An unscriptural binding

February 11, 2010

In recent years General Synods of the Canadian Reformed Churches have made decisions to establish ecclesiastical fellowship with a number of federations that either do not have or do not consistently maintain the Three Forms of Unity.  Specifically, in 1992 ecclesiastical fellowship was entered into with the Free Church of Scotland (FCS) and the Presbyterian Church of Korea (PCK).  In 2001 ecclesiastical fellowship was entered into with the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC), the Reformed Church in the United States (RCUS) and the United Reformed Church of North America (URC).  Finally, in 2007 ecclesiastical fellowship was entered into with the Reformed Church of New Zealand (RCNZ) and the L’Eglise Reformee du Quebec (ERQ).

The Presbyterian churches (the OPC, PCK and FCS) do not have the Three Forms of Unity, since they profess to adhere to the Westminster Standards.  In addition the others (the URC, RCUS, RCNZ and ERQ) do not bind their members to adhere to the Three Forms of Unity, but, as we shall see, permit teachings similar in content to the above Presbyterian churches.

A history lesson from 1944

We do not have to go too far back in history to see the consequences of a permission to teach and a binding to adhere to doctrine that is not taught in the Scriptures or the confessions of the church.  Over 65 years ago the Lord delivered His church in the Netherlands from bondage to unscriptural teachings on the covenant and baptism that were imposed upon the churches by the General Synods of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands in 1942 and 1943.

In summary, these General Synods taught false doctrines that were refuted by concerned reformed people as follows (see The Liberation: Causes and Consequences, edited by Dr. C. Van Dam, Appendix III, pages 123-124):

1) God establishes his covenant proper with the elect only.

Refutation:    God establishes His covenant with the believers and all their children (Genesis 17:7).

2) Baptism is a sign and seal of presumed regeneration.

Refutation:    Baptism is a sign and seal of God’s covenant (Matthew 28:19).

3) Baptism is based on internal grace, present in the heart of the elect child.

Refutation:    Baptism is based on the command and promise of God (Mark 16:16).

4) We ought to presume that the child to be baptized has been elected and regenerated.

Refutation:    We may confess that our children are included in God’s covenant and church (Acts 2:39, 3:25, and Heidelberg Catechism Answer 74).

5) We ought to presume that the child is sanctified in Christ.

Refutation:    We may confess that our children are sanctified in Christ (1 Corinthians 7:14).

6) Sanctified in Christ means the same as regenerated.

Refutation:    Sanctified in Christ means distinct from the world, included in God’s covenant and member of Christ’s church (Form for Baptism, First Question).

7) Only the elect children possess the full and unconditional promise of salvation.

Refutation:    All of the children of God’s covenant receive the same promise of God and are obliged to love and serve Him (Hebrews 12:16, Canons of Dort II.5).

8) Only the baptism of elect children is a full and true baptism.

Refutation:    Every legitimately administered baptism is a true and full baptism (1 Corinthians 10:1).

9) The covenant proper does not have covenant breakers and does not imply covenant wrath.

Refutation:    There is not only the blessing of the covenant but there is also the curse, namely for those who do not keep God’s covenant (Psalm 103:18, 1 Corinthians 10:5, Hebrews 4:2).

The real problem in the Reformed Churches prior to 1942 was that the above wrong doctrines were permitted as a result of the decisions of General Synod 1905.  For example, Synod 1905 decided “that it is, however, less correct [my emphasis] to say that baptism is administered to the children of believers on the ground of their presumed regeneration, since the ground of baptism is found in the command and the promise of God” (see Patrimony Profile, by Rev. W.W.J. VanOene, p. 230).

The term “less correct” gave some measure of legitimacy to these unscriptural doctrines (please note that “less correct” does not mean “incorrect”).  Prior to the imposition of the above General Synod decisions in 1942 and 1943, both the true and the false doctrines were permitted to be taught in the churches.  In this respect the Synod of 1905 sowed the seed for what happened in 1944 (see also My Path to Liberation, by Rev. D. Van Dijk, pages 82 and 83).

Binding or doctrine?

Some scholars have argued that the Liberation in 1944 was only liberation from the binding that was imposed upon the churches in 1942 and 1943. Dr. N. Gootjes asserts that, “The Liberation became necessary when the wrong doctrine was made binding” (see The Liberation: Causes and Consequences, edited by Dr. C. Van Dam, page 76).  However, Professor Geertsema writes later in the same book, “As far as I can see, our conclusion must be that in 1944 the churches liberated themselves not just from the synodical binding to wrong decisions containing a wrong doctrine but also from the wrong doctrine itself” (page 93).

After all, who would have a problem being bound to Scriptural doctrine?  And if the problem was merely the binding, why did the synodical and the liberated churches not reunite in 1959 when the binding was officially removed?  The reason was that the General Synod still clung to the legitimacy of these incorrect doctrinal pronouncements (see Schilder’s Struggle for the Unity of the Church, by Rudolph van Reest, page 360).

Some argue that Dr. Schilder and others who agreed with him could live with the unscriptural doctrine that was taught in the churches.  They even went so far as to state that those who promote this unscriptural doctrine do not deviate from Scripture or the Three Forms of Unity.  However from the history lesson above we can see that this is not the truth.

We should note that it was not so clear to people in 1905 or in the 1920’s or 1930’s, how serious this unscriptural doctrine was.  The overriding concern at Synod 1905 was the peace and unity of the churches, and we need to realize that this peace was achieved at the cost of a more serious split forty years later. Where are the synodical churches today?  And what happened to their members, and the offspring of these members who number in the hundreds of thousands?  Were not more than 90% of the church members lost to heretical teachings?

The history lesson applied to today

Have we learned anything in 65 years?  Or are we repeating the mistakes that were made 105 years ago?  It is a common saying that those who forget their history are doomed to relive it.  In the haste to establish “sister church” relationships with Presbyterian churches and other “Reformed” churches, the following “doctrinal divergencies” have been swept aside as “matters that can be discussed within the framework of ecclesiastical fellowship.”

1) Regarding the covenant of grace

Answer 31 of the Westminster Larger Catechism states that “The covenant of grace was made with Christ as the second Adam, and in him with all the elect as his seed.”  At the same time answer 166 of this same Catechism states that “Baptism is not to be administered to any that are out of the visible church, and so strangers from the covenant of promise, till they profess their faith in Christ, and obedience to him, but infants descending from parents, either both, or but one of them, professing faith in Christ, and obedience to him, are in that respect within the covenant, and to be baptized.

The Westminster Standards incorrectly distinguish between a covenant of grace and a covenant of promise.  They incorrectly take their starting point in a covenant of grace established with the elect and neglect the fact that the covenant of grace was established with believers and their seed (see Genesis 17:1-7, Acts 2:38-39, etc.).

            The URC Synod Schererville 2007 also rejected the “errors” of those “who teach that all baptized persons are in the covenant of grace in precisely the same way such that there is no distinction between those who have only an outward relation to the covenant of grace by baptism and those who are united to Christ by grace only through faith alone” (Acts, URC Synod 2007, Article 72).  Not only does this statement from the URC Synod condemn sound doctrine as heresy, but it also takes as starting point the same distinction that was identified above in the Westminster Standards and by the General Synods in 1942 and 1943.

            As we maintain in the Form for Infant Baptism “baptism is a seal and trustworthy testimony that we have an eternal covenant with God.”  And also, “Just as they share without their knowledge in the condemnation of Adam, so are they, without their knowledge, received into grace in Christ.”

            Dr. Faber writes, “If one lets the doctrine of election dominate the doctrine of God’s covenant, then the real or proper covenant is established with the elect.  One can then not speak about breakers of God’s covenant and one can then also not fully proclaim the threat of eternal damnation for children of the covenant.  If the unconditional promise of eternal salvation is only for the elect, one can not proclaim that the good news has to meet with faith in the hearers and that the Israelites were unable to enter the promised land because of unbelief.  One can also not warn for an evil heart of unbelief (Hebrews 3:12 and 19ff)” (see The Liberation: Causes and Consequences, edited by Dr. C. Van Dam, page 19).

2) Regarding the assurance of faith

Chapter 18.3 of the Westminster Confession of faith disconnects assurance and faith by stating that “This infallible assurance doth not so belong to the essence of faith, but that a true believer may wait long, and conflict with many difficulties before he be a partaker of it.”  Answer 81 of the Westminster Larger Catechism also mirrors this by stating that “Assurance of grace and salvation not being of the essence of faith, true believers may wait long before they obtain it.

            The above statements contradict the Heidelberg Catechism, which gives us so much assurance in Lord’s Day 1, and also states in Lord’s Day 7, answer 21, that “True faith is a sure knowledge whereby I accept as true all that God has revealed in His Word.  At the same time it is also a firm confidence that not only to others, but also to me, God has granted forgiveness of sins, everlasting righteousness, and salvation, out of mere grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merits.  This faith the Holy Spirit works in my heart by the gospel."

3) Regarding the visible and invisible church

The terminology used in Chapter 25 of the Westminster Confession of Faith, referring to both an invisible and visible church, is consistent with its covenant terminology.  However as Reformed believers we confess the existence of a catholic or universal church that “has existed from the beginning of the world and will be to the end” “although for a while it may look very small and as extinct in the eyes of man.”  There can be no practical application of the doctrine of the “invisible church” since “all and everyone are obliged to join it and unite with it” (Articles 27 and 28 of the Belgic Confession).

            When we consider what we confess in articles 27 through 29 of the Belgic Confession, can we find support for the doctrine of the “invisible church”?  Does such a church have office-bearers and show the marks of the true church as we confess them in Article 29?  Who has supervision over the members of the “invisible church?”  If the covenant of grace is established with members of the “invisible church,” how does this covenant function in the life of the believer here on earth?  How can we speak of the fulfillment of covenant promises and covenant obligations in the context of an “invisible church?”

            It’s impossible.  Just as the doctrine of a “covenant of grace established with the elect” cannot function in the life of the believer on earth, neither can the doctrine of an “invisible church.”  As Professor J.M. Batteau writes, “For Schilder in his mature thinking, God makes His covenant with believers and their children.  There are not two sides of this covenant, in the sense of a substance and a form, but rather two reactions to the single covenant of grace, one of obedience and another of disobedience.  Children of believers are not merely to be regarded as in the (inner, substantial) covenant, but they are genuinely and really in the (nondualistic) covenant.”  He also writes, “Fearing the use of an invisible church theory construed in terms of all the elect, Schilder received stimulus from various sources to see the covenant in a different way.  In a polemical address criticizing the Dutch Reformed Church in 1935, Schilder lays emphasis on ‘covenant faithfulness’ as constituent to the ‘church as mother.’  Over against the ‘quietism’ in the Dutch Reformed Church, Schilder says that covenant faithfulness leads to institutional church faithfulness.  This is no passive thing but part of our responsibility as believers” (Always Obedient, Essays on the Teachings of Dr. Klaas Schilder, Edited by Professor J. Geertsema, pages 80 and 79).

4) Regarding the pluriformity of the church

This same Chapter 25 of the Westminster Confession of Faith also advocates the doctrine of the more or less pure church.  In fact, all of the above churches adhere to a “denominational theory of the church.” This theory permits thinking about more or less pure churches that goes beyond the strictures of the Three Forms of Unity.  Under this theory churches that do not maintain infant baptism, for example, would be considered less pure churches, however their members could still be admitted to the Lord’s Supper as guests. 

Already in the 1930’s and 1940’s this was an issue.  As Rev. D. Van Dijk wrote, “The doctrine of pluriformity is nowhere to be found in our confessions; on the contrary the confessions leave no room for such a notion.  Yet preaching the doctrine of pluriformity was permitted: whoever did so had no reason to fear official disapproval from our ecclesiastical assemblies” (My Path to Liberation, page 224).

After all, who is required to separate from a less pure church?  And on what basis can one call a less pure church to repentance?  Instead this doctrine undermines the call to separate from the false church and to unite with the true church as we confess it in Article 28 of the Belgic Confession (see also Revelation 18:4).

The implications of this history

When Canadian Reformed consistories permit ministers of the above federations to preach on their pulpits, they permit the teaching of the above unscriptural doctrines in the Canadian Reformed Churches, just as was done in 1905.  The permission of such teaching is contrary to their task, which is indicated in Article 27 of the Church Order as follows:

            To ward off false doctrines and errors which could enter the congregation and constitute a danger to its purity of doctrine or conduct, the ministers and elders shall use the means of instruction, of refutation, of warning, and of admonition, in the ministry of the Word as well as in Christian teaching and family visiting.

To all appearances, just as in 1905, the Three Forms of Unity continue to constitute the Reformed faith that is professed by the members of the Canadian Reformed Churches.  It seems that the elders continue to use the above means to safeguard the purity of doctrine.  After all, formal confessional subscription continues to be maintained.

But don’t be deceived.  This deception also occurred in 1905, which is why the 1905 decision was called a “pacification formula.”  Later, in 1942, the deception was taken away.  Then the general synod made a blatant doctrinal pronouncement relating to presumptive regeneration that was binding upon all the members.  All could read it and all could see it.  But what is now happening in the Canadian Reformed Churches?  Wherever consistories accept these general synod decisions, which include permission of the teaching of the above unscriptural doctrines in their congregations, the members are deceived.  The Three Forms of Unity are not functioning any more as “forms for unity.”

In 1944 there was a clear liberation from bondage to these unscriptural doctrines.  Then the Lord delivered His church from the unscriptural binding to wrong doctrines.  However in 1977, when the OPC was declared to be a true church, and in 1992, 2001 and 2007, when sister church relationships were established with the above federations, this liberation was quietly pushed aside and undermined, little by little.  Just as in 1905, there came again a return to the bondage of unscriptural doctrines.  The Word is no longer being proclaimed in all its purity.  The deliverance from these unscriptural doctrines that was gained in 1944 has now been completely surrendered.

The result is a return to an unscriptural binding to doctrine that is not taught either in the Word of God or in the Three Forms of Unity.  And such a binding is not acceptable for those who wish to be obedient to His Word.

I pray that the Lord may yet grant liberation to those who have been deceived by these unscriptural general synod decisions, and that we all together may “worship in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24).

J. Vantil