Reform is Not Stifled by Creedal Commitment

A one-sided discussion has been going on in a neighboring journal for some months, and I have been itching to get in on it. I refer to the articles by Fred Baker and Lewis Smedes in recent issues of The Reformed Journal (October, ‘65, and January, ‘66), dealing with the propriety and morality of the Form of Subscription.’ This Form must be signed as a pledge of agreement with the creeds of the Christian Reformed Church by all its officebearers, and on several occasions ( upon taking office in a given church, at gatherings of classis, synod). Although not really required by any church law that 1 know, even Calvin College requires of its faculty subscription to this Form. It would not surprise me that at least Smedes has often signed this agreement—when he was ordained into the ministry, when he attended classis sessions, when he was installed by the present congregation in which his ministerial credentials are lodged, and when he took his place as professor of Religion and Theology at Calvin College.

Both Mr. Baker and Dr. Smedes find this Form objectionable. And both focus their objections on one crucial statement of that Form. It is this one:

We, the undersigned, Professors of the Christian Reformed Church, Ministers of the Gospel, Elders and Deacons of the Christian Reformed congregation of…………., of the Classis of ……….., do hereby, 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 the Confession and Catechism of the Reformed Churches, together with the explanation of some points of the aforesaid doctrine made by the National Synod of Dordrecht, 1618–‘19, do fully agree with the Word of God.

If you have guessed that the argument centers about the last words of this long sentence, you are quite right! “Fully agree with the Word of God:” these words are too much, too strong, really quite impossible, and ought to be modified at least, or radically altered, if I understand Smedes and Baker at all.

If you have guessed too, that I want “in” on this discussion on the other side, you are right again! I think this sentence is perfectly proper, and that the Church of Jesus Christ has every moral right to demand such subscription of its office-bearers. I heartily approve of the statement. and I’m very grateful to God that I may belong to a Church which takes the position it implies. And I would feel that it would be a great set-back for the cause of reformational Christianity if it were toned down, ignored, or eliminated.

The Christian Reformed Church is Confessional

The Christian Reformed Church is intentionally confessional. Its origins in The Netherlands. historically speaking. demanded this of them who preached and practised church reform. We are in the “free church tradition,” the tradition of all who will be bound by nothing contrary to the Word of God. This meant a dangerous rejection of state influence and regulation in matters properly ecclesiastical. And it called for the formulation and/or adoption of creeds, subject to the Word, but nevertheless to be regarded as normative by the members of the Church.

The Christian Reformed tradition does not know leervrijheid (the freedom to teach and preach as the individual pleases). This means that we have chosen for a disciplined point-of-view on church life and administration, and that we believe that church policies and practises ought to proceed from common agreement as to the nature of the Gospel (using this term in the sense of Lord’s Day VI, 19 of the Heidelberg Catechism).

This has never been and certainly is not an easy or popular position to occupy. We laud the memory of our fathers, therefore, who bore the pain of persecution because they felt conscience-bound to speak and act as Reformers on this score. We enjoy telling our catechumens the story of the life of Guido de Bres and the great hardships he endured because he stood for the magnificent testimony which is the Belgic Confession.

In the interest of fairness, let me say right here that I am not implying that either Fred Baker or Lewis Smedes do not share this appreciation for confessional principles and practises. I want to take their contributions at face value, and 1 am hoping that this will be taken as a friendly and brotherly participation in a worthwhile discussion. The subject of confessional integrity raised by their articles is desperately important to the welfare of the Church, and I concede to Baker that nothing less than the very possibility of reform itself is at stake. And reformation is not an incidental blessing for the Church. It is an indispensable, on-going feature of true church life. If our kind of confessional practise is erroneous, and if it docs in truth stifle reformation, then the Christian Reformed Church only deserves that which must happen, namely, decay and death.

“The Reformation Day Hammer”

Under this very apt title Baker, one-time journalist, now industrial executive, all-time believer and church-member, presented his opinions on the matter of creedal subscription.2 He tells us that for him “the secret of Reformation was, and is, self-criticism, not other-criticism.” This is for Baker not even debatable, lest his remarks become “as meaningless as the make-believe face in the Halloween pumpkin.”

There is some resentment in Baker’s soul as he writes this piece. He thinks that we ought to be more critical of ourselves, and less willing to defame others, the Roman Catholics, for example. Well, who can argue with that? Defamation deserves to be condemned, and is, officially, no less, in Lord’s Day XLIII of the Heidelberg Catechism. I wish. of course, that Baker would be a little more specific. must say that I have not heard at Reformation Day meetings the measure of anti-Catholicism he seems to have noticed, but that, too, is simply a personal impression. It is also possible, of course, that our sensitivities at this point are not equally refined. Or that I do not feel that a serious refutation of another’s position is evidence of lack of appreciation for those who hold to it.

Baker wants to hear hammer-blows after the analogy of Martin Luther at Wittenberg, and therefore pot-shots at “those awful Catholics” do not please him. I agree. Anti-Catholicism, anti-Semitism, etc. are simply not worthy postures for Christians to assume, and Reformation Day ceremonies ought not to be occasions in which we indulge in such things. Baker also wants a reformationaly critical self-examination to get underway in his church. I couldn’t agree morel It is high time that we get busy as fellow believers endowed with the Spirit and the Word and all the great treasures and promises of a Covenant Jahweh to deepen, refine, correct, improve, complete Our Christian witness in this time and in this world.

But, Baker and I disagree as to its possibility.

I think that such reformational activity is possible in the Christian Reformed Church just because it stands foursquare in the tradition of the Reformers, and demands of its officers that they unequivocally pledge that they do so. I think such activity is possible not only, but most likely just there where the Reformed Tradition is sincerely maintained as an oath-type conviction, and recognize as the necessary foundation on which to erect the structure of a reformed Church and a reformed Christian culture. The implication of our Form of Subscription, says Baker, is that reform in the Christian Reformed Church is impossible. Common sense, the creeds and Scripture indicate that this just has to be wrong, he argues! Anyone can see that “the mind that is closed to the possibility of error” ought to be feared. And all of us know that the Catechism itself says that “even the holiest men, while in this life, have only a small beginning of this obedience” (Lord’s Day XLIV, 114), which he would apply to the writers of the creeds, and the proponents of the creeds as matter of course. And all of us surely know that only Scripture is inspired of God and infallible.

Has Someone Walked Off with the Hammers?

Yes, says Baker, and so stealthily that people scarcely seem to have noticed it. For it took place in a moment of high purpose and noble intention. The idea was to make heresy impossible, to exclude perforce the presence of such a tricky temptress as Madam Heresy. Again: there is much with which we agree when Fred Baker speaks of the danger and consequences of and need for protection against heresy in the Church. “I do not question,” he writes, “the need for such protection; I do not question that the creeds of the Church, of themselves and as they are, are an excellent means for providing that protection.”

Right-o! my teen-age daughter would say.

But then comes the big sound of serious deviation from a traditional, conventional, long-accepted course. And Baker and 1 both know, I’m sure, that such a departure is bound to make someone, somewhere look up in surprise. You have no right, says this very serious and unusually competent writer, to demand of the officers of the Church that they say with the Form of Subscription as a condition for holding such office that the creeds of the Reformed Churches “fully agree with the Word of God.” Now right might be a familiar but it is not just another word. If there is a word which might just prick the conscience of the Church, it would be that one. You might well say that my preaching is amateurish or verbose or poorly-formed or badly-illustrated or untimely or many other things, but if you would say that it isn’t right I would get quite nervous! If things have no right to be there, the Church, if it knows what it is doing, will mercilessly eliminate it. There is no doubt about it: If Baker’s choice of words is deliberate and self-conscious, he is making no small charge when he says that these 109 years of our Church’s existence are marred by the unrighteousness, the immorality of an unwarranted oath of office.

Why Doesn’t the Church have Such Right?

Because we take Mr. Baker so seriously at this point, we ought to try to give his argument full and fair hearing. Of one thing we can be sure: Baker does not in any way suggest that the answer to the question, Does the Church have the right to require agreement with this declaration? ought be answered in any other way than in the negative.

Nothing less, nothing else than the Word of God itself could fully agree with the Word of God, he avers. He takes this position fearlessly and radically. Even the American Standard Version of the Bible cannot be said fully to agree with the Word of God, since it is a translation, and as such is marred by the inevitable imperfection of human effort. The creeds, therefore, are surely not in such full agreement, by virtue of their being so obviously the creation of human, fallible, sinful men.

Prove it, you might say to Baker. And proof he is ready to offer: “May the Church ask me to say that the Heidelberg Catechism does fully agree with the Word of God, and virtually prohibit me from asking whether it really does fully agree with the Word of God in its lack of emphasis on mission and on the importance of stewardship of time and money?

“May the Church ask me to say that ‘all the articles’ of the Belgic Confession ‘do fully agree’ with the Word of God and virtually stop me from asking whether the books of Chronicles actually are ‘commonly called Paralipomenon,’ as the Confession’s Article 4 declares?

“May I be asked to sign such a declaration and virtually be prevented from asking why, if the creeds really do fully agree with the Word of God, it was necessary to abandon the American Standard Version in some of the proof texts and retain the disputed wording of the King James version where it worked out better?”

These instances of proof do not impress you as very weighty? Baker knows that too, but this is intentional on his part. He is merely attempting to prove that the creeds are not perfect, as he conceives of perfection. “I have obviously avoided touching any points of doctrine,” he adds. “I am not unaware, however, that if the Belgic Confession could possibly be, wrong in declaring that the two books of the Chronicles are commonly called Paralipomenon—an insignificant point—it could possibly be wrong on some significant points, too.”

Why doesn’t the Church have the moral right to require agreement with the Form of Subscription? Because such agreement, argues Baker, means that you are saying that absolutely everything in the creeds, right down to the proof texts and the reference to “the Paralipomenon,” is one hundred percent perfect, infallibly correct in every way, and this is not only impossible as such, but is inaccurate as well. Sinful humans could not write such creeds, since the holiest of them are such beginners in obedience. And even sinful humans such as we can see that not only might there be, but errors are to be seen on every hand in the creeds.

Baker Solves His Own Problem

After reading such a strong condemnation of the Church’s practise with respect to creedal subscription, I was indeed surprised by the sentences which conclude this part of Baker’s article. There are four of them, and they are all questions. I think I can answer those questions, and I think that even my very feeble efforts to do will show that the Church does not sin against God’s law or man’s conscience in its use of the Form of Subscription.

“Would it really be that serious to put the creeds ‘on their own,’ to constantly expose and challenge them against the Word of God itself?”

This is question no. 1. It means to say that the Form of Subscription in effect denies this kind of judgment and evaluation according to the Word. This can only puzzle me! Is there anyone in all the history of Reformed symbolics who has ever said anything else but that the creeds must always be exposed 10 and challenged by the Scriptures? I have taken a quick look at the books of such people as Berkhof, Van Baalen, Schilder, C. Vonk, Feenstra, Holwerda, Tunderman, De Graaf, Hoeksema, Van Bheenen, Smytegeld—and I can’t find any who say anything else.

I will go a long step further. It is not only acknowlegcd by such writers, it is not only the consensus of opinion in our tradition, but it is a sacred calling of every Christian Reformed believer to do this kind of work to the utmost of his ability! No one may take the creeds “for granted.” Subscription to them is not an automatic feature of some ordination service, something we would miss if it were not required because “we have always done things that way;” it is a solemn moment in which the party involved says that he has been reading his Bible daily, carefully, prayerfully, and the Holy Spirit has told him that the teaching found in the creeds is in full agreement with the Word of God.

It is my privilege to know Fred Baker quite well, and I think that if he will read this article, at this point his delightful sense of humor will exert itself. “You don’t mean it,” he will say, grinning. Yes, Fred, I know that people don’t take things as seriously as I am suggesting they ought in the paragraph above. I know that people are often just going through the motions. I know that people are too busy with all kinds of things that are this-worldly in every way to read the Scriptures often and well. And I know, too, and I regret it deeply and apologize for any part I’ve played in it, that too many people have relegated such as you to the status of inexpert, undeveloped, immature “laymen,” so that the only man “with a calling from God” is the dominie.

But this is not the fault of the creeds, nor of the fathers! They intended it otherwise, and they did not recommend the drift into spiritual incompetence and ignorance which we can’t help but notice on every hand. Go ahead, then, with might and main! Criticize the creeds, if you will, with your Bible in hand. But remember, only in the light of the Word! Your God, your Church and your creeds expect you to do so!

Question no. 2 is, “Would it not be better anyway to ask the officeholders of the Church whether they do in good conscience accept the Word of God as the infallible rule of faith and practise?”

I am inclined to ask, “Better than what?” Better than that which the Belgic Confession states in Articles III–VIII? Is it really possible to read the Reformed Creeds without remembering that they were written largely in the context of conflict with Home, and that this matter of the Bible as the only rule for faith and practise was of the very heart of the issue?

Question no. 3 is, “And would it not be better anyway to ask the officeholders whether they accept the creeds of the Church for what they certainly are, the best we have been able to devise to make sure that the Word of God is faithfully applied as that infallible rule of faith and practise in the life of the Church and its members?”

This might seem to imply an exceptional modesty on the part of Mr. Baker, but I should like to submit that the church might have phrased its representation a bit differently, but that the effect would be just as humble. The Spirit, it has felt, has been signally present and helpful in the forming of our symbols, but from that infallibility or absolute perfection has never been deduced. And the objective of creedal use is just exactly to guarantee the truly Biblical character of the church’s teaching and practise. Nothing else!

Question no. 4 reads, “And would it not be better anyway to ask the officeholders to promise that if in good conscience they believe the creeds are instead at variance with the Word of God, they will make their objections known promptly?” Again: Better than what? Better than this taken from the Form of Subscription? “And if hereafter any difficulties or different sentiments respecting the aforesaid doctrines should arise in our minds, we promise that we will neither publicly nor privately propose, teach, or defend the same, either by preaching or writing, until we have first revealed such sentiments to the Consistory, Classis, or Synod, that the same there may be examined….”

I would add, It is the solemn obligation of every officeholder at least to bring his discoveries of things in the creeds which do not agree with the Word of God to the Church. He will gain a hearing there. He is promised careful, sympathetic treatment. This solemn pledge is his by the Church because the Church is sensitive to the moral implications of its own required oath of office.

Has it been Good for the Church to have Such a Form of Subscription?

Fred Baker again answers in the negative. He feels that potential Luthers may have been or will be rendered voiceless by the Form of Subscription. This follows from his analysis of the meaning of the Form. It means, Baker is convinced, that there is no need for reform since everything as we now have it is beyond criticism anyway. I think that I have shown from the above that this does not really follow. And I would add, I doubt seriously if affirmation of human fallibility, no matter how construed, can be expected to produce perfect candor, openness and integrity among men. It is just because men are as imperfect as they are that we need such safeguards as a Form of Subscription!

Finally, the Form of Subscription does not make for peace, says Baker. Well, I don’t think that anyone ever claimed that it would. Two things are true here, I would suggest: First, that the Church works upon the basis of an existing peace, a harmony wrought by the common effort of the Spirit to make men confess as their faith the true Gospel. And second, the dead, uninteresting, boring dullness of sheer monotony is not the spirit of the creeds or of those who developed or adopted them. The creeds call for study, loyalty, discussion, reflection, testing in the light of the Word. The creeds always appeal to the Word, and give warrant to all believers so to work with them. And Mr. Baker’s Church goes so far as to order his minister at one service each Sunday to give a Biblical explanation of a part of the Heidelberg Catechism. With that sermon Brother Baker has to agree or disagree, and in both cases, to communicate in the spirit of that fellowship, that communion of the saints, with his pastor and fellow members. Such communication will make for relevant, interesting and reformational Christian living!

There is more which I want to say on this subject, and there is much more that ought to be said. The contributions of Prof. Lewis Smedes need further attention, and I hope to provide some of it. Meanwhile, my thanks to Fred Baker for giving me occasion to busy myself on matters so profitable and so important as our mutual relationship to the Reformed creeds!

1. See Psalter Hymnal of the Christian Reformed Church, p. 71 of liturgical section. 2. The Reformed Journal, October 1965, pp. 7–9.