The Form of Subscription Revision Committee Report
The history of the functioning of the Form of Subscription (FOS) in the Christian Reformed Church is a story about our denomination’s determination to be and remain a confessional church. This is highlighted in the narrative of the history of the FOS as given in Report 38 of the Acts of Synod 1976, which concludes with this sentence: It may be said that the adoption and use of the traditional FOS has been an integral part of the CRC’s history as an orthodox, conservative, confessional church (Acts of Synod 1976, p. 561).
Here we start with the recognition that the FOS is intrinsically tied up with being a confessional Church. Would such a observation lead one to determine that it is entirely possible that since this is true that it is somewhat likely that should someone mess with the FOS they would at the same time be found tinkering with the Confessional nature of the CRC?
We believe two assumptions underlie this determination. The first is that a confessional church’s identity and mission always arise out of a specific heritage of understanding (“standing under”) the Scripture. In the case of the CRC, this heritage is the interpretation of Scripture as given in the historic creeds of the early church: the Apostles Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed as well as the confessions of the church of the Reformation: the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dordt, sometimes referred to as the three forms of unity. These creeds and confessions were acknowledged to be so constitutive of our identity and so critical to our mission in the world that continuity with them must be preserved. In other words, the church believed it must remain orthodox in order to be the church.
It is certainly true that that ‘a confessional church’s identity and mission always arise out of a specific heritage of understanding the Scripture.’ But it is even more true to say that a confessional church’s identity and mission always arise out of a specific heritage of God’s revelation as given in Scripture. You see the emphasis of the committee falls on human understanding gained in a particular historical situatedness while the emphasis of my statement emphasizes God’s ability to communicate His truth and build His Church trans-historically and trans-culturally. Second, we must keep in mind that it is because of how people understand or don’t understand God’s Word that accounts for their ‘specific heritage of understanding the Scripture’ not their specific heritage of understanding that accounts for how they do or do not understand God’s Word.
The second assumption is that the CRC viewed its orthodox identity to be so tenuous and its mission in the world so fraught with danger that a regulating instrument needed to be employed to keep us orthodox. The FOS, adopted essentially unchanged from its initial draft at the 1619 Synod of Dordt, was taken to be this regulating instrument. This assumption is evident in the statement made by Synod 1976 in its response to the overture of Dr. Harry Boer that, ‘the FOS is not intended primarily as the instrument by which the church examines its confessions in the light of Scripture and provides for the orderly revisions of the confessions. It is rather the instrument for safeguarding the administration of the Word and the government of the church in harmony with the confession’ (Acts of Synod 1976, p. 577).
Reformed Churches for 500 years have adopted subscriptionist procedures. I am not sure that such an arrangement proves that they believed that their identity to be tenuous or their mission in the world was fraught with danger. It may only prove that they wanted a procedure in place that would provide a means to make sure everybody in the choir would sing from the same sheet of music.
Our committee believes that from 1976 on, the history of the FOS indicates that the first assumption remains true (that a church’s identity and mission arise out of a specific heritage) while the second (that a regulatory instrument is needed to keep us orthodox) is increasingly being called into question. Increased cultural and ethnic diversity, the increase in new church plants, and the cultural moment often described as postmodernism are among the factors raising these questions.
Well, I agree that no promissory note, by itself, can keep a denomination orthodox unless there exists a will by those in the denomination to bring consequences upon those who violate the vows.
Second, if a specific heritage is challenged enough by the new cultural moment does the church’s definition of ‘orthodoxy’ change with the advent of a new heritage growing out of the new cultural moment? And if the answer to that question is ‘yes’ would such a change mean a moving away from the old specific heritage that required a precise form of subscription to a new ‘covenant of ordination’ that better reflected the new heritage?
It seems clear to our committee that, historically, the FOS has functioned negatively to effectively shut down discussion on various confessional issues rather than positively to encourage the ongoing development of the confessions in the life of the church. In other words, the FOS has been used to define a standard of purity in the church more than being a witness to unity. The variety of issues with signing the Form of Subscription as well as attempts to change it indicate that office bearers today desire to be more guided and less silenced by the confessional documents.
OK… here is where it gets really dicey.
First the current FOS, in the fourth paragraph, does allow for conversation. Indeed, upon my reading the current FOS encourages conversation. It even reminds those who want to talk about possibly disputed points in the three forms of unity of their appeal process should they believe that they have been unduly silenced in lower church courts.
Second I believe the whole notion of standard of purity vs. witness of unity is a false dichotomy. It is precisely because it is a standard of purity that it can be a witness of unity. Can two or three walk together (unity) except they be agreed (purity)?
Third, one wonders what ‘the ongoing development of the confessions in the life of the church,’ means. In a post-modern context that could mean that we are going to discover that the confessions are going to develop so that they don’t mean what we always thought they meant. I guess living in times where deconstruction has become a byword in our Universities I get a little nervous when I read about the ‘ongoing development of the confessions …’
Fourth the last sentence in the immediate above quote is a logical fallacy that is called a hasty generalization. One could as easily say that the refusal to change the FOS to date reveals that office bearers are satisfied with the current FOS.
Fifth if it is the case that office bearers today desire to be more guided and less silenced by the confessions does that mean that the ability to be more guided and less silenced by the confessions results in office bearers who will be more vocal in thinking themselves free to disagree with where the confessions are trying to guide them? And if they do disagree with the guidance does that mean anything or is that just an example of Confessional development?
Many people in the church continued to wrestle with this issue. In 2003 as a part of a dissertation for his master of theology degree at Calvin Theological Seminary, Rev. Ken Nydam sent out a survey to seventy new church development (NCD) church pastors and fifty established church development (ECD) church pastors within the CRC, seventy of which were returned. (An Historical and Theological Assessment of the Problems with the Form of Subscription in New Church Development in the Christian Reformed Church of North America [Calvin Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, Michigan, May 2003]). Nydam concluded that while all churches want to retain some kind of doctrinal covenant for the CRC many churches also wonder, if a document that was originally conceived in a historical context of intra-church skirmishes that had political ramifications can be applied to our contemporary mission environment� (Nydam 2003, 13).
The only thing here to say is that this is an open question that needs concrete examples. Why can’t the FOS be applied to our contemporary mission environment? What is it, (chapter and verse please) about the FOS that makes it difficult to apply to our contemporary mission environment? From the document itself what is the sticking point?
IV.) Rationale for the proposed Form of Subscription rewrite
We confess that Scripture is the Word of God. It is utterly trustworthy and reliable in all issues pertaining to faith and life. However, our understanding of it is always limited and in need of refinement. In the words of missiologist Leslie Newbigin,
The responsibility of the church is to declare to each generation what is the faith. This is always a fresh task in every generation. No verbal statement can be produced which relieves the Church of the responsibility continually to re-think and re-state its message. No appeal to creeds and confessions can alter the fact that the Church has to state in every new generation how it interprets the historic faith and how it relates to the new thought and experience of its time. It belongs to the essence of a living Church that it should be able and willing to do so.
(The Reunion of the Church: A Defense of the South India Scheme,
�London: SCM, 1948, 137-38)
No one could disagree with this as long as what is being re-thought and re-stated has continuity with both Scripture and what has been thought and stated before. I mean, Arminius would have insisted that he was just re-thinking and re-stating Scripture’s message. Obviously then not all re-thinkings and re-statings are equal. What standard shall we use to measure our re-thinkings and re-statings if not Scripture and the Confessions as they faithfully communicate Scripture?
The four-hundred year old FOS has traditionally been viewed as being the hallmark of a confessional church. However, the many years of conflicted discussion about the FOS in the CRC reveal the need for a doctrinal covenant more in harmony with current realities. We cannot afford to be more concerned about historical integrity than current expression. Ironically, it has been under the current FOS’s stern watch that a significant and increasing neglect of the confessions has occurred.
First, the many years of conflicted discussion may not reveal the need for the kind of change proposed by the committee. The many years of conflicted discussion could reveal instead that people don’t want to be Reformed, or the many years of conflicted discussion could reveal instead that nobody wants to enforce the FOS.
Second is the committee saying that the four hundred year old tradition of a FOS isn’t or shouldn’t be a hallmark of a confessional Church? Has the committee decided that it is possible for a Church to remain confessional without a FOS? Does the committee have any examples where Churches have remained confessional who dispensed with the strong commitment that comes with signing a FOS?
Third, does the idea about being more concerned with current expression over against historical integrity not communicate some kind of generational arrogance? Reformed people have always been a people who have managed to be relevant (current expression) precisely because they understand how the past is prologue.
Fourth, the last sentence in the quote above is another logical fallacy. This time it is the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy. All because a neglect of the Confessions has occurred doesn’t in any way prove that it is the fault of the FOS. There could be a host of reasons why neglect has arisen that doesn’t have one whit to do with the FOS.
Fifth, notice also the biased language. The FOS has been on a stern watch. Who wants something looking over their shoulders that is stern?
Our committee believes that a helpful way to view the confessions is to regard them as true snapshots in time of the church’s self-understanding as it wrestled with Scripture in the light of contemporary issues. Understood in this way, the confessions offer deeply grounded guidance to the contemporary church by linking us to the past and reminding us to pay attention to what has been deemed vital in the past. However, there must be ongoing reflection and development as the church constantly seeks to explain what faithfulness to the gospel looks like in its time and place. Synod itself recognized this when it called for an update of Our World Belongs to God: A Contemporary Testimony because it serves as a dynamic statement of faith [that] must be periodically reviewed and perhaps revised if it is to speak contemporaneously. (Acts of Synod 2005, p. 734).
I believe that a helpful way to view this committees work is to regard it as a true snapshot in time of the committees self-understanding as it wrestled with the FOS in the light of contemporary issues. Other committees might be formed that would give us other snapshots. Therefore we shouldn’t take the committee’s recommendations to seriously because, after all, they are only snapshots.
Once again I find nothing in the FOS that prohibits ongoing reflection and even development. If somebody wants to develop the three forms of unity then all they have to do is come to Classis and explain their superior development and if they are clearly correct then the Confessions will develop.
Next, concretely speaking what does ‘deeply grounded guidance’ mean, and what happens if a office bearer rejects the ‘deeply grounded guidance’ they find in the confessions?