Lessons in Christian Resistance Theory (3):
The right of resistance against the government?


The image to the left pictures the cover of a 634-page, two-volume dissertation, written in German, by my friend and colleague, Dr. Jürgen-Burkhard Klautke.

The key Bible passage at the heart of his study is, of course, Romans 13:1-7. The central question of his study involves whether, and under what conditions, the right of resistance (use of force) against civil authority exists and may be used.

At the core of Romans 13:1-7 is verse 2:

ὥστε ὁ ἀντιτασσόμενος τῇ ἐξουσίᾳ τῇ τοῦ θεοῦ διαταγῇ ἀνθέστηκεν, οἱ δὲ ἀνθεστηκότες ἑαυτοῖς κρίμα λήμψονται.

Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. (KJV)

Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. (ESV)

After a long and winding trek through the history (both “secular” and ecclesiastical) of the issue, we arrive at his very last paragraph, one that summarizes his conclusions (pages 633–34).

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/633/After this trek through history we conclude [our study] in chapter 10 by formulating some fundamental principles in connection with the right of resistance, principles that help to form our own evaluation. In so doing, we confront recent exegetical studies of Romans 13:1-7, all of this in light of answers that were given until the time of the French Revolution to the question /634/ concerning the right of resistance. Even though Romans 13:1-7 cannot answer—and should not be expected to answer—every question arising in political ethics, nevertheless in forming a biblically based judgment we cannot ignore the prohibition against resistance stated clearly in Romans 13:2.

Consequently, our conclusion is that the right of resistance is defensible only after all constitutional means have been exhausted, and then only according to the following conditions:

1. It must involve an egregious discrepancy between justice and civil authority, so that resistance is required as the final possibility (ultima ratio).

2. The force needed for overthrowing a tyrant must unambiguously occasion less damage than the government’s misuse of power through its unjust actions.

3. The goal of such an effort, namely, eliminating the abuses of a government that is acting unlawfully, must be able to be realized.

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Recht auf Widerstand gegen die Obrigkeit? Eine systematisch-theologische Untersuchung zu den Bestreitungs- und Rechtfertigungsbemühungen von Gewaltanwendung gegen die weltliche Macht (bis zum 18. Jahrhundert), by Jürgen-Berkhard Klautke. Kampen: Kok, 1994.

The Right of Resistance against the Government? A Systematic-Theological Study of the Efforts to Reject and to Justify the Use of Force against Civil Authority (Through the 18th Century).

Lessons in Christian resistance theory (2):
Civil disobedience

civ-dis_sticker-blackThe following brief analysis belongs to a commentary on the Fifth Commandment, offered by J. Douma in The Ten Commandments: Manual for the Christian Life (pages 204-205).

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/204/Civil Disobedience

The subject of civil disobedience is not very old. We have written elsewhere about the matter as well [Politieke verantwoordelijkheid, 177—93], so that again a brief summary will suffice.

We understand the phrase civil disobedience to refer to publicly visible conduct that consciously violates the law in order to change a law or government regulation by means of what is intended to be nonviolent compulsion.

This form of violating the law does not occur in secret (for example, by means of tax evasion), but bears a public character. It applies the force of moral compulsion. Civil disobedience is different from a protest march; it can take the form of sit-ins, blockades, and the like. The intention is non-violent acts, since otherwise it would not be civil disobedience any longer, but sabotage, guerrilla resistance, or revolution.

How must we evaluate civil disobedience? In practice, it rarely succeeds in remaining nonviolent, even though that is how it starts. Even if it occurs without violence, civil disobedience can nevertheless contain a very refined form of violence. For example, boycotting a chain of stores can put merchants out of business. Perhaps they might prefer a good beating rather than this form of attack.

Another objection against civil disobedience is that it undermines parliamentary democracy. People go around their elected representatives to extort decisions. What “the people” want is played off against what the lawmakers are (or are not) doing.

A Christian must stay far away from such activities. For this kind of behavior has little in common with the good style required from us toward /205/ those in authority. Each of us has the right and the duty to use every legal means at our disposal (assembly, protect marches, petitions, exercising influence upon and through our elected representatives, and the like) in order to fight against regulations and laws that we consider unjust. But we take the law into our own hands when we walk outside the fence of the law and try to force our will upon others.

Disobedience to the government can be necessary; but civil disobedience, in terms of both its definition and its well-known practice, looks entirely different from the disobedience commanded for Christians in extreme situations.

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From The Ten Commandments: Manual for the Christian Life, by J. Douma (Philippsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1996), 204—205.

Lessons in Christian Resistance Theory (1):
A quiet voice amid loud cries

Chr resistFor churches and their leaders to be talking and teaching about Christian resistance against ungodly and wicked authority is not at all easy or simple. Throughout recent years, and especially since June 26, 2015 (or more really, since January 22, 1973), a cacophony of voices clamoring for a hearing has made “soft answers” seem like spineless waffling.

All the more reason, I think, for considering one of the more quiet essays written more than twenty years ago by an author belonging to a company of loud spokesmen that included Francis Schaeffer and an array of Christian Reconstructionists.

You may want to read the entire collection of essays (available as The Theology of Christian Resistance, ed. by Gary North, Christianity & Civilization, vol. 2 [Tyler, Texas: Geneva Divinity School Press, 1983]).

Now, I am uninterested in picking a quarrel with anyone on the roster of writers, but I am very interested in commending one of the most convincing, and relevant, essays among the bunch. You’ll catch the flavor of the essay from the editor’s introduction.

Section 3 [of the collection of essays] takes up the history of resistance in the West. First, the question of the idea of resistance in Western history. One of the most important documents for Protestants is John Calvin’s final paragraphs in his Institutes of the Christian Religion (1559 edition), Book IV, Chapter XX, Sections 23-32. Calvin took the view that the private citizen does not have the right of armed rebellion against a lawfully constituted monarch, but lesser magistrates do have this right. Rebellion against the cen­tral civil government must have the assent and co-operation of the intermediate or lower civil government. Calvin was clearly not an anarchist. Michael Gilstrap offers a study of Calvin’s position on the legitimacy of civil government and the grounds of resistance, legitimate and illegitimate, by and through the lesser magistrates. He analyzes Calvin’s Institutes, his commentaries on the Bible, and his letters (p. xxiv; bold emphasis in the original).

You should read the entire essay of Michael Gilstrap, “John Calvin’s Theology of Resistance,” and perhaps I can motivate you to do that by quoting at length his closing applications.

Contemporary Applications

We who believe in the sovereignty of God and in His all-­ruling providence recognize that there is much to learn from history. History is the unfolding of God’s decree, and it is presumptuous for us to cut off our “Hall of Heroes” with the closing of Hebrews 11. By God’s standards, John Calvin is a hero of the faith, and with regard to Christian resistance, he should be listened to.

To begin with, Calvin’s division of the agents of resistance into private citizens and magistrates is important. In 20th century America, with the radical egalitarianism that has been popularized as a result of our baptistic moorings, it is important to emphasize that a nation’s constitutional basis must be defended by constitutional defenders. Too often the attitude that prevails in many churches is projected into political life. In most American churches, the “people” vote on everything, and make a decision on everything. If enough of the membership doesn’t like something, then they band together and proceed to change it. Government, however, doesn’t work that way. We may not like the federal funding of abortions, the United Nations, or the huge giveaway programs, but we as private citizens do not have the right actively to resist. In other words, even though the government does fund abortions, we must still pay our taxes. If the time ever comes, and there is the need for armed, active resistance against a tyrannical federal government, then that resistance must come about as a result of the leadership of lesser magistrates. The people must never take matters into their own hands. The duties of the private citizen are primarily obedience to the laws of the land, and deference to the magistrates. It is only when obedience involves one in an actual sin that civil disobedience is acceptable. Active resistance, however, never is.

The second point made by Calvin that is important for us today is his teaching that the laws of the land are supreme over both magistrates and subjects. The magistrates as well as the people are subject to the law. For Calvin, the definition of a tyrant is one who claims for himself exemption from the laws of the land. In our antinomian culture, law is not appreciated as it should be, but a nation cannot forever harbor a low view of the law before God gives them what they deserve: one just like themselves—a ruler with a low view of the law; that is, a tyrant.

Third, it is important to underline the fact that Christian resistance is conducted within the established order, and not against it. In other words, we resist—not revolt. The popularity of modern day revolutionary movements has been a bad example for the average Christian. Christian resistance, however, seeks to bring order back to a country, rather than create disorder for the purpose of overthrowing the reigning government. An act of Christian resistance works to bring the country back to the status quo, and when that is done, the resistance stops, even if all the wrongs haven’t been righted. Those unrighted wrongs are then approached through the proper channels via the lesser magistrate.

Finally, although there is not time to go into detail, with the popularity of Francis Schaeffer’s A Christian Manifesto, it is important to touch upon the relationship of the Scottish Reformed tradition and the Continental tradition which was molded largely by John Calvin. Schaeffer has highlighted one work from the Scottish tradition, Lex, Rex (translated—“The Law and the Prince”) by Samuel Rutherford, and pointed to John Knox as a preeminent example of Christian resistance in Christian history. There is, however, a genuine divergence of views between the Continental and the Scottish reformed tradition. The Scots, under Knox, John Ponet, and Christopher Goodman, endorsed such things as the right of private citizens to depose an evil governor by force and even to kill a tyrant. Goodman appealed to private citizens to remove an evil ruler from their midst lest they become polluted and guilty of his sins. Knox, who was a student of Calvin’s at Geneva, expressed his most radical views in his famous Trumpet Blast Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, where he argues that resistance is legitimate because of an un­biblical government (a female monarch). His view received an even more permanent place in the Scot’s Confession of Faith (1560), where “repressing tyranny” is listed under the heading of “Good Works.” As  can be seen in this very brief view, the Scottish tradition is considerably more radical than Calvin’s (bold emphasis added, NDK).

Please don’t miss the sentences emphasized in bold. They portend the need for soft answers and reasoned discourse in upcoming discussions in our day.

His chapter, again, is “John Calvin’s Theology of Resistance,” by Michael R. Gilstrap, in The Theology of Christian Resistance, ed. by Gary North, Christianity & Civilization, vol. 2 (Tyler, Texas: Geneva Divinity School Press, 1983); this citation appears on pages 215—217.


tablet3The following discussion appears in the commentary on the Third Commandment, in the book entitled The Ten Commandments: Manual for the Christian Life, by J. Douma, trans. by Nelson D. Kloosterman. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1996. Pages 95—96.

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/95/“Difficulties with the Oath of Office

We reject the Anabaptist position that has no room for oath swearing and serving in government office. Thereby we are not denying that the oath of office sworn by the Christian can occasionally generate great difficulties.

Take the politician, for example. He pledges fidelity to the Constitution and promises under oath to fulfill his office faithfully. But both the Constitution and other laws or regulations can present him with choices that go against his Christian convictions. How should he vote regarding a Sunday law that ignores the fourth commandment? What should his position be regarding libertine morality in the area of marriage and sexuality? Should he cooperate in subsidizing various forms of anti-Christian cultural expression? As a Christian politician, will he not inevitably become entangled in evil, so that the Anabaptist perspective is correct in wanting believers to stay out of politics?

At this point we must distinguish very carefully. When someone swears an oath to uphold the Constitution, he is not thereby declaring that he agrees at every point with the Constitution or with all the laws that have been made in terms of the Constitution. If he were, then nobody would ever be able to swear an oath or make such a promise. Any number of laws lack unanimous consent, and even with regard to a Constitution, a Christian may properly insist that the matters addressed should be formulated a different way. Within the political arena he may fight for a fundamental alteration of a system of government and for changing any number of laws. But his oath of office obligates him to respect the laws that are currently in force. As long as these laws are in force, he must be faithful in upholding them.

Blocking the implementation of such laws and ordinances would bring him into conflict with his oath of office. He may certainly employ all his efforts against introducing laws that, according to his convictions, conflict with God’s will. That lies, in fact, entirely within the purview of his oath of office, which requires not only faithfulness to the laws, but also a faithful performance of his office. A legislator or member of parliament who votes no is also working within the purview of his oath of office. But if you /96/ vote against legalizing the sale of pornography, you may not, once the law permitting such sale goes into effect, take it upon yourself to clean out pornography stores. No matter how morally justified such tactics may appear, there is a law forbidding them. The oath of office sworn by politicians requires them to respect bad laws too.

Difficulties generated by one’s oath of office become insurmountable only when adopted laws and ordinances compel the politician to participate in godlessness and criminality. The oath of office obligates something other than ‘orders are order, period’ in the sense employed by Adolf Hitler. The oath of office does not require blind obedience, and precisely because we invoke God’s name in such an oath, we realize that He is the highest and final Judge of good and evil to whom we must render absolute obedience. So we are not saying that the terms Christian and politician denote concepts that cannot really be combined. But we are saying that occasionally it can happen that they are no longer compatible. One can still confidently swear an oath of allegiance to the constitutions of most modern democratic states, but the oath of allegiance to Hitler became a sacrilege of God’s name. It is good for us in our modern democratic societies to keep asking whether the exercise of our office still permits us to invoke God’s name. Scripture teaches us clearly that we must keep oaths that we have sworn to our own hurt (Ps. 15:4). But we must realize that we are exempt from oaths that injure God’s honor and our neighbor. When this affects our oath, this would require us to resign from office.”

A Very Helpful Splash

BC14Dr. 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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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.

James Visscher

Making a Dirty Splash in a Little Puddle:
An Attempt to Amend BC 14 (6)

BC14The seasonal holidays are past, and it’s time to resume our analysis of the BC 14 confessional revision proposal being circulated for discussion and decision among the Canadian Reformed Churches.

We have devoted enough space to the issue of the Ninth Commandment, but we need to explain a more wholesome and responsible course of action.

Church orderly

Part of what we have been defending, positively, is the need to follow a church orderly (Dutch: kerkrechtelijk) approach, an ecclesiastical-judicial approach, to this matter. There are protocols and procedures in place for dealing with a person and his/her views. As we have argued, embedding unprocessed and/or unvindicated personal accusations in a proposal to revise BC 14 is neither churchly nor just.

In this connection, at least three lessons have emerged from the Christian Reformed (CRC) experience of seeking to defend biblical truth in the controversies involving the teaching of evolution.

  1. Beating the air with loud assertions about a person’s alleged heterodoxy can easily become a substitute for doing the hard work of preparing and presenting an ecclesiastical-judicial case.
  1. That hard work of following a responsible ecclesiastical path, one that honors individuals as well as the churches, one that honors the process as well as the doctrinal principles at stake, takes much time, perhaps years.
  1. Without doing that hard work of honoring persons and procedures in these matters, those who sow the wind will, inevitably, reap the whirlwind. That whirlwind can be described as a “wild West” approach to church polity, a style of brutality against persons and their reputations, and the widespread distrust of fellow leaders.

I know full well the capacity for people wanting room to teach heterodoxy to manipulate and twist the processes and protocols of church polity. Rules and church orders and protocols cannot and do not guarantee a righteous outcome. I am fully aware of that. But this I also know: ignoring rules and church orders and protocols cannot and does not guarantee a righteous outcome, either.

A suggested protocol

For those who are concerned about the beliefs and teaching of a person who is a member in good standing in his or her congregation, I would like to suggest these steps as a process that would honor both the person and the principles involved.

Step 1. Communicate with, meet with, and discuss with this person, with a view to ascertaining with precision what this person believes and teaches. This step could well take (as in: consume) long months, many meetings, and much patience in seeking to understand fully and fairly the views in question.

Step 2. If legitimate concern remains, if this person is given opportunity to change his or her views in light of the concerns, and if the person does not change the views in question, then address the person’s consistory, with a view to this consistory exercising the requisite discipline toward this individual. At that point, the person becomes a defendant, those seeking discipline become the plaintiffs, and the assembly becomes the jury.

It seems both prudent and just, for the peace of the church, that if, at Step 2, a judicial process is initiated, the defendant ceases promoting his or her views until the case is settled and the defendant is acquitted.

Step 3. If, however, the defendant’s consistory acquits the defendant, and thereby refuses to place that person under discipline, then that consistorial decision must be appealed by the plaintiff to that consistory’s classis, and if necessary, to the regional synod, and eventually to the general synod. Conversely, if the consistory convicts the defendant and proceeds with ecclesiastical discipline, the defendant has the right of appeal, all the way, if necessary, to the general synod.

However, if one of those intermediate assemblies (say, a regional synod) acquits the defendant, then that decision of that assembly must be appealed by the plaintiffs to the assembly next in line (say, a general synod).

These steps, I suggest, comport with a church orderly approach for dealing with controversial teachings.

To be continued.

He Descended Into Hell:
What did Christ do between his death and resurrection?


Christ In Storm On Lake Genezareth by Rembrandt

In the explanation that the Heidelberg Catechism provides [in Lord’s Day 16] concerning the words, “he descended into hell,” we read about the inexpressible and hellish suffering that our Savior bore for us during his life on earth. That explanation from Answer 44 is remarkable and comforting. But is it a complete explanation of the words of the Apostles’ Creed? There we find the words “he descended into hell” after we are told of his burial and before we confess his resurrection. It appears as though with these words, the confession wishes to say something as well about Jesus’ activity between his death and resurrection. And that is also the explanation that has become so widespread throughout the Christian churches. Not in opposition to the Catechism, but certainly as an expansion of it.

Some people think at that point of a deliverance of the Old Testament believers from a kind of waiting situation, but nothing is said about that in either the Catechism or the Bible. The most important statement in the Bible in this connection is a statement of our apostle Peter. In 1 Peter 3:19–20 we read this: “He went to the spirits who were sitting imprisoned, in order to proclaim all of this to those who in Noah’s time refused to obey when God waited patiently and the ark was being built.” From these words of Peter it is clear that Christ was showing his victory triumphantly to those who had lived in the world before the flood and had refused to love God.

But who are these “spirits” from the time before the flood? They are either the unbelieving people from that time or (as Van Houwelingen argues in his commentary) fallen angels. Actually, this difference of detail is not as radical as it might appear. In either case it involves the fact that Christ was showing forth and proclaiming his victory. To angels or people from the time of the first (pre-flood) world.

When did he do this? Did he do this by means of his ascension (Van Houwelingen and others)? Of course, a declaration did go forth from the ascension, but in my view there is reason to think in connection with 1 Peter 3:19 first of all of a departure to the realm of the dead in order to proclaim his triumph to the prisoners there (thus Luther and others). To be sure, the verb “depart” that appears in v. 19 is used again in v. 22, there in connection with the ascension; but in v. 22 we are told in so many words that this departure did refer to the ascension (“who had gone into heaven”). In v. 19, however, we read only that our Savior, through the same Spirit whereby he was raised, also “departed to proclaim to the spirits in the prison.” Those spirits in the prison are not in heaven. And “proclaim” is an activity (“preaching”) and is therefore more than a “fact” (such as the ascension). Apparently there was a distinct journey to the place where the spirits from Noah’s time were held captive. That place is not in heaven and not on earth. That must have been a place in the realm of the dead.

Therefore it is not so strange for many to suppose that this must have happened between Christ’s death and his resurrection. For before his death, Jesus was busy proclaiming on earth, and after his resurrection and ascension, he is busy ruling in heaven. A visit to the prison cells of the spirits from Noah’s time must have occurred in the days when our Savior was at work neither on earth nor in heaven. This “descent into hell” was intended, then, to provide there a triumphant proclamation of his victory. And after that proclamation to the prisoners from the first (pre-flood) world, he arose “from the dead ones.” In the New Testament this plural (“the dead ones”) is used: Christ was staying among the dead ones and returned from their midst with the majesty of the Living One. The subsequent words in the Apostles’ Creed, “arose from among the dead ones,” tie in with the preceding words, “descended into hell,” and those words had appeared in turn after the mention of his burial.

At this point some sense a question arising: If there is something like a realm of the dead, then are our deceased loved ones with the Lord? Happily, the answer is: Yes. 1 Peter 3:19 is not talking about Noah and the other (few) believers of his day, but about those who are staying in prison. These are the unbelievers who await the judgment, not the believers. Similarly Moses and Elijah, having come from God’s glory, had been allowed to appear to our Savior and three apostles, on the mount of glorification. But the spirits who before the flood remained impenitent and perished are not dwelling in the glory where Moses and Elijah are permitted to dwell. But neither have they disappeared altogether from the creation: somewhere they are waiting until the Voice calls them for the final judgment. Christ’s descent into hell is a descent to the prison of punishment. Following that comes his return from among the dead ones and his ascension to the Father. There, all the spirits of the justified are dwelling.

In short: even though we may differ about many details in the interpretation of 1 Peter 3, what is clear is that Christ’s victory on the cross led to a shocking proclamation of his kingship in the realm of unbelievers and rebels from the first world. Therefore, the rising of our Savior from the midst of the dead ones is not comparable to the rescue of a drowning person from the water, but with the return of a Conqueror who may wave aloft his banner in the realm of the dead through the same Spirit whereby he later traveled to heaven to live at the right hand of his heavenly Father.

Therefore, his resurrection differs fundamentally from all previous resurrections of the dead. That is the comfort of Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 17, and that is what Christ’s sermon was about.

(This meditation was written by Dr. J. van Bruggen, and is provided here in English translation.)

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 preexisting hominids (manlike creatures with an evolutionary history) that was, at some point and in some illdefined 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, which does not endorse a specific view of creation, agreed. Thus the quoted sentence should be seen in this light.

Finally, the talk described his move away from scientific creationism, not his transition to a position accepting an evolving creation. Elsewhere, he has 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.