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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.

That depends on who is doing the constraining.  Since the Belhar is in many ways a political document, I think it is appropriate to understand that statement in such a light.  It is little different, then, from Luther's statement in his essay On Secular Authority: To What Extent It Should Be Obeyed - "Heresy is a spiritual matter, which no iron can strike, no fire burn, no water drown.  God's Word alone avails here..."

But God's Word does constrain, and there are pressures which can - and should - be brought to bear on those who would disrupt the unity of the Truth.  The Form of Subscription constrains us, though the acceptance of that constraint is voluntary (one does not have to serve as an elder, deacon, ministry associate, pastor, or professor).

So, while I think in context this particular statement of the Belhar is innocent enough, if somewhat contradicting the move to make it a constraining confession in the CRC, even if its literal meaning might give pause.

In some ways, it's a moot point.  As long as it includes a statement to the effect that we affirm the Contemporary Testimony, I cannot in conscience sign it.

I do not affirm article 38, or articles 47-54 (revised version of CT), the first because it contradicts the Catechism and the Belgic Confession in its teaching concerning the Lord's Supper and affirms in effect a consubstantiationist view of the sacrament; the rest because they bind us to a political agenda I do not share and, even if I did share it, would believe inappropriate as a condition for holding office in the Church.  In addition, certain statements in those articles undermine the doctrine of total depravity and indicate a solidly unreformed view of the task, capabilities, and role of civil government.

As for your own question, if the CT is affirmed, we would have to sign the "covenant" frequently - the CT is designed to change with the times, so there's no guarantee that what you signed up for the first time is what's on the books the next time.

Eric Verhulst on December 2, 2011

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

@Ken L.

To the extent that doctrine consists of the content of one's faith, yes.  It's not just believing, but what one believes, and "what one believes" is doctrine.

"Jesus' death and resurrection fully paid for all my sins."  That's a statement of doctrine.

"God is one, in three persons - Father, Son, Holy Spirit."  That's a statement of doctrine.

One might ask whether the doctrines being discussed here are essential doctrines, that is, doctrines that define the Christian faith as such or that define the Christian Reformed Church.  They are not as regards the former - essential to Christianity as such - but they are as regards the latter - the identity of the CRC.

Are we going to be a church that bears witness to the Kingdom of Heaven at hand, or a church mired in the search for a place in the kingdoms of earth?

It is interesting that the CRC began when certain pastors in the Netherlands rediscovered the Canons of Dort (and the church order ratified at that Synod).  They began to teach it as a way to call the church in the Netherlands back from the brink as it had become merely an organ of the state, concerned primarily with the political machinations of that state and their ability to milk it.  The irony is palpable as now, 175 years after they split from the state church over these matters, their descendents are trying to shove the Canons of Dort aside as they rush to be "players" in the political machinations of the state.

The reason the Reformed Church is always reforming is because the pressures to stray from the Gospel are myriad and powerful.  It is not because we need to try something new every few years, but that every few years we need to go back to the ancient truth.  This, it seems, is one of those times.

Eric Verhulst on December 2, 2011

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

@ Doug


I've been singing this lyric to different tunes for 20 years.  The consolidation of decision-making power in a relatively small cohort in the denomination has facilitated this top-down nonsense and the result is as predictable as day following night.

It's not a conspiracy.  It's a very normal cultural pattern.  You spend your time hanging out with a bunch of people from the UN scene, sipping tea with academics looking wistfully back on the heady days of the 1970s, politicians who think they can change the world with a single bill, social engineers, and the multitudinous idealists who think heaven can be made right here on earth if we just put our minds to it (as the founder of one of CRWRC's partner organizations recently stated), and you want to be liked by them.  Who wants to be the odd-man out?  "Everybody else" is this or that.  You feel important being your denomination's delegate to these big, multi-national confabs.  Maybe you get to write a paragraph or edit a sentence in one of their reports or manifestoes.  You want to keep feeling important.  You want to draft an entire section next year at the big meeting.  "Yeah! We're somebody!"

You come home, you meet with more people, drop names, talk about how much you learned in your six days in South Africa and how you now have the answers.  People listen - you were, after all, at the big confab and shook hands with world famous so-and-so and had a personal tour of whatever.  They tell you you're somebody.  They hang around you and, because the big somebody - you - thinks this way, they want to be somebody so they start to think that way, too.  It's the usual way "groupthink" progresses.

Then somebody comes in to this pc love-fest and points out that it doesn't make sense, that it's not what the Bible, the creeds or the confessions say, or that it's not the business of the church, and they respond accordingly.  "You big bully.  You meanie.  You crass, unfeeling, troglodyte!  Stop raining on our parade!  Don't you love [insert particular favored cause or group du jour here]?  We're just trying to save [X]!  Don't you care?  Besides, you're not somebody.  If you were, you'd think like we do."  A few try to reason with the group-thinkers, get them to see, try to break it to them gently, but they rarely get anywhere, either.  Often they end up being co-opted - we end up in the same place, just a few weeks or years later.

I've long since accepted the fact that I'll be perceived as crass, unfeeling, and mean by such people.  It's actually quite fun, once you get used to it.  But they won't listen.  They're committed to the abyss.  We might hope to pull some back from the brink, but those at the top are enmeshed.  The only way to break up the groupthink is to break up the group.  Which is why I think we need to sell the property at 2850 Kalamazoo SE and disperse the denominational offices about the country - Lynden, Pella, Ripon, Sioux Center, south Florida.  We've already got one in Chicago (Back to God Ministries).  Maybe we can set one up in Lethbridge (not Edmonton, Toronto, or Calgary, but out closer to the farmers).  Re-establish classical representation on all boards and dispense with the "regional" system entirely.  If that means the government of Canada forces us to split along the 49th parallel, then split.

Eric Verhulst on December 2, 2011

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

@ Steve

To say the Canons of Dort are merely about election is a huge oversimplification.  In its articles and rejection of errors, it does present the core of the Gospel.  To be sure, it was written to clarify certain specific points, but these are not so much about election as they are about the absolute sovereignty of God and the comprehensive nature of divine providence and it does so in the context of explaining, expounding, and presenting the Gospel.

As for the Contemporary Testimony, it is in a way too comprehensive, particularly in its articles on political activism (especially articles 51, 53 and 54).  These, together with articles 47 and 49 would essentially exclude political and economic conservatives from the church.

And it's heretical in article 38 and 47.  The former affirms a consubstantiationist (at minimum) view of the sacrament of the Lord's Supper ("In the Lord’s Supper, Christ offers his own crucified body and shed blood to his people…") and the latter asserts that human beings, in their very nature, merit at least some of God's blessings ("All students...bear God's image and deserve an education..." - emphasis added) when it is clear from Scripture that in ourselves we merit nothing but God's wrath.  This, by the way, is from the revised 2008 version which you can find online (but if you're reading it in your spare time, it's likely a distorted version, since the testimony asserts that the Internet "distorts our leisure").

The CT is, in my opinion, worse than the Belhar.

I could see John's approach with the Belhar.  I can't see it regarding the CT.

Doug -

I think the change in the Catholic church has less to do with Kennedy then with abortion and John Paul II.  Kennedy was very much the leading edge of "social justice" Catholicism and it fit with the Liberation Theology movement rising in Central America.

John Paul II, coming from Poland, saw what happens when you get a government that tries to right all wrongs - a lot more wrong than right.  The fact that the left chose as its defining issue the defense of abortion also made quite a few Catholics rethink and they've been instrumental in the neo-conservative movement.  Not least of those influential figures in the U.S. is Msgr Richard John Neuhaus, his journal First Things, and the Institute for Religion and Public Life.  He's dead now, but what you're talking about is reflective of a lot of his work, including the book The Naked Public Square.

By the way, George Weigel has an excellent article in the latest edition of First Things that gets at this very distinction you've been talking about here and on the BANNER site.

Another excellent player in these circles of the Catholic church is the Acton Institute, headquartered in Grand Rapids, too.  Worth paying some attention to.

But the CRC is playing catch-up to the social justice types because the CRC - at least in its leadership - is not confident in its historical identity.  They feel they have to apologize for the CRC in their global confabs and they don't like it, so they've been trying to remake the CRC in the image of some ideal they've tricked out of their heads.  It's very much like a nerdy kid trying hard to get in with the cool kids at school.  But the more they try to be "hip" and "relevant", the more irrelevant the CRC becomes.  Preachers in somber tones making too much eye-contact as they speak seriously, imploring people to be passionate about "justice" and get active in the "fight" for whatever leftist cause is headlining Sojourners today are a dime a dozen.  Instead of a solo, we're becoming a small voice in the back of the tenor section in a SAB choir.


I highly doubt the thief knows what I believe, but that doesn't mean his faith was merely personal and without content.  He obviously believed there was life after death, that Jesus was chosen by God, that he was in fact King of kings, that he could save the thief, that Jesus was truly innocent, that he was himself guilty and deserving of death...

That I make these propositional statements, and therefore doctrinal statements, doesn't mean it was mere intellectual assent on either the thief's part or mine.  It does not depersonalize the faith.

As to where I come up with this stuff, it's in the Bible.  To be sure, the content of the faith that is absolutely essential to salvation is minimal - simple enough that a child can believe it.  But it is appropriate that faith seek understanding, that a love of Jesus compel us to more fully know him, to - in the words of scripture - grow in grace and knowledge of the truth.  There's a reason the Bible includes more than simply, "believe in Jesus and be saved".

There is also the matter of the Christian Reformed Church's identity.  We are Christian, but we are only part of the body of Christ, with a specific task and vocation.  This is in part founded in what our faith understands of Christ our head.

So you are, I think, correct that none of this is absolutely essential to salvation, but that doesn't mean it is unimportant or that the discussion isn't worth having.

Doug - Originally "social justice" meant justice that was social.

In our more traditional understanding of things, individuals act and are responsible for those acts.  Custer did this, Crazy Horse did that, the men of the 7th Cavalry did this other...  Justice requires a response to these individuals and their actions.  A man robs a bank, he's caught and he - as an individual - is held accountable.  Justice.

But in "social justice", the man is not an individual.  Rather he is a member of a society, a social group.  Now it is not an individual robbing a bank, but an oppressed minority group striking out at their oppressors (Occupy Wall Street is a prime example of this).  Now it becomes a matter of social groups dealing with one another.  It isn't the men of the 7th Cavalry slaughtering Indians at Wounded Knee, but the White race doing it.  Similarly, the victims are not those who were murdered at Wounded Knee, but all Indians.  Social Justice requires that the White race be punished for the attrocity and until the whole is punished, an injustice exists.  Though couched in terms of human rights and equality, it is a rejection of the individual.

There is a smidgen of truth in it.  There are systems and structures that oppress specific groups.  The 7th Cavalry wasn't a mob, but a disciplined military force operating on the orders of the U.S. government.  To the extent these kinds of social (communal) sins can be identified and corrected, it's worthwhile, for there is a social, communal nature to the act.

But there are two major problems with it.  The first is its tendency to utopic visions.  Somehow, if we can just tweak the system here, adjust the structure there, we can create heaven on earth.  Sin, however, still rears its ugly head and human ingenuity comes to the fore.  Somebody (or group of bodies) figures out a way to use the new system for selfish purposes, too.  This is the tragedy of communism and socialism.  If men were angels, maybe it would work, but we're not.

The other problem is that it has become an excuse for all manner of specific, individual injustices - redistributionist politics in which the majority votes to steal from the minority, "Free Mumia", Occupy Wall Street, and so on.  Because there is little room for forgiveness (forgiveness is still individual, it seems), old grievances are constantly dug up and maintained.  An Israeli soldier shoots a Palestinian who is attacking him, and he's a terrible tool of an evil tyrant.  A Palestinian blows up a bunch of teenagers at a pizza parlor, and he's a "freedom fighter".  Why?  Because Israel won its war for independence in 1948, and won again in 1956, '67, '73...  As long as there's one Palestinian somewhere who is still angry about that, Palestinians are justified in their terrorism and Israel is unjustified in defending herself.  Other examples can, I'm sure, quickly come to mind.

Do Justice, as it is meant in Micah and other places, means "act in accordance with the law of God".  In this, then, "Do justice, love mercy" reflect a parallelism common to Hebrew, for to act in accordance with the law of God is to be merciful.

A prime example of what is meant by this is in the way Boaz treats Ruth.

But we have come to define "justice" as "fair" and "getting my rights".  So to us the parable of the master with his workers in the vineyard in which the folks who only worked one hour got the same pay as those who worked all day seems "unfair" and therefore "unjust".  But even if it is unfair, it is not unjust and it is arguably not even unfair. 

So in the "social justice" mindset, there is something terribly unjust when person X has $5 million and person Y has $5000 or $5 - it's unfair on its face.  Somehow it's terrible that there's a 1% even if we 99% have access to video equipment, the Internet, food, clothing, shelter, vehicles, education..... 

I remember a conversation with a member of my congregation who was complaining a bit about this income inequality and I asked him what difference it made to him - after all, he easily makes 2-3 times what I make and that doesn't bother him.  Why does it bother him that somebody else makes 2-3 or even 200 times what he makes?  None of us are starving and if that is how God in his providence chooses to dispense his beneficence, what is that to me? 

All of us are answerable to God for how we use what is entrusted to us and it's fine to remind each other of that (and to be perfectly honest, I really don't want the responsibility of a multi-million dollar income).  Part of how we are to use it is to care for those who are starving.  But inequality is a given, not an injustice, and many who shout "Social Justice" - including our own OSJ - can't seem to grasp that.

Eric Verhulst on December 23, 2011

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

The word translated as "justice" in both Leviticus and Micah (also the most common word for "justice" in the OT) is "mispat".

The sense of that word is not "fair" as that word has come to be understood in a modern context, that is, equal or even.  It is more along the lines of "in accordance with the law", or more specifically, "in accordance with the law of God".  Since the law of God does not distinguish among persons on the basis of wealth, status, power, or any other human characteristic, it is most certainly "fair", but that is not the primary purpose of the law.

The words translated as "mercy" (at least in the NIV) are more varied, but the one in Micah 6 is "hesed".  Included in the sense of the Hebrew word is "faithful", "loyal", "devout" - all characteristics called for by the law of God.  And indeed the law of God is merciful since that law is what requires us to tend to the interests of the poor, the alien, the orphan, the widow, etc.

There is merit in the notion that "justice" pertains to actions and "mercy" to an attitude of the heart, hence "do justice" and "love mercy", but it is also true that - at least in Micah 6 - the latter is intended to build on and expand what is understood by the former.

As to "rights-based" justice, I have come to be very skittish about the word "rights".  Justice is not a matter of getting my rights, but a matter of acting in accordance with the law of God.  It is not "me-directed" (my rights), but "other-directed" (God's commands).  There is an appropriate use of the word "rights" in the context of contingency.  If I agree to pay you X dollars in exchange for item Y, then pay you X dollars, I have a right to item Y.  But that right is contingent upon my paying you.  But when it comes to inherent (aka human) rights, that is not a biblical concept.  The poor person does not have a right to my mercy or charity.  God has a right to demand that I act mercifully and charitably (he made us and we are his), but neither the poor person nor the rich one has any inherent rights.  Unless you mean the right to be damned for eternity (all have sinned and the wages of sin is death).

Social justice, or any other form of justice, understood as this panoply of ever-expanding "human rights" is inherently flawed and is in the long term unsustainable.  This understanding of justice not only rejects the concept of mercy, it ultimately rejects the divine basis of the covenant, and therefore of justice and law, rooting them instead in human nature (dignity, image of God, etc.).  It is, therefore, decidedly not Reformed and not really even Christian.

Eric Verhulst on December 23, 2011

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I wouldn't say "justice" and "mercy" are synonyms.  I say they are, in the context of Micah 6 anyway, parallel concepts.  Think of it as a spiral - do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with God - the latter imperatives build on the former, including and enhancing them to develop the fullness of the author's intended conceptualization.

Parallelism in Hebrew writing is not mere repetition with different words.

A partiality for the poor is a perversion of justice - and not particularly merciful to either the wealthy or the poor (and the wealthy, in their own way, need mercy as much as do the poor).  We beggar the concept of mercy if we restrict it to those materially less well off.

So I'm not saying we should get rid of the word "mercy" or "justice", but that the two are intimately connected and mutually dependent concepts, not opposed or estranged one from another.  I agree that the Belhar (and similar documents) misunderstand both justice and mercy, and that the vision of justice they have is neither biblical nor merciful.

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