What It Means to Be Reformed (12) Reformed Is Being “Confessional” (2)
As we now pass the 90th anniversary of the Protestant Reformed Churches, I remind us that these editorials began as a call to be faithful to our name and our roots. I have been explaining that to be Reformed, a church must be Covenantal, Calvinistic, Confessional, and have a proper view of both the Church and of the Christian life. For the sake of memory, these five essential elements begin with the letter “C.” Elders and ministers (who rule) as well as all the members of churches who identify as “Reformed” may ask themselves, “Are we truly Reformed, or are we Reformed in name only?” And, “How do we know?” To be Reformed a church must be confessional, or creedal. That is, they officially adopt, know and love, bind themselves to and use, the Reformed confessions. Last time I pointed out that all churches are confessional in one important sense—they all have definite teaching positions. For example, whether women may preach, whether children ought to be baptized, and whether Jesus will return to rule on earth or not. All churches have positions on these subjects, but a truly confessional church has these stances in written form that the people of God may examine and judge according to the Word of God.
And a Reformed church has Reformed creeds. Without Reformed creeds, a church may lay claim to the name Calvinist (in the limited sense of maintaining the “Five Points”), but not to the name Reformed. So, as much as one may appreciate some of the teachings of the Pipers, Mohlers, and MacArthurs in Christianity, these Baptists are not Reformed. In their covenant theology, their view of baptism, and their doctrine of the church, these men stand in the line of the Anabaptists, not the Reformed. Their churches do not hold to the Reformed creeds.
Adopt, Bind, Know, Love, Use
To act on a commitment to be confessional, one starts with the official adoption of the Reformed creeds. Thus, the By-Laws of the Protestant Reformed Churches declare, with regard to the “Doctrinal Basis” of these churches, that the Three Forms of Unity (Belgic Confession, Heidelberg Catechism, and Canons of Dordt) are “the true expression of their faith…” and “in all respects agree with the Word of God….” The church’s By-Laws are the legal and official statement of her position.
Second, a Reformed church binds her officebearers and members to these creeds. In the By-Laws’ “Governmental Basis,” the PRC declare that the Church Order of Dordt rules in these churches. The Church Order requires all rulers in the churches to “subscribe to the three formulas of unity.” And when the Church Order demands that access to the Lord’s table be granted only to those who “confess the Reformed religion” (Art. 61), the required confession is a public, professed loyalty to the Reformed creeds—the Three Forms of Unity. So in a Reformed church, both the rulers and those ruled are bound with a solemn oath to believe and uphold the Reformed creeds.
But only to the extent that a church truly knows, loves, and uses these creeds, can they with integrity call themselves Reformed. Without this knowledge, love, and use, these churches may have a form of “reformed-ness,” but they deny the power of it. Especially elders are under obligation to know, love, and use the creeds. Elders ought to know the creeds as they know their own occupation. This “ought” may be a call for classes to instruct elders in the creeds, for elders to make it their responsibility regularly to study the creeds, and to read good books explaining them. As to the common member, we teach the Heidelberg Catechism to our youth, preach it every Lord’s Day, for which God may be thanked. Here is a reminder to elders and pastors to maintain classes on the creeds—the Canons and Belgic Confession, the Church Order and the other minor creeds. Beyond that, what knowledge do the people of God have of them, to say nothing of love and use? We all have plenty of reason to examine ourselves regularly as to our own faithfulness to the name Reformed.
As for the Protestant Reformed Churches, this is what they are and aspire to be, more and more: Reformed, genuinely. This aspiration explains our theological task at the seminary—to instill in the students a love for the creeds, an understanding of the historical basis for our faith and life, and a deep appreciation for the Holy Spirit’s work in the church of the past.
When someone asks you, therefore, what it means to be Reformed, you may tell them many things, but do not fail to say, “We are confessional churches.”
Confessional does not mean a “Paper Pope”
Charles G. Finney, a renegade Presbyterian lawyer-turned-revivalist of the 1800s, derided his own church’s creed (the Westminster standards) as a “Paper Pope.”1 Giving creeds the status of “standards,” Finney claimed, Reformed churches were as guilty as the Roman Catholic Church of creating an authority above the Scripture. Instead of a Pope, Reformed churches had creeds. Thus, a “Paper Pope.” If Finney were on social media today, his criticisms would get some “likes.”
Unlike the Roman Catholics with the pope, the Reformed never claimed infallibility for creeds. And unlike papal decrees, neither are creeds unchangeable. Holding creeds, therefore, does not deny the sole and ultimate authority of the Word of God. Being confessional does not undermine our Calvinistic motto sola Scriptura, that is, Scripture alone is the church’s ultimate standard for faith and ethic. The creeds say as much. Read carefully the Belgic Confession’s Article 7.
How being “confessional” fits with another motto that has Reformed pedigree—“Always Reforming”—is an important question. But that requires an entire article, the next editorial. For now, reflect on the great benefits of adopting, binding ourselves to, knowing, loving, and using the Reformed creeds.2
What useful tools to define what the churches believe and confess! Almost every important teaching of the Bible is contained there: what we believe and how we ought to live; the proper way to worship and the right manner to govern the church. You never appreciate the breadth of the confessions until you read them, including the Church Order and the liturgical forms. Creeds are the church’s standard, that is, the flag we fly to identify both to friend and foe who we are and whose cause we represent.
The confessions make plain what the minister of the Word may and may not teach the people of God. No surprises from him with creeds binding him! The confessions give substance to the faith we confess when we join the church as members in full standing. And since the prophet says that two cannot walk together unless they are agreed (Amos 3:3), when we hear a confession of faith, we know who our companions may be.
Teaching the creeds from the pulpit and in the catechism room also instills into the consciousness of God’s people that the church is governed by the Word rather than by feelings, that it’s not beauty but truth that directs her. In these days when post-modernism instills in her students that there is no truth, having creeds is most valuable.
Charles Finney got carried away with himself in his criticism of creeds, and said that he preferred a living pope rather than a dead pope. He would rather a man declare truth (and a different one every new generation) than old yellowed documents. Reading his theology, you do not have to wonder what man he would have chosen to declare that proper understanding of the Bible. Give us creeds! We prefer the collective wisdom of hundreds of theologians, assembled in God’s church over the ages, setting down in brilliant documents what the Spirit has led the church to confess is biblical truth.
The old Dutch proverb is as important today as ever: Elke ketter heeft zijn letter (“Every heretic has his text.”) Let us be safe from the heretics by embracing the creeds.
How often the Bible calls the church to remember, not to forget, to ask for the old paths, to learn from history’s light, and to hold fast the traditions! Being confessional is the church’s way to obey those commands.
We are not revolutionaries. Che Guevara is not our hero. A Mar’s Hill-desire always to hear “some new thing” is not what characterizes us. Reformed Christians are happy—and blessed, too—with stability, and the confessions give stability. When post-modernism arrogantly dismisses history, Reformed churches praise it. Having creeds is, as one man put it, an antidote to arrogance, the arrogance that claims, “Our ability to understand the Bible does not depend on anyone else’s!” C.S. Lewis called it “chronological snobbery.”
A good way to test ourselves is to ask whether we are characterized by faith, obedience, and remembrance of God’s works in the past, or by unbelief, disobedience, and forgetfulness.
The church’s creeds, most of them, came out of the crucible of warfare for the truth. They were written on the battlefield against heresy. Some of them were penned, as it were, with the blood of their authors. So the creeds teach us, both directly (by what they say in opposition to heresy) and indirectly (by their important backgrounds) to be militant for truth.
This doctrine, and not that! This way of life, and not that way! The Reformed creeds teach us to live and think antithetically, a word fundamental to Christianity from the very beginning, when God said, “These trees, and not that one!”3
Finally, creeds have a very important purpose in worship. They not only tell us how to worship, they become a part of worship. They both describe the proper manner of giving God praise, and they themselves give us the voice by which we give that praise.
This is the earliest origin of creeds. The Apostles’ Creed is the content of many church’s confession of faith on a Sabbath evening. When children recite the Heidelberg Catechism’s answer to its 129 questions, they may know that this is worship!
If worship is confessing and extolling God’s great name, and the creeds are faithful expositions of that name, then confessions serve the church’s worship. At the heart of worship is preaching, where truth (God’s name!) is spoken. God is praised by that truth-speaking!
Reformed churches are confessional, at bottom, for the worship of our good God.
1 Prebyterian churches, according to Finney, “elevated their confession and catechism to the Papal throne and into the place of the Holy Ghost.” They “embalmed their own creed, and preserved it as the Pope of all generations…. [They] have adopted the most obnoxious principle of Popery.” In Finney’s Systematic Theology, Abridged edition (Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, 1976), xii.
2 For more in-depth description of some of these benefits, see my “A Confessional Ministry” in the July and August 2013 issues of the Standard Bearer.
3 For a fine explanation of this important part of the Christian life, follow Rev. Brian Huizinga’s articles in this magazine, entitled, “To Teach Them War” (beginning with volume 90, May 15, 2014).