The Nine Points and ’44: History Repeating Itself?

Yesterday I described various views regarding the Liberation that happened in the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands in 1944.  In the CanRC community, ’44 is often held forth as an important lesson in what goes wrong when too much power gets invested in synods and when synods make binding doctrinal statements.  So, when Synod Schererville 2007 gave its “pastoral advice” on matters pertaining to Federal Vision, many alarm bells went off among CanRC folk.  The Nine Points were like 1944 Redivivus.  It’s time to start reassessing that.

In this regard, three important things happened at the URCNA Synod in London.  First, the Nine Points were reevaluated and reaffirmed.  The Nine Points stand.  Second, the Justification/Federal Vision study committee report was adopted received — apparently with unanimity.  The question is:  what is the status of these two items?  That’s where Overture 14 comes into play.  This overture sought clarification on the meaning and status of doctrinal affirmations, pastoral advice, and adopted received committee study reports.

From the reports I’ve read (here and here) there was extensive discussion about this matter, but no conclusion.  It appears that the matter was committed to the Synodical Rules Committee.  I assume that they will report back to the next Synod.  But let’s see what the advisory committee recommended regarding the definition of pastoral advice (which is what the Nine Points are):

2. Pastoral Advice: Pastoral Advice is the application of the Scriptures and the Confessions in response to particular circumstances in the churches.
2.1 Pastoral Advice expresses the collective wisdom of Synod to guide the churches in their pastoral care. It may not serve as grounds in matters of discipline.
2.2 Pastoral Advice should be received with reverence and respect. It would be unwise to contradict or disregard Pastoral Advice in preaching or writing.
2.3 Pastoral Advice may be appealed as outlined in Church Order Articles 29 and 31. (Regulations for Synodical Procedure 3.4 and Appendix B)

I would especially call your attention to 2.1.  Pastoral advice (such as the Nine Points) “may not serve as grounds in matters of discipline.”  That was the direction the advisory committee wished to move in — it was not adopted by Synod 2010 (at least not that I’ve seen reported).

Now that direction is something quite a bit different than what we saw yesterday with 1944 and the events leading up to it.  For instance, K. Schilder was deposed by a Synod for refusing to teach the Kuyperian doctrine that had been imposed on the Reformed churches.  Now aside from the question of a Synod carrying out discipline of office bearers, we can see that in that situation there was a binding that was regarded as grounds for discipline.  That’s something different than where we see the URCNA apparently going with “pastoral advice.”

Of course, it could happen that the URCNA Synodical Rules Committee turns around and recommends that “pastoral advice” should be grounds for matters of discipline.  Maybe the next Synod will even adopt it.  But I doubt it because, believe it or not, there are historical sensibilities in the URCNA.  It was evident in how the Synod chairman spoke in regards to Overture 14.  He warned that schism could result if this matter is not handled carefully.

Here’s the thing:  we in the CanRC can’t see the spectre of Abraham Kuyper and his epigones (I always wanted to use that word!) behind nearly everything the URCNA does.  When it comes to covenant theology and baptism, most of their (vocal) theologians are not drawing on Kuyper, but on sources far earlier.  I’ve heard no one arguing for baptism on the basis of presumed regeneration!  When it comes to church polity, the historical circumstances leading up to 1944 were entirely different, involving, for instance,  a world war.  As I recall, collaboration with the Nazis was a factor in the Liberation.  Schilder and those who became Liberated were entirely opposed to National Socialism and its anti-Christian agenda.  Some of those who opposed Schilder were less than stalwart in their opposition to Nazism.  That muddied the waters of church politics.  To see our URCNA brothers as the “synodicals” come back to life is not historically justifiable.

To be sure, there are some concerning trends in the URCNA and the way it does church polity.  I’ve written before about the length of URCNA Synods.  The idea of representatives rather than delegates who deliberate on behalf of the federation  is foreign to historical Dortian polity.  The notion of a permanent “stated clerk” could be seen as hierarchical.  We often see language that makes it sound as if the classis is some kind of permanent body in the URCNA (although that language is increasingly used in the CanRCs too).  I could go on.  They’re a young federation and still growing together and we can cut them some slack.  We don’t have it all together either — not anywhere close.  However, to see the Nine Points as 1944 all over again does not do justice either to the URCNA or to what our forefathers experienced in the Liberation.  The similarities are superficial at best.

About Wes Bredenhof

Pastor of the Free Reformed Church, Launceston, Tasmania. View all posts by Wes Bredenhof

11 responses to “The Nine Points and ’44: History Repeating Itself?

  • Wes White

    Another great post. We have carefully distinguished in the PCA between the Constitution and deliberations of our assemblies. We say that their decisions must be given “due and serious consideration.” We do not say that they are grounds of discipline. The URC seems to be taking a similar approach.

    Also, I think that ’44 does not have to be seen as an endorsement of Schilder’s theology but more as an attempt to stop the imposition of Kuyper’s distinctive views onto the Constitution. Perhaps a helpful post would be to compare the views of Kuyper, Schilder, and the FV.

  • Steve Swets

    Yes brother, excellent post. I also would like to see a post on Kuyper, Schilder, and the FV.

    However, one point of clarification, the URCNA does not “adopt” reports, we “receive” them. To adopt would give the impression that every formulation in the report is agreeable or in the case of Synod London 2010, unanimous. It was very clear that everyone who voted thought it helpful to receive the report as churches.

    The Synodical Rules Committee is expected to report back to the next synod on the subject of the nature of advice, statements, etc.

  • Brad

    Thank you for your thoughtful words. I always learn from your conclusions.

  • Kim Riddlebarger

    Wes:

    Thank you for this discussion. I find it very helpful.

    Whenever I speak with my CanRC brethren, I point out that from my perspective the issue is very simple. We don’t know the CanRC very well.

    In my circle, most of us are evangelical converts to Reformed Christianity, so this discussion is largely foreign to us. We cut our teeth on Berkhof, the Old Princetonians, and the likes of Van Til, Vos, Murray, Machen and Kline–not Bavinck, Kuyper and Schilder. We have no Dutch history or roots, so we have no stake in these issues as you do. When you speak of 1944 and the Liberation, I think of D-Day.

    Given our evangelical past, we are familiar with the Shepherd controversy, the FV controversy, as well as the issues raised by NPP. We smell Wesley here–someone who could affirm justification sola fide one moment, and then sound like a flaming Arminian (which he was) the next. When I hear people speak of a final vindication by works, or some sort of election which can be lost, my default setting is Wesleyan perfectionsim, and two-tiered schemes of sanctification. I instinctively recoil in horror and remember the altar calls and re-dedication ceremonies of my fundamentalist past.

    So, when you spell out why the Nine Points are problematic to you (as a product of your own history), that helps me understand why you are concerned about extra-confessional binding and the authority of pastoral advice.

    When we express our concerns about FV obfuscation in formulations like the Nine Points, CanRC folk need to understand that we too are reacting to our history–in which we have had to deal with those who confuse faith and works as they relate to justification. Furthermore, the FV continues to confuse people and create division in our churches.

    So, please keep these posts coming. The more we understand each other, and consider how our own histories impact the way we read contemporary events, the closer we’ll grow. And that has to to happen before we take concrete actions toward federative unity.

    Wes, we are coming from two different places. That is just how it is. But one day, Lord willing, we’ll end up in the same place.

  • Bill DeJong

    Dear Wes,

    Thank you for giving of your time and wisdom to comment on current ecclesiastical events. I commend you for that, and sometimes wish I could do more of that myself. Alas, my pastoral responsibilities often preclude leadership on this level.

    To the substance of what you wrote: I tend to think your interpretation of the nine points is naive on a couple of points.

    1. The nine points demonstrate no particular sympathy for the theological emphases of Klaas Schilder. As you probably know, the primary author of the nine points is Scott Clark, an individual who routinely depicts Klaas Schilder’s theology as “idiosyncratic” as best. Scott was well aware that Schilder objected to dividing the covenant up into “external covenant” and “internal covenant.” The inclusion of the terms “outward” and “inward” in the nine points is likely a direct allusion to Schilder’s “idiosyncratic” theology.

    On the other hand, point # 6 can be rescued, and I think you’ve done a decent job elsewhere showing how. Baptized folk respond to covenant promises in one of two ways, and you’ve underscored that this point addresses the “two ways.” I think that’s fair. On the other hand, it needs to be emphasized that all baptized children are fully members of the covenant. I find this emphasis lacking in the nine points.

    2. The nine points are not as benign as you might think. I served on the URCNA synodical advisory committee that recommended the points for adoption by synod. Let me assure you that the impetus for adopting the nine points was to respond to a perceived doctrinal threat. The term “federal vision” is nowhere mentioned explicitly in the nine points, though it’s fair to say that delegates at synod 2007 were concerned with teaching that’s often associated with the names “federal vision” and “Norman Shepherd” (the connection between FV and Shepherd is somewhat dubious).

    The URCNA synod can insist that these points will not be used as grounds on which to discipline people, but these points will and are being used an index of one’s theological soundness. Would a classis pass an individual who objected to the content of one or more of the nine points, when synod has stated that it is “unwise” to do so and when the language of the points suggests that these are matters of faithfulness or unfaithfulness? It’s hardly conceivable.

    I’m of the mind that the Three Forms of Unity (TFU) offer office-bearers an appropriate measure of theological latitude on the issue of the covenant. This is one reason why I’m such a big fan of the TFU. I don’t think ecclesiastical confessions should be overly specific or overly prescriptive. (This, by the way, is also why my enthusiasm for the Westminster Standards is bridled).

    Sadly, it seems that many in the URCNA are somewhat disappointed with the general formations of the confessions and want to insist on more specific statements. This was precisely the disposition of the synod which ousted Schilder, so I think it’s very fair of your blog readers to hear about recent decisions in the URCNA and to think “Schilder.”

    Thanks again for your hard work, Wes. May God continue to equip you for your ministry!!!

    Sincerely,
    Bill DeJong

  • Bill DeJong

    Dear Kim,

    I think you hit the nail on the head! We tend to assess theological statements out of the grammar and vocabulary of the theology we’ve learned, inherited or embraced.

    I’m thankful that you and others have your theological radars attuned to the errors of Arminianism, perfectionism, etc. Another example you could have mentioned is dispensationalism. Especially in the US, Reformed church leaders need to be current on the teachings of dispensationalism. In the Canadian orbit in which I pastor, dispensationalism has never posed a serious threat to the Reformed church.

    I often have my theological radar attuned to the errors of hyper-Calvinism or the watered down ecclesiology and sacramentology of generic evangelicalism. This influences the way I assess the theological statements I encounter. I’m always interested in preserving Christians from falling into the pit of either a decretal theology which inhibits prayer, for example, and evangelism or an open theism in which God willingly sacrifices his sovereignty.

    It’s for this reason that my assessment of “federal vision” and Norman Shepherd is far more positive than that of many others. But in the climate in which we live it is impossible to have a level-headed discussion. If I say, “I believe that no one can be saved without good works” I’m heard to be saying, “I believe that everyone is saved by good works.” I want to affirm with all my heart that faith (and faith only) is the instrument by which we are saved, and that the work of Christ (and the work of Christ only) is the ground on which we are saved. But I also want to affirm, in line with the Heidelberg Catechism, the absolute necessity of good works.

    Similarly, if I affirm, “the covenant is conditional” I’m heard to be saying, “the privileges and rewards of covenant life are merited by obedience.” Nope. I believe the conditions of the covenant are non-meritorious and non-contributory.

    I hope you see my point. Thank you for your contribution to this discussion, Kim!!!

    Wishing you well in our Savior!!!
    Bill DeJong

  • Rick Duker

    Dear Brothers:
    I have found this discussion very helpful for my own understanding of these issues. Rev. DeJong: Your comments above have a familiar ring to them. They sound much closer to what I used to hear from CanRC commentators. What I have noticed more and more since the unity talks progessed is a pronounced effort in the CanRC not to say or do anything which may upset the URC brothers. Your candid commentary is appreciated.

  • Thea

    Thank you Rev De Jong for your analysis above and your comments to Kim. I must say I agree with your comments, especially when you say that the 9 Points may not be as benign as they seem, and that the language of point 6 is likely an illusion to Schilder’s theology.

    I came across these very attitudes when I worked together with a number of well-known (Canadian) URC brothers in the 1990’s, establishing a high school in southwestern Ontario. Not only were they very sensitive to perceived differences in understanding covenant theology, they were also always in an ultra-defensive mode against anything that might lead them back into errors of the recent past, so they found documents like the 9 Points very helpful in corralling stray thoughts and intentions.

    Yet, over time, we became quite close and understood that each of us came from a different history. We gave each other the benefit of the doubt and worked together very successfully. I believe it can be done in the federational arena as well. We need patience and willingness to listen to each other.

    Perhaps it is the intention of some in the (US) URC churches to hijack the unity process with documents such as the 9 Points, but I firmly believe we belong together and that indeed, there is more bringing us together than driving us apart. So as long as Synods of the URNCA do not make these documents a means to discipline (depose) we are still OK.

    Possibly the authors of the 9 Points may not rest until a future Synod does just that, but I pray that then:
    1. the main body of the URC elders and ministers stand firm, and/or
    2. those wishing to kill the unity process take their toys elsewhere and go and play in someone else’s sandbox.

    Respectfully,
    Thea Heyink

  • Bill DeJong

    Thank you to my respondents!!

    @ Rick, what you have written is precisely what I feel is happening. Our noble and godly ecumenical impulse is leading us to sacrifice aspects of our theology which are right and biblical. So the impulse is good, but the net result is harmful.

    @Thea, I appreciate your charitable disposition toward the URCNA brothers about their recent synodical decisions; and your call for patience is appropriate. I agree entirely that we belong together. I’m hoping and praying that in future years the URCNA will backtrack and rescind some of the decisions of recent synods. I sometimes think that we in the Can Ref haven’t always done a good job of PR: “our” views of the covenant are widely misunderstood to imply that salvation is earned or that baptism guarantees salvation. On the other hand, those who object to “our” theology haven’t always done so with humility, charity and a willingness/determination to understand.

    We (I’m including myself!!!) all need a dose of Christlike humility!

    Kind regards in Christ,
    Bill DeJong

  • The Nine Points and Schilder « YINKAHDINAY

    […] colleague Bill DeJong weighed in with his perspective.  In comment 8 under yesterday’s post The Nine Points and ’44: History Repeating Itself?, Bill […]

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