Report on the Synod of the C.R.C., 1972

Synod opened officially on Tuesday morning, June 13, 1972 at the Fine Arts Center at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Mich. The first order of business was the election of officers. Synod spent the entire morning electing as president, the Rev. Clarence Boomsma, pastor of the Calvin CRC, Grand Rapids; the Rev. William Haverkamp, pastor of the East Leonard CRC, Grand Rapids, as vice-president; the Rev. Bastiaan Nederlof of Vancouver, British Columbia, as first clerk, and Mr. Ray Holwerda of Holland, Mich., as second clerk.

One of the first items on the Agenda was the matter of declaring young men as candidates for the ministry of the CRC. And whereas Synod needed an entire morning in order to elect its officers, it dispensed with the matter of declaring and approving candidates in a matter of minutes. This procedure would seem to make the necessity of a change imperative and several voices were also heard to that effect. However, when later on in the first week, the overture from Classis Sioux Center came on the floor of Synod to change the matter of examining candidates from the Board of Trustees of Calvin College where it now is, to the floor of Synod, the overture was defeated. And so forty men were declared candidates by Synod, even though admittedly most of the delegates did not know a single one of them.

A New Confession

Another item of great interest to the body of Synod was the Study Committee report on the need for a new confession. The Study Committee presented its recommendation to Synod asking Synod to express as its judgment that the CRC is not ready at this time to write a new confession. It presented as its ground the fact that the majority of churches responded negatively to the question of the need for any augmentation of the confession at this time.

This recommendation occasioned a rather lengthy discussion on the floor of Synod. There were especially two impassioned speeches asking Synod not to adopt the Study Committee’s recommendation. It was felt by the two speakers that our people do not understand the language of the creeds. The creeds and confessions are written, it was said, in outdated language completely unintelligible to the modern twentieth century man. One speaker said that the need for a new confession was made very clear to him when he preached n series of sermons on the Canons of Dort, and found that the people simply could not understand the language of this seventeenth Century document. However, despite these two speeches, Synod decided to adopt the recommendation of the Study Committee, although leaving the door open for continued discussion in this matter.

Form for Confession of Faith

One matter that elicited much discussion was the report of the Liturgical Committee. This committee has been busy in recent years rewriting some of the formularies in our supplement to the Psalter Hymnal. The particular formulary with which they worked, and which was presented to the Synod this year dealt with the form for public profession of faith.

There were especially three areas of concern which Synod noted in the report as presented by the Study Committee. The first is found in the formulary itself. The Study Committee stated the relationship between the baptism of the person making public profession of faith and his present situation before the Lord in the following way, “When they were (or ‘he was’ or ‘John was’) baptized God claimed them as his own and they were received into the church.” Synod expressed concern over this statement because it appeared to many of the delegates that this statement states that baptism itself marks the beginning of God’s claim upon a person, and that baptism itself marks the reception of that person into the church. This statement of the Study Committee led some delegates to see a view of baptismal regeneration implicit in the Report. Therefore the advisory committee recommended that Synod change the report so as to read, “When they were (or ‘he was’ or ‘John was’) baptized, God made clear His claim on them as His own . . . .” This recommendation was adopted by Synod. It certainly does serve to clarify the entire question of the relationship between baptism and God’s claim upon the covenant child.

A second area of concern in the report of the Study Committee was the apparent lack of any question directed to the person making public profession of faith regarding his love for the Lord. The Advisory Committee therefore changed one of the questions which the Study Committee had suggested in order to include in it a strong affirmation on the part of the professing person of his love for the Lord. The amended question then read, “Do you promise to do all you can, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to strengthen your love and commitment to Christ by sharing faithfully in the life of the Church, and do you join with the people of God in doing the work of the Lord everywhere?” This formulation of the question was also adopted by Synod.

The third concern which was felt by the Advisory Committee regarding this form for the profession of faith was that the Study Committee report contained no question dealing with the matter of discipline. That is to say, whereas the form presently is use in the CRC has the question, “Do you promise to submit to the government of the church, and should you become delinquent either in doctrine or in life, submit to the discipline of the church?”, the form presented by the Study Committee omits any reference to this matter. The Advisory Committee, feeling a lack in this regard, submitled to Synod an additional question to those submitted by the Study Committee. Its suggested question was, “Do you ask for pastoral direction and Christian discipline, exercised in the spirit of brotherly love, to train you in the way of discipleship and to correct you in case you should digress from your confession, either in doctrine or in life?” This formulation of the question lifted out and expanded a short phrase in one of the questions in the Study Report. That phrase was “honoring its authority.” The Advisory Committee felt that something more should be said than this very brief allusion to the matter of the authority of the church. It therefore submitted the new and additional question.

After a great deal of discussion, Synod voted by a 77 to 66 vote to reject this new and additional question in the form for the public profession of faith. Much of the argumentation that was made on this issue dealt with the view that this question implies that the person making profession of faith is about to depart from the faith; that the very question implies a lack of trust on the part of the church. One delegate from Canada suggested that this question implied that the consistory of the church places itself before the person making profession of faith as a policeman, serving notice to the young person that he is going to be watched, and that he is going to be arrested as soon as he steps out of line. Of course, these protests against the inclusion of this question missed the point of the nature of the question. It is certainly not that the church acts as policeman, or stands over the person by this question with any measure of distrust. But Synod decided, although by a fairly close vote, to remove the question from the Advisory Committee recommendations. The form for public profession of faith will now be submitted to the churches for their provisional use and for suggestions to the Liturgical Committee.

Abortion Report

One of the characteristics of this Synod noted by the delegates repeatedly was the number of large and significant matters decided. One of these was the report of the Study Committee on Abortion. This is cf course a very delicate issue, one fraught with great emotion, not only throughout the CRC but throughout the entire world. The Study Committee submitted to Synod a single report with its recommendations. But it soon became apparent to Synod that. although the Study Committee came with a unified report, the committee was not at all united. One of the doctors on the committee, Dr. E. Y. Postma, reported that he was not at all happy with the recommendations submitted by the Study Committee, and therefore he submitted a different set of recommendations. To further complicate the matter, the Advisory Committee with a majority and a minority report with their attendant recommendations. The majority of the Advisory Committee substantially took the views of Dr. Postma, while the minority took substantially the recommendations of the Study Report.

At the beginning of the debate, Dr. Henry Stob spoke in favor of the minority opinion, and Dr. Postma spoke defending the majority opinion. It was clear at the outset that the difference of opinion resided in this question: when does the fetus become a true child, a person formed in the image of God? Does this happen at the moment of conception, or does it take place at some point later than conception? Dr. Stob argued that one simply cannot tell with any degree of certainty when this event takes place. He pleaded, on the basis of his understanding of Scripture, that all the passages in Scripture that speak of God knowing and caring for us before we were born always look back from a real human person, living in time, to his own beginning. This docs not, he urged, mean that any union of sperm and ovum is likewise a person. Dr. Postma, on the other hand, pleaded that the Bible docs in fact indicate that, at the very moment of conception, the object of the union of sperm and ovum becomes a human being. He carefully answered the objections of Dr. Stob which would have looked at the initial stages of the growth of the union of sperm and ovum as mere globs of cells with no significance as a person. He spoke from his over twenty years of practice as an obstetrician.

The differences between the two men, and also between the majority and minority reports, arose from this basic question of the nature of the fetus. But the differences were by no means so academic. The point at issue is the matter of abortion. And that question depends upon the nature of the fetus. The minority report. with Dr. Stob, pleaded for the statement that Synod, recognizing that Reformed believers are not agreed about the legitimacy of other kinds of abortion (that is, for reasons other than when the life of the mother is at stake), docs nevertheless affirm that the termination of human embryonic life should never be considered a viable option except under the most unusual circumstances, circumstances in which other biblically-sanctioned human values are being threatened by not terminating a pregnancy. However, the majority report. with Dr. Postma. argued for a recommendation that would affirm that an induced abortion is a viable option only when the life of the prospective mother is genuinely threatened by the continuation of the pregnancy.

In the course of the debate, feelings ran extremely high. Emotional appeals were made for one report or the other. The most influential speech in this reporter’s judgment was made by an elder delegate from Classis Rocky Mountain, Rev. Clifford Bajema. Rev. Bajema went to the Scriptures to show that the Bible does not merely speak only of individuals who are now living as being persons who were already known by God before their birth. But he showed that God speaks generally of the individuality already in a fetal situation of all persons. He charged the report of the Study Committee and of the minority report with “situational ethics” in that it urged that the clear testimony of the sixth commandment must be taken in the light of “unusual circumstances.” Even the health of the mother should not be used lightly as a ground for abortion, but rather a renewed faith in God to do His good will in the situation.

On the other side of the issue, appeals were made on behalf of the minority report by several speakers who urged that Synod not make any statement on this issue. Their contention was basically that each situation should be taken as a separate, individual situation, and that the believing community united together with the person involved, and by prayer and discussion, arrive at a decision whether induced abortion is in order or not. Finally after discussion lasting until late in the evening, Synod was ready to votc. And the decision reached adopted the recommendations of the majority report by a vote of 95 to 45. Thus a ringing affirmation for a strict view of this significant issue was taken by the CRC Synod.

Disappointing as it was to this reporter to hear the Calvin Seminary professor of ethics speak as he did, it was both significant and gratifying that four medical doctors (Doctor M. De Kryger, H. J. Kreulen, E. Y. Postma, and W. H. Rooks—three of whom were elder delegates, and one a member of the Study Committee)—spoke up in favor of the strict view Synod adopted.

Report on Authority of Scripture

A second major item on the agenda of Synod was the report on the Nature and Extent of Biblical Authority. Synod had been struggling with this question for two years, first with Report 36 which was sent back to the Study Committee in 1971, and now with Report 44 which was the revision or the previous Report 36. Clearly this matter was the significant item before Synod 1972. It seemed to this delegate that Synod was working within the shadow of Report 44 all the time preceding the actual decision relative to it. At almost every coffee break or dinner recess one could hear discussions on this matter. What will Synod do with Report 44? At long last the matter was to come before Synod.

The Advisory Committee chose to deal with Report 44 in the light of Report 36. That is, the Advisory Committee took three particular criticisms that had been raised by many to Report 36 and showed how Report 44 not only answered these criticisms, but presented the material in much better language. It will be helpful I think, to see the direction the Advisory Committee took if these three areas of criticism are now shown from their report:

“Three major criticisms have been leveled against Report 36. A first criticism often expressed was that Report 36 presented two formulations of the nature of biblical authority which were judged by some to be contradictory. In Report 44, however, the study committee clarifies its position so as to indicate that what was thought by some to be two different formulations of biblical authority is actually nothing other than two inseparable aspects of the Reformed view of Scripture. The first aspect is that the authority of Scripture is rooted in the fad that all Scripture comes from God, so that we may say about all of Scripture, “Thus saith the Lord.” The second aspect is that Scripture addresses us with full divine authority as the saving revelation of God in Jesus Christ.

“A second area of criticism has concerned the discussion in Report 36 of the interpretation of Genesis 1–11. Report 36 presented two approaches to the interpretation of these chapters; the one approach coming closer to interpreting these chapters as literal descriptions of events, and the other approach holding that these chapters should not in every instance be interpreted as literal descriptions of events. In Report 44 this section of the former report has been removed. In the place of this material, Report 44 gives us a new treatment of the problem of the interpretation of Genesis 1–11 which no longer presents two approaches. Instead, it limits that one who claims that details in these chapters other than those usually recognized as symbolical “are figurative expressions will have to present his position by means of careful exegesis and sound biblical exposition.”

“A third are of objection to Report 36 concerning the question of whether the report was explicit enough in rejecting certain errors which have recently appeared within the Refom1ed community. . . . It was felt by some that Report 36 was a compromise, tolerating erroneous positions held by such men as Prof. H. Kuitert and Prof. J. Lever. We wish to call Synod’s attention to the fact that Report 44, without mentioning names, emphatically rejects these errors.”

With this introduction, the Advisory Committee recommended “that Synod submit this study report to our churches as providing guidelines for our understanding and further discussion of the nature and extent of biblical authority.” This recommendation was then followed by the recommendation that “Synod adopt . seven points relating fa the nature and extent of biblical authority as pastoral advice to the churches in the light of the report and in harmony with our common commitment to the confessional preamble which follows.” Then followed excerpts from the Belgic Confession, Articles III–VII.

Synod was placed before two recommendations: first to adopt the report as guidelines for our understanding and discussion of the nature and extent of biblical authority, and second to adopt the seven points of pastoral advice. There was a great deal of discussion on the meaning of the word “guidelines.” Did this word carry with it a kind of authority generally reserved for creedal and confessional statements? The authors of the study report insisted that it did not. They felt that the word is intended only to mean a giving of direction to the churches in the further discussion of the nature of biblical authority. Other discussion centered around the ambiguity that some saw in the report. The argument was that if the report needs the elucidation of its authors at so many points, then can it stand on its own as a truly helpful report for the churches? Repeatedly elder delegates especially remarked that after one of the spokesmen for the report clarified a point, then it was clear to them: but they could not bring that spokesman back to their homes to continually speak for the report. Still others echoed a number of overtures asking that the report be submitted to the churches for a year of study and evaluation before final adoption next year. But clearly Synod had come to make up its mind now on Report 44. It would not be put off for one more year.

When therefore Dr. Anthony A. Hoekema urged that it would be tragic indeed not to adopt the report, and when other delegates also spoke glowingly of the merits of the report, Synod voted by a substantial majority to adopt the report according to the first recommendation.

The second recommendation, however, was another matter. Among the seven points of pastoral advice there were some which were unacceptable to many of the delegates because of ambiguous language. This was especially true of points 2 and 3 of the pastoral advice. These statements read, “Synod calls the churches to maintain the clear witness of the creeds to the authority of Scripture as rooted in the historical reality of the events recorded in Scripture. Synod, while confessing that the authority of the biblical message is rooted in the historical reality of the events therein recorded, urges the churches to recognize that these events are presented and interpreted in terms of their revelational meaning.”

The basic problem with this formulation was in the words: “rooted in the historical reality of the events recorded in Scripture.” It was felt by many of the delegates that this language means that Scripture’s authority resides in the historical reality of the events recorded in Scripture. This formulation was felt to say that the ground or basis for Scripture’s authority is to be found in the historical reality of the events recorded in Scripture. The Committee urged that this was not in their mind with this formulation. But still the words were felt to leave open that suggestion. Finally it was decided to refer the seven points of pastoral advice back to the Advisory Committee for reformulation in the light of the problem which some of the delegates found in this wording.

The next day the committee submitted its revision. The two points of pastoral advice in question were changed to read, “Synod calls the churches to maintain the clear witness of the creeds to the authority of Scripture as inseparably bound lip with the historical reality of the events recorded in Scripture. Synod urges the churches to remember that, while they confess that the authority of the biblical message is inseparably bound up with the historical reality of the events therein recorded, they recognize that these events are presented and interpreted in terms of their revelational meaning.

The changes made by the Advisory Committee were quickly accepted by the entire Synod. And in the judgment of this delegate the changes remove to a great extent the problem with the previous formulation. The other five points of pastoral advice were also adopted by Synod. Now Report 44 will be submitted as guidelines to the churches. The entire discussion of Report 36/ 44 which has taken place in the church during the last two years has ended with the adoption of the revised report. No doubt there are many in the CRC who feel that Synod has taken a long step toward the dangerous position in which the Gereformeerde Kerken in the Netherlands finds itself at the present time. However, I believe that with the changes that were made in the points of pastoral advice, we can see the Report as pointing in a generally right direction. We must not forget that the report does clearly circumscribe the area in which scholarly research can proceed. Let those who called most loudly for its adoption keep that very clearly in mind, not forgetting that this report includes point 5 of the pastoral advice: “Synod instructs the churches to see to it that biblical studies are carried on in a careful and disciplined way, submissively rethinking the thoughts of Scripture itself; and accordingly warns against the use of any method of biblical interpretation which excludes or calls into question either the event character or the revelational meaning of biblical history, thus compromising the full authority of Scripture as the Word of God.”

Timothy-Lawndale Matters

Calling forth particularly explosive feelings was the matter of racial tensions which entered into the entire discussion during the last several years of what is known popularly as the Timothy-Lawndale Matter. Synod also dealt with matters pertinent to this concern. It should be noted at the outset of this report that Synod was determined to deal with these matters in a conciliatory manner. There was to be no attempt to condemn any group or organization which would only serve to further whatever tensions still remain.

There were several matters that came before Synod relating to the Timothy-Lawndale situation. There was the appeal of Classis Chicago North against the decisions of the past four Synods relative to this matter. There was the appeal of two of the churches in Chicago against the decisions of Classis Chicago North. And there were individual letters that came before Synod on both sides of these questions. Synod adopted the following:

1. To declare Synod’s sorrow that a situation developed in which the unity of the body of Christ was severely strained and the church’s united Christian witness against racism was impaired.

2. To express its regret that this deplorable situation and the accompanying division within the body of Christ occasioned a suit in a civil court.

3. To declare Synod’s thankfulness that the parties involved agreed to settle and terminate the litigation and that God in His good pleasure has given the parties another opportunity to heal and to bind wounds and to work with renewed dedication at their common task of being Christ’s representatives in the world.

4. To declare that synodical committees and agencies shall not initiate or support a lawsuit against brothers of our common faith without the expressed prior approval of Synod.

The Advisory Committee worked long and well in recommending to Synod that no judgments against any parties involved were taken. Instead, the following pastoral advice was adopted in the prayer that the problems will at long last be solved in regard to this situation:

Synod expresses its thanks to the Lord that four years of turmoil and anguish over the implications of Biblical teaching on race relations has come to an end. A new climate has come about, more favorable to reconciliation, obedience and the healing of wounds.

All the churches in Classis Chicago North, all the parties involved in local and even the total membership of our denomination must seek the relaxation of tensions, the allaying of suspicions and the cessation of recriminations. Let us get together as brothers in Christ to proclaim the gospel and render obedience to Him in all of life. We urge Classis Chicago North to seek to implement all the race resolutions of 1968 as a Biblical yoke not hard to bear. Let those who were aggrieved in any way be ready to forgive and accept one another in the Lord. Let us all he examples of reconciliation in the midst of a world bleeding out of a thousand wounds.

Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell together in unity for there the Lord has commanded the blessing: EVEN LIFE FOREVERMORE.

Thus the matter has ended, and hopefully the Timothy-Lawndale situation will be only history.

Lodge and Church Membership

One of the issues before Synod that elicited the most heated discussion was the matter of Lodge and Church Membership. And the point at issue was the precise mandate that had been given to the study committee by the Synod of 1970. Precisely what was the study committee instructed to do: simply to reformulate the current position of the CRC with respect to the lodge and church membership; or to come up with a new position for the judgment of Synod? This question became especially relevant when it was noted that the study committee was not unified in its report. The majority of the study committee stood with the position of the CRC that membership in the lodge is incompatible with membership in the church. But the minority report, believing that the mandate of Synod 1970 allowed them the freedom to go into a new direction if they so desired, asked Synod to judge that there are circumstances in which membership in both the lodge and the church are indeed possible and compatible.

The Advisory Committee on this problem recommended that Synod judge that the mandate of Synod 1970 to the Study Committee did not allow for the position of the minority report. Rather, their task was to be seen as simply to put the position of the church on this question into current language. The church’s position on lodge membership was taken in 1900 (also prior to this), and very little revision has taken place since then. So the task of the study committee was to put the position into up-to-date language. This recommendation was overwhelmingly adopted by Synod, thus declaring that the minority report went beyond the mandate, and therefore was inadmissible before Synod. However, before Synod adopted this report spoke with great emotion about the need to rethink our present position in the light of the problems faced by many home missionaries. He spoke about persons who are nominal and inactive members of the lodge who come into contact with our church, and through the preaching of the Word are converted to Jesus Christ. But because of their ties with the lodge, which for most of them is purely a financial arrangement, they are not permitted to become members of our church. He therefore pleaded with Synod to face this problem, and to change our position respecting membership in the lodge and in the church. The Synod, however, was not minded to move in this new direction.

Since the Study Committee came to Synod with a divided report, the question was raised as to their ability to fulfill the mandate given to them by the Synod of 1970. A motion prevailed therefore to appoint a new committee which would be able to ful6ll the mandate with more objectivity than the present study committee. The new committee will be comprised of men in the Sioux Center-Dordt College area with the same mandate formerly given to the previous committee, and to bring a report to the Synod in 1973.

Thus Synod 1972 became history. Several observations should be made in retrospect. Credit should be given to the chairman of Synod, Rev. C. Boomsma, for his excellent leadership. He was genuinely fair in his chairmanship. Every issue was thoroughly discussed to the satisfaction of all sides of the question. A second observation is that this Synod was a Synod of action. There have been synods in the past noted primarily for their ability to postpone decisions. But this Synod came to decide, and it did decide in almost every case. Not every decision was to the complete satisfaction of everyone, of course, but that has never been the case in the church. But at least the Synod decided, which is more than can be said of some other synods. And it seems to me that a third observation that can be made is that this Synod was a “conservative” Synod. I am certain that there are those who would disagree with this assessment. However, when the record is studied, (even Report 44 as adopted with its changes), I believe that this Synod can be called a “conservative” Synod in the sense that it was not minded to turn from the Biblical position on many questions. When one considers the matter of lodge membership, the report on abortion, and also the changes made in Report 44, this judgment will prevail. This does not mean that every decision was the best that could be made. This reporter was most unhappy with the decision that was taken respecting the report of the Liturgical Committee and the proposed form for the public profession of faith. And the report on the nature and extent of Biblical Authority could have been strengthened too, I am certain. So this delegate can take heart as to what was accomplished for the good of the church. Hopefully under the blessing of God, this trend will continue within the Christian Reformed Church.

Henry B. Vanden Heuvel, pastor of the Bethel Christian Reformed Church of Sioux Center, Iowa, served as a delegate to the C.R.C. Synod from Classis Sioux Center.