Synod Asked to Revise or Replace Form of Subscription

In this article, Rev. Henry Vanden Heuvel, pastor of the Bethel Christian Reformed Church of Sioux Center, Iowa deals with two overtures pertaining to the CRC Form of Subscription (see p. 71 in supplement to Psalter Hymnal), a document to be signed by all professors, ministers, elders, and deacons. Overture 7 asks for a revision and Overture 18 for a replacement of the present form (see pp. 586, 587 and pp. 595–597 of Agenda for Synod 1973).

Among the materials for Synod 1973 is the matter of the revising of the Form of Subscription Or the writing of a new form. Two overtures are being presented to Synod relative to this question. The first is Overture 7 from Classis Chicago South in which Synod is asked to revise the present form. The second is Overture 18 from Dr. Harry Boer in which he pleads for an entirely new form of subscription. He even submits a new name for this document, suggesting “The Ordination Covenant.”

Both overtures are similar in one respect, and that is that they both ask for a greater amount of participation in the matter of “gravamen.” Now a gravamen, according to Webster’s dictionary, is “the material part of a grievance, charge, etc.” It is, in the situation of the Christian Reformed Church, a charge or grievance against the doctrinal position of the Church 3S stated in its official standards. Both overtures feel that the present form of subscription limits the process of creedal revision exclusively to the ecclesiastical assemblies. Both want to see the discussion of differences with the CRC doctrinal position opened up to include the entire denomination, not just consistory, classis, and synod. The only way that such participation can be encouraged is that persons who have a differing position be allowed to write, to publicly defend their positions, and to engage as many people as possible in this discussion. Overture 7 would not, however, permit this defense and discussion to enter into preaching and official teaching by those who are suggesting their differences.

At this point, similarity between these two overtures ends. Overture 7 from Classis Chicago South asks simply that a paragraph be inserted in the present form of subscription to the effect that one who has sentiments contrary to the doctrinal position of the Church be permitted to discuss and defend these publicly after submitting these sentiments to the consistory, c1assis, or synod for examination. Dr. Harry Boer is convinced that such patch-work treatment of the present form is wholly unsatisfactory. What the Church needs is a completely new form, and that especially for two additional reasons.

First Dr. Boer is convinced that the present form does not take seriously the obligation of the Church to the office bearers. It is very heavy on the responsibility of office bearers, especia1ly those who hold differing points of view from the official position of the Church, but it is very light on the responsibility of the Church. He cites the two gravamina in the history of the Christian Reformed Church, neither of which was ever really decided by Synod. He therefore asks for a new form which will spell out clearly and without equivocation the responsibility of the Church to examine and decide on the matters presented by office bearers by way of gravamina.

The second area of concern Dr. Boer has is the language of the present Form of Subscription. He feels that the language is entirely too sweeping, too severe in what it demands of the signer. It requires one to say that all the points of doctrine and articles in the three forms of unity do fully agree with the Word of God. This sweeping statement, claims Dr. Boer, makes signing it with mental reservations inevitable. He cites such items as the statement in the Belgic Confession that the book of Hebrews is one of the epistles of Paul, and the statement that we “detest” the Anabaptists, also found in the Belgic Confession.

By way of evaluation, the statement in the Form of Subscription that is especially criticized by both overtures as containing the restriction of discussion to the ecclesiastical assemblies is not necessarily restrictive at all. As quoted by Overture 7 the statement is, “we will neither publicly nor privately propose, teach, or defend the same, either by our preaching or writing, until we have first revealed such sentiments to the consistory, classis, or synod.” Now the overture underscores the word “until,” indicating that it has special importance for the question of restriction. But taken quite literally, if an office bearer has differing sentiments and follows the prescribed rule laid down in the form, he has the freedom to publicly discuss his position. The form does not say that once he has revealed his position to consistory, classis, or synod, he may not publicly speak on his position. Now if this statement in the form is understood to mean that no public speaking or writing is ever permitted, then it is simply the result of misreading and misinterpreting the form. It is not the fault of the form, but of those who read it. I suspect that the problem is that office bearers have not revealed their sentiments to the consistory, classis, or synod; and then feel quite guilty about speaking out publicly on their differences. Well they may, for they have not followed the form. But if we take the form literally we find no narrow restriction at all.

The second point that Dr. Boer makes should, of course, be followed. The Church should take seriously its obligation regarding the gravamina or grievances of office bearers. But again this is not the fault of the form, for it spells out that obligation. It is simply the fault of our Church which has increasingly shied away from taking a definite stand on the doctrinal issues confronting it in recent years.

Finally Dr. Boer complains that the form necessarily makes liars of those who sign because it makes them say that Paul wrote Hebrews. and the like. It is inconceivable to me that we must now change the Form of Subscription because we cannot all agree on what the Belgic Confession, or one of the other statements says. Why not then present a gravamen or grievance against the Confession in order to change the article in question? To. change the form of subscription would be like changing the yardstick because the building does not conform to it. It is not the fault of the Form of Subscription if some office bearers cannot say in good conscience that all the articles and points of doctrine fully agree with the Word of God. It is their responsibility either to sign the form, or present a gravamen to seek to change the article or point of doctrine.

Therefore it is my opinion that neither of these overtures settles the problem that is present in our denomination. We need rather a return to an honest admission of where we as office bearers stand. If we stand opposed to the various forms of unity, then either we should seek by the prescribed means to change them, or place ourselves outside the Church that holds them to be true to the Word of God.