Subscription, “that we heartily believe and are persuaded that all the articles and points of doctrine . . . do fully agree with the Word of God”? If our confessions are “not helpful” in understanding the Bible, and if they are guilty of “fateful” miscalculations and “spiritualizing” etc., then they must be changed, and soon! Our creeds are a response to the Scriptures, and must “say the same thing” as the Scriptures. And if they do not, then they must be brought in line with those Scriptures. No objection there. But I ask: How do these men read the creeds, and where is the evidence for their charges?

My main purpose, however, for calling attention to this is to show the presence of a certain mentality within our church, a mentality which does not set a great deal of store by (put a great deal of stock in) the creeds of the church. No doubt that is a reflection of the larger ecclesiastical picture. But I do not believe it augurs well for the future of the church; rather its presence bodes an illwind blowing in the church.

In my preaching and teaching ministry I have become more and more impressed with the riches of our confessions, and with the depth of biblical understanding that is reflected in them. To be sure, they have weaknesses; being man-made documents, they are far from being infallible. They bear the marks of the times in which they were written. But saying that is a far cry from saying that we can no longer count on their testimony and that we must restudy the Bible as much as possible outside their limits. To do that would be to commit ecclesiastical folly at best, and suicide at worst.

I think the key to greater appreciation of our creeds lies in their greater use and study. They contain a storehouse of wealth, and a thorough acquaintance with them will save us from no end of confusions and winds of doctrine which are rampant today. The church which does not understand its own doctrinal history is doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past. God forbid that we should be so blind.

To sum up, I believe this is not the time to revise our Form of Subscription; I believe the arguments presented for it lack cogency; and I also believe the proposed revision is wanting in several respects. To change the Form as proposed does not serve our best interests as a confessional church, and will not be favorably received by [some of] our sister churches who with liS ascribe binding authority to [these confessions] (Spykman, Acts ‘61).