Making a Dirty Splash in a Little Puddle:
An Attempt to Amend BC 14 (5)


As far as we can tell, this will be our concluding post about the Proposal to revise BC 14 and the Ninth Commandment, before moving on to other significant dimensions of the Proposal.

This one relates to accusations made against Br. J., in terms of three topics: (1) definition and target, (2) guilt by association, and (3) using material retracted by Br. J. In each instance, the very words of the Proposal are provided, followed by my explanation of Br. J.’s actual position.

1. Definition and target

1.1 Proposal to revise BC 14:

“By theistic evolution, we mean the teaching that God created the world and all organisms over billions of years. Many theistic evolutionistsincluding some within the Canadian Reformed Churches, also teach that Adam was not the special and direct creation of God.  Rather, while acknowledging that Adam was a historical figure, they teach that he was the descendant of pre-existing hominids (man-like creatures with an evolutionary history) that was, at some point and in some ill-defined way, chosen by God to be endowed with his image.”

“That theistic evolution is being tolerated in our churches is evident from the fact that to date there have been no public sanctions for any of the individuals teaching it.”

1.2 Br. J., by contrast, defines theistic evolution as the evolution of plants, animals, and humans by means of natural processes under God’s guidance. The expression “by means of natural processes” excludes direct divine supernatural intervention as a means of creation.

Contrary to the Proposal’s accusation,  Br. J. has publicly affirmed and believes that God does act in the world by direct supernatural intervention. In particular, he believes that Adam and Eve were created by God’s special supernatural intervention. Therefore, he rejects the creation of humans by natural processes as stipulated in theistic evolutionism.

Moreover, although he is open to discussing the possibility that God created Adam and Eve by direct supernatural intervention from human-like ancestors, he is not committed to this possibility, nor does he believe it or teach it.

2. Guilt by association

2.1 Proposal to revise BC 14:

Br. J., “who is a team member in the ForumC BioLogos project, discussed his own transition from young earth creationist to a position accepting an evolving creation in the 1990s.”

2.2 Br. J.: Careful reading discloses that this is a quotation from something written by a reporter that did not come from Br. J., and therefore has no standing as a ground for the proposal.

In addition, Br. J. speaks at various conferences arranged by various organizations. That does not mean he is a team member of that organization. Nor does it mean that he supports their goals. As a Christian he knows himself called to witness to the truth and in that capacity he may speak against the goals of the organization that arranges the event because there is freedom of speech. In this particular case, he was invited to speak at a conference organized by ForumC. He accepted the invitation on the condition that he would be free not to promote theistic evolution, but to present his own ideas. ForumC agreed. Thus the quoted sentence misconstrues Br. J.’s position.

Finally, the talk described his move away from scientific creationism, not his transition to a position accepting an evolving creation. He presented theological, philosophical, and scientific arguments against an evolving creation, specifically against the transition from non-life to life and from animal to human.

3. Using retracted material

3.1 Proposal to revise BC 14:

Br. J. “also wrote the following:

‘Fourthly, there is the irreversible hierarchical structure of the classification of living things. If animals living today would have been created by fiat creation rather than by evolutionary creation, there woulhave been no hierarchical branching pattern unless the Creator would have wanted those who investigate such matters to believe there had been a history which never actually occurred. Since the Creator does not deceive us I am led to the conclusion that He created animals by means of an evolutionary process thereby giving us a real evolutionary history.'”

3.2 Br. J. withdrew the last sentence when challenged in an ecclesiastical context. Therefore, it is unfair to use this as an accusation against him in the Proposal.

Moreover, in response to challenges against Br. J.’s writing, he and his challengers were advised and assured that there is room within the church for discussing these matters, as long as they do not contradict Scripture or the Confessions. For his challengers now to use his previously exonerated statements by way of accusation in support of revising BC 14 seems disrespectful toward that advice and contradictory to that assurance.

*  *  *

By way of summary, it needs to be pointed out that our Ninth Commandment claim is this: unlike other church leaders and writers accused of violating Scripture and the Confessions, who respond by saying that they’ve been misunderstood, that is not what is going on here.

These brothers being accused in Ground 1 of the Proposal to revise BC 14 are being accused of believing and teaching things that they have declared, have written, and have argued explicitly that they do not believe or teach.

Given the pre-classis letter from Br. A. to the overturing consistory, and Br. J.’s declarations to a broader assembly, and its exoneration in principle of those declarations, the issue involving Ground 1 is one of culpable misrepresentation.

To be continued.

Making a Dirty Splash in a Little Puddle:
An Attempt to Amend BC 14 (4)

BC14Apologia for this series (1)

In case readers are wondering why I’m so energetic—some might say: worked up—about this matter, here is part of the explanation.

In terms of the overture to revise BC 14, the persons whom it publicly identifies and criticizes do not hold or teach the views ascribed to them, nor have they been successfully charged with holding such views. Their reputations are being thereby injured.

But equally serious is the “church side” of this matter. An overture to an ecclesiastical assembly has been adopted and disseminated to every CanRC consistory as part of an ecclesiastical process—which very process is now continuing to injure those reputations.

Put simply: I care about those individuals and their reputations, and I also care about a just and righteous practice of church polity. I believe it would be morally righteous if Br. A. and Br. J. did not have to be left twisting in the CanRC wind while people follow an “ecclesiastical process” en route to the next meeting of RSE. Therefore, I am willing to spend some hard-earned capital (units of goodwill and favor) by speaking to these matters.

Incidentally, discerning readers will have noticed that I’ve not engaged the substance of the proposed revision of BC 14 with respect to theistic evolution or possible pre-Adamite ancestors of the first humans. Therefore, it would be both unfair and illogical to conclude from this silence that I am a theistic evolutionist or advocate possible pre-Adamite ancestors. I am not, and I do not. Nor am I trying to create room among Reformed and Presbyterian brothers and sisters for tolerating such views.

Apologia (2)

I want to broaden my defense for writing about this matter, and move beyond the CanRC for a moment.

I will be frank with you. I fear that among our smaller conservative Reformed and Presbyterian church fellowships, we are witnessing far too much “rough housing.” I assume you know the term, “rough housing”? When my brothers and I used to wrestle and grapple and tumble around with each other, things would move from playfulness to teasing to downright aggression. My parents would then have to step in and call a halt to such “rough housing.” I must tell you that my wife, whose family never, ever knew of such behavior, has never really learned, after joining our family, to appreciate this form of fraternalizing. To her, after all these years (44 years yesterday!), it still looks mean.

In the church, “rough housing” occurs among brothers (and sisters?) who know each other well, know each other’s “buttons” and weak spots, and can “take each other down” with arguments and debates. Some even enjoy it. But for outsiders looking in, this kind of church life looks awfully mean and mean-spirited.

Nowadays, I’m watching good Reformed ministers getting pushed around, sometimes shown the door, by elders who practice “rough housing.” I’m seeing Reformed ministers thrusting their personality and their opinions on mild-mannered elders and on their tranquil flock, turning molehills into mountains, battering them with personal convictions that grow into full-blown crusades.

I confess that I am as skilled at this as anyone.

But my plea to all of us, including myself, is: For the sake of our witness to a watching world, we need to stop this.

I confess that I am still learning this life-lesson: When my devotion to what is true and right leaves bloody corpses lying on the path, something is very disordered about my devotion.

The Ninth Commandment (continued)

In that spirit and with that caution, let’s resume the discussion.

We observe that accusations against Br. A. and Br. J. were given pride of place among the grounds adduced in support of the overture to revise BC 14.

The first, and by far the longest, of ten grounds reads:

“1. Theistic evolution is being publically [sic] taught or promoted by some members within the Canadian Reformed Churches.”

Then follows three pages of citations, references, and claims relating to Br. A. and Br. J., all of which are thought to prove the assertion being made in Ground 1.

Before going any further, let’s remind ourselves of the scope and extent of the Ninth Commandment. Lord’s Day 43, Q&A 112, teaches:

What is required in the ninth commandment?

I must not give false testimony against anyone, twist no one’s words, not gossip or slander, not condemn or join in condemning anyone rashly and unheard. Rather, I must avoid all lying and deceit as the devil’s own works, under penalty of God’s heavy wrath. In court and everywhere else, I must love the truth, speak and confess it honestly, and do what I can to defend and promote my neighbour’s honour and reputation (CanRC version).

Everything that follows here about Br. A., you can verify online.

The recent meeting of COW occurred on 11 March 2015. More than ten days earlier, by 28 February 2015, every PCRC council member learned the following facts.

  1. The overture states: “Theistic evolution is being publically [sic] taught or promoted by some members within the Canadian Reformed Churches. We will supply two separate examples of individuals doing so,” including Br. A.

In his 28 February communication, Br. A. declared that he is in fact not a “theistic evolutionist,” and that this is a matter of public record.

  1. The overture refers to Br. A.’s essay, “Religion and the Science Classroom,” which is Chapter 5 of Matthew Etherington, Foundations of Education: A Christian Vision (Wipf & Stock, 2014; pp. 68ff.). The overture declares that Br. A. “accepts evolution as the explanation for most of what happened and how it happened.”

In fact, nothing of the sort is stated in that essay.

  1. The overture states that Br. A. “is currently the president of the Canadian Scientific and Christian Affiliation, an organization which promotes theistic evolution.”

Br. A. replied that CSCA does not in fact promote theistic evolution. To his knowledge, the CSCA does not even have a position statement on evolution. But the ASA, which (as noted in the overture) co­-publishes the journal Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith (PSCF) with CSCA, does have such a statement, which expresses a broad range of views within the ASA.

*  *  *

Br. A. was informed that the PCRC council has placed his letter on their meeting agenda for 29 March 2015.

*  *  *

I humbly submit to you that according to any fair reading of Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 43, Q&A 112, and given the prior, timely, and direct responses of Br. A., there is valid reason to believe that the Ninth Commandment has been violated when this overture was brought to and adopted by COW.

I also humbly submit to you that something needs to be done—and can be done—to repair this damage resulting from this violation. We will be returning to that in a later post.

To be continued.

Making a Dirty Splash in a Little Puddle:
An Attempt to Amend BC 14 (3)

BC14 The Ninth Commandment

At this point, you are possibly thinking: hooo boy, here we go again, some public leaders in the church color outside the lines and get their knuckles rapped, so their defenders haul out the Ninth Commandment to protect them. It happens all the time. How many writers and speakers and theologians don’t complain, when their views are suspected of being heterodox, of being “misunderstood,” or “misrepresented,” and accuse their critics of violating the Ninth Commandment? Is there anything new under the sun?

Well, perhaps.

By now, if you’re tracking with this series, you’ve likely read the entire PCRC/COW proposal to revise BC 14.

The headline supporting arguments used to buttress this proposal invoke—repeatedly, unashamedly, and loudly—the names of two persons whose views are alleged, along with their sympathizers, to be endangering the gospel among the CanRCs.

(Incidentally, in direct contrast to this consistory and classis, I [an outsider] will adopt and follow the hitherto universal CanRC idiosyncrasy of naming these individuals “Br. A.” and “Br. J.” In addition, I offer a free coffee from Tim Hortons to anyone who can spot any occurrence, in the proposal of this CanRC consistory and classis, of the term “brother” in reference to these two individuals who are members in good standing in their respective CanRCs.)

In this official ecclesiastical document, now under public discussion among the CanRCs, Br. A. and Br. J. are being publicly attacked with such viciousness and recklessness that ought to take our breath away. Regardless of whether you agree with the views of these men, are they not brothers in Christ’s church, and therefore deserving of that public acknowledgement, until such a time as they are judged by the church to be teaching or living contrary to the gospel of Jesus Christ?

COW v. Br. J.: Not their first rodeo

That latter query could be a rhetorical question. Except that it isn’t.

Even though it hasn’t been reported in Clarion, nor have many details been reported in any press release, over the course of several long years, the Ancaster CanRC consistory (member of COW), and later COW, had enforced ecclesiastical discipline against Br. J. for his alleged views that were allegedly contrary to the Bible and the Reformed Confessions.

I say “alleged,” because all of these charges and all of this discipline were overturned and rejected on appeal by Br. J. to Regional Synod East. With obvious wisdom and integrity, the Regional Synod said: NO, to the Ancaster consistory and NO to Classis Ontario West.

Now, in terms of Reformed church polity, when an appeal is sustained, as was the appeal of Br. J., two responses on the part of the defeated defendant—in this case, the consistory and classis—are available. (1) Go home, lick your wounds, and learn from your mistakes. Or (2) appeal that verdict to the meeting of the next broadest assembly, in this case, the next General Synod.

Neither happened.

There was no appeal of the verdict, and given the classis-endorsed proposal to revise BC 14, it appears that some have yet to learn from their mistakes. Without lifting its discipline against Br. J., the Ancaster consistory nonetheless gave him an attestation to the consistory of his new CanRC. So Br. J. is a member in good standing, again.

Een smoesje

But the consistory and classis were not to accept defeat. Rather than submit to, and follow, the church orderly route of appealing a decision with which they disagree, they now attempt by an end run (sorry for the American football analogy) to circumvent the decision of Regional Synod East.

REVISION: It seems clear that an ecclesiastical process of appealing the decision of RSE regarding the discipline should be undertaken and exhausted before attempting the rather dangerous and complicated route of confessional revision. As it now stands, the confessional revision proposal, and its adoption by COW, could easily appear to be an end run around following that process, all before any General Synod could possibly receive and adjudicate an appeal against the RSE decision.

Here’s the end run for you to watch in slow motion.

“In the Canadian Reformed Churches, doctrinal breaches have typically been dealt with on a case-by-case basis. However, because these issues are often dealt with as discipline matters at assemblies in closed session, the judgments rendered have no public standing for the churches—they are decisions typically known only to the parties involved. Even if they did have a public standing, it might be argued that the judgment only pertains to that one case. The nature of this error requires an official public response that applies across the board.”

The Dutch have a word for this; they call this een smoesje. Hogwash! Rubbish! A mere pretext.

Are we now to believe that the judgments rendered in the Netherlands by Reformed synods in the Geelkerken-case, or the Telder-case, or the Hoorn-case, “have no public standing for the churches”?? Or that, since they DO have public standing, these synodical judgments “pertain only to that one case”??

* * *

Unfortunately, this confessional revision proposal leaves the backs of Br. A. and Br. J. bleeding from the open wounds administered with the knives of a smoesachtig church polity.

That, among several other reasons, is why this proposed revision of BC 14 is a dirty splash in a little puddle.

ADDENDUM: I want to assure my readers that I have obtained permission to disclose the information that I have published on this blog about the ecclesiastical discipline against Br. J.  Because this discipline case also became a matter of executive session at meetings of both COW and RSE, I have sought to honor the rules of confidentiality in doing justice to both sides—the Ancaster consistory and the COW, on the one hand, and RSE and Br. J., on the other. There are far more details about the sequel to the decision of RSE, which exonerated Br. J., that the public should know, but discretion dictates silence, for now.

To be continued.

Making a Dirty Splash in a Little Puddle:
An Attempt to Amend BC 14 (2)


Substantive alteration of BC 14?

Lest any misunderstanding arise, we are not at all suggesting that the Reformed Confessions—whether the Three Forms of Unity or the Westminster Standards—have been, and remain, beyond revision.

In fact, throughout its history (from 1561 onward), the BC has been modified in several ways. (For a very thorough and competent review of these changes, see The Belgic Confession: Its History and Sources, by Nicolaas H. Gootjes [Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007].) At least three kinds of changes come to mind: (1) cosmetic, (2) clarifying, and (3) explanatory changes.

Looking back, we recognize that the 1905 revision-by-subtraction of BC 36 was a very significant moment. Before that change, another very contentious revision was made at the Synod of Dort (1618-19), to BC 22, with the revision-by-addition of the words “in our place” in order to address the denial by the German theologian, Johannes Piscator, and his sympathizers of the imputation of the active obedience of Christ.

But take careful note of this fact: beginning with Gisbert Voetius, and including Bernardus De Moor and H. H. Kuyper, the consensus view has always been that none of the changes made prior to and at the Synod of Dort was a substantive alteration, including the revision of BC 22! (For more on this, see Gootjes, 150-159.)

What makes this proposed revision a substantive alteration?

Another very important feature of every change made to the BC since 1561 is that no adopted change was designed and intended to put somebody “outside” the church for denying or jeopardizing the gospel. Even though Johannes Piscator and his sympathizers (among them, Johannes Bogerman, chairman of the Synod of Dort, and Franciscus Gomarus, described by Herman Hanko as a staunch defender of the faith) suffered a severe defeat when their position was rejected at the Synod of Dort, they were not treated as people whose views constituted a threat to the gospel.

By contrast, the present proposal significantly “raises the ante.” Among its buttressing assertions is the allegation that theistic evolution is being taught and promoted within the CanRCs. Let us suppose—only for the sake of discussion—that this is true to fact. This means that when the grounds presented in support of the proposed revision of BC 14 declare that “theistic evolution must lead to a denial of the gospel of salvation,” and that theistic evolution is “a dangerous error that threatens the gospel of Jesus Christ,” then if this proposed confessional revision were to be adopted, some people who are now CanRC members in good standing would be automatically and simultaneously declared to be outside the kingdom of God, should they not surrender their views.

At 12:00 CanRC time, they would be “inside” the true church, but at 12:01 CanRC time, they would be “outside.”

This is novel in the history of BC revisions.

Was woman created in God’s image?

Here is another feature that renders this proposed revision-by-addition a substantive alteration of BC 14.

Compare again the proposed revision with the current version, paying attention to the words in bold:

Current: We believe that God created man of dust from the ground and He made and formed him after His own image . . . .

Revised: We believe that God created 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 . . . .

The substantive alteration involves ignoring the persistent usage, throughout the current version of BC 14, of the generic noun “man,” which refers to the entire human race, man and woman. By contrast, the proposed revision replaces the pronoun “him” (referring back to the generic noun “man”) with the personal name of the male, “Adam.” This change may appear innocuous at first glance. But notice that the proposed revision goes on to say that “God made and formed Adam after his own image.”

Read carefully: the current CanRC version says that God “made and formed [man] after his own image,” which refers to both man and woman. The proposed CanRC revision removes any reference to the creation of woman after God’s image!

Given the recent CanRC brouhaha over retracting the right of women to vote at congregational meetings, the fuse lit by this exclusion of women’s creation in God’s image from the creedal testimony of BC 14 should ignite quite a fireworks display among at least 50% of CanRC members.

First order of business

It seems logical that, if we are to be persuaded of the need for revising BC 14, a “case” needs to be made demonstrating this need. One essential prerequisite for making such a “case” is a clear, unambiguous, and unequivocal definition of the “enemy” called “theistic evolution.”

Here is what we get: “By theistic evolution, we mean the teaching that God created the world and all organisms over billions of years.”

This definition strangely excludes what most responsible definitions of theistic evolution include, namely, that God created not directly, but by superintending an evolutionary process, for example, or by guiding the evolution of simple life forms into complex life forms.

The only qualifier in the proposal’s definition of theistic evolution is the element of time: “over billions of years.”

Alright, then. What if, instead, a person believes that “God created the world and all organisms over thousands of years,” by means of a divinely superintended process of natural selection, or a process of producing complex life from simpler life forms? Or how about “over six days“?

The proposed revision of BC 14 nowhere excludes any of these options.

Then we meet yet another strange element.

To the consistory’s definition of theistic evolution is added this descriptive observation:

“Many theistic evolutionists, including some within the Canadian Reformed Churches, also teach that Adam was not the special and direct creation of God. Rather, while acknowledging that Adam was a historical figure, they teach that he was the descendant of pre-existing hominids (man-like creatures with an evolutionary history) that was, at some point and in some ill-defined way, chosen by God to be endowed with his image.”

The clear implication is that an evolved Adamic ancestry is not an essential component of theistic evolution (since not all theistic evolutionists believe this), and therefore does not belong to its definition. But then why does the proposal’s entire defense (grounds) proceed to criticize and oppose this non-essential, incidental element that does not even belong to the proposal’s own definition of theistic evolution?

Once more: who/what is the target here?

What if a theistic evolutionist (according to more common definitions, involving divine superintendence of evolution processes) accepted the direct creation of Adam from the dust, and Eve from his side? It is not at all clear that this proposed revision of BC 14 would address that position.

One would think that, if the Bible and BC 14 are antithetically opposed to theistic evolution as an enemy of the gospel and a danger to salvation, then we would get a better, more careful and persuasive look at this enemy. Why should we accept this definition of theistic evolution? What about other definitions, offered by critics and advocates alike? The point is this: if the church is going to venture into the arena of defining, analyzing, and evaluating a scientific theory, we need something far more thorough, far more detailed and penetrating, than the Providence proposal provides.

To be continued.

Making a Dirty Splash in a Little Puddle:
An Attempt to Amend BC 14 (1)


On March 11, 2015, Classis Ontario West (COW) of the Canadian Reformed Churches (CanRCs) adopted a proposal from the Providence Canadian Reformed Church (PCRC) to amend Belgic Confession (BC), Article 14. This proposal will be discussed at the next Regional Synod East (RSE) meeting. It is now circulating publicly among the churches.

Here is the relevant opening sentence of the official version of BC 14 now in force among the CanRCs.

Article 14 – the Creation and Fall of Man and His Incapability of Doing What Is Truly Good

We believe that God created man of dust from the ground and He made and formed him after His own image . . . .

Here is the proposed amended BC 14 (all new material underlined):

We believe that God created 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 . . . [the rest of the text remains as currently adopted].

You can find the entire proposal here. Given the proposal’s introduction, its accompanying explanation, and the grounds thought to support this proposal, it seems evident that neither PCRC nor COW comprehend the far-reaching implications of the proposed amendment and its basis.

It is that apparent lack of comprehension that lies behind the admittedly provocative title of this blog series. Provocative, because the backstory and the current proposal constitute (1) an egregious violation of the Ninth Commandment, (2) a divisive twisting of the principles of Reformed church polity, and (3) a deeply sectarian action.

For the discerning reader

Unfortunately, given the short distance between the spacebar and the send button, one finds it necessary to issue caveats in order to protect one’s name and reputation from the digital firing squads standing in wait to do their duty. This and subsequent blog posts are not written to defend theistic evolution, or Adam and Eve evolving from some prehuman hominid, or a billion-years age of the earth, or any specific length of the creation days.

In other words, please keep your eye on the ball: this series of blog posts is written specifically to defend the names and reputations of fellow believer-scientists who are members in good standing in their respective churches; to alert people in Reformed churches to the capacity available for twisting and perverting the principles of Reformed church polity; and to warn against ongoing divisiveness and sectarianism in the world of Reformed and Presbyterian churches (as in: N-A-P-A-R-C).

* * *

An analogy from history?

The proposal’s problems begin already in its opening paragraph.

In an effort to show the legitimacy of amending the Belgic Confession, the claim is advanced that in contrast to Scripture, which possesses divine authority,

. . . the Confessions are human documents bearing ecclesiastical authority. They can be amended or edited to better conform to the Scriptures or to address new challenges. As an example, we can note changes that were made to Belgic Confession article 36 at General Synod 1905 of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands. A number of words were deleted in an effort to better conform to biblical teaching on the role of civil government.

The question reserved for discussion in our concluding section is this: By whom should (one of) the Three Forms of Unity be amended or edited? As someone has already pointed out , the net effect of this proposal would be to create the “Canadian Reformed Belgic Confession,” which would no longer be the Belgic Confession shared by the majority of Reformed churches worldwide.

For now, however, our attention is directed to the analogy with 1905. Students of Dutch Reformed church history may recall that under the leadership of Abraham Kuyper and others, a number of words (phrases) were removed from BC 36. These words (phrases) pertained to the state’s duty with respect to non-Christians and their religion. The CanRCs, together with most (not all) Reformed churches, have accepted this revision of BC 36.

Subtraction versus addition

But here it is crucial to notice—as in: dwell upon, meditate upon—the functional difference between subtraction and addition when it comes to confessional revision.

One of the functions of a church’s confession is to define the boundaries of acceptable doctrine and practice, inside of which a person/institution may be deemed Reformed (in this case), and outside of which a person will be deemed unreformed.

Now, when confessional revision occurs by means of the subtraction of words, presumably the boundary of Reformed-ness is broadened. That is precisely what occurred at the 1905 synod of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands. But when confessional revision occurs by means of the addition of words, the boundary is constricted and narrowed. In connection with the 1905 revision, the question never arose: Are those persons still “inside” the 1905 boundary who were “inside” the 1904 boundary? To my knowledge, never in the history of Reformed churches since the Synod of Dort has confessional revision occurred by way of substantive addition.

So then, the necessary, inevitable, and egregiously problematic result of this proposed confessional revision of BC 14 by the addition of words is that some persons who were “inside” at 12:00 CanRC time will suddenly find themselves “outside” at 12:01 CanRC time.

To be continued.

Mr. Phelps’ Impossible Mission:
NAPARC, his URC, and Sectarian Impulses (3)

MI teamMy broader concern in writing this series of blog posts is to examine the integrity and honesty of Reformed and Presbyterian ecumenicity. Among such churches in North America, that ecumenicity comes to expression principally in an organization called NAPARC (North American Presbyterian and Reformed Churches).

Pretend ecumenicity?

I’m concerned about what could be called “pretend” ecumenicity in NAPARC.

Pretend ecumenicity can wear different faces, of course.

Perhaps a church federation joins NAPARC with its fingers crossed behind its back, because their leaders covertly believe that the only real and binding ecumenicity occurs between sister churches or churches in ecclesiastical fellowship. For them, membership in NAPARC is more like a feather in their cap than a calling from the LORD. It’s what I call “tip-o-the-hat ecumenicity”: federations acknowledge bits of shared faith, but organic union? Not in a million years. This is faux fraternizing.

And then there’s foe fraternizing. This occurs when a church federation hangs out in NAPARC to avoid the opprobrium of being viewed as a stick-in-the-mud backwater micro-denomination. Meanwhile, its leaders allow themselves the luxury of routinely criticizing and publicly condemning the leaders of—and the discipline (or lack thereof) of—a fellow NAPARC member denomination.

A dead end for NAPARC?

In this series, my concern has been this second face of pretend ecumenism (although the first visage is rather ugly as well).

You see, here’s how it could go. Mr. Phelps leaves a NAPARC church, slamming the back door behind him with public accusations about that church’s doctrinal and confessional infidelity, only to be received through the front door of another NAPARC church, welcomed for his commitments to liturgical and doctrinal orthodoxy. Welcomed before he has “finished his business” with a church whose decades-long practices have recently troubled his conscience. Welcomed as someone publicly opposed to some practices and ideas that, whether or not he knows it, closely resemble practices and ideas in the receiving NAPARC church.

But at that point, it’s no longer just Mr. Phelps’ problem. For if the integrity and honesty of ecumenicity mean anything, his reception would place the receiving church under an obligation to do something about the current situation in NAPARC.

If words mean anything, then some church(es) will have to leave NAPARC, either voluntarily or by expulsion.

NAPARC cannot survive for very long when leaders and their sycophants in member churches call other member churches (and their leaders) unfaithful, heretical, gospel-deniers.

A better way?

It’s time to look for a better way, a way that enhances ecumenicity with integrity.

At this point, my suggestions are not very sophisticated or politically nuanced. The better way is the way of principled churchmanship among denominations, one that is characterized by self-denying humility amid careful truthfulness. Such churchmanship understands that there is a proper mode, manner, and method for calling others to repentance, for identifying and demonstrating error, for applying gospel grace and gospel judgment against sin in the church. Without self-denying humility, the knife blade of criticism will lack redemptive impact. Truthfulness must be careful—that is, it must be wise, timely, measured, and loving. For the sake of the other.

A good place to begin—and with this suggestion we conclude—is by ingesting the essay written more than 125 years ago, by Herman Bavinck, entitled “The Catholicity of Christianity and the Church.” Here is a taste of that theological delicacy:

“In the Protestant principle there is indeed a church-dissolving element as well as a church-reforming one.”

“There is no universal Christianity present above the confessional divisions but only in them. No one church, no matter how pure, is identical with the universal church. In the same way no confession, no matter how refined by the Word of God, is identical with the whole of Christian truth. Each sect that considers its own circle as the only church of Christ and makes exclusive claims to truth will wither and die like a branch severed from its vine. The one, holy, universal church that is presently an object of faith, will not come into being until the body of Christ reaches full maturity. Only then will the church achieve the unity of faith and the knowledge of the Son of God, and only then will she know as she is known.”

With his example and his theology, Bavinck has bequeathed to us a legacy of Reformed and Presbyterian catholicity. The NAPARC churches of our generation are left with a straightforward choice: use it or lose it.

Mr. Phelps’ Impossible Mission:
NAPARC, his URC, and Sectarian Impulses (2)

MI team


(The numbers introducing various comments refer back to associated elements in the previous narrative.)

1. Liturgical unity/uniformity

1.1  By his own admission, Mr. Phelps was received and ordained into the PCA in a time when it lacked the liturgical unity/uniformity that he now seeks. This defect has troubled his conscience for some time, to the point where he now considers the PCA to be unfaithful to the Westminster Standards regarding worship.

1.2  To be sure, personal conscience must be respected. However, if with the passing of time, Mr. Phelps’ conscience has become wounded by the diversity of liturgical practice within the PCA, and if that diversity existed at the time he entered the PCA and its ministry, should he now be publicly criticizing the PCA as being unfaithful to its constitutional standards?

1.3  In addition, appealing to personal conscience as a public officeholder is a dangerously complicated matter. Minimally, we should be able to find a trail of unsuccessful attempts—at presbytery level, at general assembly level—whereby Mr. Phelps tried to persuade others to agree with his judgment of conscience regarding alleged liturgical and confessional infidelity. In principle, any appeal to personal conscience, especially in the church, must at some point be universalizable—that is: the objector must desire that everyone agree with and share his moral judgment. Where is the evidence of such responsible churchmanship on Mr. Phelps’ part?

1.4  Fact: Regarding the URCNA and what many people term “‘the’ regulative principle” of worship, it must be observed that the history, ethos, and practice of the URCNA are not at all identical to the Westminster Directory for Public Worship. If that is the standard by which Mr. Phelps is condemning liturgical diversity in the PCA, what consistent moral claim would justify his seeking to identify with a group of churches that are not governed by or do not observe that standard?

1.5  Fact: Despite the attempts of some leaders to force the URCNA into their mold of pre-twentieth century liturgical style and practice, the URCs throughout the US and Canada display a wide variety of worship practices. Songs are consistorially adopted for use in public worship—a practice that ensures diversity, both of quality and content, in the hymns and songs used in public worship. There is no federation-wide prescribed liturgical order; churches are free to incorporate—and they do incorporate—a wide variety of activities within public worship that would not fit with the what some insist is “‘the’ regulative principle of worship.”

1.6  Because he has not identified which liturgical practices throughout the PCA are not “necessarily Reformed,” as he now seeks to enter his URC, Mr. Phelps has established his personal conscience as the arbiter and pivot-point for determining those liturgical practices that are “necessarily Reformed.” Would these perhaps include: Exclusive psalmody? Bible songs/hymns? Weekly communion? Substituting grape juice for wine? Music leader(s)? Women ushers? Women reading Scripture in public worship? Weekly reading of the Ten Commandments? Pronouncing the salutation and benediction with uplifted hands? Projecting songs for public worship on a screen? Incorporating a time of mutual greeting with the worship service? An interactive, Q/A style of preaching?

Who knows? With the URCNA having far less connectionalism than the PCA, were he to become a URC minister, Mr. Phelps could genuinely build his own church according to his own liturgical (and theological) preferences and predilections! Especially if it’s a new church plant.

2. Vestments and ceremonial liturgy

2.1  Fact: A number of ministers in the URCNA wear vestments robes as they conduct public worship. If it is replied that among the URCNA, such vestments robes are not nearly as elaborate as in some PCAs, then the quibble is over a matter of degree, not over a matter of principle.

2.2  Fact: Many URCNA ministers respect and follow the church year liturgical calendar for public worship. Again, if it is replied that among the URCNA, such liturgical observances are not nearly as elaborate as in some PCAs, then the quibble is over a matter of degree, not principle.

2.3  Because Mr. Phelps nowhere identifies the specifics of his conscientious objection, any churches receiving him as pastor would be at risk of importing private, personal predilections and preferences as normative. (For example, would having Advent candles lit throughout a worship service violate Mr. Phelps’ conscience? Would using guitars for accompaniment? Incorporating within public worship a time of sharing personal prayer requests? Each of these is practiced somewhere in the URCNA.)

2.4  Once again, if these and similar practices already occur throughout the URCNA, which some would surely describe as going “in the higher church direction,” should not Mr. Phelps and his conscience be directed elsewhere, lest in a few years he be compelled to pen another essay, this one entitled, “Grateful and Grieved: My Goodbye to the URCNA”?

3. Toleration of “FV” outside the PCA, and throughout the URCNA

3.1  Mr. Phelps alleges that the PCA has now come to tolerate “the Federal Vision,” whose teachings he alleges to strike at the foundation of the gospel. He identifies key components of that vision, and evaluates them in terms of the Westminster Standards, which elements qualify “Federal Vision” as heresy and whose alleged toleration now prompts him to leave the PCA.

3.2  Fact: URCNA office-bearers subscribe to, and are bound by, not the Westminster Standards, not the theology (or theologoumena) some derive from the Westminster Standards, but by the Three Forms of Unity—again, not by Ursinus’ Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, not by various theologoumena some derive from Ursinus or Reformed scholasticism, but only by the ipsissimis verbis of the Three Forms of Unity.

3.3  All of this becomes important when Mr. Phelps insists upon a “bi-covenantal” dichotomy of a covenant of works (Law) and a covenant of grace (Gospel) as a measure of orthodoxy.

Fact: This theologoumenon is not binding within the URCNA.

Fact: A significant number of URC office-bearers in good standing reject and repudiate the theologoumenon of a meritorious prelapsarian covenant of works.

3.4  Mr. Phelps insists that the Westminster Standards teach that the divine grace associated with baptism is given only to the elect.

Fact: The classic, historic, traditional liturgical Form for the Baptism of Infants (Form Number 1) used in the URCNA—the Form on which most URC members were nursed, fed, and grown—says, among other things, the following:

“And when we are baptized into the Name of the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit assures us by this holy sacrament that He will dwell in us, and sanctify us to be members of Christ, imparting to us that which we have in Christ, namely, the washing away of our sins and the daily renewing of our lives, till we shall finally be presented without spot among the assembly of the elect in life eternal” (italics added).

“Almighty God and merciful Father, we thank and praise Thee that Thou hast forgiven us and our children all our sins, through the blood of Thy beloved Son Jesus Christ, and received us through Thy Holy Spirit as member of Thine only begotten Son, and so adopted us to be Thy children, and sealed and confirmed the same unto us by holy baptism” (italics added).

Fact: In other words, the URCNA is rooted in a liturgical-ecclesiastical-theological tradition, has embraced that tradition, and has sought to continue that tradition which has historically taught “that baptism is always efficacious when administered.” This means that every child presented for baptism receives the bona fide divine sign and seal of grace at baptism, given in terms of the promises spoken long ago to Abraham.

3.5  Fact: A significant number of URCNA office-bearers in good standing believe and teach that good works are necessary unto salvation, and that a believer’s good works will play an important role at the final judgment.

3.6  Fact: The URCNA have for years been engaged in intense ecumenical conversations with the Canadian Reformed Churches (CanRC), on several levels, including both the federative and local levels. The CanRC Acts of General Synod Carman 2013 reports (Art. 129) that several consistories wrote to the synod stating that “some points of Federal Vision can find sympathy in the [CanRC] . . . .”

4. The viability of NAPARC v. the impulses of sectarianism

4.1  You can find information about the identity and purposes of NAPARC online.

In light of its constitutional documents, it’s clear that member churches promise to recognize the discipline being applied by other NAPARC churches. The logical implication is that this recognition pertains to the discipline applied in both the prosecution and the acquittal of members and officers. Including the acquittal of Peter Leithart.

That acquittal occurred, first, by the Pacific Northwest Presbytery (2011), and second, by the PCA SJC (2013). In both occurrences, the central and prevailing point adjudicated was whether or not the prosecution had proven its case against Leithart. In both occurrences, the verdict was acquittal.

To argue on this basis that “the PCA tolerates heresy” is unwarranted in terms of both logic and polity, and is most uncharitable.

4.2  Somewhere, sometime, someone in a URC was asked by a Reformed newbie which Reformed and Presbyterian churches are “the true churches”? The answer? “There’s no list exactly, but for the purposes of admitting people to communion we [in the URCNA] follow the rule adopted by the Synod of Dort, in the original Dort Church Order (1619) that only those who profess ‘the Reformed Religion’ may come to the table of the Lord in a Reformed congregation. In our setting we see that those churches that belong to the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council confess substantially the same faith with us” (italics added).

This same URC source was asked where ecclesiastical refuge and protection were to be found from the ideas associated with Federal Vision, and as recently as June 9, 2013 (nota bene: after both the Pacific Northwest Presbytery trial of Peter Leithart and the PCA SJC decision denying the complaint against the Pacific Northwest Presbytery had been published), the answer came in this public declaration: “The URCs still seem resolute against the FV. The rest of the NAPARC world does not seem to be weakening in its resolve” (italics added).

4.3  Question: Why would Mr. Phelps depart, for reasons of conscience, from one church that he has accused of infidelity, to join another church that continues in full ecumenical fellowship with the allegedly unfaithful church he is leaving?

4.4  Question: If Mr. Phelps should accomplish his mission of serving as pastor somewhere in the URCNA, what implications would his reception via a classis-administered colloquium doctum have for the ecumenical integrity and future of the URCNA within NAPARC?

(To be continued.)

Mr. Phelps’ Impossible Mission:
NAPARC, his URC, and Sectarian Impulses (1)


  • This new series of posts constitutes an application and development of our previous series on practicing genuine ecumenicity. Readers of this series may wish to review terms and concepts introduced there.
  • The heart-burden of this series involves the integrity of practicing ecumenicity among Reformed and Presbyterian churches in North America, principally by means of the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council (NAPARC). This series is occasioned by the publicly announced departure of a minister (teaching elder), Mr. Tony Phelps, from the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), who is seeking a call within the United Reformed Churches in North America (URCNA).
  • Brief curriculum vitae: I was baptized, catechized, and professed faith in Christ within the Christian Reformed Church (CRC); was ordained to the ministry of the Word and Sacraments in the CRC in 1975; served two CRCs as pastor; left the CRC in 1991 en route to assisting in the formation of the URCNA (1996); taught Reformed church polity on the seminary level for more than twenty-five years; became a Teaching Elder in the PCA (2011–present).
  • What follows is not a defense of what many call “Federal Vision.” The claims and counter-claims of this debate are not in view here. At all.
  • What is in view here, and what follows here, is an examination of the meaning and practice of genuine, integrous (i.e., characterized by integrity), biblical ecumenicity among Reformed and Presbyterian churches in North America.


(All highlighted numbers within parentheses have been inserted to facilitate subsequent commentary.)

On February 5, 2015, using the digital magazine known as “The Aquila Report,” Mr. Tony Phelps announced that he had left the PCA as a pastor (teaching elder) and was seeking a call to a URC, while presently serving as interim pastor in a URC.

The announcement was entitled, “Grateful and Grieved: My Goodbye to the PCA.”

In this farewell, Mr. Phelps says many nice things about the PCA’s passion for evangelism and church planting, and about many nice people in the denomination. He’s grateful for all of that. But his gratitude is darkly overshadowed by his being “grieved by the confessional state of the PCA,” claiming that though the PCA is Reformed on paper, it is not Reformed in practice.

After almost twelve years of pastoring in the PCA, Mr. Phelps criticizes the lack of unity and uniformity in worship practices among PCAs. “In the PCA, this [unity/uniformity] is not the case—and probably never was.” (1.1-1.2)

The culprit for this unspecified liturgical diversity within the PCA is a kind of loose evangelicalism, along with something he calls “the Federal Vision movement”: “Some influenced by the Federal Vision movement may go in the higher church direction—using vestments and a more ceremonial liturgy—embracing an idiosyncratic worship that is not Reformed (nor Lutheran nor Anglican for that matter).” (2.1-2.4)

Mr. Phelps renders this personal judgment: “And so worship in the PCA is like Forrest Gump’s philosophy of life: it’s a ‘box o’ chocolates—you never know what you’re gonna get.’”

This verdict against the PCA is gussied in prettier dress with an appeal to personal conscience: “This bothered my conscience for some time. How can the PCA claim to subscribe to Westminster regarding worship and so often ignore what it confesses?” (1.1-1.3)

But liturgical diversity has led to doctrinal diversity, of the worst sort. Mr. Phelps alleges: “Sadly, I fear that the PCA’s toleration of diverse practices which are not necessarily (1.6) Reformed has now degenerated into a toleration of diverse doctrines which are in no way Reformed. The Federal Vision (FV) controversy has served to directly test the PCA’s confessional fidelity.”

With bullet-point simplicity, Mr. Phelps identifies the alleged PCA doctrinal failures he’s leaving behind.

“Let’s survey [the] Westminster [Standards] v. FVism to compare:

  • Westminster is bi-covenantal–it confesses from Scripture the covenant of works (Law) and the covenant of grace (Gospel); FVists promote various degrees of ‘mono-covenantalism’ and so confuse Law and Gospel. [3.2-3.3]
  • Westminster confesses the perseverance of the saints–those united to Christ will never be lost; FVists teach that all those who are baptized are united to Christ spiritually, but can fall away and lose their salvation if they don’t persevere in ‘covenant faithfulness.’
  • Westminster confesses that the efficacy of baptism is not necessarily tied to the moment in which it is administered–the grace promised [3.4] is given only to the elect in God’s appointed time; FVists teach that baptism is always efficacious when administered, and its gracious benefits are given to all the baptized, who can then lose those benefits. (At his presbytery trial, Leithart said he was essentially Lutheran in his view of baptism–which would indisputably contradict Westminster’s view on that matter; or so you’d think.)
  • Westminster confesses that those who would partake of the Lord’s Supper in a worthy manner must discern the Lord’s body, be conscious of their faith to feed upon Him, etc.; FVists commune infants and / or small children who cannot yet fulfill these biblical requirements.
  • Westminster confesses a distinction between the visible church (all those who profess the true religion and their children) and the invisible church (the elect only); FVists deny this distinction.
  • Westminster confesses the RPW [1.4]; FVists tend to advocate a highly ceremonial liturgy, which includes the use of clerical vestments (albs & stoles) & an extensive liturgical calendar. [2.1-2.4]
  • Westminster confesses the imputation of Christ’s righteousness/obedience to the believer; FVists deny or demur on the imputation of Christ’s active obedience.
  • Westminster confesses justification by faith alone; FVists undermine ‘faith alone’–and Leithart even goes so far as to say, ‘Covenant faithfulness [which includes works] is the way of salvation, for the doers of the law will be justified at the final judgment.’” (3.5)

The reader is provided this summary verdict: “If the PCA can flex Westminster to accommodate not only non-Reformed practice, but now the anti-Reformed, Gospel-corrupting doctrines of the FV, then the PCA as a whole is no longer meaningfully confessional.” (4.1-4.4)

As he leaves the PCA behind, and seeks to transfer his ordination into the URC, Mr. Phelps hopes for a brighter, more certain and secure liturgical and doctrinal future. “In the URCNA, officers subscribe to the Three Forms of Unity because they agree with the Word of God. Reformed faith and practice are not divorced, but the former necessarily shapes the latter. Not only is the FV repudiated on paper, but I have confidence that the URCNA will not provide a safe haven for the anti-Reformed, Gospel-corrupting doctrines of the FV.”

(To be continued.)

Herman Bavinck on fundamental articles of faith

bucketsDuring his tenure as professor at the theological school of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands, Herman Bavinck delivered an address to an audience of colleagues, students, and trustees on 18 December 1888. His address was entitled, “The Catholicity of Christianity and the Church.”[1] Among his points of emphasis was the difference between Luther and Zwingli, on the one hand, and John Calvin, on the other, with respect to the breadth and scope of redemption as the integral recreation of all reality in Christ Jesus. The Calvinist understanding of religious catholicity—all of life is to be lived under the claims of King Jesus, and all of life is religious—naturally influenced the reformation of the church. Whereas Rome has tied salvation to subjection to the papacy, the Reformed did not view Reformed churches as the only salvific institution. The church as the body of Christ is one, it is universal, and it is therefore not limited in space or time, said Bavinck.

One of the dilemmas arising from this ecclesiology involved the recognition of other, non-Reformed churches as churches of Jesus Christ, including the Roman Catholic Church (opinions on this matter, however, varied among Reformed theologians). This dilemma became perhaps most pressing and practical when it came to recognizing the baptism administered by these other, non-Reformed churches. The Reformers acknowledged as valid the baptism administered by all Christian churches (Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anabaptist, and Remonstrant churches). All of this is to say that Protestants generally, and the Reformed especially, have insisted that we cannot fix the measure of grace needed for salvation, nor establish the (minimum) amount of knowledge required to be saved.

In the face of this dilemma, Protestants developed the distinction between fundamental and non-fundamental articles of faith.[2] John Calvin himself sought to protect church unity with the use of this distinction, since without it, the church would over time degenerate through schism after schism into sectarianism. Unlike Rome, who called everyone a heretic who departed from that church’s teaching, Protestants have also found useful the distinction between doubt, error, and heresy. Not every doubt is an error, and not every error is a heresy.

The theological distinction between fundamental and non-fundamental articles of faith was understood strictly in confessional terms. A fundamental truth was defined in terms of one’s own confessions. Bavinck pleaded, however, for a more organic view of the catholicity of church and her confession of the truth.

“In the same way that the one universal Christian church comes to more or less purity of expression in individual churches, in the same way the one universal Christian truth comes to more or less pure expression in the various confessions of faith. There is no universal Christianity present above the confessional divisions but only in them. No one church, no matter how pure, is identical with the universal church. In the same way no confession, no matter how refined by the Word of God, is identical with the whole of Christian truth. Each sect that considers its own circle as the only church of Christ and makes exclusive claims to truth will wither and die like a branch severed from its vine. The one, holy, universal church that is presently an object of faith, will not come into being until the body of Christ reaches full maturity. Only then will the church achieve the unity of faith and the knowledge of the Son of God, and only then will she know as she is known.”[3]

According to Bavinck’s analogy, just as the one universal church transcends any particular church, so too the universal Christian truth transcends any particular confession.

This claim can easily be misconstrued and misunderstood.

The story is told of several blind men who were asked to place their hands on an elephant—one on the animal’s tusk, another on the trunk, a third on its ear. Each man was asked to describe, on the basis of what his hands “saw,” what an elephant was. The first said the elephant was really like a spear, the second that the elephant was like a snake, and the third that the elephant was like a fan. Each was right and each was wrong, because although each held part of the truth in his hands, none held all the truth. This fable is often used to defend the claim that each world religion has only part of the truth, and none of them has all the truth. If we put them all together, we would have a closer approximation of the truth.

Some make a similarly improper claim about Protestantism: each denomination, each confession has part of the truth; put them all together, and we would have a closer approximation of Christian truth.

This is not at all what Bavinck meant when he insisted that the universal Christian truth transcends any particular confession. He meant, rather, that because of the nature of human understanding and expression, there is always room to grow, room for improvement, opportunity to arrive at a fuller understanding. His metaphor of organism and growth takes account of history, of the progress of time, and of the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in the church—a spiritual growth that does not go against or contrary to that which the church has enjoyed and confessed before, but growth that extends and deepens the church’s living grasp of the Bible’s truth. Bavinck did not claim that because a particular confession is limited in content, historical in origin, and focused in its teaching, it is therefore inadequate or untrue in any way. His point was that a particular confession is not, and cannot be, exhaustive of the truth. Once more: all of this is to say that Protestants generally, and the Reformed especially, have insisted that we cannot fix the measure of grace needed for salvation, nor establish the (minimum) amount of knowledge required to be saved.

What Bavinck wrote in 1888 resembles in part the formulation of the Westminster Confession of Faith (1647) in 25.4, where it is confesses that

“This catholic church hath been sometimes more, sometimes less visible. And particular churches, which are members thereof, are more or less pure, according as the doctrine of the gospel is taught and embraced, ordinances administered, and public worship performed more or less purely in them” (italics added).

(To be continued.)

[1] The Dutch original was entitled De Katholiciteit van Christendom en Kerk, and was published in 1888 by Zalsman (Kampen); an English translation by John Bolt is available as “The Catholicity of Christianity and the Church,” in Calvin Theological Journal 27, no. 2 (1992): 220-51.

[2] Bavinck, “The Catholicity of Christianity and the Church,” 240.

[3] Bavinck, “The Catholicity of Christianity and the Church,” 250-251.

Christian doctrine as an organism

bucketsThe Protestant Reformers taught that some doctrines are rudimentary, foundational, and basic to the gospel, and other doctrines are developed, expansive, and complex. Christians are identified as less mature or more mature in terms of their capacity for receiving, integrating, and applying biblical truths ranging from the rudimentary to the complex, from the basic to the developed.

Perhaps the analogy of the human body will help clarify this. The heart and the lungs are organs essential to the human body, whereas fingers and toes are not. Many people live full and productive lives who either have lost, or perhaps were born without, a finger or a toe. But if a finger or toe is injured and does not heal, such that blood-poisoning sets in, then healing that toe becomes essential to the body’s health.

The nature of both Christian doctrine and the Christian church is one of organic relationship. Even as an infected toe, if left untreated, can ultimately result in a body’s death, so an unbiblical premise seemingly far removed from the “heart” of the gospel, if left uncorrected, can ultimately compromise the truth and poison the body of Christ, the church.

But to press the analogy further: How must we relate to a Christian who was born without a finger, or a toe, or even an eye? The Bible defines and describes the boundaries and characteristics of being fully Christian. No question about that. But the Bible also provides room for Christians who are not fully mature, who have not grasped the full implications of the gospel (see Romans 14-15, and 1 Corinthians 8-10).

The point is this: just as we can identify an entity as a human person who does not yet have fully developed toes and fingers, or is lacking toes or fingers, so too we can identify a person as a Christian who does not fully grasp Christianity’s more developed, expansive, and complex doctrines.

It seems to me that confessional Presbyterians among whom I live and labor are employing this understanding of doctrine-as-organism when, while examining a man for office, they evaluate his declared “scruples” about the Westminster Standards in terms of this important question: Does this man’s “scruple” strike at the vitals of the system of doctrine taught in the Westminster Standards? If not, the exam continues. If so, we pause for further discussion.

Among the “scruples” that regularly receive exemption in our Presbytery are convictions that the humanity of the Incarnate Son of God may be portrayed visually in art (think, for example, of Rembrandt); that pious believers may enjoy recreation on Sunday; and that the phrase “covenant of works” is not the most felicitous expression. Each of these convictions involves, at some point, very significant and vital Christian doctrines. But the key word is “involve.” Such involvement is not vital or direct, but indirect.

Part of our reason for this ongoing discussion is to encourage you to reflect on how we can identify co-believers who share with us the lifeblood of Christianity, and in appropriate ways join with them as co-belligerents in the battle between the two kingdoms (God’s and Satan’s).

We hope to persuade you to quarantine out of the church the tiresome and toxic debates about issues that are mere theologoumena (non-confessional theological opinions, such as what some call “common grace”). These opinions are not directly related to the vital doctrines of the faith. These opinions are neither essential to the Christian faith nor inherent to Reformed confessional fidelity.

Be excited, then, about the powerful reality,
embodied in a shared life of Christian faith-in-practice among today’s dark and confused world,
a shared life that witnesses to what can be celebrated among all Christ-followers,
that regrets what cannot be,
that expects the dawning day when every one of us will attain full maturity.