Our Confessional Crisis

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The question of adopting the Belhar as a confession as finally giving our confessional heritage some much-needed attention. 

Church services are for worshipping and Synod is for fighting and Synod season is upon us.

Two of the hot topics for this year are the update to the Form of Subscription and the Belhar confession. Whatever you think of the Belhar one of the things it has done for us is to bring the question of our status as a confessional community to a head. Pragmatic concerns about numerical church decline, aging, gender of office bearers and denominational revenue put questions about confessional identity in the background. Since the Belhar became a cause celebre our community we have been trying rouse themselves from confessional slumber.

The Denominational EULA

At the start of every meeting of classis there is a call to for first time delegates to sign the Form of Subscription. New delegates queue up, sign their names in a book, and take their seats. It’s all rather perfunctory. There are no comments, no questions, no sign of struggle or process. All we know is that in order to participate at the meeting you’ve got to sign in the book. It’s almost an ecclesiastical version of clicking on the EULA before you install that new piece of software. Are you aware of what you have really ceded to Google, Apple or Microsoft or do you just know that you must click “OK” to proceed?

Maybe something has happened at the local church level when you signed it at your council meeting, or maybe it hasn’t. At Classis we engage the confessions at a different level than we do in the local church.

Do We Have A Confessional Problem?

This tiny classical liturgy grooms us for a sort of “I’m sure it’s all OK” complacency that over decades has borne some unhealthy fruit. We have a culture of confessional “don’t ask, don’t tell” that is inhibiting confessional and theological growth and development which is sorely needed for our missional future.

Three Banner editors (Kuyvenhoven, Suk, De Moor) in my lifetime have publicly advocated scrapping or overhauling the confessions or our confessional system. This week James KA Smith, professor of philosophy at Calvin College (wait, I thought they were supposed to be a bunch of liberals there... :) ) fired back with his own screed. Perhaps we’ve got enough heat generated to actually do some productive cooking.

While you were Sleeping: Confessions and Missions

In case you forgot my statement two paragraphs ago with all the heat of conflict, I said that confessional and theological growth and development are sorely needed for our missional future.

If you’re over 50 and have a dreamy picture of Bill Hybels on your wall next to your Rick Warren autographed copy of “The Purpose Driven Life” this statement may sound strange. If you’re under 50 and moon over Calvin, Luther or some other dead theologian this goes without saying.

In 2006 a group of brother pastors and I from Sacramento traveled to NYC to meet with Tim Keller to explore the work of Redeemer Presbyterian. We had a chance to speak privately with him. He said to us “Oh, you are CRC guys. You’ve had this stull all along but you just haven’t done anything with it.” In the back of my mind I thought “I don’t think I knew exactly WHAT to do with it.”

Much of the CRC in its angst over numerical decline and lost people mattering to Jesus took pilgrimages to Crystal Cathedral, Willow Creek and Saddleback to learn technique about doing church. The subtext of these conferences was pretty clear. “Oh doctrinal purity is important, but we can kind of assume that (like Apple and Google’s innocence in their EULAs). What the church really needs are new techniques for getting the attention of slumbering Christ haunted Americans and attracting them to our religious service delivery systems (“church” can sound so archaic and scary).”

I don’t want to be too hard on the seeker movement. It did a lot of good for a generation that had enough Christendom still in them to be able to assume a number of things, but as Dr. Smith (Calvin College, not “Lost in Space”) points out, the boomer’s suspect-of-authority, suspect-of-institutions and perhaps anti-intellectual cultural hang-ups began to show. The next tick on the generational demographic clock revealed a host of post-boomer adults eager to talk theology because for them it was a more important thing than mere technique.

Christianity can no longer be assumed. What Christians actually profess is central to who we are and what we do must flow out of those theological professions.

Confessions are Complex and Change is Needed

At this point conservatives may be cheering but please hold your decision to applaud until the end. Part of the deceit of conservatism is the idea that you can go back again. You can’t. The way forward is not to cut and paste past applications back into the present (as if we were cutting and pasting text with keyboards before 1980), it is to appropriate what was good and helpful from the past and apply it to our own context. This is the project we need to undertake and that process will require change, something many of us simply don’t like.

Confessions are supposed to be multi-taskers. (See Karin Maag’s good piece in the Banner on Confessions.) We want them to be:

1. Teachers of Orthodoxy
2. Expressions of Piety
3. Definers of Community Boundaries.

The Form of Subscription is supposed to put some institutional teeth behind this but from what we’re seeing both at our classical signing liturgy and at Calvin College, the only place where in the last three decades people seem to lose their jobs over confessional conflicts, the bite is uneven and in terms of specific application I think unhelpful. The system isn’t delivering what we want nor what we need it to deliver for us and I’m not sure that simply changing our short signing statement will be enough to do the trick.

Belief is not Cleanly Subject to Volition

Forgive me a bit of philosophy but I think we need to recognize that beliefs aren’t really subject to the will (they often hold us more than we hold them) and that in our present individualistic context they are assumed to be expressions of unique expressive identity more than communal submission. If you combine this cultural context with an inherited system of confessional conformity you have a recipe for missional confusion. Commonly assumed culture asserts that beliefs are not received but rather constructed from authentic individual experience and journey. Our inherited confessional culture (thanks to the Reformation, which is partially responsible for the commonly assumed culture of individual expressivism) is a combination of free confession, “this I believe”, with “for the Bible tells US so”. The lack of nuance in quickly signing off on three short creeds and three long confessions invites us into our current “don’t ask, don’t tell” culture of public formal assumption and private sometimes non-conformist disclosure.

Missiologically we acknowledge that right now for many we need to belong before we believe. This requires that we figure out how to wed this reality with our inherited confessional system and make these new practices intelligible to those who have no experience in our inherited confessional system. As someone trying to do missional work in the CRC in an area devoid of CRC public knowledge, this is an urgent undertaking. This is a central task if the CRC is going to grow beyond its immigrant roots.

Time To Revisit

Every time this subject pops up on Facebook my friend Randy Blacketer cries out “we have this problem because we’ve neglected to teach the confessions in the local church!” and he is exactly right. It’s important though when we reflect on Randy’s cry to realize that it’s not a function of a lack of jug to mug instruction indoctrinating ignorant and empty vessels, it’s a process of clergy and community wrestling with the texts we have received in order to consider, update and apply them to our present context. An examination of our confessions will reveal their value, raise important questions and critiques, and challenge our community to achieve, avoid, preserve or even eliminate what we have received. Our tradition prescribes constant attention and revision of our confessions against the canon. We have been inattentive to this and allowed a “don’t ask, don’t tell” culture to emerge.

Proposal One: A Confessional Year of Examination

One of the lessons I think we may have learned from the Belhar push was that we need to learn how to do process confessions together again. We have more tools and less time to do so than our ecclesiastical ancestors had. What if we as classes and a denomination devoted three years, one for each confession, to teach, examine, explore them together. The Faith Formation committee I think helped show us that if something is important we need to devote some time and resources to it and I think three years for confessions and perhaps an additional year for the 3 creeds would do us some good. In these years we would encourage local pastors and churches to preach them, teach them in Sunday School and educational classis, use them in liturgy, etc. In that year classes could hold forums, discussions, and debates on matters that arise from them.

Proposal Two: Structure for Confessional Maintenance

We would use those years of confessional examination to harvest new materials from the local churches and make them available electronically for others to benefit from. We need more and newer material, lessons, guides and discussions on our confessions than we currently have.

I would love to see the new CRC Internet Network (which is hosting this blog) adopt an entire segment simply to confessions. I fear part of the reason it wouldn’t get much commenting is because of our culture of fear, which leads me to the next point.

An Alcoholic Father

Not only do we need to be talking more, writing more and discussing more, but we need to develop a new culture that encourages frank, honest and helpful discussion. Part of the problem of our present system, as I mentioned above, is that the bite of the Form of Subscription is uneven. You can be a pastor of a local church and openly violate the Form every week, maybe knowingly or unwittingly and nothing will ever happen. If you teach at Calvin College and publish something in an area that is hot for other reasons, someone may find a confessional angle on your writing and the bite of the Form of Subscription may cost you your job or your career.

Why is this unhealthy? The worse kind of parent is inconsistent in discipline, unpredictable in behavior, erratic in temperament, and excessive in punishment. This is the parent our current system has become. Our confessional disciplinary system is something analogous to an alcoholic father.

Proposal Three: Signing Statements

Our confessions are too lengthy, nuanced, complex and important to only offer people a binary choice for subscription. I know the gravamen process is available but our experience over the last number of decades I think demonstrates that it is insufficient for our present need.

During the presidential administration of George W. Bush a lot of attention was paid to signing statements the president would attach to bills that he signed. Apparently this was a practice for a number of years but it came to light during his administration. A signing statement was a way of still giving a bill the force of law, but also publicly registering the president’s own take on the legislation. I wonder if something like this might help us.

I would propose that each office bearer be invited (not mandated) to develop their own signing statement to their subscription of the creeds and confessions. This statement would provide a sort of safe harbor for the office bearer and give them space to publicly emphasize, endorse, explore, critique, nuance or protest something within the confessions. The statement would be public (available upon request in most cases, more public in others at the signer’s discretion) but continually available to revision by the signer.

It might sound like the Signing Statement would undermine the effect of the subscription, but I don’t think so. I think it would afford a number of things:

1. It would give room for people to belong before they believe.

There are a lot of things that can may or may not be connected to confessional statements, from evolution to women in office to infant baptism to ideas about global warming. We want people to have room to explore the confessions in a safe context where they have room to express their sincere convictions while also self-consciously being aware of the communal standards. If we are to make progress on difficult issues we need to explore them without fear of unpredictable retribution or reaction.

2. It would encourage people to actually study and discuss the confessions

Randy Blacketer is right that the confessions are dying a death of neglect. I think it’s a bit crazy to adopt a fourth confession when we neglect the three we already have. If confessions were children CPS might take them away from us. If we made some Signing Statements public, in some ways like blogs, we might actually start to do some productive work on confessional issues that we are ignoring today. I know that this process sounds scary and chaotic for some, but I think in the long run it is what we need.

3. It would allow institutions to nuance and process confessional employment issues better

Confessional conflicts today really only arise it seems when employment is on the line. Again, that is why the area is dormant in churches but hot at Calvin College. Churches are often asleep at this switch but the switch goes live at denominational fights. With more public disclosure about issues in process institutions (churches, agencies, schools, etc.) could figure out what they are willing to flex on and what they are not. Perhaps this particular person can be given some leeway on limited atonement for now but for this position here we must hold the line on infant baptism. Right now our binary choice is assumed, dormant but at times exceptionally, erratically and publicly inflamed. An institution might not be able to tolerate dissent on a particular point but that process could and probably should be a public, measured, reasoned one with some buffer from unhelpful blunt-instrument politicking that binary confessional signing encourages.

4. Classis would be the ideal place to process this

Classis is large enough to afford a pool of competent, theologically trained and articulate persons, but small enough to afford face to face relationships.

We need more and better confessional attention, process and proclamation. I hope we can get there. Perhaps some of these ideas may help.  

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It seems that historically sometimes the confessions have functioned as an exo-skeleton, a hard outer barrier to keep contents safe.  It seems that we are shifting towards confessions as endo-skeleton, an inner frame surrounded by something warm and alive.  Sometimes in these debates, though, it seems that some think that confessionalism itself is the problem, as though pulling out the skeleton will somehow help the organism...it won't...

Paul, what do you mean by "confessional growth and development"?  To use the body metaphor, are you talking about adding new bones to the skeleton, or strengthening the muscle that's already attached to it?

Community Builder

Thanks Jeff for your comment. 

When I talk about confessional growth and development you're very much on the same page with your metaphor. In the Karin Maag article she pretty clearly illustrated how the Belgic confession was forged as a way to communicate and defend the Reformation to their Roman Catholic overlords. The document reflects that purpose. 

Our present Form of Subsription tried so give latitude for this by having us subscribe to the doctrines, not necessarily the wording of the doctrines found in the actual documents. It's an interesting distinction really in that it gives leeway but what it doesn't necessarily do is create a path to improve our confessions. 

Even though at this point we're not facing a threat like Guy De Bres did, we still have a vital need to communicate our profession to the world and attempt to do so as a community. This has been expressed more recently in the Contemporary Testimony of course. 

Confessions are in a certain sense a way of crowd-sourcing our witness. We probably can't crowd-source writing, but the Christian church has long been about the community figuring out its faith together. 

The recent push for the Belhar has activated this because now the church is being asked to do this work again, and in some ways we're still stumbling around as in a sleepy stupor. We haven't done it for 400 years and the world has changed considerably. 

I'd like to have us find a way to make this a regular part of the church and do so in a healthy way. 

Two Calvin profs were recently "dismissed quietly", like Joesph tried to do with pregnant Mary. The issues they raised are real and have confessional implications. The issues don't go away just because they do. We need to figure out how to process these hard questions over long periods of time just like we've done with Women in Office. 

The church is a very long term project, theology sometimes takes hundreds of years to sort through and come to consensus on. This is difficult to do with a community of persons who live less than 100 years, but this is our calling. We are stewards of the message and when applied there is real work to do. pvk

I've always thought that a confession, in its plain English sense, was something that lived in your heart and thus needed to find expression on your tongue. Our confessions--except, perhaps for short stretches, like LD1, don't do that. So they fail as expressions of piety, and are good only for defining orthodoxy and bounderies. That means that their only real function is coercive. I really wish we could put them into the category of "even more important to our tradition than Berkhof's Systematic Theology." Honor them, as DeMoor says. But the only official confession (not talking creeds here, though getting those down to the Apostle's would save us making a whole bunch of ancient Greek metaphysical claims  that border on hilarious, such as God has "substance") we really need anymore, as far as I can tell, is the one scripture suggests in Romans 10:9: Jesus is Lord.

Of course, that isn't practical, some will say. People will leave the church. They'll make threats. They'll make judgements. There will be schism. All probably true if a surprising majority of synod decided to get rid of that irksom Form of Subscription.  Remember, after all, that the only real function these confessions have today is . . . coercion. We're in a pickle.

Sort of reminds me of how some "Old First" churches plateau at a certain level, and change becomes impossible with its present membership because too many people have a stake--in the organ, or the pews, or a coffee break program that is only working for retired women, or whatever. So some members leave and start a new church where anything goes, and it flourishes. You know, unless a seed dies . . . Well, as a confessional church we're stuck with Old First's great memories and all of its problems, too. Meanwhile, I fear our plateau days are past, and we're in slow decline. Change has become impossible, unless it is change that sanctifies the language of modern commerce, such as missions "Enterprize Zones." That's almost blasphemous! 

Sure, some traditional Reformed congregations are flourishing (anyone not on Keller's bandwagon out there?). Many more are not. But if you look around, there are at least a few churches of all stripes (including more than a few liberal ones) flourishing somewhere (especially Mormon ones, interestingly enough--do we want to get on that bandwagon?). 

No, I fear we're stuck. We'll muddle on. The confessions will never live again in the CRC they way they did when they were written. We'll just keep on pretending, though, that they might. And we'll keep using them as a means of last resort to make people sit up straight and behave.

The confessions are, and should be, a summary of what God tells us through scripture, about who God is, and who we are in relation to God.  The confessions are not the church order, which is what we tell each other about how we want to behave within the institution.  The church order can be ignored, or changed, without imperilling our faith and witness.  The confessions cannot really be ignored or contradicted without denying the significance and unity of our faith.  Even if there were a necessity to revise a 0,1% of the confessions, that would not invalidate the 99.9% that speaks from scripture to us.

To use the excuse that our confessions are limiting change is to not understand or know the confessions.  It would be similar to saying that scripture is limiting change.  Well yes, it limits some things, and not other things.  Some things need to be limited, while others things scripture does not speak to, and in fact in some things, scripture has encouraged change.  A blanket generalization on this is inappropriate. 

The confessions do not prevent various musical instruments from being used, or various classes and conventions be held to teach, or various ways of loving your neighbor, etc.   To use someone's attachment to a program, and compare our attachment to a confession, is inappropriate and illegitimate.  

Confessions are not primarily a means of coercion.   They are a means of teaching, a means of summarizing, a means of unity.   Coercion is merely a by-product of a level of unity.   Without the confessions, there really is no denominational identity.  In fact, without the confessions, there is really no denomination at all. 

Participant

"But the only official confession... we really need anymore, as far as I can tell, is the one scripture suggests in Romans 10:9: Jesus is Lord."

The problem with this line of thinking is that even our LDS neighbors are quick to say the same exact thing.  Except they define the words "Jesus" and "Lord" quite differently than the historic Christianity does.  There's a reason the apostle didn't start of the book of Romans with this confession- first he defined the terms.  And as excellent as the book of Romans is, it still depends on a bunch of presuppositions taught elsewhere in scripture.

This is the value of having confessions- so that we can all agree together on what scripture 'says' regarding core doctrines of the faith.  It would not be difficult to demonstrate the chaos that ensues within the Christian church when this common understanding is lost.

I've been teaching the Confessions to 8th graders for most of 20 years, and there's a lot more than LD1 that sticks with them.

Also, the fact that you would conclude that Confessions "only real function is coercive" indicates you really need to spend some time re-reading (or perhaps reading?) them.  I'm not trying to be snarky here, but it's beginning to really bother me that some of the most vocal opponents to confessionalism seem to be so ignorant of what they are criticizing.

You are right about one thing- "The confessions will never live again in the CRC."  What a shame.

In a Facebook posting earlier today, John, you claimed you are aware that the Confessions do lots more things than bring on wrath.  Yet you seem unable to articulate anything other than their "coercive" nature.   And now in this reply to Paul's blog you tip your hat in the direction of dumping the Nicene Creed eventually so as to bring the whole of our ability to articulate our understanding of Scripture and the faith to just the Apostles' Creed.   I know of many traditions that have gotten themselves to that point and though sincere and true brothers and sisters in Christ exist all over the place, a lot of some of the worst theology and most watered-down stances on Scripture, Jesus, and salvation come from precisely those places that long ago dispensed with articulating standards of belief.   True, no one is "coerced" into toeing the line but the alleged "freedom" that a lack of confessional integrity opens up becomes freedom in pretty much the worst sense of the word.   There is no "bottom," not bottom line, no way even to have a conversation with some pastors I've met up with over the years because there is not even a common vocabulary left with which to converse.   (And by the way, in a lot of those places, even the Apostles' Creed eventually gets regarded with a wink and a knowing little smile.)   No, I don't want the Confessions to be used ever and only coercively--they've got so much more going for them than that.  Within them there is also delight and freedom to explore, to teach, to proclaim.    And yes, we can always have conversations about individual portions of the Confessions--things we want to think more about, propose changes even.  But the bare idea that just having Confessions means coercion is the order of the day--because all forms of toeing a line are, apparently, a bad thing--makes little sense to me.   Is the New Testament coercive in that it appears pretty uncompromising on the claim "Jesus is Lord"?   Is Paul coercive when he tells us that without Christ, we are flat out dead in our sins (even though many folks today and all along history have regarded that claims as bogus)?   Doesn't having faith mean we submit ourselves to things and doesn't being a part of the graced community that just is the Church of Jesus Christ mean we draw lines, we make distinctions between what represents an accurate view of Scripture and of the faith once delivered to the saints and what counts as variants that ought not be accepted?   If every time we say to someone, "That's not right" or "That's just not accurate to the tradition of our faith" we are being unduly coercive, then it strikes me we're a short hop, skip, and a jump away from not being able to uphold any even vaguely robust form of the faith at all.

One could, I suppose, say that a certain poetic meter is "coercive", or that a DNA sequence is "coercive"...or one might say that these things are the neccessary framework for beauty and life.

I am not a CRC native.  I am one of those under 50 folks who grew up basically unchurched in a Protestant liberal tradition, became a believer in Jesus, and then grew to understand and appreciate that the bible itself matches the disctinctives of Reformed theology.  Why?  Because the Reformers did all that they could to articulate what the bible taught.  Obviously their writings reflect their struggles with those who disagreed with this biblical teaching.  This does not  make their work mere historical expressions.  It does add context to their articulations, but it does not nullify their scriptural observations.

The pathway of "Jesus is Lord" as all we need is well tread.  It is the siren call that rings throughout the history of Protestant liberalism.  I have lived through and seen the results of such sloppy thinking.  If the CRC moves in this direction, we will believe we are being loving by opening the "theological tent" wider.  Unfortunately, in opening the front door wider, we will also open the back door and the sides of the tent.  Those who are thinking, Reformed, and serious about their faith will leave.  It looks like you are willing to have this happen for the sake of progress.  

Please read church history!  No denomination or group has grown with this mode of operation.  Notice how Presbyterians, Methodists, Disciples of Christ, Lutherans, and numerous other denominations have listened to these same words of wisdom.  In fact, if you look through their debates on confessions, many pioneers of liberalism stated the very same opinions in the very same words.

This debate is vitally important because it will shape and form who and what the CRC is and will be.  Lord help us if we allow such sloppy thinking that pits heart versus head to rule in our denomination.  To be Reformed means to articulate and live a theology that balances the heart and head in unity both individually and corporately.  

Participant

Excellent post, although we could have a good discussion over a cold beer regarding your third proposal.

"This requires that we figure out how to wed this reality with our inherited confessional system and make these new practices intelligible to those who have no experience in our inherited confessional system."

This is the biggest challenge we have, both in our Reformed churches and Christian schools.  As elders and ministers in the CRC we need to look back at our Dutch (and other) ancesestors who gave us such a rich heritage and not ask "What did they do?", but instead ask "What would they do now?"

Community Builder

On my personal blog I created a page of links to blog posts on this debate that I've discovered to date. You can find the post here: http://paulvanderklay.wordpress.com/2012/05/11/link-list-of-the-blog-discussion-on-the-crc-confessions-and-form-of-subscription/

The confessional crisis is, in fact, a crisis of identity.  Although ostensibly a confessional church from its inception, since the immigration to the U.S. (and later Canada) the CRCNA has defined itself primarily by a cultural homogeneity.  This has been fed by successive waves of immigrants up through the aftermath of WW2.

But that's over now.  We cannot survive as a Dutch immigrant church.  This has been obvious since Kuyvenhoven put burning wooden shoes on the cover of the BANNER nearly 30 years ago.

As we seek some basis for our existence, some sense of identity, different factions in the CRCNA have pushed for one thing or another - most of them rooted in their own cultural experience of the CRCNA.  Since that culture, however, is no longer homogeneous, these efforts have failed.

Others have rooted around in the denomination's structure, thinking it's an organizational issue, that if we just get the structure right the rest will fall into place.  It is increasingly evident that this, too, is failing to provide a reason for our continued existence as a denomination.

And over the last 20 years, significant numbers have said that there is no reason for our continued existence, so they've left (we've lost a net of 65,000 members since 1992, out of a total of 316,000 that year).

If there is anything that can hold the CRCNA together, across boundaries of culture, race, nation, and language, these common confessions are it.  Get rid of them, and we are not the CRCNA but a generic kind of evangelical church - and there are thousands of congregations and denominations that already do that, and do it better than we ever could.  Get rid of those confessions, and we have nothing particularly unique to say to the North American Church as a whole or to our surrounding culture(s), and those who think we should cease to be are correct.  If we would be one, then these confessions are the only place left where we <em>can</em> stand as one.

But that means we have to be much more overt, conscientious, and determined to teach them.  If they remain an appendix in the back of a Psaltar Hymnal that is itself rarely opened (the songs are on the screens these days), then they are nothing, and the CRCNA will die.  Sure, we may merge with another denomination at some point, hang around for a few more years, but we're losing a net of 3,000 members per year as things currently stand.  At 250,000 members currently, that hits zero well before 2100, and we'll have to close the doors long before we get to zero.  If we would remain, we must be what we have always claimed to be - a confessional church, standing on these particular confessions.

Suk calls this coercive.  I call it fulfilling our mission in the Body of Christ.