What It Means to Be Reformed (11) Reformed is being “Confessional” (1)
The church that is Reformed is also a confessional church. That is, the church officially embraces, genuinely believes, and actively teaches the Reformed confessions in her life. For the PRCA, these creeds are the Three Forms of Unity and the ancient ecumenical creeds in these confessions.1
We have shown so far that to be Reformed is to be Covenantal, to be Calvinistic, and to have a proper view of the Church. The fourth “C” I am proposing is Confessional. That is, if a person properly identifies himself as Reformed, he will be a member, not of any church, but of a confessional church. The Reformed Christian sees the essential necessity of creeds.
Every church in the world holds creeds. That is, every church in the world is confessional… from a certain point of view. So the important questions that help identify a Reformed church are 1) whether her creeds and confessions are written and public (thus, open to examination by members and prospective members), and 2) whether they are Reformation creeds.
No creed but Christ?
How can it be said, you may ask, that all churches have creeds, when the motto of many churches is an emphatic: “We have no creed but Christ!”? First, the answer is easy. The six-word statement “We have no creed but Christ” is itself a creed! It is a statement of what that church believes. If one truly had “no creed,” he would make absolutely no statement of belief except what the Bible says, quoting it, one would suppose, word for word; or simply saying “Christ” and giving no explanation of what saying “Christ” means. Second, and more important, every church has creeds in that all churches have “stands” on issues of faith or life. For various reasons they do not have these “stands” written down for you to examine and test with Scripture. But they all have such stands, which are their “we believe.”
Ask any preacher: Does your church baptize babies? His answer will be what they believe about baptizing infants—their “creed.” Does your church allow women to preach? The answer is a creed: “We believe women may (or may not) preach.” Does your church preach sovereign, unconditional, gracious election unto everlasting salvation; and does it teach the accompanying doctrine of sovereign, righteous reprobation? The answer will be their creed about predestination. So your follow-up question must be: “Will you put that answer in writing so that we can make a decision about joining your church without worshiping here for five years to find out what you believe in all these areas?” Honesty would require churches to put their creed in writing. But every church has creeds.
The Right Creeds
A Reformed church has Reformed creeds. For the Protestant Reformed Churches, and for most churches with the name “Reformed,” these creeds are the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Canons of the Synod of Dordt, and the ancient ecumenical creeds. The PRC have recognized that there are other Reformed churches coming out of the Calvinistic Reformation, which have a different history and, because of that different history, embrace different Reformed creeds—the Westminster Confessions or Standards. The PRC has expressed, with a few exceptions or clarifications, that Westminster’s creedal system is a faithful expression of Reformed faith and life.2
The churches that embrace these creeds are fully convinced that they are nothing more than what the Bible itself teaches, that they accurately and fully express the whole counsel of God concerning our salvation, and are the rich and ripe fruit of the Spirit’s work to lead the church into all truth. As our members vow when they confess their faith, the creeds are part of the “true and complete doctrine of our salvation.”
Necessary for Survival
Officially embracing, genuinely believing, and actively teaching creeds is the only way for a church to survive as a true church in the world. It is also true that the only way creeds can survive is by the church, the “pillar and ground of the truth.” The church as institute is needed to maintain the creeds.
But, vice versa, the church needs creeds in order for her to survive as a truth-speaking church. What will guard the church from each new pastor’s own take on the Bible? What will stop a preacher from taking the Baptist line on infants, or expressing the egalitarian view on women’s rule, or singing the Arminian tune on predestination? Taking a cue from Abraham Kuyper, who once said that a written liturgy is needed to protect the church from her pastor, we could say that confessions are needed to protect the church from her pastor. So when a new pastor appears, a Reformed consistory will meet him, as it were, creeds in hand, and say, “Within these parameters and not outside them! And there is the door if you so much as hint at disagreement with them.” (That’s a very rough, but fairly accurate paraphrase of the Formula of Subscription.)
“…from history’s light”
Being creedal is the way for God’s church to be faithful to history. And faithful to history we must be. We—the Christian church, the church of Jesus Christ—are nothing without our history. We have sung for generations that children must learn “from history’s light.” Psalm 78 is only one of the many Psalms that bind us to teach history—another good reason to sing the Psalms, also the Psalms that recite history at quite some length. The church’s children ought “ne’er, like their fathers, to turn from His way.” So, “The wonderful story our fathers made known to children succeeding by us must be shown.” And one fundamental link for us to the past is the confessions—officially embraced, genuinely believed, actively taught.
The creeds are the church’s standards, the church’s official expression of how she understands—and always has understood—the Bible. When we teach our children Bible truth and give them, for example, our understanding of the history of Jacob and Esau, we quickly show them that this is the church’s historic understanding of that history, clearly expressed in the creeds—in this case, the Canons of Dordt as these Canons expound the humbling truth of double predestination.
Not about “Big Men”
A Reformed church’s grounding in history, therefore, is primarily her officially adopted creeds. This needs emphasis today because from reading theology one might get the impression that it is not the churches’ creeds that determine orthodoxy, but this or that larger-than-life man who does. Quoting one or three of these big men is the “end of all strife.” If Calvin, or Luther, or (these days) Herman Bavinck, or (for PRC members) Herman Hoeksema, says so, it must be so. Now this paragraph is no criticism of the church’s heavyweights whom God raised up to do marvelous things for the church. It’s only to call us to put these theologians in their right place in our thinking and in our “doing theology.”
Give me one clear creedal statement against five of these big men, and I must take the creed. Of course, you will not likely find five heavyweights against the creeds, but if that would happen, we go with the creeds. They are that weighty for Reformed Christians. In that way we work with the Scripture. Which means that a good Reformed/ Reformation study Bible will not be quoting men as much as it will quote the Reformed creeds.
To make this as clear as possible: If Herman Bavinck could be found to say that God’s love for Jacob and hatred of Esau had nothing to do with their eternal salvation (such will not be discovered), I would be sorely disappointed, but not moved.
For the Reformed creeds teach differently—God loved Jacob savingly, and hated Esau with a hatred that condemned him eternally.
Creeds honestly taught
Which brings up my last point here.
There is a distressing dishonesty out and about these days. Dishonesty must always be exposed. The father of lies never rests. One way he deceives people is by the dishonesty of completely redefining terms to fool the gullible into believing, for example, that a man believes justification just because he uses the term, and embraces the truth of election just because he says election. But then he proceeds to say that justification is not legal, or that election is not a choice unto salvation.
But redefinition of terms is not—at least not exactly—the dishonesty I refer to now. Another way the father of lies deceives, and deceives those even more gullible, is to refer to the Reformed confessions but brazenly deny the heart of what they teach. And what I read last week in a “Reformed” periodical did just that. It was so brazen that it would not be inaccurate to compare what it did to a man holding a gun to your head and saying, with a straight face, “I love you.”
In the magazine’s rubric entitled (of all things) “Reformed Matters,” the opening paragraph says, “For many of us, the doctrine of election means that God has chosen a certain number of people to be saved” and “a certain number of people to be damned.” The latter, he qualifies saying, “depending on how you interpret the Canons of Dort.” In this way, with an impressive reference to the venerable Canons, but with the added twist that makes you imagine that there are different (all legitimate) ways to interpret the Canons, the author proceeds to teach that the doctrine of election is not “unto salvation” but “unto service,” which are my words in quotes, not his. But such is the author’s teaching. “The trouble is that we tend to think of election” in terms of Romans 9-11, and understand election as the church always—“from Augustine to Calvin”—understood these chapters. Instead, we must think of election as the “ever-widening embrace of God’s love.” Election is God’s choice of some, not others, to be messengers of the gospel to the world.
So this magazine, which calls itself Reformed and claims rights to that title with reference to the Reformed creeds, denies the very essence of what the Reformed fathers took seven months (November, 1618 to April, 1619) to formulate as they overthrew the Arminians. And the author sweeps aside (with an appeal, by the way, to the writings of a “big man” who did not claim to be Reformed) what has been the official position of Reformed churches regarding election for the last 400 years.
The church must thoroughly educate her children in the confessions, to know and to love the Christ revealed in them, and then require the children to make a public vow that they believe these confessions to be the “true and perfect doctrine of salvation.” If she does this, and God blesses that instruction, those children will rise up in holy horror before such an author, and show him the door.
Then God will use the church’s children—now grown to be fathers and mothers and leaders in the church—to preserve their Reformed church in Reformed truth until the Lord returns.
1 I use the words creeds and confessions interchangeably here. Creed, from the Latin credo, means “I believe,” the words with which many of the articles in the Belgic Confession begin. “Confession,” also from the Latin, does not mean “to admit,” and especially not “to admit sin,” but “to declare adherence to.” The Belgic Confession’s articles sometimes begin, “We confess,” or “We believe and confess.”
2 The PRC’s decision to this effect can be found in the Acts of Synod, 1985: 25, 30. And, we say “system” because the Westminster Standards include a Larger Catechism, a Shorter Catechism, a Confession of Faith, a Form of Church Government and a Directory for Public Worship. The PRCA’s “creedal system” includes the Church Order of Dordt and what we have described as our “minor confessions”—the liturgical forms for Baptism and the Lord’s Supper and a few others.