Toes, Lines and Bad Religion

There is a little controversy brewing over a recent suggestion Bob DeMoor made in an editorial, Which Line to Toe?, in the Banner (the monthly magazine of the Christian Reformed Church).  There has been an ongoing dialogue in the CRC as to the role the historic Reformed confessions should play in our life together as a denomination.

They were written in the 1600’s and 1700’s – should adherence to them be mandatory?  Historically, all pastors and office bearers (and professors at Calvin College and Dordt College) have signed that they will teach and uphold these (by signing the Form of Subscription).  Yet times have changed.

DeMoor notes that:

It’s been some four hundred years since our confessions were penned. During that time our church, guided by centuries of study in the humanities (such as biblical studies and linguistics) and the natural sciences (such as biology and astronomy) has earnestly and prayerfully studied Scripture and creation revelation so that we may accurately confess and address God’s Word to each new generation. And folks like Abraham Kuyper have wonderfully widened our biblical vision on the reach of God’s kingdom.

We’d expect that all of that would trigger major revisions to those confessions, especially since every officebearer must subscribe to them.

But these revisions haven’t happened.  So lately it has been proposed that perhaps this Form of Subscription should be rethought.  Perhaps we ought to declare that these historic creeds and confessions ought to ‘guide’ as historical documents and we should continue to be ‘shaped’ by them without demanding slavish intellectual submission to them.  I found this approach refreshing and compelling – perhaps a good way forward.  There’s been much hemming and hawing about this (and much fear-mongering).  This possibility is still in process.

De Moor’s editorial suggested we go even further.  We affirm a new document altogether.   Radical, right?  Who would write it?  How would we ever have consensus on such a thing?

In fact, this document already exists.  It’s called, Our World Belongs to God: A Contemporary Testimony.  Give it a read – see what you think.  This is a document, says De Moor, which

elegantly summarizes our biblical faith in our contemporary context. It demonstrates much of that growth of our understanding and clearly addresses our society, culture, and Zeitgeist. Yet it remains the poor stepchild, with subordinate standing to our confessions.

In other words, times have changed, and since we’ve refused to update the old confessions, why not re-appropriate our common statement of faith (which we already have) that articulates afresh our understanding of Scripture, God, and the world we live in?

I think it’s a brilliant approach.

Not everyone likes it though.  Surprise.

What is a surprise is that someone in the philosophy department at Calvin College —who is a terrific thinker and writer— would be the source of the opposition.

James K.A. Smith has blogged a critical response to De Moor’s proposal.  I’m all for being critical, but I found his response less than compelling (and we won’t even get into the dripping sarcasm).

Let’s take them point by point.

First up:

(1)  De Moor is once again executing plays from the liberal Protestant playbook.

OK.  And…

Smith seems to think that by simply stating the words ‘liberal Protestant’ he has made some sort of brilliant argument.  His disdain for mainline approaches is clear (and fair enough), but he doesn’t spend any time developing this point.  Simply that he doesn’t like it (and he knows many in his conservative Reformed audience don’t either).  By merely stating it, he thinks he’s made a point.  I would beg to differ.  To be fair, he encourages people to read Ross Douthat’s book Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, so perhaps the point he fails to develop here will be understood once we all go buy and read that book.

His second point:

(2)  While De Moor is pointing out the supposed historical limitations of Reformed confessions forged in the 16th and 17th centuries, in fact nothing in his argument can prevent the same stance and posture toward ancient catholic confessions like Nicea and Chalcedon.  Should we also just tip our hat to those creeds, Bob, but then pledge our allegiance to an activist document written by North Americans in the 80s?

Where to begin.  This is the old slippery-slope argument based on fear.  “If we begin to question the Canons of Dort – what’s next, the Athanasian Creed?”

I find this quite disappointing from someone who knows better.  First of all, De Moor was not suggesting that the Contemporary Testimony suddenly takes primacy over the ancient creeds.  Nor was he suggesting dismissal of the Reformed confessions (Canons of Dort, Belgic Confessions, and Heidelberg Catechism).  It is a matter of appropriation and relation.  The Contemporary Testimony states how we feel as a community about who God is and how he is calling us to be in the world.  This does not mean we ‘get rid of’ the other stuff, as Smith is misleading people to think De Moor is saying.  What De Moor actually said was much more compelling and thoughtful:

Of course, we shouldn’t dream of jettisoning our historic confessions. As my colleague, Rev. Gordon Pols, puts it: “Our posture to our historical confessions should be the same as that to our parents: we honor them.” To honor them means we don’t mindlessly and robotically obey them as we mature. It means we fully recognize what they taught us and the direction they set us on. As we grow, we continue to heed their guidance. But we also continue to find our own calling in the light of Scripture and the Spirit’s leading. As the church in the third millennium, we affirm our roots as we publicly profess our owned faith.

This is a wise, compelling, well-articulated approach of the relationship we can (and should) have toward these historic documents.  And if that isn’t enough for some, De Moor notes that

We could also carefully describe that ongoing relationship to the historic confessions in the Contemporary Testimony itself.

We could reminder one another, and younger generations, where we come from, without continuing to insist that they go back and live in the past.  The bottom line?

 That would allow many more officebearers and profs to sign the form of subscription without holding their nose.

Yes.

But Smith is afraid we will now begin to question everything.

Good.  I hope we do.  Only fear prevents one from questioning.  If you have the truth as you claim to, what fear is there for asking questions?

“But if we question X, aren’t we going to open the door to questioning Y?”

Yes!  As we should.

We do that with the Bible all the time – reinterpret in light of new understandings of language, archaeology, culture, and context.  Why should theological decisions made centuries later be off limits? They were made in certain contexts under certain motivations (often more political than theological). Exploring them might actually prove helpful. Why should theology be the one and only field of human inquiry where we automatically defer to antiquity? Should we assume we have nothing to bring to the table when it comes to understanding God? A faith that is living and active would seem to point in the other direction. I am not in favor of questioning for it’s own sake, but rather for seeking out where our foundations are not as infallible as we perhaps thought they were.  We are called to smash idols, and perhaps there are some lurking in places we haven’t been willing to look.

Smith’s third point is this:

(3)  I have a little hypothesis to float here, and I know it will be somewhat off-putting.  But here goes: I think this is very much a generational issue.  More specifically, I think this is a baby boomer problem.  And for the past 20 years, the leadership of our denomination has been in the hands of baby boomers who absorbed an anti-institutionalism that was in the water in the late 60s and early 70s, which they then channeled toward the faith of their forebears–particularly their immigrant forebears. Hey, baby boomers, I want to let you in on a little secret: you don’t own the denomination, though I know you’ve acted like you do for the past 20 years.

This seems to me to be a red herring that distracts from the argument. Blaming some kind of over-generalized boomerism is less than helpful. Is anti-institutionalism really what is driving DeMoor’s argument? I can hardly see that as the case. You might even say he is acting on behalf of the institution by hoping to prevent it from becoming an irrelevant ancient relic itself.  Again, á la point one, acting in ways similar to other mainline approaches should not be automatic grounds for dismissal.  (And if it should – give us the actual reasons rather than just ad-hominem disdain).

There’s actually a resurgence happening within many mainlines because disaffected *younger* evangelicals and others are finding a space where both ancient practices and progressive thinking are welcome (See Diana Butler Bass: Christianity After Religion or her recent column: A Resurrected Christianity?).  A place where we live and act in light of history and tradition, but are not slavishly bound to it – as it appears Smith and many others would prefer in the CRC.   Trying to pin this on boomers leaves out the scores of younger folks (Driscollites aside) who want to follow Jesus without being forced into an intellectual corner.  Smith does note that there are many younger people who want a ‘more ancient’ faith.  Agreed.  But ancient doesn’t mean antiquated.

It appears to me (and I hope I’m wrong) that Smith is more interested in catering to the old guard and the younger conservatives by posturing himself as the new thoughtful guardian of our theological heritage.  That we can move forward by not moving at all.  He knows better, and frankly it’s quite disappointing.  If you ask me, this is a step backward, and he’s made his entire case based on fear and distraction.  It’s hard to move forward if you can’t take your eyes off of what’s behind you, just as you can’t drive very well by continually staring in the rear-view mirror.

I nod toward De Moor’s proposal as a healthy, thoughtful, and not unrealistic approach.  A move forward, while understanding and appreciating what got us here.  Some would say let’s get rid of the Form of Subscription altogether.  I’m not opposed to that, but perhaps De Moor’s approach is at least a step in the right direction.

What do you think?

Update:
In case you haven’t seen them, Dan Brown, Mark Hilbilenk, and John Suk have responded with some interesting thoughts on their own blogs, each worth reading.

Dan Brown – Toes on the Body of Christ, the Past, Present and Future of the CRC

Mark Hilbelink  – In-Fighting & Generational Bias @ CRC Young Adult Leadership Website

John Suk – Time to Put the Confessions to Pasture?  (this is latest entry, and if you ask me, best)

(The conversation is continuing between all parties in the comment section under Mark’s post – read them and jump in!  I’d also be interested in your comments on what I’ve written above – comment below.)

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10 thoughts on “Toes, Lines and Bad Religion

  1. Thanks Bryan, your careful and thoughtful critique is just the sort of leadership we need as we navigate these issues.

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  2. I didn’t think you were attacking him, I just thought you were reading into what he said more than you should have.

    I don’t really have a problem with changing the confessions or changing our relationship to them if we find parts of them problematic but part of the problem I had with De Moor’s editorial was that it was too vague to be useful. He complains that there have only been a few upgrades but then doesn’t tell us what else he thinks needs updating.

    As to the slippery slope, Smith didn’t really up the ante. He just pointed out that the exact same argument works for the creeds as it does for the confessions. Why not honor the creeds instead of making them what we sign on to? After all, they are old, we’ve learned a lot since they’ve been written and they haven’t been updated very much. He’s basically using it as a reductio ad absurdum to suggest that there is something wrong with De Moor’s reasoning.

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  3. To be fair to Smith…

    1) De Moor doesn’t exactly spend a lot of time arguing his point, either.
    2) Smith’s statements in his second point do not function as a slippery slope. Pointing out that the same argument he uses would work against the creeds is not a slippery slope argument. Additionally, I see nothing about “fear” in his blog post. He says nothing about being afraid to question. Not sure where you got that from.
    3) This was obviously the weak point of Smith’s post so I don’t really care to defend the whole “baby-boomers” angle that he took. I will point out one thing, though. You say “He knows better, and frankly it’s quite disappointing.” Isn’t it possible, given that you know that he knows better, that you’ve misread him? I think anybody with a passing familiarity of Smith would know his stance towards the creeds and confessions is not one of “moving forward by not moving at all.” Rather, tradition for Smith is how history unfolds in time and affirming the goodness of this process is part and parcel with affirming the goodness of creation. Additionally, I don’t think Smith would think our interpretation of confessions should be static, either. Interpretations are ever changing depending on the context they are read in.

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    1. Eric-
      Thanks for taking the time to read and respond. There is certainly much more to be said, and a couple of blog posts, or even an editorial are certainly limited forums in which to advance the discussion. I do appreciate those who are prayerfully considering the various courses that lay before us, and was simply echoing my thoughts regarding one such suggested course.

      It is, of course, possible that I am misreading Smith, though given various negative reaction to his piece I am seeing elsewhere, I think he perhaps earned some of it, unless we are all misreading him. He is capable of better saying what he was trying to say, and I hope he does. It is unfortunate he doesn’t allow comments on his blog, as that would be a natural place for his readers to interact, and in fact what I was hoping to do. Given that lack of an option, I decided on a post myself. I did not intend this as an attack on Smith or anyone else, as he is someone I have much respect for. I simply didn’t follow his line of reasoning very well, and see that others feel the same way. Even if I disagree with his conclusions, he could do a better job of helping us see how he got there. I don’t have the final word on this, by any stretch. I simply liked De Moor’s piece, and wanted to say so, and didn’t find Smith’s critique all that helpful. Some were responding to his critique like it was the second coming of the Reformation, and I simply wanted to say, ‘hold on a second’.

      It’s all fine and good to see that interpretations of the confessions are ‘ever changing’ depending on context of our reading, etc., but what about places where the confessions seem simply problematic? It’s fine to propose interpreting around those problems, but I also see no problem with actually changing them or changing our relationship to them. Last I checked we don’t classify these things as divinely-inspired revelation. In some circles it appears these things are more sacred than Scripture.

      As to the slippery slope argument, when you say, “Your argument on this, could also apply to this”, and you’ve upped the ante on what that second item is, you may not specifically be making a slippery slope argument, but you are certainly suggesting one to your (perhaps less discerning) readers’ minds.

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  4. At some point the CRC is going to have to choose between hanging on to theologies rooted in ancient and medieval metaphysics while excluding huge numbers of current (and future) members and, on the other hand, welcoming those who appreciate many of its traditions while having justified questions and doubts about those (often barely-understood) doctrines.

    At risk of oversimplifying, the choice is between theology and people.

    P.S. What percentage of CRC-ers do you think could pass a test on the doctrines in the FoS? I don’t just mean a memorization test. I mean a test that demonstrates whether the taker understands the philosophical and theological implications of those confessions (assuming we could set aside the question of whether they’re even consistent.)

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  5. Nicely done. Diana Butler Bass is great. Of course, just the Contemporary Testimony would be better than the three we have now. Funny about Bob being “anti-institutional.” You’ve got to know Bob. He loves the church, he’s worked for it all his life, he’s promoted it above and beyond the call of duty. He is the institution’s parson. I do want to read that book Smith recommends–soon. Sounds very interesting.

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