Tag Archives: Canons of Dort

Outward Looking Church: Current Craze or Christ’s Commission? (2)

Revised from a presentation for the Spring Office Bearers Conference held March 22, 2014 in Burlington, ON.  See here for part 1.

How Do Our Confessions Answer?

Since I phrased my thesis in terms of the confessions, it makes sense to start there.  There is a lot that could be said.  Appeal could be made to Lord’s Day 12 of the Catechism and how it speaks of the three-fold office of Christians.  As prophets we are to confess the name of Christ.  Who are we to confess the name of Christ to?  This obviously has an outward looking orientation.  We could go on and think of Lord’s Day 32 and how winning our neighbours for Christ by our godly walk of life is part of the reason we must do good works.  There again at least part of the perspective is looking outward.  Or we could spend some time on Lord’s Day 48, dealing with the second petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “Your kingdom come.”  We confess that this includes asking our heavenly Father to “preserve and increase” his church.  The word “increase” there refers to numerical increase and that implies a certain orientation among those who pray along the lines of this petition.

We could move on from the Catechism to the Canons of Dort and the same perspective is in evidence there.  It comes in connection with the doctrine of election.  There are those who say that election knocks the motivation out of outreach.  Maybe you’ve heard Reformed churches mockingly referred to as “the frozen chosen.”  But that can only be true if we don’t take our own confession seriously.  We believe and confess that God uses his church and her witness to draw in the elect.  Election becomes evident (or comes to expression in history) through evangelism.  Article 5 of chapter 2 of the Canons of Dort is clear enough on this point:

The promise of the gospel is that whoever believes in Christ crucified shall not perish but have eternal life.  This promise ought to be announced and proclaimed universally and without discrimination to all peoples and to all men, to whom God in his good pleasure sends the gospel, together with the command to repent and believe.

Our confession says that we have a gospel promise which we are obligated to announce universally, to all peoples, all men.  The language is undeniably clear.  So also if we take the Canons of Dort seriously, they should produce an outward looking orientation in the church.

Indeed, we could spend a lot of time on what the Canons and Catechism have to say about this.  But I want to focus our attention on the Belgic Confession this morning.  Let me first explain the rationale for doing that.  The period of about 1950 to 1990 was one of widespread deconfessionalization in the Christian Reformed Church.  For many CRC members (but by no means all), the confessions became museum artifacts, pieces of CRC history and heritage, rather than a living expression of the biblical faith of the church.  In that 40 year period, many claimed that the CRC had basically become a Dutch ghetto.  The perception was that the church was turned in on itself, too often only inward looking.  Discussions took place at various levels and in various venues about why this was.  Blame was often assigned to the Three Forms of Unity and especially the Belgic Confession.  One CRC seminary professor (Robert Recker) wrote that with the Belgic Confession we’re faced with a church “talking with itself rather than a church before the world.”  Influential figures in the CRC agreed with Recker.  So, in other words, if you want to know why the CRC became a Dutch ghetto turned in on itself, look no further than the Belgic Confession.  Then the solution also begins to suggest itself: we can hold on to the Confession as a museum artifact, something that shows something of our history and where we came from, but for today we need a new confession which will really help us be an outward looking church.  That partly accounts for the development of the “Contemporary Testimony: Our World Belongs to God.”  This new confession in the CRC was adopted in 1986 and its history is rooted in dissatisfaction with the Three Forms of Unity on certain points.  That included a perception that the Belgic Confession is an exercise in ecclesiastical navel-gazing.  That historical episode puts the question squarely before us this morning:  what orientation does the Confession provide for the church?

When we think of the Belgic Confession today, we typically think of a section at the back of our Book of Praise.  This is true of all our confessions.  For us, they’re embedded in a rather large book.  However, around the world, in different places, these confessions are being printed separately in convenient, cost-effective formats.  For example, there is the Heidelberg Catechism in Spanish produced by CLIR in Costa Rica.  There is also the Belgic Confession in Russian, produced by the Evangelical Reformed Church in Ukraine.  Both are in a convenient and cost-effective format so that believers can share them with others.  There’s an outward looking, evangelistic intention here.  They didn’t make these booklets for church members, but so that church members could share their faith with outsiders.  That fits precisely with the history and original intentions of these documents, especially the Belgic Confession.

When the Belgic Confession was first published in 1561, it didn’t appear as part of a Book of Praise.  It was published as a booklet in a convenient, cost-effective format.  It was designed for mass distribution, not just amongst Reformed believers, but also with their friends, family, and neighbours.  We know of two printings of the Confession in 1561, from two different Huguenot cities in France, Rouen and Lyons.  Only one copy remains of each of those printings.  We might ask why.  We don’t know how many copies were involved in those first printings – it’s impossible to tell.  We do know that the printing from Rouen included at least 200 copies.  We know that because there is a report from the Spanish authorities saying that they found some 200 copies in the library of Guido de Bres.  The Spanish authorities burned those.  But other copies were circulating; we just have no idea of how many.  We do know they were printed cheaply and quickly.  There are a couple of possibilities to explain why we only have one copy from each of the two printings in 1561.  One would be that the Spanish destroyed most of them.  Another might be that they were so widely used and distributed that they fell apart and didn’t fare well over the following decades and centuries.  It could be a combination of both and maybe there are other factors besides.  What is clear is that, from the beginning, it was designed as a document with an outward orientation.  The format speaks to that.

Early printings of the Belgic Confession included this page of Scripture passage encouraging believers to profess their faith before men.

Early printings of the Belgic Confession included these two pages of Scripture passages encouraging believers to profess their faith before men.

This is confirmed when we look closer at the Confession as it first came off the press.  On two of the first pages of the booklet, we find a collection of Scripture passages.  Over these passages were these words, “Some passages of the New Testament in which the faithful are exhorted to render confession of their faith before men.”  Then followed Scripture passages:  Matthew 10:32-33, Mark 8:38, Luke 9:26, 1 Peter 3:15, Romans 10:10, and 2 Timothy 2:12b.  Each of these passages has an outward perspective.  The point being made is that confession of faith is inherently an outward action.  We confess our faith “before men,” to the world.

Oftentimes when we think of the Belgic Confession, we think of it merely as an effort to gain tolerance for the Reformed faith.  The Reformed Churches in the Low Countries were persecuted by the Spanish led by Philip II, and they wanted to reassure the authorities that they were not rebellious.  Instead, they were simply God-fearing people who believed what the Bible teaches.  In this understanding, the Confession is simply a defense.  But this understanding doesn’t do full justice to the original intent of the Confession.  It was not simply to gain tolerance that the Confession was written, it was also to win converts.  There was an acute self-awareness that the Reformed churches existed in the midst of unbelief and their confession was addressed to that lost world in darkness.  Throughout the Confession, you find the words “we believe,” and those very words signify that there is a body of believers confessing together, confessing together to a pagan world in need of the gospel.  Whenever you see a believing “we” in the Confession, you should also think of the lost “them.”

Based on these general considerations, P. Y. DeJong was exactly right when he wrote a commentary on the Belgic Confession and entitled it The Church’s Witness to the World.  Earlier I mentioned the deconfessionalizing of the CRC, but you may remember that I was careful not to paint everyone in the CRC black.  In that forty year period, there were men like P. Y. DeJong who stoutly resisted the deconfessionalization of the church.  They argued that the Confessions were misunderstood and undervalued.  Later, men like P. Y. DeJong would become founding fathers of the United Reformed Churches.  Having been through a struggle in the CRC, they maintained that the Confessions, when they’re rightly understood, do not produce ecclesiastical scoliosis, a dysfunction where the church is curved in on itself.

But that’s about the broad nature and historical intent of the Confession, what about the actual content of the Belgic Confession?  Does that say anything to the question before us this morning?  Since we’re speaking about the church, let’s just focus on the ecclesiological articles of the Confession, articles 27-32.

Click here to continue reading part 3…

Bibliographical note:  the quote from Robert Recker comes from his article, “An Analysis of the Belgic Confession As To Its Mission Focus,” Calvin Theological Journal 7.2 (November 1972): 179.


Book Review: 1834

1834 Marvin Kamps

1834: Hendrik de Cock’s Return to the True Church, Marvin Kamps.  Jenison: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 2014.  Hardcover, 512 pages, $43.95 USD.

If first impressions count for anything, this book is a winner from the start.  It has a sharp, handsome look and feel.  From front to back, it’s been professionally produced and that made this reviewer favorably inclined from the start.  The Reformed Free Publishing Association has done justice to the subject by packaging this substantial volume with great care.

The subject is a compelling figure from our Reformed church history in the Netherlands:  Rev. Hendrik de Cock.  He was a leader in the Secession (or “Afscheiding” in Dutch) of 1834.  The Lord worked through de Cock to recover the Reformed faith in the Netherlands after a period of great darkness and decline.  This book traces his story in great detail.  There is no other book like this in English – it is truly one of a kind.

Normally I’d tell you something about the author.  Unfortunately, I don’t know much about him and the book doesn’t say much.  I did have the opportunity to meet Mr. Kamps a couple of years ago in connection with his work in translating the original preface to the Belgic Confession.  I know that he is proficient in the Dutch language and in Reformed theology – I gathered from the Acknowledgements that he is a graduate of the Protestant Reformed Seminary in Grandville, Michigan.  Elsewhere I also learned that he has served as a minister in the Protestant Reformed Churches.

A short review is not the place to tell the whole story of de Cock – that would defeat the whole purpose of writing this review.  It’s enough for me to say that everything seems to be adequately covered.  I’ve read a lot on de Cock, mostly in English, and there were a lot of new things that I learned about him from Kamps.  As I intimated earlier, there’s simply a lot here that you’re not going to find anywhere else.  For example, more than half of the book is taken up with translations of various primary source documents relating to the life and work of Hendrik de Cock.  This cannot be found anywhere else.  Kamps has done the English-speaking Reformed world a huge service by writing and compiling this volume.

The book is strong in highlighting the issues at stake in the Secession of 1834.  The author is insistent that the very gospel was under attack in the Reformed Church.  He makes a solid case for that and then maintains that de Cock and the other leaders of the Secession were zealous to recover the biblical gospel.  Writes Kamps, “The significance of the Secession of 1834 was that it was a return to the gospel of sovereign grace” (238).   Indeed, in a time when the Canons of Dort were forgotten or ignored, the Seceders argued passionately for their restoration and the recovery of the biblical doctrines contained therein.

I also appreciated the manner in which Kamps seeks to apply lessons from this history to the present day.  This might disappoint the reader looking for a “scholarly” approach to de Cock and the Secession of 1834.  While his work will be of benefit to scholars (especially the many footnotes and the primary sources he translates), Kamps is not writing for them.  Instead, he’s writing for ordinary Reformed believers, helping them to understand what the LORD did in their history and what can be gleaned from it for the present day.  In other words, this is a church history book written from the perspective of someone who has a deep faith investment in the subject matter.

That faith perspective is Reformed, but also at times distinctly Protestant Reformed.  Some of his terminology is P.R. (“church institute,” “minor creeds”), but also some of the doctrine.  Readers will especially notice that coming through in chapter 8.  The author is insistent that all the Fathers of the Secession (including de Cock) held that the covenant is governed by election.  The covenant is established unconditionally with the elect and the elect only.  Naturally, Kamps draws attention to this as a way of establishing the pedigree of the Protestant Reformed doctrine of the covenant.  Readers should be aware that this view is in parts of chapter 8, though it is not an overarching theme running through the book.

If I might add a small word of criticism, I find that the author occasionally over-stated the current situation.  As mentioned, he wants to apply the lessons of 1834 to today, so we need to have a handle on the problems of today.  This leads our author to some surprising statements such as, “Today the doctrines of election and the sinner’s depravity are offensive to most people who claim to be Reformed” (232).  Later he opines that election and regeneration are “the two most hated doctrines in the Reformed church community” (237).  “Reformed” is a slippery adjective these days with many of the so-called New Calvinists laying claim to it.  I certainly don’t see a lot of hatred for these doctrines among them or us; in fact, quite the opposite.  That makes me wonder:  does Mr. Kamps perhaps mean to say, “the Protestant Reformed formulation” of these doctrines?

1834 is a masterpiece of Reformed church history.  Well-written and the product of countless hours of research, it was a delight to read.  Even though its author comes from a different ecclesiastical background, we have a shared heritage in the Secession.  As the author acknowledges in the preface, both the Protestant Reformed and Canadian Reformed Churches count Hendrik de Cock as one of their spiritual forefathers.  We can be grateful that our Protestant Reformed friends have taken up the cause of making sure this valuable piece of our shared heritage is not forgotten.


Martin Luther: Law and Gospel

The other day I returned from the Philippines.  I was there to teach Reformation church history on the islands of Mindanao (Cagayan de Oro) and Luzon (Malolos).  One of the subjects that we covered was the topic of law and gospel in Luther’s theology.  Below are the lecture notes for this.  Enjoy!

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6.4.3  Law and Gospel

I want to begin here with two quotes.  Please listen carefully:

The doctrine of the church consists of two parts: the Law, and the Gospel; in which we have comprehended the sum and substance of the sacred Scriptures.  The law is called the Decalogue, and the gospel is the doctrine concerning Christ the Mediator and the free remission of sins, through faith.[1]

That’s the first quote.  Here is the second:

We divide this Word into two principal parts or kinds:  the one is called the “Law,” the other the “Gospel.”  For all the rest can be gathered under the one or the other of these two headings…We must pay great attention to these things.  For, with good reason, we can say that ignorance of this distinction between Law and Gospel is one of the principal sources of the abuses which corrupted and still corrupt Christianity.[2]

Now who do you think said those things?  They were both written by Reformed theologians, not Lutherans.  The first quote is from Zacharias Ursinus, from his commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism.  The second quote is from Theodore Beza, from his confession of faith.  One was a German Reformer, the other Swiss.  Both maintained a distinction between law and gospel.

This is important to recognize because many have said that the law/gospel distinction is Lutheran.  They say that it has its origins with Martin Luther and only Lutherans hold to it.  Historically, this is only half true.

The law/gospel distinction is found with Reformed theologians before, during, and after the time of John Calvin.  It’s also found in the writings of Calvin himself.  So it is not correct to say that this is only a Lutheran doctrine – historically it has been maintained in Reformed theology too and therefore it is found in the Three Forms of Unity too.  In Lord’s Day 2, we confess that we know our sin and misery from the law of God.  In Lord’s Day 6, we know about our mediator from the holy gospel.  In the Canons of Dort chapter 3-4, article 5, we confess that the law is inadequate to save – “it leaves the transgressor under the curse.”  That is why the gospel is necessary according to article 6 of chapter 3-4.  There is a clear distinction between law and gospel in our Confessions.

However, it is true that we can trace the origins of this distinction to Luther.  One can find evidence of it among some of the church fathers (for example, Augustine at times), but it was Luther who recovered it in the time of the Reformation.  From Luther, it was transmitted not only to Lutheran theologians, but also to Reformed theologians.

Before outlining the distinction as Luther presented it, it’s important to consider the background.  Thomas Aquinas was one of the pre-eminent theologians of the late medieval period.  Aquinas held that justification takes place through progressive moral transformation, with the help of infused grace.  Thomas maintained that the Old Testament dispensation involved an old law.  The New Testament dispensation presented God’s people with a new law.  In both dispensations, believers are expected to obey God and thus earn his pleasure.  The difference is that under the new law, believers receive more grace, they receive more help to obey.  To be sure, Thomas said that the main thing about the new law was that it commanded faith.  However, this faith included human good works in its definition.[3]  So what you have with Thomas (and much of medieval theology with him), is justification by good works.

That brings me to the key point to keep in mind with this distinction.  For Luther, as well as for the Lutheran and Reformed theologians, it is a distinction that functions within the context of justification.  It grew out of the recognition that Thomas Aquinas and other medieval theologians had misunderstood the biblical doctrine of justification.  They had misconstrued how a sinner gets into a right relationship with God.  Thomas and many medieval theologians made it into a matter of works – new law.

Luther rejected the old law/new law scheme of justification.  In its place, he came to understand that Scripture speaks in terms of law and gospel.  We find it with Luther as early as 1518 in his explanation of the 95 Theses.  This is what he wrote regarding thesis 62:

The gospel is a preaching of the incarnate Son of God, given to us without any merit on our part for salvation and peace.  It is a word of salvation, a word of grace, a word of comfort, a word of joy, a voice of the bridegroom and the bride, a good word, a word of peace.

The law is a word of destruction, a word of wrath, a word of sadness, a word of grief, a voice of the judge and the defendant, a word of restlessness, a word of curse….Through the law we have nothing except an evil conscience, a restless heart, a troubled breast because of our sins, which the law points out but does not take away.  And we ourselves cannot take it away.[4]

This distinction became more defined in Luther’s theology as he continued to study.  In 1532, he preached through Galatians.  In one of his sermons, he defined the law as “God’s Word and command in which he commands us what we are to do and not to do and demands our obedience.”  The gospel does not demand obedience for justification, but “bids us simply receive the offered grace of the forgiveness of sins and eternal salvation.”[5]

Luther’s law/gospel distinction must not be misunderstood as pitting the Old Testament against the New Testament.  Luther maintained that the law was found in both the Old and New Testament.  Similarly, the gospel is also found in both the Old and New Testament.  So this is not a matter of placing one Testament against the other.  Law and gospel are found throughout the entire Bible.

There is a lot more that could be said about this, but let me just draw out one more point that is often misunderstood.  Some forget that this distinction functions within the context of justification.  They say that Luther (and then the Lutherans as well) are antinomians or close to being antinomians.  Because of the law/gospel distinction, the law has no place in the life of a Christian.  They say that, for Luther, the law is only about giving awareness of sin and misery, so that one will be driven to Christ for salvation.  After salvation, the law no longer has a function in the life of a believer.  In dogmatic terms, they say that Luther only advocated the first use of the law.[6]  Because of the law/gospel distinction, they say, he did not advocate the third use of the law, the law as a guide for thankful Christian living.  A recent Reformed biographer says, “Luther simply avoids discussing the Christian’s life of obedience as obedience to the law.”[7]  This is simply not true.  While it is very commonly believed amongst Reformed people, the evidence in Luther’s writings does not support it.  Yes, it is true that Luther’s emphasis is on the first use of the law.  But he also teaches the third use.  You can see it in his Large Catechism.  As he discusses the 10 Commandments, he not only discusses the accusing function, but also points out how these commandments are to actively function in the life of the Christian who loves God and wants to please him.[8]  Moreover, The Formula of Concord, written after Luther’s death (published in 1580) but a good summary of Luther’s theology, says this:

…We unanimously believe, teach, and confess that people who truly believe and are converted to God, justified Christians, are liberated and made free from the curse of the law (Galatians 3:10).  Yet they should daily exercise themselves in the Law of the Lord, as it is written, “Blessed is the man…whose delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night” (Psalm 1:1-2; see also Psalm 119:1).  The Law is a mirror in which God’s will and what pleases him are exactly portrayed.  This mirror should be constantly held up to the believers and be diligently encouraged for them without ceasing.[9]

From this you can see, that Lutherans, following Martin Luther, do indeed teach and confess the third use of the law.

KEY POINTS:  Luther rejected the old law/new law scheme of medieval soteriology.  Luther taught a law/gospel distinction within the context of justification.  The law demands payment and obedience.  Through Christ the gospel gives what the law demands.  Both law and gospel are found in both Old Testament and New Testament.  Luther emphasized the first use of the law, but also maintained the third use.  This law/gospel distinction became foundational in all Protestant theology, both Lutheran and Reformed.


[1] Ursinus, Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, 2.

[2] Theodore Beza, Confession de foi du chretien – as quoted by R. S. Clark, “Letter and Spirit” in Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry, 342.

[3] Clark, “Letter and Spirit,” 336-337.

[4] As quoted by Clark, “Letter and Spirit,” 338.  On page 173 in the Portuguese edition of Luther’s selected works.

[5] As quoted by Clark, “Letter and Spirit,” 339.

[6] Three uses of the law in Reformed theology:  1) The accusing use – the law exposes our sin and misery and therefore our need for Christ.  2)  The political use – the law is a guide for civil society.  3) The law as a guide for thankful Christian living in response to the gospel of grace.

[7] Nichols, Martin Luther, 81.

[8] See especially Concordia, 395-397.

[9] Concordia, 558.  See also the Epitome, Concordia, 486-487.

 


New Resources Available

Pastor Jeffrey Uriarte from the Philippines has been busy translating Reformed sermons and other material into Cebuano, a language widely spoken in many parts of the southern Philippines.  He has a blog where he is posting these sermons.  He has also translated one of my sermons on Mark (with more to come, he says).

A recent sermon on Canons of Dort 1.7 has also been rendered into Portuguese.  You can find it here.  I hope to have more to come — I’m presently working on Hebrews 3:1-2.  It’s being published in installments on my Portuguese blog.  Portuguese speakers are invited to offer corrections in grammar and style.


Book Review: The Glory of Grace

The Glory of Grace: The Story of the Canons of Dort, William Boekestein, illustrated by Evan Hughes (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2012).  Hardcover, 32 pages, $10.00

If William Boekestein were a hockey player, we’d say that he scored a hat trick – with assists from Evan Hughes on each goal.  He first scored with Faithfulness Under Fire, his 2010 children’s book about Guido de Bres and the Belgic Confession.  He followed up last year with The Quest for Comfort: The Story of the Heidelberg Catechism.  Some had expressed the hope that he would come through with something on the Canons of Dort and now we have it!

For those who still don’t know this author, William Boekestein is the pastor of the Covenant Reformed Church (URCNA) in Carbondale, Pennsylvania.  He’s a graduate of Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids and a former Christian school teacher.  He’s also a father of three children – children who love to hear stories.  They’re blessed with a dad who has a gift for telling them.

Who would have thought it possible to tell the story of the Canons of Dort in such a way that it can be learned and appreciated by children?  Boekestein pulls it off.  He writes clearly and simply, avoiding sophisticated theological jargon.  I would think that many Christian parents might even come to a better grasp of the doctrines of grace through this little book.  Now, having said that, I do think that the doctrines of grace (TULIP, five points) are, by nature, more advanced.  Therefore, this book would likely best be used with older children, perhaps 10-12 year olds.

The illustrator, Evan Hughes, is a professional graphic designer.  His illustrations have a unique style and they add character to the book.  The drawings are bold, colourful, not too weighed down with detail, and yet historically accurate.

As with the other two books, this one definitely should be on the wish list of church history teachers and home educators.  If we’re going to effectively teach our children what we believe as Reformed churches, knowing the history is a must.  William Boekestein, Evan Hughes, and Reformation Heritage Books have done us a service in giving us three great books about the Three Forms of Unity and their history.