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.