By This Our Subscription.doc
By This Our Subscription
If all could go according to plan, our sister church in Abbotsford receives today a new minister of the Word in the person of Rev RC Janssen. His arrival in Abbotsford means that there’s a new face within the churches of Classis Pacific East, and so too from time to time on our pulpit. Rev Janssen is unknown to many of us and so perhaps it’s reasonable to introduce him.
Rev Janssen was born in the Netherlands back in 1972 (September 6, would you believe – happy birthday!), and migrated to Australia 10 years later. In 1993 he moved to Hamilton to begin his training for the ministry. When he completed the course at the Theological College he returned to the land of his birth to take up further studies at the Theological University in Kampen in pursuit of the Dutch equivalent of a Masters of Theology degree. With that complete, he became minister of the Word of God in the town of Nagele in 1999. Shortly thereafter he entered a PhD programme with the Theological University in Kampen. In 2004 he moved to his second congregation, in Hoek. This past spring he successfully defended his PhD dissertation, and so has the right to preface his name with the letters “Dr”. His dissertation is an impressive 484 page book under the title By This Our subscription, with the subtitle “Confessional Subscription in the Dutch Reformed Tradition since 1816.” It’s available online at http://igitur-archive.library.uu.nl/theol/2009-0618-200551/UUindex.html. He is married to Annette, and they have four young boys.
On the occasion of his graduation, the Dutch press ran a story about Dr Janssen’s book. They advised their readers that Rev Janssen was of the opinion that our current confessions (ie, the Three Forms of Unity) are not able to make clear which doctrines our office bearers need to embrace. The press in turn reported that Rev Janssen consequently wants the churches to write a new confession. One reads this (and several in our midst have read this report too), and wonders what this is about. What does Abbotsford’s new minister really think about our confessions and their value?
I should first clarify what subscription is all about. ‘Subscription’ catches the notion of placing your name under the confessions of the church (that’s the Three Forms of Unity, ie, the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort). Placing your name under the confessions boils down to affirming that you believe what’s written in those confessions, and so you’ll carry out the duties of your office (as minister, elder or deacon) in accordance with those confessions. So ‘subscription’ commits you to teaching and defending the contents of the confessions. Ever since the Great Reformation in the sixteenth century, Reformed Churches have required such subscription because the church (that’s the members) wanted reassurance that her office bearers, sinful as they were, would in fact tend the sheep of God in the way of His Word. In the course of years, the signing was moved from the Confessions themselves to a Form of Subscription drafted for this purpose. (The 2008 edition of the Book of Praise prints the Form of Subscription currently used in the Canadian Reformed Churches on page 677; it’s available also at http://www.canrc.org/resources/bop/forms/BoP%20Subscription%20Forms.pdf.)
Rev Janssen’s dissertation is actually an impressive piece of work. In a historical section of some 250 pages, Rev Janssen tabulates how the Form of Subscription actually functioned in the Dutch churches in the two centuries following 1816. The author has obviously ploughed his way through vast stacks of literature, ranging from consistory minutes to classis and synod acts, as well as so much that’s been written in the course of the years when office bearers (were thought to have) deviated in their teaching (or lifestyle) from the Confessions.
I found Rev Janssen’s 250 page overview of how the churches used the notion of Subscription in the two centuries since 1816 rather tedious reading. Precisely that observation increases my appreciation for Janssen’s work, for it speaks of grit and tenacity to research and tabulate who said what and why – especially if the ‘so what’ doesn’t jump into your face. Well, that’s where the next section most definitely comes to the rescue. After the historical section, Janssen devoted another 150 pages or so to making some order out of the data of the 250 pages – and I found that a very worthwhile and stimulating read. Why, after all, are there confessions in the first place? If God’s Word from heaven has authority, and the Confessions in turn are our response to God’s revelation, how much authority do confessions have? In fact, is every sentence in the Confessions equally binding? Is the Belgic Confession’s statement that Judas Iscariot and Simon the sorcerer received the Lord’s Supper (see Article 35) as important as the Confession’s statement that the Lord gave the sacraments “to nourish and sustain those whom He has already regenerated”? Is it acceptable that you disagree with the Confession’s use of a particular proof text even while you remain fully convinced of the correctness of the doctrine that’s being confessed? Conversely, is what’s written in the Liturgical Forms also binding? Can an office bearer disagree with what the Marriage Form says about the role of Man and Woman in Marriage and yet not be said to have broken his subscription vow? These questions arise because, as Janssen has shown, questions as these (and so many more) were extensively discussed in the course of the years – with our fathers in some instances giving answers that would definitely surprise us today.
Janssen wonders whether such questions arose over the years, and diverse answers were given, because the matter of subscription hadn’t been sufficiently thought through. Specifically, he wonders whether the Belgic Confession (just to stay with this confession for now) was even written with a view to office bearers subscribing to it. Had subscription been in the back of Guido deBres’ mind, would he have formulated some sentences differently? Janssen concludes that the Confessions we currently have were not written for the purpose of a binding subscription, and so when one does subscribe one gets questions as the ones I listed above: what does my subscription really mean? Can I disagree with a proof text? Is every sentence equally important?
Further, Janssen notes that the confessions of the church are not to be seen simply as historical documents that the church chooses to carry along in its luggage. Rather, the church is called to confess today, in today’s circumstances and world. One ought, then, not to speak so much of a confession (a thing) as of confessing; the latter term, of course, is an ongoing activity, has movement in it. Then certainly, there may not be disagreement between what the church confesses today and what the church confessed hundreds of years ago, for there is one unchanging revelation from God and God’s church is catholic, united by one faith. But confessing needs to be and feel contemporary, up to date. More, the confessing of the church (and hence her confessional documents) needs to be complete in the sense that there is no ambiguity on the world’s part about what the church actually believes and teaches on a given point. So, he suggests, today’s climate requires that the Lord’s revelation on marriage ought to be specifically laid out in the church’s official confessional documents.
How, though, can one achieve such a goal? Should an addition or alteration be made to one of the existing confessions? Should a new confession be written? For various reasons Rev Janssen concludes that indeed a new confession should be prepared. Yet he would not wish a fourth Form of Unity. Instead, he suggests that we take our current confessions, liturgical forms, certain synodical decisions and even the songs of the Book of Praise, and pour all this material into a new product. He writes:
“Given all the foregoing, it would probably be wisest for the church to write new confessional documents that absorb the old, are substantially equivalent to the old, and include issues that are relevant today. In view of the functions of confessions, it would be best to draw up three types of confessions that can serve in the three main functions” (pg 370).
The “main functions” Janssen has in mind are doxological, declarative and defining. He explains:
A doxological confession would be drawn up with a view to a liturgical setting. Practice makes clear that such a document is best created as poetry that can be set to music…. The Apostles’ Creed and Nicene Creed have proven to work well in this way….
A declarative confession would be made for kerygmatic, instructional, and pastoral purposes. The field of pedagogy could guide the church in formulating the confession adequately. Besides the use of (brief) questions and answers, one might also use schemes and other pedagogical instruments. In fact, this would mean writing a new catechism that would absorb the Heidelberg Catechism and elements from the Belgic Confession and the Canons of Dort, and touch on relevant issues today….
A defining confession would be written for apologetic, uniting, and anti-heretical purposes…. It would consist of a series of articles. Each article would deal with a single topic….
How would these three types of confessions be interconnected? Says Janssen:
The doxological and declarative confessions would not contain material that is not found in the defining confession. Positively stated, all doctrine confessed in doxological and declarative confessions is found in the defining confession. For that reason, it will not be necessary to subscribe all three confessions (just as Dort did not consider it necessary to subscribe the ecumenical creeds). The doxological and declarative confessions are instruments to allow the church to confess its faith in the many different ways it needs to. Subscription need only be limited to the defining confession.
Rev Janssen himself asks the obvious question: “How might the church go about fixing its confessing in the format proposed above?” He proposes that the church (through Synod) create a “standing committee ‘confessing’”. This committee would be responsible for proposing to the churches how to confess God’s word clearly in today’s circumstances. Once the confessing of the church on a given topic is defined, this article of faith is reformatted to suit the church’s declarative needs (eg, formulating a Question and Answer for Catechism instruction), and perhaps reformatted again for doxological purposes so that it can (if applicable) be sung in the worship services. Rev Janssen proposed a detailed procedure of some 15 steps involving committee, synod, consistory, classis and even churches abroad in keeping everybody on board with the correct formulation.
It is, of course, here that questions arise. The whole matter of restructuring the format of the church’s confessions arises because, as Rev Janssen has noted, many questions have arisen over the decades and centuries of church history about the nature and authority of subscription. Rev Janssen wants to tidy up the matter of subscription so that it is clear what exactly one is subscribing too (ie, the defining confession) and what relative weight each sentence in the confession would have (always the same, since the confession is now built with one eye on subscription). This seems laudable enough to me. I do wonder, though, whether fixing the subscriptional hiccups of the confessions doesn’t create other problems. For example: would the standing committee ‘confessing’ become the ‘think-tank’ of the churches so that it determines the church’s direction and colour? Does the habitual appearing of a new and/or revised article of faith not give repeated occasion for contention in the churches? How much energy needs to be expended, by committee and local churches alike, to obtain the support needed for ultimate adoption of the proposed article – be it in defining format, declarative, or doxological? In a word: will the generation of a new confession cost more energy and blood than fixing subscriptional weaknesses is worth?
But enough on that. Seeing risks is easy. Rev Janssen recognizes the essential need of subscribing to the confessions of the church, and so, at this week’s classis, he signed the Subscription Form readily. He has served the churches well by his study of how subscription to the confessions has worked through the centuries, and his catalogue of wrong ways of understanding the subscription form will certainly help in subscriptional issues down the road. That he also took the step to propose a solution to weaknesses surrounding the Subscription Form is understandable. Agitating to implement such a solution, however, is a different matter – and Rev Janssen is not inclined to do so.
We welcome him warmly to Classis Pacific East (and the Canadian Reformed Churches), and extend our congratulations to the church in Abbotsford with their new minister. May the Lord richly bless Rev Janssen’s coming work in that congregation.
4 September 2009