Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Room Has Been Made

Shiao Chong, the executive director-elect of The Banner.
I do not envy Shiao Chong his new position as executive editor of The Banner. In addition to having to overcome complicated adaptive challenges that are affecting much of the magazine industry, Chong also has to somehow rebuild trust in The Banner among large swaths of the CRC’s membership. These members – including whole churches - have written off The Banner as primarily the mouthpiece of the CRC’s more liberal members. (Just yesterday, I heard of yet another CRC church council looking to replace The Banner with a more edifying alternative.)

Given this situation you might think that the outgoing interim editor for The Banner, Leonard Vander Zee, would spend his last few months trying to avoid the writing or publishing of articles that would raise the ire of what looks to be a substantial part of The Banner’s potential readership. Alas, no. Vander Zee has instead decided to write an editorial challenging the decisions that Synod 2016 made with regard to how we as a denomination are going to handle the topic of human sexuality.

Some – including Vander Zee – will probably argue that as a churchman writing for a church magazine Vander Zee is within his rights to be a ‘prophetic’ voice. If so, as a prophet the least he could have done is accurately describe the actions that Synod 2016 took. Instead, his prophetic utterances not only misrepresent Synod’s decisions, but they sometimes do so even blatantly.

Vander Zee’s gripes with Synod 2016’s decisions amount to two. First, he believes that the pastoral advice from the minority report that Synod recommended to the churches is “unnecessarily harsh and invasive.” Of course, Vander Zee can think and say this. But what Vander Zee does not acknowledge is that not a single congregation in the CRC must implement the vast majority of the minority report’s pastoral advice. The only piece of advice that has the potential for being regulative (precisely because it was made an implicit part of a new supplement to Church Order, Article 69-c) is that ministers of the Word should not solemnize same-sex marriages. Apart from that, what officebearers are permitted or not permitted to do with regard to same-sex marriage remains - as it was before Synod 2016 - largely in the hands of individual church councils and congregations.

The bulk of Vander Zee’s ire, however, is directed toward the way Synod 2016 crafted the new study committee on human sexuality. Specifically, Vander Zee is upset that Synod required that the people appointed to the study committee would have to “adhere to the CRC’s biblical position on marriage and same-sex relationships.”  According to Vander Zee, this decision amounts to Synod determining “to silence the voices of all who disagree and to bar them from the table.”

In saying this, however, Vander Zee fails to mention important details about the mandate and composition of the new study committee. First, although correct that the committee members must initially “adhere to the CRC’s biblical position on marriage and same-sex relationships,” Vander Zee fails to mention that an important part of the committee's work will be to “dialogue with…untraditional conclusions arising from arguments about a new movement of the Spirit (e.g., Acts 15), as well as conclusions arising from scientific and social scientific studies” (Acts of Synod 2016, Art. 68). Although the committee may provide a “potential critique of” these new arguments and conclusions, it is not required to do so. Indeed, Synod 2016 left open the possibility that the Spirit might compel the committee members to come back to Synod 2021 asking that Synod completely revise the denominations position on same-sex relationships and marriage.

Second, Vander Zee also conveniently fails to mention that Synod 2016 required that one person either on or off the committee be chosen to serve in the position of a protector fidei, i.e., a devil’s advocate. This person’s job is to ensure that the committee members are at least aware of the best arguments against the committee’s emerging consensus. Trusting that the scholars on this committee actually know how to do responsible research and trusting that the protector fidei does their job, it is accordingly difficult to see how any voice will be ‘silenced’ on this new study committee.

So, Vander Zee misrepresents Synod 2016’s actions on two counts. First, he misrepresents Synod’s actions by insinuating that the committee members must conclude that the historic Christian position on same-sex relationships and marriage is Scripturally sound. This is simply not true. The committee is free to follow the evidence wherever the Spirit takes them.

Second, Vander Zee misrepresents Synod’s actions by saying that “Synod determined to silence the voices of all who disagree and to bar them from the table.” This also is simply not true. Those who disagree with the CRC’s biblical teaching on same-sex relationships and marriage are still confessing members in good standing within the church and their voices will have a place at the table via books, articles, and personal interactions as well as through the office of the protector fidei.

I truly do wish Chong the best as he takes up his new position as editor of The Banner. I hope and pray that The Banner will someday resonate again with those many churches that it supposedly represents. Unfortunately, Vander Zee’s July editorial only makes accomplishing that goal only that much more remote and, accordingly, makes Chong’s new job that much harder.

A former edition of this post suggested that Vander Zee's editorial would raise the ire of "what looks to be a majority of The Banner's readership." As a result of subsequent discussions, I have altered that statement to read "what looks to be a substantial part of The Banner’s potential readership." This revision looks like a more responsible statement to make given the lack of reliable statistical analysis of CRC views.


Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Synod 2016: Same-Sex Marriage Discussion (Part 4) Where Have All the Prophets Gone?

As I and the other delegates gathered on Tuesday and Wednesday during the week of Synod to take up the matter of the Christian Reformed Church's (CRC) pastoral response to same-sex marriage (SSM), few probably realized that the CRCs celebration of Pentecost was almost a month behind us. On Pentecost, we celebrated the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the first disciples in Jerusalem (cf. Acts 2:1-4).  The Scripture readings from Acts 2 for the day reminded us of two important truths. First, it reminded us of the good news of the Gospel. Specifically, that God has made Jesus of Nazareth "King of Kings and Lord of Lords" and that the time of renewal for God's people has begun (cf. Acts 2:1-4, 32-36; Rev. 19:16; 21:14).

Second, Pentecost reminded us of  the task that the Lord Jesus calls us to as members of His renewed people. And what is this task that the Lord has called the members of His renewed people to complete during these last day? He has called us to prophesy. That is, He summons us to proclaim the Word of the Lord to all nations and all peoples so that they might repent and believe the good news. (cf. Acts 2:38; 1 Cor. 12:1-3; Phil. 2:9-11).
As Christ said through the Prophet Joel:
"In the last days... I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit on those days, and they will prophesy" (Acts 2:17-18).

Before Nations...

This prophetic call is essential to the Church's identity. Prior to the Day of Pentecost, the Lord Jesus told his church that on the day of Pentecost they would "receive power from the Holy Spirit" so that they might "be [his] witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8). Here we see that Jesus connects the witnessing of His Church to the prophetic task of His Church on the day of Pentecost. Accordingly, in order for a church to be the Church, it is imperative that it seek to fulfill this task: to prophesy, i.e., to proclaim, in word and deed the Kingdom of God so that all people may come to repentance and faith in Jesus the Christ.

... and Kings

The Prophet Nathan Rebukes King David
by Eugene Siberdt 
Since the CRC is a Reformed evangelical denomination, most CRC members would probably agree with what was just said above about the need to proclaim the Word of the Lord. But my suspicion is that many CRC members will probably become nervous when they hear that, by virtue of its prophetic calling, the CRCNA has a responsibility to call even governments to repentance. Nevertheless, it is still part of our calling.

We see this clearly and repeatedly in the Old Testament as God sends His prophets not only to the common people, but also to those in positions of authority. As mentioned in the last post, perhaps one of the most memorable instances of this was when the Prophet Nathan shrewdly confronted King David with David's sin against the Lord and the nation (Cf. 2 Sam. 2:1-13). Other memorable instances might also include the Lord's appointing the Prophet Daniel to prophesy against the pride of King Nebuchadnezzar or the Lord's sending the Prophet Jonah to immoral Nineveh (cf. Daniel 4:4-37; Jonah 1:1).

This same prophetic task of calling rulers to repentance and faith is also seen in the New Testament. Explaining the scope of Paul's apostleship, the Lord Jesus said to Ananias that, "This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel" (Acts 9:15). And writing to Timothy many years later, Paul instructed the church of Ephesus to share with him in this task by making "petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving...for all people - for kings and all those in authority" (1 Tim. 2:1). As Paul immediately explains, the goal of the Ephesians joining with him in prayer for these officials was not only so that the church might "live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness," but also so that these officials might "be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth" (1 Tim. 2:2-4). The Lord calls Paul and His Church to proclaim the Gospel of the Kingdom of God even to government officials so that they might repent, acknowledge God in Christ as King, and be saved.

Prophecy & Principled Pluralism

Although the Scriptures were written thousands of years ago, the Church's basic function as a prophetic society continues today. In the 19th and 20th Centuries, the world has witnessed powerful examples of the Church speaking the truth of God's Word to those in authority. Christian abolitionists in the fight against slavery, civil rights leaders (e.g., Martin Luther King, Jr.) in the struggle against racism, and the Confessing Church in the struggle with Nazism in Germany. All of these called upon the governing authorities to repentance for the policies they were following.

Saint Paul on Trial
by Nikolai Bodarevsky, 1875
Nevertheless, many Christian people, including many people in the CRC, still feel uneasy about the Church's calling to summon the governing authorities to repentance and faith on the basis of God's Word. They worry that emphasizing this prophetic task of the Church will lead to some type of theocracy along the lines of the Ayatollah in Iran. Accordingly, it is hard for them to see how this emphasis on the Church's prophetic task will not lead to violence in a modern, pluralistic, society; a violence that was all to evident the week of Synod with the Islamic terrorist, Omar Mateen, massacring 49 people at a gay nightclub in Orlando. Faced with the choice between theocracy and political liberalism (i.e., secularism), many Christians feel the tug to side with political liberalism.

Yet, the choice between theocracy and political liberalism is a false dichotomy. As we have seen in the last two posts, principled pluralism provides a solution to this apparent conflict between the Church's prophetic calling and the reality of the modern, pluralistic, nation state. According to standard presentations of principled pluralism by scholars such as Kuyper, Mouw, and Wolterstorff, principled pluralism argues that, while the Church should not seek to usurp the institutional authority of the State, the Church does have the responsibility to instruct its members on how they should relate to State policies that clearly fail to promote a society pleasing to God.

As was explained before, according to principled pluralism, through use of the keys of the kingdom, the Church empowers Christian voters and magistrates to fulfill their obligations to use their Scripturally-informed consciences to govern in a way that honors God (cf. HC, Lord's Day 31). As she casts her vote or issues her opinion on the Senate floor, the Church must endeavor to ensure that the Christian citizen or magistrate always holds in the forefront of her mind that “there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over, does not cry, 'Mine'" (Kuyper, "Sphere Sovereignty," p. 488).

Where Have All the Prophet's Gone?

The Prophet Elijah, the last of the prophets of Israel
1 Kings 19:14
These reflections on the prophetic task of the Church and on the role of the Church in a pluralistic society are part of the reason that I view the majority report from the SSM study committee as deeply flawed. Given the CRCNA's biblical view of marriage, standard presentations of principled pluralism would seem to indicate that the CRCNA has a prophetic responsibility to call the Canadian and United States governments to repentance for the way they are handling their marriage policies. Yet, the majority report fails to make this seemingly obvious implication of principled pluralism. Why?

The majority report's inability to draw this conclusion seems to stem from its assumption that it is inappropriate for the Church to ground its prophetic message exclusively or even primarily in the Scriptures when addressing the sphere of the State. In doing so, they show that they are operating more from the position of political liberalism than they are principled pluralism. This assumption shows up most clearly in the so-called two principled pluralist approaches sketched in Appendix C of the committee's report.

The first approach that the committee sketches in Appendix C is the "marriage as a creational given" approach. This approach views marriage as a creational given that the State cannot essentially redefine. According to the committee, "The basis for [this] claim is not, in the first place, Scripture, but creation itself" (Agenda 2016, p.423). Maybe. Yet, the point is moot, because in the very next paragraph the committee seemingly takes away even this small amount of special revelation that it lets seep into the political arena. Despite their claim that Scripture might have some role to play in governing a Christian's political positions, the committee goes on to say that, "In this approach, Christians do not speak to society from a dogmatic position (i.e., from a position of revealed faith to an unbelieving world). Christians speak into the common experience of human beings in society. They speak into a shared encounter with a world structured according to God's wisdom" (Agenda 2016, p.424). Accordingly, what the committee seemingly grants with the left hand, it takes with the right.

The second approach that the committee sketches is the "malleability in civil marriage" approach. This approach asserts that the State and the Church may legitimately arrive at essentially different definitions of marriage. The committee is even more explicit in its understanding of the role of Scripture in political debate when it describes this approach. According to the committee, "Within the church, of course, Scripture stands supreme. Within the political arena, however, a Reformed argument on marriage is not an argument from Scripture. It is an argument from shared experience of and reflection on creation. It argues from evidences - sociological, biological, political" (Agenda 2016, p.424). It is difficult for me to see how this position significantly differs from political liberalism.

At the end of the day, both the options that the committee sketches in Appendix C end up in the same place advocating for a species of political liberalism, not principled pluralism. This is most evident in the fact that they both relegate the voice of special revelation to the sphere of religion leaving the sphere of the State free from having to face the demands of God's revelation. In both views, the committee instructs CRC members to argue solely from "the common experience of human beings" or the "shared experience of and reflection on creation." And both views call for the Christian not to speak "from a position of revealed faith to an unbelieving world" (Agenda 2016, p. 424). Yet, nothing could be more alien to principled pluralism or the CRCNA's own history of refining its confessional understanding of the relationship of the Church and the State.

In short, the study committee presents two 'principled pluralist' options that substantially misrepresent principled pluralism. Principled pluralism argues that it is valid - in fact, unavoidable - that people will develop their political views on the basis of their faith commitments. The same is true with regard to marriage. When it comes to marriage, however, the study committee tells the members of the CRCNA that they must check-in their faith commitment to the infallibility of God's Word at the town hall door. Or, to put it another way, Christians are called to take off the spectacles by which they read aright the book of nature and argue as best they can from the dim light of nature. In such a situation, it is understandable that the committee would fail to call the CRCNA to fulfill its prophetic task. For, in the approaches to engaging the State that the committee sketches in Appendix C, there is no room for a prophet.


At this point, it is hopefully clear how the study committee has misrepresented principled pluralism in the pastoral guidance that it gives to the churches. Given the CRCNA's biblical position on marriage, one would expect a study committee seeking to present a principled pluralist approach to State-Church relations to advise the CRCNA to call upon the States of Canada and the United States to repentance. In doing so, the study committee could have drawn not only on the standard presentations of principled pluralism given by Kuyper, Mouw, and Wolterstorff, but they could also have drawn on the confessional history of the CRCNA as the church drew upon principled pluralism to reshape Belgic Confession, Article 36. Yet, the study committee did not do this. Instead, it drew conclusions that are inconsistent with principled pluralism, especially as it is expressed through our confessional tradition. For these reasons, I believe that Synod 2016 was wise to not recommend the pastoral advice of the majority report. 

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Synod 2016: Same-sex Marriage Discussion (Part 3) Principled Pluralism & the Belgic Confession

As I explained in my last post, principled pluralism was developed in the Netherlands in the latter half of the 19th Century at the hands of such famous Reformed theologians as Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck. Through their academic works, their correspondence, their travels, and their personal relationships, principled pluralism quickly spread to the Dutch immigrant communities that  made up the bulk of the Christian Reformed Church (CRC). As a result, it is not surprising that when the CRC turned to revising  its confessional statement on the nature and responsibilities of the civil government in the early 1900's that it would turn to principled pluralism for help.

Principled Pluralism & the CRC's Revision of Belgic Confession, Art. 36

1566 edition of the Belgic Confession
When the CRC broke from the Reformed Church in America in 1857, one of its first acts was to adopt the Belgic Confession as one of its doctrinal standards (cf.,  Acts of Synod 1946, p. 401). In doing so, however, the CRC did not revise the Belgic Confession, Article 36, entitled. On the Civil Government. Instead, they adopted the version of Belgic Confession, Article 36 that the Synod of Dordt had ratified in 1618-1619. In doing this, they adopted a confessional position on the relationship of Church and State that was very out of sync with their new, American, political context.

The section of Article 36 that caused the most trouble for the CRC was the second paragraph which read as follows:

"And [the office of the civil magistrate] is not only to have regard unto and watch for the welfare of the civil state, but also that they protect the sacred ministry, and thus may remove and prevent all idolatry and false worship; that the kingdom of anti-Christ may be thus destroyed and the kingdom of Christ promoted. They must therefore countenance the preaching of the Word of the gospel everywhere, that God may be honored and worshiped by every one." 

In other words, from 1857 to 1910, the official teaching of the CRC was that the civil government had the responsibility to "protect the sacred ministry" and "remove and prevent all idolatry and false worship" from the nation. That is to say, it was the CRC's official teaching that the United States government had a sacred obligation to establish a Christian, Reformed, Church as the established religion.

Synod 1910

The CRC's first move to correct the teaching of Article 36 was made by Synod 1910 when it placed a footnote before those parts of Article 36 that advocated the establishment of a state religion. What is important to recognize about Synod 1910's footnote is that its vocabulary and doctrinal content clearly betrays the influence that principled pluralism was having on the CRC.

According to the footnote adopted by Synod 1910:
"The Christian Reformed Church in America...feels constrained to declare that it does not conceive of the office of the magistracy in this sense that it is duty bound to exercise political authority also in the sphere of religion by establishing a State church, maintaining and advancing the same as the only true Church, and to withstand, destroy, and exterminate by means of the sword all other Churches as embodying false religions; and also to declare that it does positively hold that, within its own secular sphere, the magistracy has a divine duty with reference to the first table of the Law as well as the second; and furthermore that both the State and the Church as institutions of God and Christ, have mutual rights and duties appointed them from on high, and therefore have a very sacred reciprocal obligation to meet, through the Holy Spirit, who proceeds from the Father and the Son. They should not, however, encroach upon each other's domain. The Church as well as the State has the right of sovereignty in its own sphere" (Acts of Synod 1910, pp. 9, 104-105).  
In this statement by Synod 1910, we see each of the three types of pluralism described in my last post. First, Synod 1910 recognizes a type of spherical pluralism. It writes that there exists a "sphere of religion" as well as a distinct "secular sphere." Second, Synod 1910 recognizes the structural, or institutional, pluralism that results from the existence of these spheres. Although "the State and the Church as institutions of God and Christ, have mutual rights and duties appointed them," each institution, nevertheless, "has the right of sovereignty in its own sphere." "They should not...encroach upon each other's domain." Finally, Synod 1910 recognizes a type of confessional pluralism when it denies that the civil government must "withstand, destroy, and exterminate by means of the sword all other Churches as embodying false religions."

Yet, in adopting this last type of pluralism, Synod 1910 was not saying that the civil government had to govern its "secular sphere" in a nonreligious manner. Instead, Synod 1910 declared that the civil government has "a divine duty with reference to the first table of the Law as well as the second" and that the State was ultimately accountable to "God and Christ." They recognized that although the civil government had to be neutral toward other religions that this does not mean that the civil government should not be governed according to a particular religious and moral worldview.

Synod 1946

The 1910 footnote was ultimately an unworkable solution for a confessional denomination such as the CRC. As a result, the CRC continued to struggle with how to revise its official teaching on Church-State relations for the next 48 years. Yet, throughout this period, the common tendency was to employ the basic concepts of principled pluralism to revise Article 36's teaching. For example, Synod 1943 appointed a study committee to examine the teaching of Article 36  and propose revisions if necessary.

In fact, the Synod of 1946 received three drafts for replacing the offending section of the confession. Two out of three, including the majority report recommendation, clearly show the influence of principled pluralism. The majority report's recommendation for revising the second paragraph of Article 36 is as follows:

"...the power which the sovereign God, the source of all authority among men, has given the civil rulers is by no means unrestricted. God has also instituted other spheres of sovereignty such as the church and the family. Hence the State must recognize and protect the sovereignty of the Church in the worship of God and the individual in his freedom of conscience, person and possessions" (Acts of Synod 1946, p. 416).  
Again, we see the basic concepts of principled pluralism at work. First, the suggested revision makes even clearer than the 1910 footnote that, apart from the sphere of the State, God has established "other spheres of sovereignty such as the the church and the family" (i.e., spherical pluralism). Second, the suggested revision points in the direction of structural pluralism when it references to "the civil rulers" in the sphere of the State, "the Church" in the sphere of "the church," and "the individual" within their own sphere. Finally, by saying that the State must protect "the individual in his freedom of conscience, person, and possessions," the proposed revision is recognizing that the State cannot destroy the confessional pluralism that naturally results in this fallen world when peoples' consciences either leading them away from the truth.

Synod 1958

Despite the hard work of the study committee that reported to Synod 1946, it was not until Synod 1958 that the CRC adopted its current version of Article 36. The revision of Article 36 was proposed to the CRC through its ecumenical involvement in the Reformed Ecumenical Synod (RES). At its 1949 meeting, the RES had suggested the following revision to Article 36:
"And being called in this manner to contribute to the advancement of a society that is pleasing to God, the civil rulers have the task, subject to God's law, of removing every obstacle to the preaching of the gospel and to every aspect of divine worship. They should do this whole completely refraining from every tendency toward exercising absolute authority, and while functioning in the sphere entrusted to them, with the means belonging to them. They should do it in order that the Word of God may have free course; the kingdom of Jesus Christ may make progress; and every anti-Christian power may be resisted." 
Again, was see the same three basic concepts of principled pluralism at work. First, the revision expresses the idea of spherical pluralism.  According to the revision, the government must only function "in the sphere entrusted to them, with the mans belonging to them." Second, it expresses the idea of structural pluralism. It recognizes a distinction between "the civil rulers" and "the sphere entrusted to them." Finally, by removing Article 36's insistence that the civil government must establish the Christian, Reformed, religion as the state religion, the revision implies confessional pluralism  The civil rulers are to remove "every obstacle to the preaching of the gospel and to every aspect of divine worship" without "exercising absolute authority"  and "while functioning in the sphere entrusted to them, with the means belonging to them." In other words, they should not seek to usurp the authority of the conscience in the sphere of the individual nor the authorities in the sphere of the religion, a situation which leads to a variety of worldviews.

Importantly, however, the revision does not imply that the sphere of the State or the civil government should seek to govern from a non-religious perspective.  According to Synod 1958, the above revision was acceptable to the CRC, because "this formulation expresses the Scriptural teaching that the civil rulers are bound by the authority of the Word and Law of God" (Acts of Synod 1958, p.30). According to Synod 1958, this is what the revision means when it says that God has called the civil rulers "to contribute to the advancement of a society that is pleasing to God" and to govern in a way that is "subject to God's law." Although the civil government may not exterminate non-Christian worldviews and religions, it still has the sacred duty to govern according to the moral and ethical principles expressed by the Word and Law of God. 

Contemporary Applications of Principled Pluralism in the CRCNA

What Belgic Confession, Article 36 describes is the ideal relationship that the sphere of the State would have to the rest of society. But the State is always tempted to overstep the bounds of their legitimate authority. Instead of confining themselves within the structures of God’s Law for the purpose of promoting a society that is pleasing to God, civil governments sometimes act contrary to that Law and promote social arrangements not pleasing to God. Of course, the degree to which they overstep their legitimate authority differs from case to case. Yet, sometimes the civil government oversteps its authority in such an egregious way that the Church and the authorities in other spheres of society should - according to principled pluralism - rally themselves and their members to protest the governments actions.

One of the clearest contemporary examples of the State overstepping its bounds in an egregious way is seen in the U.S. and Canadian governments's establishing  permissive abortion laws. The CRC's official view is that these laws are violations of God’s Law, in particular the 6th Commandment. So, how should the CRC respond to these unjust acts on the part of the civil government and State? According to the principled pluralism espoused by Kuyper, Bavinck, and Belgic Confession, Article 36, the answer is that the CRC must use the God-ordained means at its disposal to call the civil government to repentance, to obey and honor God's Law. In other words, the CRC should preach the Word. The CRC should fulfill its prophetic nature as it plays the role of Nathan to the State's David (cf. 2 Sam. 12:1-14).

And this is what the CRC has done in the case of abortion. In 2010, Synod instructed the Office of Social Justice to “boldly advocate for the church’s position against abortion, and to help equip churches to promote the sanctity of human life" (Acts of Synod 2010, p. 883).  By advocating for a change in the civil government's permissive abortion laws the CRC is not attempting to govern the State - as if Synod were trying to usurp the authority of the Congress or Parliament! Rather, the CRC is functioning within its own sphere and by its own means. Through it's Office of Social Justice it seeks "to empower the church to call on those in power to improve systems and enact just public policy." By preaching the Word and making its members aware of the government's unjust policies, the CRC aims to motivate its members to "pursue justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with [their] God."


As I asserted in the last post, principled pluralism is part of the confessional warp and woof of the CRC's life. In this post, I have shown how that is the case. Over the course of the 20th Century, the CRC continued to use the principled pluralism developed by Kuyper and Bavink to readdress Church-State relations. At Synod 1958, this understanding of principled pluralism was official incorporated into the confessional matrix of the CRC. And from Synod 1958 till 2016, it has helped the CRC understand its proper role both in society and in relation to the State. In the next post, I will show how both the majority and minority reports from the Committee to Provide Pastoral Guidance re: Same-sex Marriage fail to properly apply the theory of principled pluralism to the issue of same-sex marriage. 

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Synod 2016: Same-Sex Marriage Discussion (Part 2) Principled Pluralism

Clarifying the Issue

As Synod convenes tomorrow and takes up the matter of same-sex marriage, perhaps one of the most important points for the delegates to remember is that the Committee is not asking Synod to redetermine the ethics of homosexual behavior. As the Committee itself recognizes, its mandate was to assume the immorality of such behavior on the basis of the "biblical teachings reflected in the Acts of Synod 1973 Report 42..." (Agenda 2016, p. 362). Instead, the Committee was tasked with helping Synod 2016 to deliberate and decide on the following question: Given our biblical understanding of same-sex intercourse and our biblical view of marriage, what should the CRC's pastoral response be to the legalization of same-sex marriage in Canada and the United States? That is the question that the delegates are going to have a hand in determining. 

By Whose Authority?

In attempting to answer the above question, the Committee rightly recognized that one of the fundamental issues that both they and Synod 2016 would have to address is the issue of State authority. Does the State even have the authority to redefine marriage so as to include same-sex relationships (cf. Agenda 2016, 372)? If the State has this authority, then what should Synod's response be? As the Committee's reports show, how we answer this question has important implications for how we respond pastoral to our new situation. 

To answer the question, the Committee attempts to utilize a theory of Church-State relations which they refer to as principled pluralism and which others sometimes refer to as the theory of sphere sovereignty (cf. Agenda 2016, Overtures #17 and #33). This theory of Church-State relations was developed in the later half of the 19th Century most notably by Dr. Abraham Kuyper and Dr. Herman Bavinck. And it found its classical expression in Abraham Kuyper's famous Lectures on Calvinism given at Princeton Seminary in 1899.

Abraham Kuyper (pictured above)
lived from 1837-1920 and was one
of the chief architects of principled
pluralism/sphere sovereignty.
As  Professor James Bratt has shown in his 1984 Dutch Calvinism in Modern America, the CRC has a long history of seeking to use the theory of sphere sovereignty or principled pluralism to navigate its relationships with both the State and the wider society. More important, however, for the discussions at Synod 2016 is the fact that this theory of Church-State relations formed the basis for Synod 1958's revision of Belgic Confession, Article 36. So, when faced with a question concerning the relationship between church and state, the Study Committee understandably turned to the theory of principled pluralism for help. Principled pluralism is part of the confessional warp and woof of the CRC.

Nevertheless, it's here that Classis Grandville, Classis Holland, Classis Hudson, I and others run into one of our chief problems with the Study Committee's analysis of the question regarding State authority. It is our contention that the Study Committee has misrepresented the theory of principled pluralism and, thus, has come to a false conclusion regarding the State's authority with respect to marriage. In this post, I will lay out what I take to be the historic and the standard understanding of principled pluralism that the CRC has used to guide its relationships with the State in the past. In the next post, I will show that this understanding of principle pluralism is embedded in our current version of Belgic Confession, Article 36. And, finally, I will show in a following post that the Committee's version of principled pluralism deviates from this historic and confessional view, raising serious theological and practical problems for the CRC.

Principled Pluralism

Principled pluralism makes a distinction between three types of pluralism: spherical pluralism, structural pluralism and confessional pluralism. 

Spherical Pluralism

Spherical pluralism is the view that God has implanted in creation the potential for humanity to
develop a variety of different social spheres. These social spheres are distinct "forms of life." For example, there is the sphere of the family, the sphere of economics, the sphere of science, the sphere of art, and the sphere of religion. Each of these spheres is defined by a particular form of life oriented toward the achievement of some good end. 

Except for the sphere of the State, Abraham Kuyper argued that each of these spheres or forms of life arose organically and necessarily as humanity interacted with God and the rest of creation. Kuyper gives the sphere of the family as an example:

"From the duality of man and woman marriage arises. From the original existence of one man and one woman monogamy comes forth. The children exist by reason of the innate power of reproduction. Naturally the children are connected as brothers and sisters...The development [of the Family] is spontaneous, just as that of the stem and branches of a plant" (Kuyper, Lectures, p. 91, emphasis original).
God's decision to order creation in certain ways, in this case the reproductive capacity of a man and woman, organically and necessarily leads to the emergence of that form of life we call "the Family."

There are two additional things to notice about the way that Kuyper understands spherical pluralism. First, notice that Kuyper believes that each social sphere is a distinct form of life that grows independently of the State. The State did not invent the family any more than it invented economics, art, science, or religion. The social spheres emerge of their own accord from the God-given potential embedded in creation. They are, thus, gifts of creation which the State encounters upon its institution.

Second, notice that Kuyper comes to his understanding of how social spheres are formed and eventually structured through his reading of the Scriptures. What Kuyper gives us in the quote above is essentially a theological description of the origin and growth of the family. No doubt, Kuyper - like many rational people today - believed that God's will for the sphere of the family could be discerned from nature alone, but - as a confessional Reformed theologian - Kuyper also believed that the Scriptures were the spectacles through which he was enabled him to better read the book of nature. The Scriptures help to clarify what the social spheres are and what God intended for their internal structure.

Structural Pluralism

Structural pluralism is the view that within each of the various social spheres there is an institutional authority which alone has the right to govern the affairs of that sphere. For example, the father and mother are the authority in the family, the school board or teacher is the authority in the school, the council is the authority in the Church, and the civil government is the authority within the State. Each institutional authority has the responsibility of caring for the people within its own sphere in accordance with the means appropriate to that sphere.

The institutional or structural authority within the sphere of the State is the civil government. And its most fundamental task is to ensure that one sphere of life does not seek to dominate another . As Kuyper argues, "Whenever different spheres clash," the State must "compel mutual regard for the boundary lines of each" (Kuyper, Lectures, p. 97). For example, lets assume that a school board is the structural authority in the sphere of education and lets assume that the sphere of education is distinguished from the sphere of business by its pursuit of the truth. As a result, the proper relationship of the school board to its students should be one in which the school board seeks to facilitate the student's pursuit of truth.

But imagine the the school board changed its focus. Suppose that the school board started treating its teachers as managers, the students as employees, and set the students to work in their classrooms manufacturing tie-die t-shirts. In this case, principled pluralism would say that the social sphere of business or economics is oppressing the sphere of education. And, according to principled pluralism, the role of the State in this case would be to remind the school board that their task is to facilitate the pursuit of truth for its students and that it is not their task to make the best tie-die t-shirts at the lowest cost possible. 

Of course, the civil government – constituted by sinful people – is itself constantly tempted to oppress both the people within its sphere as well as other spheres. Kuyper famously warns that God has not instituted the State so that it might “become an octopus, which stifles the whole of life” (Lectures, 96). Instead, the State must “honor and maintain every form of life which grows independently in its own sacred autonomy” (Lectures, 97). Each social sphere and each institutional authority within those sphere possess an equal dignity and honor due to their divine origin. Accordingly, the State has the moral responsibility to respect the authorities and boundaries of each social sphere merely creating an environment where each form of life can flourish of its own accord, under its own authorities, and by the means proper to itself.

When the State does not “maintain every form of life which grows independently in its own sacred autonomy,” then, Kuyper argues, the citizens and authorities in the other spheres must protest the government’s actions. If they do not, then they acquiesce to a type of totalitarianism wherein the State acts as if there were no boundaries to its authority except the ones that it chooses to impose on itself (cf. Kuyper, “Sphere Sovereignty”, pp. 473-474). In other words, the State blasphemously comes to view itself as sitting in the place of God.

Confessional Pluralism

Confessional pluralism is the claim that there are a variety of worldviews which people may express while living in the various social spheres. Secularists, Pagans, Muslims, Jews, Catholics, and Calvinists all naturally find themselves living in families, going to school, engaging in business, etc. And, within these spheres, they live and work in the pursuit of what they understand to be a good life. This confessional pluralism is an unavoidable feature of our current fallen world.

It is not the task of the State to determine which of these worldviews is ultimately correct. Kuyper argues that the State cannot determine the ultimate value of the different worldviews, because the State does not have the competence to determine the ultimate truth value of a worldview (Lectures, 105).  In this way, principled pluralism seeks to protect fundamental liberties of conscience and worship within any nation. Regardless of whether the civil government and, thus, the State is governed by Protestants, Catholics, Muslims, Jews, or Secularists, principled pluralism argues that it is unjust for them to use the State's coercive power to eradicate the others. 

Nevertheless, although the State cannot and should not attempt to determine which worldview is ultimately correct, that does not imply that the policies of the civil government can be or should be morally or confessionally neutral. “The sphere of the State,” Kuyper declares, “is not profane” (Kuyper, Lectures, 104). As God’s creation and God's servant, the State and its authorities are accountable to the Triune God for the way they act (cf. Rom. 13:1-7). And the means by which it knows whether it is pursuing a society that is pleasing to God is God's Word, the Holy Scriptures.

Canadian House of Commons where, according to
principled pluralism, people from different worldviews
come to make the most persuasive case they can for what
their worldview views as most just for society. 
This does not mean that the institutional Church should usurp the position of the civil government. Instead, as Kuyper argued, it means that “both the State and the Church must, each in its own sphere, obey God and serve His honor. And to that end in either sphere God’s Word must rule, but in the sphere of the State only through the conscience of the persons invested with authority” (Ibid., emphasis original). In other words, although the institutional authorities within the sphere of the Church (i.e., ministers, councils, etc.) cannot and should not seek to govern the State, Christian voters and magistrates still have an obligation to use their Scripturally-informed consciences to govern in a way that honors God. As she casts her vote or issues her opinion on the Senate floor, the Christian citizen or magistrate must always hold in the forefront of her mind that “there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over, does not cry, 'Mine'" (Kuyper, "Sphere Sovereignty," p. 488). 


In this blog post, I have laid out what I take to be understanding of principled pluralism that the CRC has used to define its relationship to the State in the past. In a certain sense, however, I have not completed my task, because I have not provided any concrete examples as to how the CRC has done this. Accordingly, in the next post, I will show how the view of principled pluralism sketched above has found expression in the CRC's revision of Belgic Confession, Article 36 and I will show how the view of principled pluralism has guided the CRC's positive actions in recent history. And, finally, I will show in a following post that the Committee's version of principled pluralism deviates from this historic and confessional view, raising serious theological and practical problems for the CRC. 

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Synod 2016: Same-Sex Marriage Discussion (Introductions)

On Thursday, June 9th, delegates to the Christian Reformed Church Synod 2016 will descend by air and automobile on Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI. On their 776 page agenda, they will deal with a number of important issues facing the life and doctrine of their churches. They will vote on whether to endorse new liturgical forms for use in their churches (cf. Agenda 2016, 77-119). They will address the problem of a large number of pastor's getting 'divorced' from their churches due to irreconcilable conflicts. Again they will be asked to adopt the Belhar Confession as a fourth confession of the CRC. And they will take up a number of important recommendations from study committee reports, including reports on religious liberty and the doctrine of discovery.

Yet, perhaps the weightiest piece of business on Synod 2016's agenda comes from the Committee to Provide Pastoral Guidance re. Same-sex Marriage (SSM). This committee has produced two reports for the delegates consideration - a majority report and a minority report. And those reports have garnered overtures from 23 classes each calling for more or less (but mostly less) adoption of those reports and their recommendations.

Synod 2016 will meet in the Covenant Fine Arts Center (pictured above)
 at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI from June 10-17.
As a minister of the Word (a.k.a., Pastor) in the CRC and as a delegate to Synod 2016 I have spent a great deal of time researching and discussing the issue of same-sex marriage and the committee's work over the last several years. I have read Robert Gagnon's classic defense of the traditional Christian view of marriage, The Bible and Homosexual Practice. I spent at least a month last year in intensive study of James Brownson's argument for a revisionist understanding of marriage in his Bible, Gender, and Sexuality: Reframing the Church's Debate on Same-Sex Relationships. And I have sought to familiarize myself with the experiences and struggles of those who are same-sex attracted by listening to the personal journeys of people like Wesley Hill in Washed and Waiting and Spiritual Friendship: Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian as well as those described in Wendy Gritter's Generous Spaciousness: Responding to Gay Christians in the Church. Furthermore, over the years I have had the opportunity to interact with same-sex attracted people both at Princeton Seminary were I earned my M.Div in 2013 and recently in my position as a pastor. In all of this, I have attempted - in as much as a white, male, middle class, heterosexual, American, Spirit-filled, sinner-saved-by-grace can - to empathize and learn from those who are same-sex attracted and who struggle with the implications of that attraction.

Yet, like most CRC pastors and laypeople, I have not found the traditional Christian view of marriage lacking in rational justification. Despite some outdated language, I still find myself agreeing with the substance of the CRC's 1973 report on homosexuality and the CRC's 2002 report on pastoral care to same-sex attracted persons. Still, if James Brownson or Matthew Vines or some other advocate of same-sex marriage were to provide a compelling case for the revisionist view of marriage, I would hope to be persuaded.

It is with this background and perspective that I have taken up the committee's majority and minority reports on same-sex marriage (SSM) multiple times over the last few months. With regard to some issues, I found myself in support of what the committee had to say. I agree that the CRC should be a "welcoming community" for those who identify as LGBTQ. I agree that CRC churches and individual members should do more to promote the well-being of LGBTQ members and citizens by becoming anti-bullying advocates, by volunteering at youth shelters and on suicide hotlines, and above all by listening.

Nevertheless, I believe that there are a number of problems with both the majority and minority reports on SSM. And I believe that, if these problems are real and not just apparent, that they should lead other delegates to not adopt the committee's recommendations. Instead, I believe that we should seek another way forward - perhaps even (as Classis Wisconsin suggests in their Overture; Overture #31, Agenda 2016, p. 620) through the commissioning of a new study committee that will address the issues surrounding homosexuality, transgender, and marriage.

There are roughly five problems that I can see with the study committee's reports. Some of them are voiced in some of the overtures sent to Synod, but some of them are not. So, in the next few posts over the next week or so, I will attempt to explain as best as I can my reasons for not wanting to adopt the study committees reports. And we will begin with what I take to be the study committee's faulty view of Principled Pluralism and State authority.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

"In Christ Alone": The Controversy

The Decision

            In the last week, numerous bloggers have weighed in on the decision of the PCUSA’s Committee on Congregational Song to not include in their new hymnal the popular song, In Christ Alone. According to the chairperson of the committee, the committee wanted to include the song in the new hymnal, but they discovered that the version of the song they wanted to p
ublish was not acceptable to the copyright holders (and authors) of the song, Keith Getty and Stuart Townend. The point of contention: the committee wanted to publish a version of the song which replaced the line, “till on that cross when Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied” with the more amenable line “till on that cross when Jesus died, the love of God was magnified.” Keith Getty and Stuart Townsend insisted that the original line’s theological claim was too important for the committee to edit out. Accordingly, the committee was faced with making the decision whether to include in the hymnal the original version of the song or not. The committee decided against including the song by a vote of 9-6.

The Controversy 

            After the Committee on Congregational Song made its decision, bloggers such as Timothy George over at First Things and David French at The National Review depicted the committee’s decision as a betrayal of Christian orthodoxy. According to George and French, the committee’s decision is merely one more example in a long line of examples which shows that the PCUSA is governed by theological liberals who have insufficient ap
preciation for and commitment to the theological heritage of the Christian faith. Accordingly, they depict the committee as pushing a God of “squishy [liberal] love” onto their denomination’s more conservative - and more historically orthodox - congregations.
            Against these claims, the CRC’s own Greg Sheer has recently written on Scott Hoezee’s blog in defense of the committee’s decision. According to Sheer, “the real question is whether the PCUSA hymnal committee broke with orthodoxy when it voted not to include “In Christ Alone” because of the line ‘the wrath of God was satisfied.’” And, Sheer argues, the answer is obviously no. In support of this argument, Sheer points out that the new hymnal includes other songs which speak about the wrath and judgment of God, e.g., Eternal Judge, Rock of Ages, and Twila Paris’s Lamb of God. Therefore, for Sheer, those critics who would see in the committee’s decision the advent of the Anti-Christ are making a mountain out of a mole hill. 

My Appraisal

          I am inclined to agree to varying degrees with both sides of this debate. On the one hand, I believe that Sheer is correct to state that the orthodoxy of the PCUSA's committee is not compromised by their decision to reject the original version of  In Christ Alone. The editorial change to the song that the committee majority originally settled on is not heretical nor does it contradict the view that Christ died in order to save us from the wrath of God. At least, the Apostle Paul didn't think so. Paul writes that, "God shows his love for us in this that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Rom.5:8). And he concludes from this that, "Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God" (Rom. 5:9). So, the cross of Christ does magnify the love of God. And we might even say that the cross satisfies God's desire to communicate His love for His people. The committee's editorial change cannot, then, be seen per se as implying anything heretical.
        Someone might reasonably ask, however, whether the committee's decision to edit In Christ Alone implies some kind of heretical disposition on the committee's part? I think the answer must be no.There are many valid reasons that the committee might have had for not giving the song a place in the new hymnal. For example, the committee members could have reasoned that the hymnal already had enough songs and hymns making the connection between Christ's death and his propitiation of God's wrath such that another hymn including that theme was not necessary. Accordingly, Sheer is most definitely correct that the rejection of this song  is not in and of itself sufficient grounds for questioning the committee's orthodoxy. 
        But here we come to the real issue. We simply do not know what the reasons finally were for the committee's decision to reject the song In Christ Alone. The chairman of the committee, Mary Bringle, sketches some of the committee's arguments that were made both for and against the retention of the hymn, but she leaves us to wonder what exactly \the reasons were for not moving ahead with the original text. In short, there is a lack of transparency which - given the current theological crisis especially within the PCUSA - aggravates evangelical conservatives within the Church, especially when that lack of transparency militates against the inclusion of one of evangelical Christendom's most popular hymns.
         In her article, Mary Bringle says that the arguments both for and against the inclusion of In Christ Alone were carried out through e-mail and, so, the arguments are recorded. To quell the furor of this controversy might it not be in the committee's best interest to simply permit the wider church to see the arguments contained in those e-mails?
         There are, however, aspects of the committee's decision that seem to me to warrant some concern on the part of confessional Protestants both in the CRC and in other confessionally Reformed denominations. In particular, Mary Bringle writes in her article that those who were in favor of the inclusion of the song argued that the doctrine of Christ's sacrifice as a propitiation of God's wrath is within the bounds of Christian orthodoxy and "while this [doctrine] might not be [their own] personal view" the song should be included in the hymnal.
          As a confessionally Reformed Protestant and as a someone who takes subscription to the creeds and confessions of the CRC seriously, I could not but be shocked by this admission on the part of the committee's chairperson. As a matter of fact, the PCUSA's confessional position (as recorded in their Book of Confessions) is that Christ's death was a propitiation of God's wrath . For example, the PCUSA supposedly confesses its faith in the words of the Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 17 which teaches that Christ needed to be divine "so that by the power of his divinity he might bear as a man the burden of God’s wrath, and recover for us and restore to us righteousness and life." And supposedly the PCUSA still confesses its faith in the words of Westminster Larger Catechism Q&A 38 which teaches that God had to become incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ so that "[Christ] might sustain and keep the human nature from sinking under the infinite wrath of God." And finally the PCUSA supposedly still confesses its faith in the words of the Scots Confession when it says in chapter IX that "We confess and acknowledge...that [Christ] suffered not only the cruel death of the cross, which was accursed by the sentence of God; but also that he suffered for a season the wrath of his Father which sinners had deserved." Clearly, the public confession of the PCUSA's faith includes the belief that Christ's death was a propitiation of God's wrath. Thus, for a committee of the PCUSA - and no less important a committee than the one organizing the denominations new hymnal! - to have people on it who disagree with the denomination's public confession should cause some concern for those of us who want the Committee on Congregational Song to produce a document that upholds the confessional integrity of the Reformed tradition. In this respect, the furor over the rejection of In Christ Alone seems to me adequately justified.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Luther in Hermeneutical Context

David C. Steinmetz, Luther in Context. 2 ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1995). 
Amazon: $22.00 
               If my wife or another person in my family asks me what I would like for a birthday or Christmas present, nine times out of ten I will say books. Accordingly, every year I accumulate a number of (to my mind, at least) interesting books. Tearing away the wrapping, I marvel in the clean, crisp, covers. I read the back of the books, peruse the table of contents, thank the giver for the gift, and promptly put the book on the shelf. And there it sits...probably for a year or so until I get around to it.

                The book I have just finished reading sat on my shelf a tad longer than a year or two. David C. Steinmetz's Luther in Context (2nd Edition) was given to me as a Christmas present back in 2005. This was back in my "Gerhard O. Forde" phase of theology. When I went to college in 2006-2007 my relationship to Forde changed and I gradually drifted away from studying Luther and the 'Theology of the Cross'. Now I have returned to Luther, because I am interested in learning more about the hermeneutical theory and exegetical practices of the Protestant Reformers. In this review, I would like to point out what I take to be the strengths and weaknesses of Steinmetz's presentation of Luther's hermeneutical theory.

                Steinmetz shows how Luther's exegesis of Scripture - even into Luther's old age - was governed by Late Medieval hermeneutical theory. Although Luther prioritized the literal sense of a passage, he was not averse to seeing analogical, tropological, and spiritual meanings in the same passage.  And, though Luther contributed his own theological insights to the Christian exegetical tradition by the application of his "Law/Gospel" dynamic, Luther's exegetical questions were ones which he inherited  from his Late Medieval forebears (c.f., p. 153-154).

                What Steinmetz lifts out as most interesting about Luther's exegetical practices is his penchant for creating and developing the psychological lives of the Biblical characters. According to Steinmetz, "[Luther] is not merely interested in the bird on the dissection table; he wants to see and hear the bird on the wing. Analysis can clarify the text, but only synthesis can create the illusion of three-dimensionality that belongs to the text as a living narrative" (Luther in Context, 155). And Steinmetz suggests that Luther considers these psychologizing readings of the text as legitimate extensions of the literal sense of Scripture. Accordingly,  Steinmetz is even willing to say that, "The vehicle which Luther uses to convey theological truth [from Scripture] is [sometimes] the composition of theological fiction" (Luther in Context, 111).

                The only substantial negative criticism I have of the book is that Steinmetz does not clearly define what he means by the 'spiritual sense of Scripture'. Sometimes Steinmetz seems to imply that the spiritual sense is distinct from the other senses a passage may possess (i.e., literal, allegorical, tropological). In these cases, Steinmetz seems to suggest that the spiritual sense has something to do with seeing Christ in a particular Old Testament passage (p. 148, 152, 167). In another place, however, Steinmetz seems to indicate that this 'spiritual sense' belongs to the allegorical sense of the text (pp.103). Still other times, Steinmetz seem to imply that all the non-literal senses (i.e., allegorical, tropological) are different types of spiritual senses (p.166-167). Fortunately, it appears that Steinmetz clarifies his understanding of the spiritual sense of Scripture in his later book Calvin in Context. I am looking forward to seeing what Steinmetz actually means by the 'spiritual sense' of Scripture when I turn to that book.

                All in all, however, I have thoroughly enjoyed reading Steinmetz's Luther in Context (2nd Edition). Apart from discussing Luther's relationship to Late Medieval hermeneutical theory and practice, Steinmetz also has chapters which assess Luther's relationship to Late Medieval Thomism, Reformed theology, and Anabaptist theology. I would strongly encourage anyone who is interesting in learning more about Luther and the context in which he wrote to pick-up this book - perhaps even off your bookshelf- and give it a read.