Dr. James Visscher, minister of the Word (emeritus) of the Canadian Reformed Church at Langley, British Columbia, has written an editorial about the proposed amendment of Belgic Confession, Article 14. His essay was published in Clarion, 5 June 2015, vol. 64., no. 11, pp. 298-301. It is published below with permission.
Personally I’m very pleased and grateful that a churchman within the CanRC has written publicly about this proposal. His cautions are clear and pastoral, and his concluding advice ought to be heeded.
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AMENDING THE CONFESSION?
Classis Ontario West (COW) of March 11, 2015, decided to overture the next Regional Synod East in the hope that this body will support and endorse a proposal that came from the Providence Canadian Reformed Church of Ancaster, Ontario, to amend the Belgic Confession. Thereafter, it would be passed along to General Synod for final adoption and thus become part of the official text of the Belgic Confession.
So what exactly does COW want the General Synod to add to the Confession? It are the words, “the human race by making and forming Adam from dust (Gen.2:7) and Eve from Adam’s side (Gen. 2: 21-22). They were created as the first two humans and the biological ancestors of all other humans. There were no pre-Adamites, whether human or hominid. God made and formed Adam after his own image….”
Now, as I see it there are a number of issues that come to the fore with respect to this addition or amendment.
An Ethical Issue
The first has to do with an ethical issue. What do I mean by that? Well, it has to do with the fact that two members in our midst are specifically singled out in this overture and accused of being theistic evolutionists. They are considered to be disturbing the peace of Jerusalem in such a serious way that we need to change the confession to prevent them from teaching certain things, as well as to prevent others from emulating them.
Now, the naming of names is always a sensitive and serious thing. Whenever anyone does that care needs to be taken both in the world and in the church. At the same time you need to make every effort to get your facts straight. If not, in the world you will be sued for defamation and in the church you will be accused of violating the 9th Commandment.
So what should you do if you believe that certain members are seriously in error and you are of the opinion that they need to be stopped in their tracks? Furthermore, what should you do if you want to use them and their false teachings as a basis for adding to the confession? Surely, the first thing you will do is make sure that you have a right and accurate understanding of their views.
This means that you will draft your letter of charges against these men and then send it to them for their response and reaction. Once they respond you will evaluate whether or not your case against them is still sound and, if it is, you will proceed.
That to me is the honourable and biblical way. I say this on the basis of what we confess in Lord’s Day 43 about not “condemning or joining in condemning anyone rashly and unheard.” Behind these words is the well-known biblical principle to “do unto others as you want them to do to you.”
In addition to the naming of these two brothers, there is also the naming of the two churches of which they were or are members. That too should result in an extra effort to get all of the facts right. For by naming these churches people may well draw the inference that these two churches are tolerating members in their ranks with heretical teachings.
Hence before publicly mentioning the names of these churches, it would have been considerate if a letter had also been sent to each church naming the member, identifying what are considered to be his wrong views, asking the consistory about his status and, if need be, urging it to take disciplinary action against him.
So was any of this done? Did the Providence Church which wrote this overture originally write to these brothers and their churches before accusations were leveled publicly and used as a basis for proposing an addition to the Belgic Confession?
There is no evidence in the overture that they did. As far as I can ascertain, neither the members nor their churches were ever contacted.
Indeed, one of the men mentioned in the overture has since gone on record in social media vigorously disputing the fact that he is a “theistic evolutionist.” There is also the fact that the other accused appealed to an earlier Regional Synod East regarding his views and subsequent discipline, and that the Regional Synod sustained his appeal against the decision of Classis Ontario West.
All in all, the procedures used in this case raise some serious ethical issues. Is this how we deal with one another as members and local churches in the church of Jesus Christ?
A Confessional Issue
The second issue that this matter raises is a confessional one. In other words, is it right to take a historic reformed confession and amend it in light of a current theological controversy? Up until now the Canadian Reformed Churches have always tended to answer that question in the negative.
No doubt our history plays a role here. The fact that in the 1940’s our fathers were expected to agree to an extra-confessional wording on pain of deposition or expulsion has resulted in our churches being extra cautious about tampering with the confessions. The prevailing opinion has been that our confessions do not need amending and that together they are clear and sufficient when it comes to the necessary points of doctrine.
As a result, for many years we have in our ecumenical relations urged other churches to exercise great care in adopting all kinds of statements on doctrinal matters and raising them to quasi-confessional status.
Yet with this overture we are suddenly doing something that we have for decades been urging sister churches not to do. Why, a case can be made that we are even going beyond these warnings for suddenly it is no longer about adopting theological statements and giving them confessional status, but it is about adding to the actual confession itself.
Now, you might think that I am being unnecessarily old school here, and perhaps there is some truth in that. In my years at seminary back in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s I was taught by men like Prof. Dr. Jelle Faber, Prof. Lubbertus Selles, Rev. Gilbert Van Dooren, and Rev. Hendrik Scholten, as well as others, and they repeatedly issued the warning not to tamper with the confessions.
As a result, I must raise the general question: is this how we should handle the confessions? Whenever heresies or so-called heresies raise their ugly heads do we need to react with the stick of confessional amendment? If that is the route we should go as churches, we will be mapping out a busy future for ourselves.
Imagine if in the past we had amended the confession to deal with a certain minister whose teachings on the doctrine of the church were deemed to be unclear, confused and wrong. Or what about theonomy or federal vision? Do they not deserve a well-placed confessional retort? Or what about the Shepherd controversy? Should that have not pushed us to take up our pens and clarify further what the confession says about the relationshiup between faith and justification? Or what about the views of men such as E.P. Sanders, N.T. Wright and others? The list goes on and on.
Do we really want to go down this road? Do we really need to go down this road?
A Textual Issue
That brings me to the third issue and it has to do with a textual one. The Providence Church and Classis Ontario West would have us first add the words “the human race by making and forming Adam from dust (Gen.2:7) and Eve from Adam’s side (Gen. 2:21-22).” Is this really an improvement or a hedge against theistic evolution? As such these words are really just repeating or paraphrasing what Scripture itself already says.
I would say that if a member in our churches was to stand up and declare that Adam was not made of the dust of the earth or that Eve was not made from Adam’s side, he or she would be dealt with on the grounds that they were in contravention of Scripture itself. In other words, if Scripture is clear on a certain matter and a member refutes it, he or she should be disciplined on the basis of Scripture criticism. In such a case we do not even need to refer to the confessions.
Why bother to kick in an open door. Why target what is obviously unscriptural and insist that it needs to be added to the confession?
Thereafter, the overture goes on to propose the following addition, “they were created as the first two humans and the biological ancestors of all other humans. There were no pre-Adamites, whether human or hominid.” Again, I would ask, “is this necessary? Is this helpful? Is this an improvement?“
May I remind you that in addition to the Belgic Confession, we also have the Heidelberg Catechism. What does it say in Lord’s Day 3, Question and Answer 7? It refers to our depraved nature and says that it comes “from the fall and disobedience of our first parents, Adam and Eve, in Paradise.” Does this not exclude any notion of pre-Adamites? Does this not identify our biological ancestors? And what about Article 12 of the Belgic Confession which states that the Father has “given to every creature its being, shape, and form…”?
The point that I want to make is that our doctrinal standards already exclude ideas of there having been pre-Adamites, whether of the human or hominid variety. They clearly identify Adam and Eve as our first parents. I fail to see that this overture says any more or says it any better.
In short, the things that the brothers in southwest Ontario are concerned about are already covered in both Scripture and confession.
An Ecumenical Issue
Finally, I come to the fourth issue which is an ecumenical one. By that I mean to say that changing or adding to the confessions should not be viewed as a Canadian Reformed right or prerogative. We share these confessions with many other faithful Reformed churches around the world. If we believe so strongly that they should be changed, then we should make our case to our sister churches. After all, that is what we have also promised to do under the existing Rules of Ecclesiastical Fellowship.
Failure to do so and the adoption of a go it alone policy will bring us in conflict with our promises. It will also see us traveling down a singular and perhaps even, a sectarian road.
In conclusion let me commend the brothers in Classis Ontario West for wanting to be valiant for the truth. At the same time let me add that this is not the route that we should take as Canadian Reformed Churches. Over time it will open the doors not just to one amendment, but to many more. The end result will be a Belgic Confession that loses its historic character and becomes cluttered with all sorts of additions, many of which will be debated for decades as to their appropriateness and effectiveness.