Yesterday I described various views regarding the Liberation that happened in the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands in 1944. In the CanRC community, ’44 is often held forth as an important lesson in what goes wrong when too much power gets invested in synods and when synods make binding doctrinal statements. So, when Synod Schererville 2007 gave its “pastoral advice” on matters pertaining to Federal Vision, many alarm bells went off among CanRC folk. The Nine Points were like 1944 Redivivus. It’s time to start reassessing that.
In this regard, three important things happened at the URCNA Synod in London. First, the Nine Points were reevaluated and reaffirmed. The Nine Points stand. Second, the Justification/Federal Vision study committee report was adopted received — apparently with unanimity. The question is: what is the status of these two items? That’s where Overture 14 comes into play. This overture sought clarification on the meaning and status of doctrinal affirmations, pastoral advice, and adopted received committee study reports.
From the reports I’ve read (here and here) there was extensive discussion about this matter, but no conclusion. It appears that the matter was committed to the Synodical Rules Committee. I assume that they will report back to the next Synod. But let’s see what the advisory committee recommended regarding the definition of pastoral advice (which is what the Nine Points are):
2. Pastoral Advice: Pastoral Advice is the application of the Scriptures and the Confessions in response to particular circumstances in the churches.
2.1 Pastoral Advice expresses the collective wisdom of Synod to guide the churches in their pastoral care. It may not serve as grounds in matters of discipline.
2.2 Pastoral Advice should be received with reverence and respect. It would be unwise to contradict or disregard Pastoral Advice in preaching or writing.
2.3 Pastoral Advice may be appealed as outlined in Church Order Articles 29 and 31. (Regulations for Synodical Procedure 3.4 and Appendix B)
I would especially call your attention to 2.1. Pastoral advice (such as the Nine Points) “may not serve as grounds in matters of discipline.” That was the direction the advisory committee wished to move in — it was not adopted by Synod 2010 (at least not that I’ve seen reported).
Now that direction is something quite a bit different than what we saw yesterday with 1944 and the events leading up to it. For instance, K. Schilder was deposed by a Synod for refusing to teach the Kuyperian doctrine that had been imposed on the Reformed churches. Now aside from the question of a Synod carrying out discipline of office bearers, we can see that in that situation there was a binding that was regarded as grounds for discipline. That’s something different than where we see the URCNA apparently going with “pastoral advice.”
Of course, it could happen that the URCNA Synodical Rules Committee turns around and recommends that “pastoral advice” should be grounds for matters of discipline. Maybe the next Synod will even adopt it. But I doubt it because, believe it or not, there are historical sensibilities in the URCNA. It was evident in how the Synod chairman spoke in regards to Overture 14. He warned that schism could result if this matter is not handled carefully.
Here’s the thing: we in the CanRC can’t see the spectre of Abraham Kuyper and his epigones (I always wanted to use that word!) behind nearly everything the URCNA does. When it comes to covenant theology and baptism, most of their (vocal) theologians are not drawing on Kuyper, but on sources far earlier. I’ve heard no one arguing for baptism on the basis of presumed regeneration! When it comes to church polity, the historical circumstances leading up to 1944 were entirely different, involving, for instance, a world war. As I recall, collaboration with the Nazis was a factor in the Liberation. Schilder and those who became Liberated were entirely opposed to National Socialism and its anti-Christian agenda. Some of those who opposed Schilder were less than stalwart in their opposition to Nazism. That muddied the waters of church politics. To see our URCNA brothers as the “synodicals” come back to life is not historically justifiable.
To be sure, there are some concerning trends in the URCNA and the way it does church polity. I’ve written before about the length of URCNA Synods. The idea of representatives rather than delegates who deliberate on behalf of the federation is foreign to historical Dortian polity. The notion of a permanent “stated clerk” could be seen as hierarchical. We often see language that makes it sound as if the classis is some kind of permanent body in the URCNA (although that language is increasingly used in the CanRCs too). I could go on. They’re a young federation and still growing together and we can cut them some slack. We don’t have it all together either — not anywhere close. However, to see the Nine Points as 1944 all over again does not do justice either to the URCNA or to what our forefathers experienced in the Liberation. The similarities are superficial at best.