Losing Our Religion

Pastor John Suk

Recently a pastor in my denomination (The CRCNA) announced that he is leaving the denomination because he ‘has doubts’ about the doctrinal positions that he is supposed to defend and teach.  He indicated that he is pursuing a ministry position in the United Church of Canada.

He is not leaving because he is no longer a Christian.

He is not leaving because he is done with the ministry.

He is not leaving because he no longer is interested in following Christ.

He is not leaving because he no longer is interested in preaching and teaching.

He is leaving because we’ve created a culture in which you have to be ‘on board’ with a narrow band of dogma constructed primarily in the mid-1600’s.

Is this a good reason for someone to leave our denomination?  Some would say, “Absolutely.”   “Of course!”

I’m not so sure.

An Outdated Approach

A philosopher friend (a graduate of Calvin College’s philosophy department) has noted:

“One of the challenges is that to support something like, say, the Canons of Dort, is to support an interpretive process that current scholarship no longer adheres to.  It is based on proof-texting.  Taking verses of various books without regard to context, authorship, intended audience, historical circumstances and the like — and then mashing them together.  This very process is foreign to the Bible itself.

You might even say that it is to ignore the historical-grammatical manner of interpretation that Calvin Seminary teaches its own students:  you understand a single verse, text, or book of the Bible in its context.  That includes who wrote it, who it was written to, what else was happening at that time, what the larger argument of the entire letter or gospel or book is, and so on.”

It seems to me that to dismiss all of that when it comes to endorsing a theological system that was developed prior to the current and best modes of biblical interpretation is to ask the impossible of its graduates:  “Here’s how you best understand the text, but now that you’re going to be a pastor, ignore all that, sign the dotted line, and keep on teaching things that may (or may not) hold up under further scrutiny.”

For example, nearly every single point of doctrine in the Canons are made by quoting a single verse from varied and disparate sources like Ezekiel, Moses, Paul, and all too infrequently, Jesus. This ‘systematic’ approach to theology has been disregarded by the leading and best theologians today who prefer a narrative approach to theology in which the themes and storylines of whole texts are used, rather than the ‘hunt and peck’ method of proof-texting that can be (and has been!) used to justify just about anything.

As J.R. Daniel Kirk, New Testament Professor at Fuller Seminary has noted:

“Narrative theology is more content to leave stories as stories. Perhaps more, narrative theology is content to talk about God as God interacts with Abraham, and Moses, and David, and Jesus, and Paul. To what degree can we speak of God truly when we have not located God as the actor in a story that unfolds in and among the people?”

The Bible is comprised mostly of stories!  Not of raw data that we can pick and choose and then compile.  A systematic approach to the Bible is too often foreign to what the Bible actually is.

Kirk also notes (and this is an important point):

“Narrative approaches also tend to have more patience with leaving contrasting voices on the table to continue their conversation. The Bible is a narrative, not a philosophical system, so univocal theological points are not expected.

For systematic theology, we must finally say either, “justification by faith apart from works” (Paul), or, “justification by works and not by faith alone” (James). As a discipline, narrative theology can allow those to have a longer conversation, at very least, before resolving the issue–and may not feel the need for such a resolution.

And there, perhaps, is the rub.

Systematic theology is driven by the complementing notions, natural to me and to most of us I suspect, that there is one right answer and that it is ours for the finding.

Narrative theology, because it functions in the realm of story rather than system, has more breadth for multiple right answers, or multiple interpretations (stories are slippery like that) of the right answer(s).”

This double-minded approach —teaching contextual biblical interpretation on the one hand, and ignoring it on the other— that we are asking of our pastors and theologians is a problem, and if it doesn’t lead to a personal crisis or the beginnings of doubts – a la John Suk — then perhaps that particular student wasn’t paying attention during their biblical studies courses.

Is this really the place we want to be in?

Where the leaders among us who have wrestled with these issues, struggled as to whether or not they actually believe them, who love God and at the same time are trying desperately to be intellectually honest —and come out on the other side with their faith intact— are asked to leave?  Are not these the very kind of leaders we need?  Yet the only space we seem willing to make for them is the doorway.

If I were sitting in the pews, I would much prefer this kind of pastor, as opposed to one who grew up being spoon-fed certain doctrines since childhood without ever honestly engaging them.  (Is this a caricature?  Maybe.  But it seems that most who would ‘wrestle’ with the confessions know there is only one real outcome: get on board or get out.  That tends to make for short –and less than genuine– wrestling matches.)

At this point, it should be noted, I am not dismissing the results of the confessions – but asking, is the process at which its authors arrived at them a process that anyone even endorses today?  (Some have noted that in fact the authors were using a form of narrative theology to support their systematic doctrines, and that may be so – I’m certainly not an expert on how these things came about – but in reading the documents themselves and the various texts cited one might ask if that is really the case.  It appears they approached the texts with their theology in mind and allowed that theology to determine the way the texts were read, rather than allowing the various texts to speak on their own.)

A Crossroads

The Christian Reformed Church is in many ways facing a crossroads:  do we continue to demand rigorous adherence to outdated doctrinal formulations and in the process risk losing some of our most thoughtful and faithful people?  Or do we shift our relationship to these historic confessional documents that ‘creates space’ for those who love God, want to serve him, but aren’t sure they can subscribe to everything in the fine print?

There is nothing wrong with saying that these documents have shaped us deeply, and they will continue to do so— as historical documents (which is what they are!).  But do we really want to say they are the final arbiters of what the varied biblical authors had to say about God, faith, and the Christian life?  One can scarcely imagine that the original authors of these confessions assumed they were writing something that would be calcified into the ‘final word’ on these matters for all time.  In fact, as Karin Maag, professor of history at Calvin College recently noted, “They were not consciously planning to write a perfectly-crafted document for the ages.”  No doubt the very act of writing a new doctrinal statement – as they were – implies that this act must happen again (and again).  (Also note: we don’t make anyone sign on to Calvin’s Institutes, or Kuyper’s Lectures on Calvinism – yet those things continue to shape us).

One section of the Canons of Dort is prefaced with:  ‘Rejection of the Errors by Which the Dutch Churches Have for Some Time Been Disturbed’.  In other words, in a certain time and place, these things were deemed important.

But is anyone today honestly concerned about whether God chose them or they chose God, or whether that kind of question can even be properly answered (or needs to be answered) this side of eternity?

I’m not sure the biblical writers were as obsessed with such dogmatic approaches as some of us are.  They were telling a story.  A narrative.  One in which people engaged God, and God engaged people.  Granted, there are points that can be made abstractly about the whole thing, but the point is the story!

So many of the doctrines we are demanding adherence to were ‘constructed’ out of verses taken out of texts that were not actually concerned with that particular point at all, when read in light of the whole.  This is not to say that they are ‘wrong’ per se, but simply that they often miss the forest for the trees.

The point of the story is that our world is broken and God is renewing it through Christ – and we are called to hear that message, receive it, share it, and live it!

To instead freeze some doctrinal points derived out of dubious interpretive methods as some ‘perfect picture’ of who God is or what faith is, is to miss the point entirely!  It is to construct new idols which we now demand people must worship.  I think the Reformers had a thing or two to say about the propensity of people to create such objects of worship.

Jesus at the Temple

One could imagine Jesus showing up to one of our Synodical discussions about the form of Subscription, and —reprising his stint at the temple– ripping up the Confessions and turning over tables, lighting the Form of Subscription on fire  and yelling: “What are you doing about the brokenness of my world?!  You’re sitting here constructing ways of keeping people out, when I was about letting people in!  I tore the curtain, and you’re sewing it back together!”

An Unnecessary Departure

I continually meet people who have never heard of these documents and yet have some of the deepest, most thoughtful lives of faith I’ve encountered.

Are they ‘off-track’?  Are they less Christian?  Is their faith less sincere?

Hardly.

The average person today isn’t wrestling with these issues – these things aren’t even on the radar.  Today there are far different concerns.

If we want to continue to be less relevant to our culture, we can continue to stand on our little turf of doctrinal smugness while shoving everyone else off.

We can talk about ‘every square inch’ belonging to Jesus while making sure that we only cover about six inches square because we’re so tightly wound up with doctrinal anxiety that people are no longer interested in being around us.

Many have celebrated Suk’s departure as ‘honorable’ and ‘filled with integrity’.  They have lauded his honesty and willingness to own his doubts — now that he’s gone.

“He doesn’t fit here – he should just serve elsewhere.”  And so on.

Perhaps a polite version of the heresy witch hunts of times past.  In the old days you might have been burned at the stake or imprisoned.  Now we simply drop hints and give a wink, perhaps send a letter or two, have someone make a phone call… until you finally get the hint, and leave of your own volition.  It’s much neater and easier that way.

Suk wrote a recent blog post entitled, Time to Put the Confessions to Pasture?  A number of CRC pastors responded with things like, “Let me ask you, John, why are you still in the CRC?  Perhaps it’s time for you to leave.”

I think far too many breathed a sigh of relief upon hearing of Suk’s departure.  He made many uncomfortable, which is precisely why I wish he would have stayed.  But then again, when you have a doctrinal system that has ‘comfort’ at its core, you can expect the status quo to reign supreme.

(Incidentally I can’t recall Jesus preaching about being comfortable… or if he did, it was something like ‘Woe to you who have received your comfort now.’).

What seems clear to me is that people have invented a religion (CRC Dutch Calvinism) that is more important than following Christ.  A religion that doesn’t have space or room for theological wrestling, for philosophical questioning, for honest inquiry — and for seeking out the truth.  Many in our circles talk about seeking truth when the fact is that they are simply in favor of maintaining the status quo.

If we are really interested in following Jesus and seeing his kingdom come, it might just be time to release our grip on this religion we’re so attached to.  In fact, it might be time to lose our religion altogether, if in fact, we want to save it.

Suk’s departure makes me sad.  He feels he could ‘no longer serve in good conscience.’  That makes me sadder – not because he was wrestling or because he had doubts — but that we’re not that interested in having those kind of people around.  For me – that’s exactly the kind of pastor I would want to have: one who is searching, wrestling, praying, struggling, doubting, loving, walking by faith, humble about what he or she knows and doesn’t know.  A real person.

Some celebrate his decision, but I feel it’s one he shouldn’t have had to make.

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32 thoughts on “Losing Our Religion

  1. I love and cherish my first 35 years that was lived within the CRC. Christian day-school, Calvin College, Calvin Seminary and being a significant voice within youth ministry circles as a youth pastor for seven years were of so much value and are held so dearly.

    After being courted by the denomination to be a church planter, my wife and I eventually found ourselves elsewhere. The eleven years since leaving have been of profound blessing as I’ve met and become friends with some people who would have never otherwise entered my life.

    Not unlike Suk, I think there comes a time to leave for some of us. Life is lived in less than a hundred years. I needed to explore more corners of the kingdom than my CRC West Michigan life would allow.

    While I highly respect Calvin Seminary, the strong emphasis on systematic theology within its walls gives less of a nod towards narrative theology than the biblical text demands. Thus, the academic experience is still largely shaped by systematic theologians. We can hope for more change, but at mid-life I could not wait any longer.

    In addition, using energy fighting for change within the denomination is no longer part of my agenda. At some point it gets tiring hoping that women can be elders or that gay people can be fully loved within the church… I spent plenty of years hoping forl change within the CRC, and each decade only saw small change. All the while, the denomination, or at least a good portion of it, got no closer to speaking the dominant language of our culture.

    When I pray, “Your kingdom come,” I still hope the CRC can produce thoughtful and passionate reformed Christians. I simply ran out of patience to wait and see, and with the DNA given to me by my Creator, I like Suk needed to leave.

    My views of the kingdom today are so spectacular; I can still encourage my CRC friends forward, but my soul would have been crushed had I personally stayed within the walls of which I was born and raised. To those who continue in the good fights – I hope for the best.

    Grace & Peace.

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  2. Bryan, I’m a bit surprised that you emphasise that scripture comes to us mainly as ‘story’. I know that is the current thinking but it’s just not substantiated by even a cursory look at the Scriptures. Think of Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes (and even Song of Solomon); then all the prophetic books. Also Leviticus? Numbers? The gospels are not just stories either (Matt 5-7). Acts I’ll grant you is a narrative but then we have all the Pauline, Petrine and other letters. Letters are hardly stories. Some have even said that the whole of Scripture is a letter from God to humanity. Many of these letters have story elements to them but it is the theologians (NT Wright for example) who impose the story notion onto scripture. I don’t decry that at all but let’s be clear that human construction is involved in this. Of course, the divine drama (another metaphor) can be explained by scholars in a variety of ways. I do agree that the Canons are probably not a simple statement of faith but are really a theological tome written against the Arminians. It would be good if this was dropped and the church went back to simpler creeds for congregants at least even while holding onto their distinctives. Not easy to do however.

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    1. Yes, fair enough – I didn’t mean to imply that the whole text is story. However, many of the books you note are actually embedded in narrative —certainly Leviticus and Numbers— while containing lots of other stuff like lists of commands, genealogies, etc. There of course is poetry and many other genres — but this only further proves the point that all of these texts are anything but systematic, or even obvious repositories for systematic approaches. Perhaps a biblical theology or textual theology is a better term than narrative theology, though I still like that term, because these texts have a narrative history in the life of God’s people. A look at many rabbinic approaches to the text shows that even among non-narrative texts new narratives and midrashim arose to make sense of what they were reading. And there was always a healthy amount of diversity and disagreement that was allowed to exist in such approaches, unlike the Greek, Western approach that felt it could take apart the text and somehow reconstruct a philosophical deity who in many ways seem to stand at odds with the God who appears in the text.

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  3. Very well written. Kudos for thoughtfulness with integrity.

    Until this article, I was not aware of John’s departure. I read him weekly growing up, and I loved his passion, amazing writing skills and love for the ways of the kingdom. I’m sad for the CRC. I breathe relief for John.

    Nearly twenty years ago I finished my course work at Calvin Seminary. Eleven years ago I helped start a little non-CRC house church.

    Today I still embrace Calvin College. A reformed world-view is an amazing perspective on life. I won’t give all of it up. Yet. Dordt is outdated and still adhered too. The Heidelberg still damns our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters. Our right wing politics support pre-birthed life, but we fail to see our bipolar attitude toward the marginalized whether it be the poor, immigrant without a green card or the homosexual couple wanting to live a committed life together. In other words, the second commandment often is disregarded for Puritan values.

    I am also saddened the CRC is losing such an amazing voice. His choice was not his own however. Here is why: First, Calvin Seminary still has predominately systematic theologians teaching in its faculty. Even though they know better, skin is not lost nor tenure potentially not granted for the sake of these issues. There simply isn’t institutional will to risk what could be lost for the sake of saving something greater. As I read the comments, even Scott Hoezee won’t call the denomination out for bad theological positions. The will to do so largely does not exist.

    Secondly, for those of us who love Catholics and embrace gay monogamous partnerships, there is no space for us if we are to be honest with our theology being our guiding force in life.

    Thirdly, for those of us called to be evangelists, the rules are often strict. The theological maze i of rules become obstacles to living the reflections of the life of Jesus to a hurting and broken world. (Case in point: the new Calvin College president, although Presbyterian, is expected to join the CRC. For God’s sake. Really? For the sake of the Missio Dei, the mission of God, does it really matter?)

    Ironically, it doesn’t matter. Yet, to the gatekeepers it does matter. No major voice will have the courage to say otherwise.

    Finally, as someone having spent conception through Christian day school through Calvin College, Calvin Seminary, seven years of serving as a youth pastor, and being grateful for my first 34 years of being mentored by amazing CRC people, the past eleven years have challenged me to vistas of the kingdom I would not have seen from most of the CRC’s best peaks.

    My connections, encounters and friendships during this decade of time have surpassed my greatest dreams. In the midst of these voices, the cries I hear to pursue justice and mercy as I learned growing up in the CRC have exponentially multiplied.

    Today my kingdom theology is in the veins of Leslie Newbigin, NT Wright, George Hunsberger and Craig VanGelder. Most days I am not concerned about bad theology because I am not told that it still matters.

    The ways of Jesus and the kingdom of God allow space for justice and mercy, goodness and kindness, thoughtful friendships with heretics and sinners in ways that I never imagined eleven years ago.

    For some people the desire to stay and see institutional change may be a tremendous calling. For others of us such as Suk and me, life’s calling is elsewhere.

    I can not speak nor write for John. For me, life is too short to spend time saving institutions. These too will pass. I have many friends who know the biblical text, believe Jesus was great, but they want nothing to do with a Saviour. Their views are the result of institutional failures in many cases.

    As for me, I’m called to live the kingdom that is here now but not yet fully known. When human institutions get in the way of kingdom stuff, I have a serious problem. Today I find people in West Michigan more willing to converse about the kingdom when they know I am committed to the ways of Jesus but have no institutional ties. While this may be a sad commentary on the institutional church, including the CRC, it is also our current reality.

    Will there be a theological call to reform following Suk’s departure? We can hope so, but the theologians are always good at creating spin. We shall hope for a groundswell that becomes a Tsunami, but let’s not hold our breath. Life is too short to hope for change we can not create apart from a groundswell of desire and passion.

    Grace & Peace,
    Randy

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  4. What’s missing in the argument is why the new narrative theology is qualitatively better than older forms. In a pragmatic sense it may very well better accommodate the patterns of our thinking, but that said, I’m not sure that is a sufficient base from which to criticize the Reformation texts.

    Underneath, I hear an argument of sorts being advanced, that the latter produces better spiritual fruit, that it is perhaps generates a better spiritual connection. I want to respect that, although I find that discipleship — the process of conviction-action-reflection/worship seems a better path to spiritual fruit than hermeneutics (this is likely a left-over from my childhood Methodism).

    So we come then to the matter of “proof-texts.” This strikes me as being particularly cultural, speaking more to present cultural dis-stances than of a process. The Forms of Confession are theological documents, not the result of biblical exegesis. Rhetorically, I would suppose that behind most of the points we could find pre-existing commonplaces of texts; this is not the invention of proof-texting. Rather I see two things going on: first an adornment: what we say theologically is adorned biblically, the citations not only providing a formal connection but in themselves asserting a Reformed conviction about life in the Word. We put on the texts not merely as manipulation (though some do this), but as a way of confessing, even promising that we ground our life in God’s Word.

    Secondly, in a more political mode, the use of proof-text, of drenching our thoughts in Scripture is a way of asserting something close to the priesthood of all believers; it is a protest, a counter to priestcraft with its reservation of truth for the “educated” or the elite. In Reformed circles, the proof text then is a way of socially keeping the domine honest. It’s a dialogic approach.

    Finally, there is the matter of our stance. Proof-texting, the drenching of life with the Word — this is what “those other folk” do, the ones at the third-tier Baptist schools. We reserve the Bible for the big stuff, but not the daily parts of our lives; proof-texting (and our discomfort with it) is a class boundary. And yet. I don’t know how I can be aflame with God (to borrow from the Desert Fathers) without it.

    Or as the song goes, humming to myself on my tasks:
    Sweeter are thy words to me
    Than all other goods can be;
    Safe I walk, thy truth my light,
    hating falsehood, loving right.

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    1. Harris-
      Thanks for your thoughtful engagement.

      You’ve got some good things going here. I am not sure I was trying to say that narrative theology produces better fruit in terms of one’s discipleship and life of faith – though that could be the case. I was implying rather that narrative theology allows the text to speak without trying to answer dogmatically things which many of the biblical writers were not necessarily concerned with. To that extent, the more we hear the story of the life of God with his people, the more we are invited to live into it, so in that sense it would enrich the life of faith. But as you note, much more is needed: reflection, worship, etc.

      As for proof-texting, yes, we all ‘take’ verses and read them and they speak powerfully to us. It should be that way. It’s impractical to imagine that we could spend time reading whole books every time we open the Bible, and then spend time doing serious exegesis and hermeneutics to boot. Small pieces of the text can and should inform our faith life, but hopefully as part of a broader whole of studying the text on one’s own and in community, which itself belongs to a broader tradition. But do we want such an approach to determine the bounds within which we must operate?

      It seems that we have become fundamentalist in our adamance that we remain subservient to these documents. In a healthy relationship –one in which they are part of the ‘cloud of witnesses’ rather than immovable objects– they would encourage and speak into our lives, without maintaining a choke hold on them.

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  5. I just re-read this, and will use it as an example of testing a “God told me…”:
    BOQ…But using the HS can also be a power-play to say, “God told me this, therefore you can’t question it.” EOQ – this is a great example to test, and within 5 seconds you can know someone who says that is giving a false statement… because God’s word says to test, and so if someone is telling you not to question it, and getting upset if you do, well, then they are not in alignment with the Word. Even if they don’t actually say “don’t question it”, but their reaction to you testing it makes them upset, that’s a pretty good indicator it’s probably not God… make sense?

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  6. Bev-
    I understood what you were trying to say, I was just showing that it can go both ways. Yes, we probably don’t give enough credit to God’s Spirit and the ways He speaks in new and fresh ways through the text. I do think we can hear things in this fashion that may or may not line up with ‘what the original writers intended’. That’s part of what ‘living and active’ means. But using the HS can also be a power-play to say, “God told me this, therefore you can’t question it.” I don’t sense you doing that, but we’ve all experienced this.

    I further agree with you that the very fact that God speaks by his Spirit means that perhaps we shouldn’t be so calcified in terms of our doctrinal approaches – God is hardly so concrete that we can simply nail him down for all time. God is far bigger and more mysterious than that. “The wind blows where it will.” I also would agree that this is a limited forum for discussing these things.

    I was not at the Classis where Moses Chung spoke – I was trying to keep my house from freezing after a 20″ snow fall that left us without power for four days! (I am in Classis Northern Michigan, but heading to Classis Hackensack soon).

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    1. Bless your heart for your gracious reply =)…
      yes, unfortunately the “God told me…” statement has been misused and abused, by those seeking power, and by those who have made mistakes and caused considerable hurt… but that doesn’t mean we close the door on “listening”, because God warned us in scripture that we would have to test these “God told me” prophecies, to see if they are truly from Him (I John 4:1; I Thess 5:19-21 or so)… So we need to actively and eagerly pursue training in how to scripturally walk in “hearing” the rhema dba the gift of prophecy if you will per I Cor. 14, how to test whether that “insight” is the living and active Word of God or something else… Knowing the logos, including the original context is a key part and foundational for that training and testing. If one is not grounded in the Logos word, then yes, we will get sucked into chaos and cults and do damage by turning people off to “hearing” God through the Holy Spirit…

      Spirit and truth – our faith needs both! it seems we (crc) have been heavy on the truth, while charismatics have been heavy on the Spirit, and I believe God is working on bringing these 2 streams together so He can move powerfully on behalf of His Kingdom in this world… Neither side can say we are better than the other, neither side can say we have it more right, because we are both missing some key parts in some ways, and God intended for us to work together, in unity as the Bride of Christ. We need to learn some “stuff” from them, and we have some “stuff” that we can help teach them…

      I was curious about the classis, because it was unofficially reported that Moses made a pretty bold statement there about the Holy Spirit, and when I heard what he said, it confirmed a lot!! It was very encouraging to hear that a key leader was willing make that bold of a statement publicly. sorry to hear about the 20″ snow storm so late in the spring…

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  7. I appreciate what Bryan is attempting to address here. And to be realistic, very few take a mechanistic, lock-step approach to the confessions today. That’s why a passage like the following feels a bit like attacking a straw man:

    “If I were sitting in the pews, I would much prefer this kind of pastor, as opposed to one who grew up being spoon-fed certain doctrines since childhood without ever honestly engaging them.”

    Who would want a pastor who took such an approach? But then few if any of them exist in the real world, even among those who take a fairly high view of the value of the confessions, as I do. When I read a suggestion that this is an accurate description of me, my temptation is to disengage from the author immediately.

    My broader concern with Bryan’s piece is that while it advocates for tearing down the confessional fences, calling them “outdated” formulated out of “dubious interpretive methods” and suggesting that Jesus would rip up the confessions and set the Form of Subscription on fire, he doesn’t suggest any method to suggest a new or different or better way to define who we are as a denomination. He wants us to be “deep” and “thoughtful.” He wants us to focus on the narrative of Scripture and reject all dogmatic approaches. Understood. But is that really enough? If we throw out our confessional boundaries and replace them with nothing else, what is there to prevent this from being written about a CRC pastor, today or in the future?

    http://www.layman.org/News.aspx?article=30090

    From the article: “I preach on the Bible about as much as any other preacher. I don’t preach on it as if it were a book to believe. I don’t find most of it particularly believable, at least in the way that we were supposed to believe it … When I suggest that Jesus in the Gospel of John is a more of a fictional character than an historical figure, and that John is using his creative imagination in creating this story [John’s account of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead], it isn’t that I am saying throw out the gospel.”

    The PCUSA once shared the same confessional foundation we do. But through the years leaders in the denomination advocated positions very like Bryan’s. Is the introduction of this level of heresy inevitable if we do so? No. Nor am I suggesting that Bryan would approve of such. But once we start this drift, removing defining boundaries without replacing them with others, what is there to prevent it?

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  8. hmmm.. as I kept reflecting on this last night, and that we aren’t suppose to “proof” text anymore, because that is an outmoded way of studying scripture… I wondered what would you call what Jesus and the apostles did when they quoted OT scripture? I believe those are examples of the “rhema” word of God (plus all of Jesus sayings are rhema since He is God)… I think there are many ways that God speaks and teaches us through scripture that are not in “context”… ie hymns, these are rich with all kinds of scripture… many individual hymns include scripture from all over the Bible, not just one passage… let’s not limit Him to one way because we think we now have a superior way of reading and studying scripture then they had throughout the centuries and even in NT times… He now “speaks” (rhema) to us one way, and then another… the key is that the Holy Spirit is directing our thoughts and insights, and the Holy Spirit will never contradict scripture or the character of God.

    I know this might annoy the intellectuals, but we have significantly been missing the power of the Holy Spirit in the crc denom, and limiting our scripture understanding to context just might be one reason. The Word is alive, living and breathing… do we understand how that works? No… do we need to? No… we listen, we test, we obey and we trust, and we will see the power of God at work in ways beyond our imagination.

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    1. Thanks for your thoughts, Bev.

      I’m not sure anyone is interested in ruling out the ability of the Holy Spirit to speak. In fact, you might say the approach of ‘remaining stuck’ in the 1600’s is partially rooted in a sense that the HS is no longer speaking, so we have to fall back [entirely] on former understandings. A true living and active text and Spirit would continue to speak – which is all I or anyone else is hoping we can acknowledge and give room for.

      I would also see the development of biblical studies as a gift of the Spirit, not something at odds with what God is trying to say to us. It is an unhelpful dichotomy to try to separate what the HS is saying on the one hand, and what people are hearing the text say through using all of the gifts and means God has provided, on the other.

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      1. Hmmm.. somehow you are understanding the exact opposite of what I’m trying to say… The Holy Spirit was just as active in “speaking” in the 1600’s as He is now, so for us to say we now have better methods to interpret scripture, excludes the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of those studying, questioning in the 1600’s.
        ..
        I am not interested in ruling out the ability of the Holy Spirit to speak, because “Hearing” God is what I’m very passionate about ( I just read your “about” page and noted your passion for the historical context of scripture, my passion is for the current living context through the Holy Spirit) but I have run into much resistance regarding that very thing from mainly intellectuals and cessationists, which there seem to be more than a few in our denom for whatever reasons… the religious leaders of Jesus day studied their brains out regarding the scripture, and yet they totally missed the message… Yes, we are to love Him with all our minds,etc, but that mind needs to be a transformed mind, and it’s not only the mind that is to love Him…

        Neither “context” can be to the exclusion of the other… but I have often “heard” as a criticism to a “rhema” Word, “that’s not in context” referring to historical context from those who tend toward the intellectual side… Oh, Brian… I see that we/crc have idolized our intellect… almost to the exclusion of the Holy Spirit… you can of course disagree, but that was the whole “modern” world view, very rational.. I don’t mean to be antagonistic or annoying, but I have found those who prefer and find pride in their intellect over the leading of the Holy Spirit, even though they would never see themselves as doing this, find my emphasis on the Holy Spirit antagonizing… I don’t mind making people uncomfortable, that’s part of sharpening!!! I don’t mind being challenged, especially because misunderstandings are so easy when discussing this type of thing… so challenge away, maybe we need to do this in a different place than this comment section, but I am very interested in expanding our thinking to God’s “superrational” ways… we have had glimpses, but nothing like what He wants to show us, if we are open and obedient…

        just curious if you are in the classis, and you attended the classis mtg. a few weeks ago where Moses Chung spoke?

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  9. Bryan calls for a less systematic approach to the Bible and more emphasis on story. However, in a recent exchange on Facebook, Bryan entertained the possibility that the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead didn’t really happen. He also supports professors who say that stories involving Adam and Eve didn’t really happen. In short, the manner of systematizing is not the only thing being questioned; the reality of the stories is questioned.

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    1. wow… thats quite interesting, I will keep that in mind… I love the Lazarus story… you know why… because and this is a great indicator that it’s true, but I personally believe it’s true because it’s scripture and God is totally capable of it, so that’s not a question for me… I love it because of practical Ms. Martha… oh, I can so relate to her… she basically tells Jesus that moving the stone would NOT be a good idea because Lazarus “stinks”… she was of course much more diplomatic of course =) but i’m sure everyone around that was there breathed a sigh of relief when she said that, because I’m pretty sure they were all thinking that!! That just so resonates, with me, because she is so practical and probably had no clue to what Jesus was going to do… the key was “listen to God/Jesus, obey Him once you know it’s God, then trust Him to do what He wants to do!! and unfortunately that isn’t a very well accepted order of they way to do things in our rationalistic culture

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      1. so, just to be very clear, I believe Ms. Martha’s comment makes the story very real… otherwise why would God have included that somewhat embarrassing comment by Ms. Martha in scripture? I can just imagine the looks the others there were exchanging as Jesus asked them to “move the stone”, and indicating to Martha to say something since maybe she had a close relationship to Jesus (and Lazarus)… just let the Holy Spirit guide your imagination as you picture the uncomfortableness, the awkward silence, and no one really wanting to question Jesus, but no one thinking what He’s asking is a good idea… and i can relate because I’m very practical and rational and God’s been stretching me into being “superrational”… which is a very incredible journey…

        now this is an example of scripture (Ms. Martha’s role) becoming living and active for me through the Holy Spirit…

        what i find interesting, going back to the thought that some stories in scripture might not be real, and some are… isn’t that “picking and choosing” kind of like “proof texting”? just saying =)

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    2. In response to David – no one is questioning the reality that there are stories. 🙂 There are some stories that are better understood as such: stories. They may in fact have *more* power when understood that way. The opening of Genesis is such an instance. To flatten the first chapters of Genesis out by reading them literally is to miss their historical theology that is neither literal nor untrue. (Ask Walter Brueggemann, John Walton, Peter Enns, or NT Wright, for example). I think it is actually more unusual these days to interpret this literally. As for Lazarus, I simply noted that it *could* be read that way. I did not say *should*. But none of that is the point of this post.

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      1. I understand it’s not the point of the post.. but it gave me a great way to share an example of a “rhema” Word from the Holy Spirit ; )… and again I love Ms. Martha… her other story in Luke 10 is just as good!! I can totally relate to her little “pity party” in v40 =)

        God is big enough that both literal and figurative (and more that we have not even thought of yet regarding creation and the Revelation) could be equally true… can we comprehend that? no, but it’s possible, just like there are dimensions of a greater reality that are outside of time that we can not grasp… can we even begin to fathom that? Nope… it’s about trusting God, trusting His Word and being led by the Holy Spirit… can we question? of course, it’s great sharpening (Prov 27.17)… love it!

        God is big enough that there are many “levels” to scripture… that it can be both literal and figurative and living and active and??? all at the same time… we just need to be open via the Holy Spirit to what He is showing us, teaching us at that moment in time (our current living context) as well as the original historical context (which I see historical context as “flattening” out scripture if that’s the only way we study it, as historical context is just one dimension) …

        thanks for the opportunity to do some sharpening =) yum, yum… love it, feeds my soul… too bad i live 2000 miles away so i miss out on the face to face with you all… but I’m thankful we do have this forum to engage in discussion at some level… blessings… Bev S

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      2. A major point of your post, Bryan, is that we should focus more on story than on theological constructs, yet now you inform us that the real point of the Genesis stories is historical theology. Theology trumps story, after all. Apparently it’s not so easy just to embrace stories and downplay theology. At any rate, one could read the first chapters of Genesis quite literally without missing their theology, whereas many revisionists concerning Adam’s reality are also busy revising other elements of theology.

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      3. Historical was probably not the best term to use there. Historical in the sense that it was written in a particular time and place, and that that history is crucial to understanding what is going on. That was probably a wrong use of the phrase on my part.

        I have no idea what it means to say theology trumps stories. There would be no meaningful theology were it not for the biblical stories, so I’m not sure what you mean by that.

        Reading Genesis literally tends to ‘miss out’ on what is actually being said. It also forces people into awkward positions like having to believe in talking snakes and that the whole predicament of the planet is based on a piece of fruit. The literalism crushes the theological beauty that is encapsulated in a story that is telling us true things about us and our world. Not to mention the issues with current science that a literal reading puts one at odds with.

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  10. Well I guess I’m an 1600’s ignoramus, because I thought the Word/Scripture is living and active, the Logos made alive/rhema by the Holy Spirit, and I’m pretty sure the Holy Spirit was around then as much as He is now… So I know the intellectual elitists all like to keep it in “context” , keep the Word of God in a box, but there is nothing like a “rhema” word from the Holy Spirit, when He quickens Scripture in you in ways far beyond our comprehension…

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  11. To borrow from a comment made elsewhere: many Gen Xers and millenials are simply not interested in “relevant” worship or “contemporary” faith. Agreed. Style and mode do matter at some level, but not nearly to the degree of the substance beneath.

    Many are interested in a more engaging, developing theology that is informed by the broad catholicity of the faith. But more than that, a faith that also has room for mystery, for realizing the limits of all theological perspectives (including, or perhaps especially, one’s own tradition). These people are strongly interested in an incarnational, Christ-centered faith. Many are simply not interested in being forced into a theological or intellectual corner by having to ‘sign on’ for certain doctrines. This is where the rub is. They (and I) want to be informed by the historic confessions without being told: you MUST own every single piece of them, which is about as appealing as being told you MUST take that spoonful of cod liver oil because… wait, what were those reasons again? Never mind – we’ve always done it this way (it’s tradition!) – so open up and take it!

    So many across the generations want to live into *God’s* story more than they want to live into any single version of that story, because they realize God is beyond any single tradition. (And are simply tired of the hubris that says ‘ours is the best and truest’).

    As I’ve noted elsewhere, my own desire is to be centered on following Jesus in how I live my life (though it is a constant struggle). I want a faith at which Christ is the center from which I operate, and the goal toward which I strive. I’m frankly not that interested in worrying about how big (or small) the theological circle is within which I operate. I want to be informed by the creeds and confessions (and have and will continue to be shaped by them), but I am less interested in being forced to stand or fall on them. For our faith to have weight and depth – it must engage these important parts of our tradition. But for it to live and move and breath – it must not be encumbered or chained to the ground by them. I am interested in inviting people into the center. The theological edges are frankly not that important to me, and I think a healthy agnosticism toward some doctrines that the confessions lay out dogmatically would be a healthier (and perhaps more biblical) approach.

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    1. Bryan,

      I’m wondering where this idea of our confessional tradition being so biblically myopic originated…

      From de Bres to Ursinus to Gomarus – yes they used strong language about the story of scripture and its interpretation because their context necessitated it. We’ve footnoted a few things over the years that have been tempered by changes in the western church (Vatican II softened the council of Trent, Anabaptists don’t subvert social order like they used to – wiki my possible ancestor Melchior Hoffman). But overall, their hermeneutics have remained fairly nuanced over the last few centuries (one great example might be BC art. 32)

      Yes, there have been plenty of ‘heresy’ trials in the Dutch Reformed Churches since 1619 along the lines of confessional orthodoxy, but I fail to historically see any of these churches espousing the kind of rigid, fundamentalist ‘divinizing’ of the confessions that you seem to fear.
      Scott Hoezee pointed out that accusing the confessions of being used as weapons fails both the historic and contemporary litmus test. All too often, those who’ve held to the HC, BC and C’s of D have split over the failure to see them as important, not because their authority was abused. In the CRC, the names Janssen, Dekker and Boer come to mind, but they were never ‘run out on a rail’ because they didn’t have things perfectly in line.

      You say you’re “inviting people into the center.” A recent report from Calvin College on the history of the use of the confessions shows that the view in the center is actually the one which you might say is far right (http://www.calvin.edu/admin/provost/documents/statement.pdf – see p. 15). To somehow imply a less strict or more lenient approach to the confessions is more “Christological” or biblical is a little unfair in my opinion.

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      1. Mark-
        Thanks again for your thoughtful comments. I appreciate your contribution to this conversation, and you make some good points about the origins of the confessions. I am certainly not an expert on the development of the confessions (I’m sure confessional experts at the seminary are cringing over my posts) nor am I an authority on the history of the FoS. I am more than willing to learn, and am grateful dialogue can happen in limited forums such as this. My thoughts here on this blog are rooted in my own reading, experience, and perceptions (and the fact that many people are resonating with what I am saying means at least some of my perceptions seem to be striking a chord). I hope I am not coming across as having the final word or answer, as that is obviously not the case.

        You can say that there is no such thing as ‘divinizing’ the confessions, and I hope you’re right — but when people get über-defensive when there is any talk of change it is hard for me to see otherwise. Yet when I hear of changes that have been made, as you noted, or of someone referring to the confessions as ‘living documents not set in stone’, it gives me hope that perhaps I am wrong in my perceptions.

        I really appreciate the link you provided – there’s some really helpful stuff there in terms of history and current approaches and relationships to confessional documents. I also appreciate what Lee Hardy notes: “To suppress all critical discussion of the creeds [confessions] at the institutional level would be to adopt means that work against the end of having true belief on matters religious.”

        Amen to that.

        Perhaps there is wider latitude than I’ve assumed, as the process of “ecclesiastical freedom” seems to connote. Yet there is tension between that practice and what the FoS (at least for Calvin faculty) actually says, as is noted in the article.

        As far as splitting over ‘failure to see them as important’, I guess I don’t see how that is different than abusing their authority or using them as weapons. It would seem that in such a case there is a split because some feel the confessions must continue to function at a certain level of ‘binding authority’, and others would prefer to see them ‘guides’. If people feel their only recourse is to leave, then perhaps an abuse (or misappropriation) of authority is the case at some level. It goes both ways.

        The use of the confessions highlighted on p.15 notes that the CRC approach is one in which: “Subscribers are not bound to think that the confessions are the best possible articulation of specific themes for every time and place, and are bound to develop ever more faithful ways of speaking and practicing the faith, revising the confessions when necessary.”

        I hope that is indeed the case. Though I do have to admit the idea of subscription that is ‘appropriating’ (or essential tenet subscription) rather than ‘binding’ makes even more sense to me, because I think that creates space for people like John Suk. To me, that is a better place to be.

        Given what I read there, perhaps my perception of the situation is narrower than the reality (not a real surprise). Thanks again.

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  12. Bryan,

    In spite of many overreactions to this news of John’s resignation from around the denomination, don’t betray the silence of many as either tacit approval or (worse yet) pleasured relief.

    The conversation about our confessional identity has been going on too long to simplify it into a recent blow up over the FoS. People have had strong opinions for decades and there is often more to the story.

    I don’t see where you’re coming from when quoting Kirk on narrative to demonstrate that 16th century debates are troubled by proof texting. John Calvin’s debate with the Dutch monk Phigius over predestination shows that these verses were being debated since the time of Augustine and scriptural context was important. The Dort “divines” weren’t all systematic theologians, but pastors struggling to understand how to wrestle with what seemed to them central to the gospel. Many still believe that a “God chooses us” narrative is the clearest way to explain the biblical story of redemptive history and I don’t think it’s fair to describe them as dogmatically comfortable and simply in favor of the status quo.

    Another thing your friend from Calvin may not know is that Calvin seminary currently teaches its students how to interpret scripture from a variety of approaches (critical, canonical, rhetorical, narrative). The point is not to inculcate a slavish obedience to the confessions but a robust understanding of their history and development. We shouldn’t jump to surprising conclusions if a majority of the graduates (many of whom go into CRCNA ministry) leave with strong support of these documents.

    You’ve recently accused others of ad hominem and straw man arguents, Bryan. And while I generally appreciate your tone and demeanor this post seems to paint an unfair picture of many of your own colleagues. I hope that as we continue to discuss these issues your own passion might be tempered by a desire to paint your “opponents” in the best possible light.

    Let’s pray that this effort will give us the kInd of ‘comfort’ that reminds us we don’t belong to an argument or party, but to our faithful savior

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    1. Mark-
      Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

      Yes, it is unfair to paint the authors of Dort as simple proof-texters, and I didn’t intend to come across as dismissive of their intentions or faith. (Though when that is what is in the actual text, it’s hard for a reader of today to know what else was going on).

      But it does remain the fact that today there are many advances in biblical studies that simply weren’t available in those days. To ignore or say otherwise is inaccurate. We all understand that more methods (such as you note) are taught today, and some of these were used (more primitively) at the time this document was written, and some had not yet come into play.

      No one is questioning their commitment to God and to the gospel (or those who remain champions of their approach). We are simply asking whether it is worth framing our adherence to them as if they had arrived at a place of theological perfection and whether there is any room for fresh and new theological inquiry and articulation today (and honest disagreement).

      The departure of someone like Suk and the corresponding reactions make it seem as if we are more intent on honoring the past than living into the present. The larger project of the kingdom is not serviced by such, in my opinion.

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  13. Great stuff Bryan. I think this forms the foundation of another book, “The Real Pastor.” Just as Richard Baxter wrote “The Reformed Pastor” hundreds of years ago to address the issues of his day, I think it is time to address that if one reads the Bible and specifically the Psalms and Prophets coupled with John the Baptist’s declaration in Matthew 11:3, one mark of the Christian walk is struggle and wrestling like Jacob. This produces people who love God because they “want” to not because they are “told” to. It also exposes the fact that the gospel simply is 1 Corinthians 15:1-8 and nothing less or more.

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