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“Give it back. You can’t have it if you’re going to use it like that. That’s not what it’s for.”

Okay, I’ll admit that I have used a table knife when I needed a screwdriver, but I keep a couple of tools in my kitchen drawer. I wouldn’t take my car to a mechanic whose toolbox was all forks and knives. It’s never best practice to use something for which it wasn’t designed, even when sometimes we have to.

The 2022 Synod of the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) used the Heidelberg Catechism for what it was not designed. It misused it as a law. In a peculiar twist of Reformed terminology, the Synod declared its interpretation of answers 108 & 109 to be “confessional.” The Catechism, however, was not written to be a confession. It was not adopted by the infant Dutch Reformed church to be a confession — we already had one. The Catechism was adopted as an authorized curriculum. To use it otherwise is to misuse it.

Using creeds as weapons is an ancient practice in the holy catholic Church. Go back to the age of Constantine, when the creeds were backed by the sword of the Empire. In 1619, just after the Synod of Dordt, the Calvinist mob executed the Arminian statesman Oldenbarneveld. So it was not a new thing that the Synod of 2022 did, but did they have to use the Catechism to do it?

Why didn’t the Synod weaponize one of the Creeds? Well, because there’s nothing in them touching sexuality, apart from one important case of virginity. Why not the Belgic Confession, which truly is “confessional”? Because the Belgic does not touch sexuality. Why not the Canons of Dort, which truly are rules (“canons”)? No sexuality there either. The closest the Synod could get was the Catechism’s Lord’s Day 41, but even here they had to cantilever an interpretation out from one word: “unchastity.”

The Catechism was not meant to be a “confession.” It was written for educational use “inside” as opposed to bearing witness “outside.” Calling the Catechism a “confession” is largely an accident from the title of a 20th century book: Ecumenical Creeds and Reformed Confessions. Before that, we always called the Catechism a “Doctrinal Standard” or a “Form of Unity.” And it’s only since our awareness of the Belhar Confession that we’ve started labeling contemporary issues “confessional.”

Yes, the Catechism was intended as a Form of Unity by its sponsor, the Elector Frederick, in order to unite the factions within the Palatinate. Yes, the Catechism was designed as a Standard of Doctrine, to guide and form the substance of preaching and teaching in the Palatinate. (And for both purposes it was adopted by the early Dutch Reformed churches.) But the Elector did not commission his new catechism as rules or canons. His rules for the church were elsewhere in his Palatinate Church Order.

The primary interest of the pious Elector and his writers was to make a curriculum for the pastors of the Palatinate. Most of these pastors had been Roman Catholic priests, and when, in the German way of things, they discovered themselves to be Protestants they needed help. Father Franz and Father Hans were faithful, loyal, responsible, and adequately literate, but school was now beyond them. So in 1563 the Elector said, “Here, use this for your homilies and your teaching.” Go through it every year, and in due time you’ll end up Reformed. The Heidelberg Catechism was basically a “how-to-be-a-Protestant-pastor-kit” for Father Franz and Father Hans.

The Catechism is a curriculum, not a confession. It’s a teaching tool, a heuristic. And like all heuristics and curricula it has its benefits, liabilities, and gentle inaccuracies for the sake of its teaching purposes. It bears the interests of the pious Elector, that his catechism form a populace to be peaceful, friendly, well-behaved, and cheerfully loyal to their prince. For all of that, it displays brilliant insight into the human soul, the theology of St. Paul, and the heart of the Gospel. It is always wise, even when it’s wrong on certain points of scriptural interpretation.

Take the Synod’s passage in question, Lord’s Day 41. Answers 108 and 109 might well be God’s will for us, but they are certainly not what Exodus 20:14 means by “adultery.” To use these answers as a law for churches is unwise indeed. Or take answer 103 about the fourth commandment. It may well be God’s will for us to support the Gospel ministry and regularly go to church but that is not what Exodus 20:8-11 is about. But again, the Catechism is a heuristic, a teaching tool — and you have to kill the frog to use it in a High School science lab. The Catechism is well worth our study, and still today our regular use of it, even when it’s wrong, as long as we are honest about it.

As a Reformed Church in America (RCA) minister, I have frequently declared that “I accept the Standards as faithful and historic witnesses to the Word of God.” I have taught the Catechism in all my charges, I have preached through it several times, I have memorized parts of it, and made some teenagers do so too. I have researched it and published on it. I love the Catechism, and I am jealous for its proper use.

What I can’t abide is a synod using it as a hammer. Or a chisel. It’s a fork for nourishment and a table knife for spreading butter. Use the Catechism in the way it wants to be used. If you think you need to raise sexuality to the level of a confession (you can’t make it credal because the Creeds are closed), and if the Belgic Confession and the Canons of Dort won’t help you (and they won’t, which should tell you something), then have the integrity to do it the right way, by daring to write your own new confession or canon or whatever.

Don’t weaponize the Catechism. It’s not your Catechism to do with it as you please.

Daniel Meeter

Daniel Meeter is pastor emeritus of the Old First Reformed Dutch Church of Brooklyn New York. He lives in New Paltz, New York, where he does pulpit supply and teaching and feeding birds and minding his grandchildren.

22 Comments

  • Michael Saville says:

    Your problem is not with Synod 2022, but with the CRCNA as a whole which has adopted the Heidelberg Catechism as one of the “confessions” of the church.

    • Daniel Meeter says:

      But I don’t think the CRC has ever adopted the Heidelberg Catechism as a confession, although I can’t be sure, not having read all the Acts of Synod since 1867 or whenever. In a way, that’s my point.

      • Jeff Brower says:

        Daniel,

        Please see the Covenant for Officebearers which was adopted in 2012, which includes the following statement:

        “We also affirm three confessions—the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort—as historic Reformed expressions of the Christian faith, whose doctrines fully agree with the Word of God. These confessions continue to define the way we understand Scripture, direct the way we live in response to the gospel, and locate us within the larger body of Christ.

        Grateful for these expressions of faith, we promise to be formed and governed by them. We heartily believe and will promote and defend their doctrines faithfully, conforming our preaching, teaching, writing, serving, and living to them.”

        Twice the HC is referred to as a confession of the church. Nor is this sloppy oversight. The revision of the Form of Subscription/Covenant for Officebearers was a multi-year process which included input from many quarters. I’m not sure what it is in the RCA, but in the CRC, it’s confessional.

        • Daniel Meeter says:

          Well, I will meet you halfway.

        • Daniel Meeter says:

          So, please forgive me for belabouring the point. If you look at the original Formula of Subscription, from the Church Order of Dort itself, regnant in the CRC till just a couple decades ago, which the above “Covenant” replaced, the word “confessions” is not used in the collective sense to include the Catechism, Rather it says (clearly distinguishing them) “the Confession, the Catechism, and certain points of doctrine” (meaning the Canons). So yes, while you are right, that the “Covenant” includes “confessions ” in the collective sense, that only provides another example of what I am calling a recent development. And the “Covenant” is not the CRC adopting the Heidelberg as a “confession,” but the CRC requiring office-bearers to subscribe to it. So, yes, you are right, while current CRC office-bearers, by subscription, must regard the Catechism as a “confession,” I still maintain, that no matter what the current “confessional” consciousness is, you will be hard pressed to find in the CRC record the Synod officially adopting the Catechism (or the Canons for that matter) as a “confession.” I am sure that you are also right that the process for revising the the Form was not sloppy.

          • Jeff Brower says:

            Daniel,
            I’ll concede that point, and wonder if it is a matter of local language. You can find both language that distinguishes and language that equates. Idzard and Van Dellen’s first edition of the Church Order Commentary, for instance, maintains the formal distinction of subscription to “the Confession, the Catechism, and some points of doctrine made by the National Synod”, while earlier referring to them as the “confessional writings of our churches”. A Synodical study committee of 1960 says “Full agreement with the *confessions* is expected from all members of the church and subscription to the *confessions* is required of all office bearers”–again, all are referred to as “confessions”. And of course, whatever documents officebearers may write to express difficulties with some of the 2022 decisions will be called “confessional-difficulty gravamina”, not “catechism-difficulty gravamina.” I wonder when referring to them collectively as “the confessions” first took place within the CRC.

  • Fred Mueller says:

    Thanks, Dan, for the reminder that Dort and the Belgic say nothing about the very thing with which the church is now obsessed. Who has ears to hear let him hear.

  • Jeff Brower says:

    I like to read blogs such as this one, in concert with more conservative postings elsewhere, and make up my mind somewhere in the middle. Because of that, I appreciate the often incisive content here. But I have to call out your inflammatory language in this post, Daniel. Now someone who disagrees with you, however moderately, on this has “weaponized the confessions”?

    Except, we’re now being told, that they’re not confessions. And here, I think, we see the next stage of the conversation.

    “But Synod hasn’t spoken about this.”

    CRC: Points to consistent pattern of statements, decisions and actions over the course of over 40 years.

    “But it’s not in Church Order.”

    CRC: Adds supplement to Article 69c to show that it does speak to this issue.

    “But it’s not confessional.”

    CRC: Clarifies that it is indeed confessional.

    “But the Heidelberg Catechism isn’t *actually* a confession….”

    And so the conversation continues…but I don’t think that this particular angle is a very fruitful line of dialogue.

    • David E Timmer says:

      The point of Dan’s post, as I read it, is not to question whether the CRC does in fact regard the Heidelberg Catechism as a confession (similar in genre to the Belgic Confession or the Canons of Dort); on that issue he pleads agnosticism. His point is that it *should* not do so, because it was not designed for that use. That’s why he refers to “weaponizing the Catechism” (not the Confessions, as you misquote him).

    • Rodney Haveman says:

      Jeff,
      I appreciate what you are saying here, and I think you are right in many ways. The CRC has said the Heidelberg is a confession for itself, and thus it holds confessional power within that sphere of the Reformed community. I think where Daniel’s blog is helpful for me, is the Elector, the writers, and those who used it in its original purpose did not commission it, write it, or use it as a confession. It is a catechism-a teaching tool or curriculum to help shape pastors and parishioners to be Reformed. They named it as such for that use. The CRC can name it as something else for a different use. The question for the rest of us in the Reformed community is how will we use it. The RCA has pitched its tent where Daniel describes. As long as the CRC doesn’t demand that their way to name that Catechism and its use is the only way, well then, we figure out how to be in communion, and move forward.

  • Keith Mannes says:

    This is appropriate, intelligent, and powerful. Thank you for it.

  • Dan,

    This is brilliant and educational, as I expect from you.

    Thank you for this.

    Blessings,

    Mark

  • Arlyn J Bossenbrook says:

    What is Synod’s point in stating their interpretation of HC Q 108 is confessional? Why do that? Why not just leave it as their interpretation. Why go the next step and make it confessional? They simply want to enact a rule to regulate the conduct of other people. To discipline people i.e. Neland Ave. Is that the purpose of creeds and confessions? No, they are an ancient, time-honored expressions and an articulation of our faith. Nothing more and nothing less.

    Is Synod trying to change people? Transform people? And do so by enacting rules to regulate their conduct? The Pharisees tried that method, the church down through the centuries has tried to use power i.e. political power, to transform people and society. And the church obviously thinks that method still works. It did not work then and won’t work now.

    What does work to transform people? Apostle Paul says it is the “mysterious power of Christ within you” Colossians 2. The early church realized that and transformed people and society by living out that truth. They did not do so by seizing political power.

    Waiting for the power of Christ to transform people is agonizing slow. So, we love to step in and speed up the process – it does not work.

    • Kirk says:

      The confessions are binding on office bearers, thus the reason for the Form of Subscription, now Covenant of Office Bearers. This is the way that the CRCNA has been since the beginning- the entire point was to maintain higher theological standards.

  • Paul Janssen says:

    FYI to the editors: this post was taken down by Facebook because of the picture of a child with knives by an outlet. It was deemed offensive as referencing self-harm.

  • Paul Janssen says:

    “What I can’t abide is using it as a hammer. Or a chisel.” Those words resonated most profoundly with me. Not long ago I saw a video of someone breaking a boulder. (And I mean a boulder, as in a stone that was probably 9’ high by 15’ wide by 5’ deep) He accomplished it using about 10 chisels and a hammer and his strength and determination. That’s what it took. Now it didn’t happen immediately. The heads of the chisels went into the boulder, a minute portion of an inch at a time. Over and over, the man pounded the chisels in deeper, from bottom to top, and top to bottom, over and over, until a “pop!” And the great stone gave way. At least the mason in the video was honest in his work. He intended to break that stone. Sadly, we have seen in the church a strong and determined effort for 40 years to hammer away at a single fault line in the church. Rather than making every effort “to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace,” this has been an attempt, in the name of purity and “truth” (I guess?) to ‘come away from’ those with a more expansive view of the breadth of divine generosity. More sadly, as 2 Cor. 6 states, the coming away is from unbelievers – which signals that difference over human sexuality is, for purists(and for many progressives, too, in all honesty), a church-dividing matter, status confessionis, or – as you put it – a confessional cudgel – based on the prior assessment that those who are widely embracing are anathema. Most sadly of all is the discontinuity of the images of stone and church. The stone may break somewhat jaggedly, but its fracture is relatively clean; it has lost its integrity, but it was an inanimate object. When the church breaks the blood of souls is spilt on an unnecessary altar; great sacrifice is performed, but it accomplishes nothing but to presage more blood. No propitiation is completed. What, then, is the point? Breaking for the sake of brokenness?
    Now – all that said – has anyone ever offered a clear and convincing definition of what exactly a “form of unity” is, and how they are to function within the life of the church?

  • LENA says:

    The church is responsible for what it it teaches. If the church allow ministers and church leaders to celebrate unchastity, then pretty soon it will avoid that topic in any form. Over time, ministers will preach and bloggers will blog that sin is being “excluding others” because “all are welcome at the table” with no teaching on biblical sexuality. Five years ago we moved to an area outside a CRC area and attended a Methodist church. Our pastor preaches most Sundays on “belonging” and “marginalization” and skips anything uncomfortable like “repentance” No mention ever pn what the Bible says about sexuality.
    My point is, our CRC is heading along this line and if it keeps going, our young people won’t even realize that the Bible teaches that intimacy is between a married man and woman. Now, people still have freedom to marry or live with however they want, but the church isn’t going to celebrate unbiblical lifestyles or elevate people into leadership roles who live unchasely because they will eventually teach that this is OK. The church is trying to be faithful to its role. The Bible has instructions on who is to lead.

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