So the backstory goes something like this. The denomination I am a pastor in, the Christian Reformed Church, is what theologians call a confessional church. That is, as a denomination, we say we believe certain very specific things, summarized in three documents we call the Confessions, written mostly in the sixteenth century. These are the Heidelberg Catechism, the Canons of Dordt, and the Belgic Confession. The doctrines found in the Confessions are supposed to be the reasons we give others for why we’ve chosen to be Christian Reformed.
Well, actually, the vast majority of Christian Reformed people are so because they were born that way, and enjoy the community benefits of staying that way. Rodney Stark can explain the sociological reasons why that is so. And unfortunately, most Christian Reformed people have only a passing familiarity with the Confessions. Among those who actually know the Confessions, I run into more and more people—mostly fellow pastors—who are not convinced that the Confessions get it mostly right.
It gets more complicated. Whatever reservations pastors or other official office bearers in the Christian Reformed Church might have about the Confessions, we’re supposed to “subscribe,” to them. That means we’re supposed to publicly affirm that the doctrines (if not how, exactly, they’re formulated) are true. Some people, some time ago, thought that such subscription was too tough, and that many people were signing the Form of Subscription with their fingers crossed, so to speak. So we needed a new form.
Well, years later, Synod (the annual meeting of the Church) is being asked to approve a new Form of Subscription. But it isn’t much of an improvement over the old one, if at all. When office bearers sign it, I’m guessing there will still be a lot of people who do it with crossed fingers. Loosening the form of subscription has proved nearly impossible because many in the church see that as caving in to liberalism (as if that would necessarily be worse than caving into modern Evangelicalism or Fundamentalism).
Now, I've always thought that a confession, in its plain English sense, was something that lived in your heart and thus needed to find expression on your lips. Our Confessions—in spite of brave attempts to rewrite them in contemporary English—don’t do that. There is too much there, too linear, too certain, too abstract, and so on—for people to actually be able to confess the Confessions anymore. They fail as expressions of piety, unless you are talking about short snatches in them, like the Heidelberg Catechism’s description of our only comfort in life and in death: “That we are not our own, but belong, body and soul, to our faithful savior Jesus Christ.”
What the Confessions are good for is defining orthodoxy and theological boundaries. That means that their main function in the church—other than being used for educational purposes—is coercive. They keep people in line and keep the church pure (theologically, of course, though they also help keep us mostly Dutch and Korean).
What I wish is that we could find some new category for the Confessions that would give them some educational prominence, but take away their coercive edge. We could create a category of documents "even more important to our tradition than Berkhof's Systematic Theology" (another touchstone of real scholastic Reformed orthodoxy). We could, in other words, honor them, learn from them, but not be bound by them. The only official confession we really need anymore, as far as I can tell, is the one scripture suggests in Romans 10:9: Jesus is Lord.
Giving the Confessions some sort of status as teaching documents in the Christian Reformed Church would allow us to have a traditional Reformed anchor without presuming that they got it all right 400 years ago. Of course, that isn't practical, some will say. If we change the Form of Subscription, people will be angry, they’ll leave the church. They'll make threats. They'll make judgments. There will be schism. People who say so are probably right. Remember, after all, that the main function of these Confessions today is coercion. They make great clubs. We're in a pickle.
It all sort of reminds me of how some "Old First" churches plateau at a certain level. Change becomes impossible with its present membership because too many people have a stake—in the organ, or the pews, or a coffee break program that is only working for retired women, or whatever. So some members leave and start a new church where they can get with the times, and it flourishes. You know, unless a seed dies . . .
Well, as a Confessional church we're stuck with Old First's great memories and all of its problems, too. Meanwhile, our plateau days are past and we're actually in slow decline. Change has become impossible, unless it is change that sanctifies the language of modern commerce, such as Home Missions foisting "Enterprize Zones" on us. That's almost blasphemous!
Sure, some traditional Reformed congregations are flourishing. But anecdotal evidence is very unreliable. After all, many traditional Reformed congregations are dying, too. Maybe it isn’t the Confessions that explains either trend. And anyway, if you look around, there are at least a few churches of all stripes (including more than a few liberal ones) flourishing somewhere. Ironically, the Mormon denomination, interestingly enough—is usually growing fastest of all. And they don't have confessions--they have a whole other Holy book!
No, I fear we're stuck. The Christian Reformed Church will muddle on. But the Confessions will never live again in this denomination the way they did when they were written. We'll just keep on pretending, though, that they might. And we'll keep using them as a means of last resort to make people sit up straight and behave.