Category Archives: Confessions

CanRC General Synod Edmonton 2019 (3)

We now have some provisional Acts to survey.  For those interested in the details, the Acts can be found here at the CanRC website.  Let me just mention a few of the highlights from the last few days.

In article 23, the synod considered a request to update the Lord’s Supper forms.  This is in regard to the use of masculine pronouns.  The synod decided to mandate the Standing Committee for the Book of Praise (SCBP) to study the matter and propose any linguistic changes they might think necessary.  From my point of view, that’s a good development.  The use of the masculine pronoun in the Lord’s Supper forms grates on me (along with other infelicities in the forms).  However, I will be interested to see how the SCBP will work around this.  An easy way to fix it would be to switch it all to first or second person:  “Let us all consider our sins and accursedness that we may humble ourselves before God” or “All of you ought to consider your sins and accursedness so that you may humble yourselves before God.”  It shouldn’t be difficult to fix.

In article 41 we find the decision about the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands.  I’ve already commented in general about that decision.  Now that we have the full text, I find the following consideration noteworthy:

Ecclesiastical Fellowship is extended to churches where we find the marks of the true church (Article 29, Belgic Confession).  The presence of the marks of the church are premised on a given church accepting the authority of the Word of God.  Now that the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands approve of developments contrary to the Lord’s instruction in his Word, the marks of the true church cannot with confidence be said to be consistently present in these churches.

This is well-worded.  It doesn’t go to the extreme of saying that the RCN are a federation of false churches.

Last of all, I would note the synod’s discussion of an item from the Blessings Christian Church in Hamilton, ON.  This is in article 64.  Blessings sent a “request for revision” of a decision made by Synod 1983 regarding the forms for baptism and public profession of faith.  They asked Synod 2019 to judge that Synod 1983 erred in inserting “confessions” into the questions where once stood “articles of the Christian faith.”  Synod 2019 decided that this request had come improperly — Blessings has to go back and follow the ecclesiastical route of presenting a proposal via classis and regional synod.  The proper process needs to be followed.  Now I have to say that I don’t have the “request for revision” from Blessings in front of me — I haven’t seen it.  All I have is what we find in the Acts.  The quoted summary in 3.2 of article 64 reads:

In light of new research, the emergence of a new ecumenical landscape, and the conviction that previous appeals to synods (1986, 1989, 1992) were inadequately considered and therefore unjustly denied, the Blessings Christian Church requests a revision of the 1983 (Cloverdale) General Synod’s decision to modify the questions in the liturgical forms for Baptism and Profession of Faith by replacing the phrase “articles of the Christian faith” (or the tentatively approved “Apostles’ Creed”) with the term “confessions.”

I would be curious to know what this “new research” is, as well as details on how we now have a “new ecumenical landscape,” to say nothing of how previous synod decisions fell short.  Previous synods decided that “confessions” is a linguistic revision (improvement) upon “articles of the Christian faith.”  It clarifies what was meant by “articles of the Christian faith.”  Because of the use of a similar expression in Lord’s Day 7 of the Heidelberg Catechism, it could have given the impression that CanRC members only commit to the Apostles’ Creed.  So why would anyone want to go back to the ambiguous expression?   Clarity is always better.  What we read in the Acts of Synod 2019 could give the impression that Blessings wants to move the CanRC away from confessional membership, i.e. the communicant members commit to the Three Forms of Unity.  I’m glad that it didn’t go anywhere this time and I pray it never will.


Book Review: Children at the Lord’s Table?

NOTEI originally wrote this review in 2009.  However, ten years later, I’ve been hearing more about paedocommunion again.  This book remains a valuable resource for combating this error.

Children at the Lord’s Table?  Assessing the Case for Paedocommunion, Cornelis P. Venema, Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2009.  Hardcover, 199 pages, $25.00 USD.

Paedocommunion is a word that we’re hearing more often these days, mostly because of its connection with many of the figures associated with the Federal Vision movement.  A few years back, one of those figures pointed out to me that no one has ever really written a book presenting a solid case against admitting children to the Lord’s Supper.  He may have been right then, but I don’t believe he’s right any longer.

Cornelis Venema is well-known as a professor at Mid-America Reformed Seminary and a United Reformed minister.  In this book, he first outlines the arguments of Tim Gallant and others like him for the practice of paedocommunion.  These arguments are primarily from Scripture, but there are also historical considerations.

In the chapters following, Venema considers these arguments.  He examines the historical evidence and finds it to be inconclusive at best.  He also adds a chapter looking at “Paedocommunion and the Reformed Confessions.”  Several years ago, there was a case in the United Reformed Churches dealing with whether the Three Forms of Unity allow the teaching of paedocommunion.  The answer was negative.  Although Venema does not mention that particular case, he affirms the answer.  However, most important of all is the Scriptural evidence.  Venema examines the relationship between the Passover and the Lord’s Supper and points out that it is not as straightforward as many have made it out to be.  In fact, there is a stronger connection between the Lord’s Supper and the covenant renewal meal in Exodus 24.  Venema also gives an entire chapter to the crucial passage of 1 Corinthians 11:17-34, concluding that the Biblical way to the Lord’s Table is through public profession of faith.

In the last chapter, the author also considers the relationship between covenant theology and paedocommunion, especially in view of the Federal Vision movement.  Given these current issues, this is a helpful discussion.  Equally helpful is the appendix dealing with covenant theology and baptism.  Venema correctly outlines the promise and obligations of the covenant.  Like Klaas Schilder, he distinguishes between two different aspects of the covenant of grace.  There’s also a good section on whether the covenant is conditional or unconditional – though  I do think that more explicit reference to union with Christ could have sharpened the argument here.

This is an excellent and timely book dealing with an important issue.  It would be worthwhile to have it on hand in family and church libraries for when questions arise about paedocommunion.  It’s also highly recommended for those who need to have a good understanding of this issue, i.e. pastors and elders.


Book Review of Article 36 of the Belgic Confession Vindicated Against Dr. Abraham Kuyper

Article 36 of the Belgic Confession Vindicated Against Dr. Abraham Kuyper: A Critique of His Series on Church and State in Common Grace, Dr. P.J. Hoedemaker, trans. Ruben Alvarado.  Aalten: Wordbridge Publishing, 2019.

Anyone who has ever studied the Belgic Confession, even on a superficial level, is aware of an oddity in article 36. This is the only place in the Three Forms of Unity where we find a footnote in most versions of the Confession. Whether it is the United ReformedCanadian Reformed, or Protestant Reformed Churches in North America, or the Free Reformed Churches of Australia, all have an additional footnote.

Article 36 is titled “The Civil Government” or sometimes “Of Magistrates” and addresses what we confess about the role of the government. The relevant text in the body of the confession originally read:

[The government’s] task of restraining [evil] and sustaining [good] is not limited to the public order but includes the protection of the church and its ministry in order that all idolatry and false worship may be removed and prevented, the kingdom of antichrist may be destroyed, the kingdom of Christ may come, the Word of the gospel may be preached everywhere, and God may be honoured and served by everyone, as he requires in his Word. (Italics added)

But the clauses above that I’ve italicized were moved from the body, and relegated to footnote status a century ago, as is explained in the Canadian Reformed edition here:

The following words were deleted here by the General Synod 1905 of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland): all idolatry and false worship may be removed and prevented, the kingdom of antichrist may be destroyed.

I’ve been a pastor in both the Canadian Reformed Churches, and the Free Reformed Churches of Australia, and to my knowledge, neither federation has ever made an official decision about the status of this footnote. Do we confess this or not? It is an odd ambiguity in our Three Forms of Unity.  It is something I addressed briefly in my doctoral dissertation – you can read the relevant section here.

This little book comes from the controversy which led to the words being deleted in 1905.  It provides some of the historical background, illustrating that the deletion was not without its opponents.  This book also provides an occasion to reflect on whether it may be time to revisit the matter in an official, ecclesiastical way.

Philippus Jacobus Hoedemaker (1839-1910) was a curious figure.  While he grew up in a family with roots in the 1834 Secession (Afscheiding), he himself became a minister in the Nederlands Hervormde Kerk (NHK), the Dutch national church.  At one point, he was a professor at Abraham Kuyper’s Free University in Amsterdam, but after the Doleantie of 1886, their relationship deteriorated.  Hoedemaker was an opponent of the Doleantie – the movement out of the Dutch national church led by Kuyper and others.  However, unlike so many others in the NHK, Hoedemaker was a conservative and confessionally Reformed.

This book is a response to a series of articles written by Abraham Kuyper in his newspaper De Heraut (The Herald) in 1899-1900.  In these articles, Kuyper argued against the wording of article 36 about the responsibility of the civil government with regard to idolatry, false worship, and the kingdom of the antichrist.  In 1896, Kuyper went a step further.  Together with other notable theologians in the Gereformeerde Kerken (Reformed Churches), including Herman Bavinck, Kuyper put forward a gravamen against article 36.  A “gravamen” is an official objection to a point of doctrine.  These eight ministers alleged that article 36 did not conform to the Word of God and they asked the Synod of 1896 to make a judgment on the matter.  The Synod decided to appoint a committee to study the matter, a committee which bizarrely included Bavinck and Kuyper (!).  It was the work of this committee which would later result in Synod 1905 deleting the allegedly unbiblical words.

In this book, Hoedemaker argues for the original form of article 36.  More accurately, he argues against Kuyper’s objections to the original form of article 36.  He maintains that Kuyper was inconsistent.  On the one hand, he wants to honour King Jesus as the Lord of all of life.  But on the other hand, King Jesus has no crown rights over the responsibility of the civil government with regard to idolatry, false worship, and the kingdom of antichrist.  Hoedemaker alleges that this inconsistency is owing to political expediency.  Abraham Kuyper was getting into politics and BC 36 was an embarrassment in trying to build bridges with Roman Catholic politicians.

Hoedemaker makes two points I find especially compelling.  One is mentioned early in the book.  He alleges that the discovery of “the fatal defect” in article 36 is “not the result of the ongoing investigation of the Scripture; but exclusively causes which lie in the times, and in apostasy from the living God” (p.5).  He states repeatedly that Kuyper and others were not arguing from exegesis, but from pragmatic considerations and false inferences.  The pragmatic considerations had to do with Dutch politics.  The false inferences were along the lines of the Confession requiring the civil magistrate to persecute unbelievers and false believers.  Hoedemaker is especially persuasive in addressing that notion.

The other point is a procedural one.  Hoedemaker states that there is a dualism between Kuyper’s political theory and his theology.  Then he remarks:  “It allows him to lodge all manner of objections to the Confession without being called to account” (p.69).  This makes me wonder if Kuyper had ever lodged his disagreement with BC 36 with his consistory.  I have been unable to find an answer to that question.  It seems odd, from a Reformed church polity perspective, that Kuyper and seven other theologians could launch a gravamen at a synod without having discussed the matter with their consistories first.  If they had discussed it with their consistories, would not their consistories bring forward the matter for judgment?  I find it perplexing.

Now there are a few places where Hoedemaker has his own issues.  This book is not entirely about BC 36 – this book is something of a polemic against the Doleantie too.  Hoedemaker writes, “The first step on the road to Reformation is the recovery of the normal relations of church and state” (p.119).  He wants to undo the Doleantie and bring all Reformed believers back into the national church, despite its waywardness.  Elsewhere, Hoedemaker argues that BC 36 is not about the church strictly speaking, but about religion (p.30).  However, the text of the confession itself speaks about the church.  By the way, here Hoedemaker also seems to be ignorant of the textual history of article 36.  The original 1561 Belgic Confession had “things ecclesiastical,” a revision in 1566 adopted the expression “the sacred ministry.”  Either way, the Confession is speaking about the church.

Let me make a few comments about the translation.  There are a few idiosyncrasies that readers should be aware of.  Hoedemaker refers several times to the Heidelberg Catechism and various Lord’s Days.  The translator literally renders them “Sundays.”  Instead of the Secession of 1834 (Afscheiding), he uses the term “Separation.”  Elsewhere he uses the term “Nonconformity,” and I believe he is translating the term Doleantie.  Aside from those sorts of minor things, the book reads quite well in English.

Who should read this book?  I would especially commend it to those with an interest in politics.  When we have so little in our Three Forms of Unity about politics, what little there is should get our attention.  Is it time to revisit the formulation of article 36?  This is where I believe office bearers and especially ministers would do well to give this book a read too.  Perhaps we need a proposal to a synod to clarify the status of the footnote and perhaps even to restore it.  Note well:  we are not talking about changing the Confession or adding something to the Confession that was never there to begin with.  This is something completely different.  In a 1979 article for Clarion, Dr. J. Faber argued for completely rewriting that part of article 36.  That is a possibility.  But if the footnote can be re-examined from a biblical standpoint, perhaps it would be as simple as cutting and pasting the text back into place.

 


Essential Latin for Reformed Christians: Filioque

Today’s bit of helpful Latin was one small word that played a big role in splitting the church:  Filioque — that’s pronounced “Fili-o-kway.”  In English it translates to “and the Son.”  “Filioque” was a word added to the Nicene Creed by the Western Church at the Third Council of Toledo in 589.  In the original form of the Nicene Creed, adopted in 381, the Holy Spirit was confessed only to proceed from the Father.  However, in 589, the Western Church decided to insert “Filioque,” meaning that the Holy Spirit is confessed to proceed from both the Father and the Son.

This change was never accepted by the Eastern Church.  To this day, Eastern Orthodoxy continues to hold the original Nicene Creed with a single procession, while in the West confessional Protestantism and Roman Catholicism maintain a double procession.  The Third Council of Toledo was not an ecumenical council and therefore the Eastern Church did not participate.  They were later astounded to discover that the Western Church went ahead and unilaterally changed an ecumenical creed at a non-ecumenical council.  Adding further fuel to their ire was the fact that there was an explicit Nicean canon that the wording of the creed was not to be altered.  Of course, beyond procedure there was also the question of whether the Filioque clause was theologically correct — the East insisted it was not.

As mentioned, the West made this change in 589, but the Great Schism between West and East didn’t happen until 1054.  The Filioque was a major thorn in the East’s side for nearly five centuries.  But there were other irritations contributing to gradual estrangement.  Finally, in 1054, things boiled over with leaders from each side excommunicating one another.  While these excommunications were undone in 1965, the rift between East and West remains, as does the Filioque in Western editions of the Nicene Creed.

The history is interesting, but the more important question is whether the Filioque is biblical.  I believe it is.  Let me just mention two places where I see this truth revealed in Scripture.  In Acts 2, we read about Pentecost, the pouring out of the Holy Spirit upon the church.  In Acts 2:33, Peter says that Christ “has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing.”  The Holy Spirit was poured out by Christ.  No, it does not say “proceeds,” but the thought is the same.  The Holy Spirit has come from Christ to be poured out on the church.  There is also John 15:26 where Jesus says, “But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me.”  In this instance, there is a clear reference to the Spirit’s procession from the Father.  Yet it should not be overlooked that Christ also speaks of his own sending of the Holy Spirit.

But what does it mean exactly to confess that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son?  What exactly is “procession”?  There is mystery here.  We can safely say what it is not.  It is not the same as the begetting that we confess of the Son in relation to the Father.  But beyond that, I find myself sympathizing with Donald Macleod in Behold Your God:  “What this ontological procession actually is or what is meant by the Father and the Son spirating or breathing the Spirit, we simply do not know” (p.198).

Finally, does it really matter?  For the sake of recovering unity with the East, could we not shelve the Filioque?  In response, the East has far more problems than this that would stand in the way of rapprochement  with biblical Christians.  And it does matter, because despite the procedural issues which led to its acceptance in the West, the Filioque is biblical.  Theologically speaking, it matters because it’s a matter of honour for our Lord Christ.  As Donald Macleod notes, “To deny that the Son participates in the procession of the Holy Spirit is to reduce His status” (p.202).

In theology, words matter supremely.  Just one word can make a huge difference.  So, the next time you confess the Nicene Creed in public worship, don’t gloss over “who proceeds from the Father and the Son.”  Think about that and then honour and adore also the Son for his role in blessing us with the Holy Spirit.


New Dutch Article

Missionair en gereformeerd — tien stellingen (translated by R. Sollie-Sleijster for Een in Waarheid)