Coercion?

Scott Hoezee Uncategorized 9 Comments

Perhaps not all readers of “The Twelve” will be aware of it but in some circles within the Christian Reformed Church these past ten days there’s been some serious dust-ups surrounding “The Form of Subscription.” The Form is the document CRCNA pastors, elders, deacons, and also Calvin College and Seminary professors sign to indicate their ascent to the version of the Reformed faith that gets taught in the Confessions: The Heidelberg Catechism, The Belgic Confession, and the Canons of Dort.   The most immediate conversations were sparked by an editorial in the Banner by editor Bob DeMoor to which former “The Twelve” blogger Jamie Smith fired off a very impassioned response.   Since then the Facebook page for Christian Reformed pastors has been lit up with multiple posts–usually very long posts (including my own, I confess!)–as pastors from all over North America have shared thoughts.   Curiously, although this by no means counts as scientific evidence, my own observation on this conversation has confirmed Smith’s contention that it’s mostly Baby Boomers with a 1960’s hangover who chafe under the allegedly constricting nature of signing on to 400-year old Confessions whereas the younger set of Gen-X and Millennials are far more willing (even happy) to embrace a confessional position.  Indeed, just about every former student who graduated from my seminary since 2005 and with whom I am friends on Facebook has embraced Smith’s position over against DeMoor’s editorial.

Interesting.    But as I have been caught up in these conversations, I’ve been struck by the number of people who tend to refer to signing the Form and having these guiding Confessions as being mostly all about a distasteful matter of coercive force.   The Confessions whack people to stay in line and whack them over the head even harder if they stray over any one of the hundreds of lines the Confessions draw on a variety of biblical-theological themes.  

Well and of course, there is a regulative function to the Confessions.  For the sake of biblical clarity and faithful proclamations of the Gospel, the Confessions put up guardrails to keep our biblical-theological vehicles on the main road.  But I’ve not generally regarded the guardrail quality of the Confessions as coercive so much as helpful, as clarifying.  At least I know what the issues are and how our neck of the Reformed woods want to articulate them.   And if I take a different view over a substantial matter in those Confessions, there are ways to address that.   It may not be easy, may not happen often, but the avenues of challenge exist (even as within the boundaries of the Confessions there is, IMHO, lots and lots of room for fruitful questioning and prodding of the issues that would not require a person to get booted from the church).

Yet there are many who chafe of late, who complain long and loud that these Confessions are just flat out coercive.   But let me float an observation–a kind of theory–that came to me the other day in the midst of typing up some Facebook reply or another: It struck me that the people who find the Confessions coercive are the same people (generally) who so clearly dislike what’s in the Confession in the first place.   It’s rather like marriage: what kind of a spouse regards his or her nuptial vows to be restrictive, to clip the wings of one’s freedom?   Well, it’s not typically the spouse who remains committed to and deeply in love with his wife or her husband.  No, the one who wants more freedom, more of an open marriage, is the one who’s not so sure anymore, who’s maybe got some past dalliances to deal with in the first place (it’s rumored that John Edwards asked Elizabeth for an open marriage at one point.   This has been denied by Edwards but given what he had going on on the side . . .).

The Confessions are not perfect and they are most assuredly nowhere near being on a par with God’s Word.  They don’t always say things the way I’d prefer.   Here and there they make claims that are really difficult to deal with (but not a few of those claims are things the Bible here and there says, too, in passages that are also perplexing).   But as in a good marriage, when you love the Confessions as I do and as many whom I know do, then although you know the marriage is not perfect, although there are things your spouse does and has done for years that still drive you clean up a wall, although you even argue now and then (and even occasionally let the sun set on your anger), in the context of the larger loving relationship and the commitment you have to each other, those things are not deal breakers.   Even in moments of genuine vexation with your spouse, you don’t regard your marriage vow as coercive on you, as foreclosing all kinds of options for other activities that you really want to exercise.

This is by no means a perfect analogy (and no doubt some may point this out to me in oh so many ways) but I’d liken it to also my commitment to the Bible as God’s holy and inspired Word.  I love Scripture.   I have no desire to depart from its teachings.   But the Book of Joshua bothers me.   I don’t like Ananias and Sapphira getting zapped dead.  The Book of Revelation seems to have caused as much loopiness in church history as solid reflection and helpful guidance.    Like certain habits that may drive a spouse to distraction or certain viewpoints held by your spouse that you’ve never fully embraced yourself, these things nettle but in love they don’t derail your nuptial commitment nor make you feel coercively stuck on account of that promise you made some sunny June afternoon way back when.  So also my love for and commitment to the Bible means I deal with some of this other stuff and I do it in love.

As good old I Corinthians 13 reminds us, love puts up with a lot but when it’s genuine, such love and the commitment it brings forth in love never feel coercive, restrictive, punitive.

Or that’s what I’m thinking at the moment after a busy week of slogging through all this Confessional stuff with my colleagues. . .    To be continued.

Comments 9

  1. To borrow and alter some G.K. Chesterton (Don’t tell Gilbert; he wouldn’t like me doing this):
    “[CRC] doctrine and discipline may be walls; but they are the walls of a playground. Christianity is the only frame which has preserved the pleasure of Paganism. We might fancy some children playing on the flat grassy top of some tall island in the sea. So long as there was a wall round the cliff's edge they could fling themselves into every frantic game and make the place the noisiest of nurseries. But the walls were knocked down, leaving the naked peril of the precipice. They did not fall over; but when their friends returned to them they were all huddled in terror in the centre of the island; and their song had ceased.”

    PS: I love the CRC, and I'm 33 years old. Grace and Peace. Further Up and Further In!

  2. Thanks, Scott. I too believe that it is generational. I suspect the generation is a generation older in the (eastern) RCA. The RCA professors and students at New Brunswick Seminary show a far greater love for and allegiance to the Reformed Confessions than was the case when I was a student there thirty years ago. I haven't studied the new CRC Form of Subscription, but I'm surprised at how radical a change from the old one it represents. Is the RCA Declaration better perhaps? When I was young I used to say that "you could drive a truck through it," I know, and you can, but not a very big truck if the declarer and the respective classis both have integrity. Might it be helpful for the CRC to think more in terms of "constitution" than it does? (And less about ideology.) And to your point, Scott, which I think is right on, I can remember having a discussion with one of those De Moors on the relative value of Kuyperianism, and him saying to me (to my surprise), "Who cares about the Belgic Confession!" It would be interesting to follow through on Jim Bratt's classification of four types of Calvinist, and so how they have developed in the century since. Not to mention the comparative evolutions of the Hervormde and Gereformeerde Kerken after the War.

  3. "Curiously, although this by no means counts as scientific evidence, my own observation on this conversation has confirmed Smith's contention that it's mostly Baby Boomers with a 1960's hangover who chafe under the allegedly constricting nature of signing on to 400-year old Confessions whereas the younger set of Gen-X and Millennials are far more willing (even happy) to embrace a confessional position. Indeed, just about every former student who graduated from my seminary since 2005 and with whom I am friends on Facebook has embraced Smith's position over against DeMoor's editorial."

    So, Scott, what's the implication here? That if younger people embrace the Reformed confessions, they must be, to use an outdated phrase, as we Boomers are condemned to do, way cool? That young is good and old is bad? And where did that assumption come from? Isn't it, more than criticism of the confessions, a 1960's hangover? After all, we were the generation that first said, "Don't trust anyone over 30." There may be a shift in the CRC but I suspect it has less to do with generations per se and more to do with the fact that in the intervening 40+ years from the late 60's to the present time most of the critics of the confessions have left the CRC for balmier climes, leaving a shrunken and for more conservative CRC behind. Something of the same things has happened to the Republican party.

  4. As a Calvin sem graduate from '2005 and later', I guess I don't represent one of the 'young and enthustiastic' about the Confessions.

    Given all the provisos Scott himself has to make here about issues with the Confessions, I am wondering if he himself is. (Though it is understood that to maintain one's position in the institution, one finds a way to convince oneself).

    I am not a boomer (I guess Gen X is the term), so I don't have left over anti-authoritarianism left over from the 60's (before my time). I just simply wonder if it makes sense to have 'guard rails', as if we are all just learning to drive and can't be trusted to actually stay on the road. I think there are far far more Gen X-ers and Millenials who are interested in the destination (the Kingdom of God) than they are in wasting time in all this banter about, from their perspective, irrelevant doctrinal controversies from the middle ages that we've codified as the best means to knowing God or understanding the text when we all know that simply isn't true. The problem is, most of these younger people I'm talking about aren't in the CRC, and simply don't want the institutional stuff that comes along with middle-to-the-right denominations. They have a kingdom impulse, and that means living like Jesus in real and practical ways without wasting energy on uninteresting and obscure theological disputes. To many of them, all of this seems like arguing about the best kind of seatbelts while the car is still sitting in the driveway.

    As De Moor's piece in the Banner noted, we simply have better tools today for understanding the text, so why limit ourselves to documents from 500 and 600 years ago which arose out of a process (some would say less than ideal) we may not even affirm anymore as the best means to understanding the text?

    The problem with such guard rails is that they really turn out to be 'training wheels' that insult people who are actually interested in going somewhere. We end up losing a John Suk (and many others), such as Clay Libolt notes:

    There may be a shift in the CRC but I suspect it has less to do with generations per se and more to do with the fact that in the intervening 40+ years from the late 60's to the present time most of the critics of the confessions have left the CRC for balmier climes, leaving a shrunken and for more conservative CRC behind. Something of the same thing has happened to the Republican party.

    One example commented on my blog post, Losing Our Religion, was from a former Calvin Sem grad who has left to find 'balmier climes'. I posted it separately: Saving Institutions. It is worth the read.

  5. (Sorry, Brian. The system marked it as spam and I only just stumbled on it today. It's posted now. Apologies for the delay.)

  6. "As De Moor's piece in the Banner noted, we simply have better tools today for understanding the text"
    Certainly we have numerous advantages for understanding the text over previous generations. One of our chief advantages over the previous generations, though, is the work that the previous generations did. Why stand at my own level when I can climb onto the shoulders of the giants who came before me and get a little better view of things?

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