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Perhaps not all readers of “The Twelve” will be aware of it but in some circles within the Christian Reformed Church these past ten days there’s been some serious dust-ups surrounding “The Form of Subscription.” The Form is the document CRCNA pastors, elders, deacons, and also Calvin College and Seminary professors sign to indicate their ascent to the version of the Reformed faith that gets taught in the Confessions: The Heidelberg Catechism, The Belgic Confession, and the Canons of Dort. The most immediate conversations were sparked by an editorial in the Banner by editor Bob DeMoor to which former “The Twelve” blogger Jamie Smith fired off a very impassioned response. Since then the Facebook page for Christian Reformed pastors has been lit up with multiple posts–usually very long posts (including my own, I confess!)–as pastors from all over North America have shared thoughts. Curiously, although this by no means counts as scientific evidence, my own observation on this conversation has confirmed Smith’s contention that it’s mostly Baby Boomers with a 1960’s hangover who chafe under the allegedly constricting nature of signing on to 400-year old Confessions whereas the younger set of Gen-X and Millennials are far more willing (even happy) to embrace a confessional position. Indeed, just about every former student who graduated from my seminary since 2005 and with whom I am friends on Facebook has embraced Smith’s position over against DeMoor’s editorial.
Interesting. But as I have been caught up in these conversations, I’ve been struck by the number of people who tend to refer to signing the Form and having these guiding Confessions as being mostly all about a distasteful matter of coercive force. The Confessions whack people to stay in line and whack them over the head even harder if they stray over any one of the hundreds of lines the Confessions draw on a variety of biblical-theological themes.
Well and of course, there is a regulative function to the Confessions. For the sake of biblical clarity and faithful proclamations of the Gospel, the Confessions put up guardrails to keep our biblical-theological vehicles on the main road. But I’ve not generally regarded the guardrail quality of the Confessions as coercive so much as helpful, as clarifying. At least I know what the issues are and how our neck of the Reformed woods want to articulate them. And if I take a different view over a substantial matter in those Confessions, there are ways to address that. It may not be easy, may not happen often, but the avenues of challenge exist (even as within the boundaries of the Confessions there is, IMHO, lots and lots of room for fruitful questioning and prodding of the issues that would not require a person to get booted from the church).
Yet there are many who chafe of late, who complain long and loud that these Confessions are just flat out coercive. But let me float an observation–a kind of theory–that came to me the other day in the midst of typing up some Facebook reply or another: It struck me that the people who find the Confessions coercive are the same people (generally) who so clearly dislike what’s in the Confession in the first place. It’s rather like marriage: what kind of a spouse regards his or her nuptial vows to be restrictive, to clip the wings of one’s freedom? Well, it’s not typically the spouse who remains committed to and deeply in love with his wife or her husband. No, the one who wants more freedom, more of an open marriage, is the one who’s not so sure anymore, who’s maybe got some past dalliances to deal with in the first place (it’s rumored that John Edwards asked Elizabeth for an open marriage at one point. This has been denied by Edwards but given what he had going on on the side . . .).
The Confessions are not perfect and they are most assuredly nowhere near being on a par with God’s Word. They don’t always say things the way I’d prefer. Here and there they make claims that are really difficult to deal with (but not a few of those claims are things the Bible here and there says, too, in passages that are also perplexing). But as in a good marriage, when you love the Confessions as I do and as many whom I know do, then although you know the marriage is not perfect, although there are things your spouse does and has done for years that still drive you clean up a wall, although you even argue now and then (and even occasionally let the sun set on your anger), in the context of the larger loving relationship and the commitment you have to each other, those things are not deal breakers. Even in moments of genuine vexation with your spouse, you don’t regard your marriage vow as coercive on you, as foreclosing all kinds of options for other activities that you really want to exercise.
This is by no means a perfect analogy (and no doubt some may point this out to me in oh so many ways) but I’d liken it to also my commitment to the Bible as God’s holy and inspired Word. I love Scripture. I have no desire to depart from its teachings. But the Book of Joshua bothers me. I don’t like Ananias and Sapphira getting zapped dead. The Book of Revelation seems to have caused as much loopiness in church history as solid reflection and helpful guidance. Like certain habits that may drive a spouse to distraction or certain viewpoints held by your spouse that you’ve never fully embraced yourself, these things nettle but in love they don’t derail your nuptial commitment nor make you feel coercively stuck on account of that promise you made some sunny June afternoon way back when. So also my love for and commitment to the Bible means I deal with some of this other stuff and I do it in love.
As good old I Corinthians 13 reminds us, love puts up with a lot but when it’s genuine, such love and the commitment it brings forth in love never feel coercive, restrictive, punitive.
Or that’s what I’m thinking at the moment after a busy week of slogging through all this Confessional stuff with my colleagues. . . To be continued.