No Doubt

no doubt

The last couple of posts on confessional formulation and subscription have generated some interesting discussion (at least to me).

It has been suggested that one way to deal with doubt about what is confessed is to change what is confessed. That makes sense. After all, if we take the pains to put into writing what it is we believe—and by extension what we reject—it should go without saying that what is put down is actually believed. If we come to seriously doubt what we wrote then it should be changed. But until such time it makes little sense to take exception, all the while maintaining that those outside the parameters of confessional Reformed orthodoxy (e.g. Catholics or evangelicals) are outside the pale. In other words, why can we object but they can’t?

Granted, changing confessional formulation is hard, as it should be. Another, easier way to deal with doubt is to go the way of a certain CRC task force. Because office bearers sometimes misunderstand what signing the form means, Synod 2005 called for a revision of the form’s language to clarify its meaning. However, the task force assigned to this project exceeded their mandate by proposing a document that appears to be a replacement of the traditional form, rather than a clarified or simplified form. They came up with something called the “Covenant of Ordination.” Departing from the historic language of the Form of Subscription, it goes like this:

We the undersigned office bearers of the CRCNA heartily accept the authority of the Word of God as received in the inspired Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, which reveal the gospel of grace in Jesus Christ, namely the reconciliation of all things in him.

We accept the historic confessions: the Belgic Confessions, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort, as well as Our World Belongs to God: A Contemporary Testimony, as faithful expressions of the church’s understanding of the gospel for its time and place, which define our tradition and continue to guide us today.

We promise with thankfulness for these expressions of faith to be shaped by them in our various callings: preaching, teaching, writing, and serving. We further promise to continually review them in the light of our understanding of Scriptures. Should we any time become convinced that our understanding of the gospel as revealed in the Scriptures has become irreconcilable to the witness of the church as expressed in the above documents, we will communicate our views to the church according to the prescribed procedures and promise to submit to its judgment.

We do this so that the church will remain faithful to, grow in understanding of, and be diligent in living out this witness in all of life to the glory of God.

From my experience in broad evangelicalism, my guess would be that most evangelicals would read this as a much better formulation than the older Form of Subscription, that relic of an entrenched past.  Many evangelicals like much of what the forms have to say, but this business of being bound to them irritates modern sensibilities. That is, they have a high opinion of the forms but not a high view.

It has been my opinion that efforts like the Covenant of Ordination reflect an ongoing trajectory toward a broad evangelical posture in relation to confessional formulation and subscription—guiding helps instead of binding authorities. I don’t think I’ve been completely alone in this regard. Whatever else is involved here, one of the interesting things in all of this is how the older forms are much more tolerant of the doubt that always resides in the human heart. That may seem counter-intuitive, given the stout nature of the language in the older forms. But that is the very nature of true Christian faith itself, namely to have an infallible assurance in the midst of doubt. Indeed, doubt is a necessary aspect of true faith as it is set over against sight. Whereas lower views, such as those reflected in the Covenant of Ordination, seem to suggest being ill-at-ease with doubt. So much so that the counter-intutive posture of an infallible assurance in older forms needs to be scaled back in order to make room for what is more comfortable and intuitive, namely sight.

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12 Responses to No Doubt

  1. sean says:

    “But that is the very nature of true Christian faith itself, namely to have an infallible assurance in the midst of doubt.”

    Help me out Zrim, I get your concern for catholicity and agree with that instinct, but the relationship your describing between faith and doubt sounds(to me) like kantian notions of noumenal truth, which would undermine the very need for the catholicity you’re striving to maintain with high confessionalism.

  2. Zrim says:

    Sean,

    Maybe you could elaborate on your Kantian point.

    But all I mean to say is that the opposite of faith is sight, not doubt. Faith wouldn’t be faith without doubt, but faith isn’t faith with sight. Sometimes I think we lose sight (as it were) of these important distinctions, making faith out to be more than it is, perhaps even slouching toward fideism. True, it’s the sole instrument to give us union to Christ, but one day it will pass.

  3. sean says:

    Zrim,

    The kantian point is in reference to doubt and catholicity. The idea of catholicity is to ground your faith in history and if you take the idea of doubt too far you trump history in favor of noumenal truth, that’s beyond the phenomenal realm(history).

    Anyway, it’s not where you are going( I don’t think). I’m still struggling with your infallible assurance and doubt and how high confessionalism is a better answer to that. I get the catholicity argument and not bowing the knee to modernity or evolutionary thought. But infallible assurance as an aspect of faith seems better grounded in an innerant word preached than in binding confessional documents. I see eclipsing of sola scriptura here. As protestants we do confess to a heirarchy among written documents.

  4. Zrim says:

    I’m still struggling with your infallible assurance and doubt and how high confessionalism is a better answer to that.

    Sean,

    How about an analogy? Marriage is a better way to quell doubts about a relationship than any variety of fornication. That also seems counter-intuitive. But a husband and a wife are in safer boundaries to discuss their doubts about each other than a couple who is merely shacking up. Marriage conveys an infallible assurance about their reality in the midst of inevitable doubt. High confessionalism is marriage, evangelicalism is a variety of fornication.

  5. sean says:

    Zrim,

    Your marriage analogy better makes the point. I may want a divorce at some time, but now I get your drift. Hey, high confessional praxis is very appealing to me, however I think it ironically and unintentionally can eclipse sola scriptura and Todd’s remark of “less is more” is spot on and might be a better remedy than either high or low views of a document as detailed as the WCF. Course than what of our catholicity? Now we’re back to arguing how our forebearers regarded their/our own document and how they subscribed.

  6. Zrim says:

    I think it ironically and unintentionally can eclipse sola scriptura and Todd’s remark of “less is more” is spot on…

    Degree of content is one question. How we understand that content is another, and is really the point I want to make. So, even if my wife wants our vows pared down to a single statement, ok, but I want her to understand its binding nature nevertheless.

    High confessionalism certainly is vulernable to eclipsing SS. But a man who understands a high view of his marriage vows is also vulernable to an authoritarian view of his role as husband. I guess I fail to see why those potential pit falls should diminish high views of confessional subscription or marital bounds respectively.

  7. sean says:

    “I guess I fail to see why those potential pit falls should diminish high views of confessional subscription or marital bounds respectively”

    They shouldn’t in and of themselves. But in retort, why can’t I object to one’s eschewing of system subscription based on it’s potential pit falls? System subscription is still a bounding of fidelity, if you’re deemed outside the system your branded unfaithful and a transgressor of your vows.

    Eh, even here this is more an argument of content than of form.

    Do the three forms adherents have a strict/system division? Something beside the CRC’s revision/replacement?

  8. Zrim says:

    But in retort, why can’t I object to one’s eschewing of system subscription based on it’s potential pit falls? System subscription is still a bounding of fidelity, if you’re deemed outside the system your branded unfaithful and a transgressor of your vows.

    I don’t think I have eschewed system subscription in this discussion. If I have, it was a mistake.

    But I see both system (quia, the confessions are binding because they do reflect Scripture, Continental Reformed) and strict (quatenus, the confessions are binding insofar as they rightly reflect the teaching of Scripture, Presbyterian) subscription as modes of confessionalism, both of which are still set over against the evangelical system of Biblicism.

    Todd has suggested that strict is a slouching toward Romanism. Granted, he admitted it was overstatement. I could in turn suggest that system is a slouching toward evangelicalism. Maybe it is, but instead I’d rather be conservative and say it just makes the world safe for evangelicalism.

    Do the three forms adherents have a strict/system division? Something beside the CRC’s revision/replacement?

    Like I suggested above, my understanding is that 3FUers are typically more quia (strict) than quatenus (system). It seems to me that the CRC revisionists have leap-frogged over quanteus and gone right for Biblicism.

  9. RubeRad says:

    I’m all turned around — or maybe you are.

    First off, “eschewed” means “avoided”, not “endorsed”. I thought you were eschewing system subscription all along.

    And system is “insofar”, as in I won’t believe everything, just the part that (I deem is) biblical. Strict is “because”, as in I believe it all, because it is all biblical. I’m not sure about the latin. Also, I don’t recall that strict/system was a continental/presby distinction, but that both camps live in both traditions.

  10. Zrim says:

    I know what eschew means. And, right or wrong, I am trying to say that I understand both system and strict subscription to be variations of confessionalism, whereas Biblicism is the system of evangelicalism, which is what I am eschewing.

    Re continental/presby, I was painting with a broad brush. I am sure both system and strict reside within both. Personally, I tend toward strict but can see the advantages of system. Moreover, while I appreciate rhetorical flair as much as the next guy, I am not sure it really helps the discussion for confessionalists to accuse one another of slouching either toward Rome or Muenster.

  11. Todd says:

    Zrim,

    Confessionalists should never think they are beyond slouching toward Rome. We are in just as much danger as the next guy. After all, FV theology did find a home among a number of so-called confessionalists. I do believe Hodge is correct, that the Presbyterian church never practiced strict subscriptionism because of sola scriptura.

  12. Zrim says:

    Todd,

    Fair enough–sort of, since slouching in any direction, as you know, is a function of more than any one trait.

    But, it sure seems to me that a goodly dose of 2K keeps potential slouching in pretty good check.

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