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A More Accurate History: An Introduction
by Cedric Parsels
This is a new series from Rev. Cedric Parsels covering the history of gravamina in the Christian Reformed Church.
Last year, I set out to explain why I believe that the denominational office’s interpretation of confessional-difficulty gravamina is not only incorrect, but also immoral and likely to prove damaging to the CRC’s confessional integrity. Some of the arguments that I used in those articles were included in an overture that my council sent to Classis Grandville. In January, Classis Grandville adopted my council’s overture and has sent it on to Synod 2023.
Interestingly, on the same day that Classis Grandville met to discuss my council’s overture, the denominational offices decided to publish what would eventually become the first of two articles by Prof. Kathy Smith (Professor of Church Order at Calvin Theological Seminary) on the topic of confessional-difficulty gravamina. In her first article, entitled, “Gravamen: What It Is and How to Use It,” Prof. Smith reaffirms her commitment to the denominational office’s interpretation of confessional-difficulty gravamina and attempts to justify that interpretation by appealing to CRC church history. Highlighting the importance of these historical claims to her argument, the denominational offices published a second article by Prof. Smith a few days later, entitled, “Summary of the History behind the Guidelines for Gravamina.”
As Prof. Smith tells the story, confessional-difficulty gravamina existed in the CRC long before Synod 1976 decided to give them that name. According to Prof. Smith, “ we…know that only two confessional-difficulty gravamina have reached synod – one in the 1940s that was not resolved before the officebearer passed away, and one in the 1970s that synod decided to classify as a confessional-difficulty gravamen” (Smith, Gravamen). In her second article, Prof. Smith reiterates this claim with emphasis, arguing that “The Harry Boer case [in the 1970s]…was not the first confessional-difficulty gravamen. Henry DeMoor, in his Christian Reformed Church Order Commentary (pp.48-49), writes of the Dietrich H Kromminga case in 1947, in which that officebearer’s gravamen went all the way to synod.”
It is important to keep in mind what exactly Prof. Smith and the denominational offices are referring to here when they use the term ‘confessional-difficulty gravamen.’ On their view, a confessional-difficulty gravamen is a gravamen in which an officebearer who disagrees with a doctrine contained in the confessions does not call for a revision of the confessions but instead asks their local council for an exemption from having to believe the doctrine in question. That is, a confessional-difficulty gravamen, according to Prof. Smith, is a mechanism by which a council can grant an officebearer an exception to a doctrine contained in the confessions.
For example, suppose that you believe, contrary to Belgic Confession, Article 24, that sinners are not justified through faith alone apart from works, but you still want to serve as a minister in the CRC. Suppose further that you are an officebearer at a church that doesn’t care what your views are on this and that you don’t want to go through all the hassle of asking the church to revise its confessions. In that case, according to Prof. Smith, you should submit a confessional-difficulty gravamen to your local council. If they agree with you that your disagreement with Article 24 is not really that big a deal, then you can remain an officebearer in the CRC. Despite your disagreement with the CRC on the doctrine of justification, your council can still delegate you to classis and your classis can still delegate you to synod. Of course, your local council might put some restrictions on what you can teach. But that is left to their discretion.
So, this is what Prof. Smith and the denominational offices believe the CRC has permitted with regard to confessional subscription since at least the 1940s. But is this true? Does the CRC have a long history of allowing officebearers to take exception to her confessions? Was this what Synod 1976 understood itself to be allowing when it adopted our current guidelines for gravamina?
To compress a very long story into one word, the answer is: no. What the denominational offices and Prof. Smith claim is almost certainly false. From its earliest days, the CRC has required its officebearers to subscribe unconditionally to its confessions. It is not the case that what Prof. Smith and the denominational offices refer to as ‘confessional-difficulty gravamina’ have a long history in our church. To the contrary, they are a relatively recent innovation adopted by some CRC churches over the last thirty or so years (without official support from synod) with the intention of enabling some nice people to serve in a denomination for which they are theologically ill-suited.
Those are my claims. Now I need to back them up. So, in the articles that are attached, we will examine the CRC’s approach to confessional subscription and gravamina more closely. In Part I, we will set the stage by taking a closer look at what the CRC’s Form of Subscription required of its officebearers between 1912 and 2012. In Part II, we will examine the Kromminga Case (1945-1947) that Prof. Smith mentions in her articles. There we will see that Prof. Kromminga’s ‘gravamen’ was not what Prof. Smith claims it to have been. In Part III, we will look at a couple of cases from the 1950s and the 1960s where we see that the CRC continued to expect unconditional subscription from its officebearers. Then, in Part IV, we will turn to the fascinating story of Dr. Harry R. Boer and how his decades long crusade to revise the Canons of Dordt eventually led to the creation of our guidelines for gravamina. Contrary to Prof. Smith’s claims, we will find that ‘the Boer case’ is intimately tied into how Synod 1976 thought about the nature of confessional-difficulty gravamina and of how they ought to function. In Part V, we will ask whether Dr. Boer’s case is, as Prof. Smith claims, a “unique case” whose relevance to our current situation is “questionable” (Smith, “Summary”). Finally, in Part VI, I will give an explanation for why the illicit practice of granting exceptions to our confessions may have taken off in some churches during the 1980s and 1990s. Hopefully, by working through these articles, local councils, classes, and synodical delegates will have a better understanding of the history of gravamina in our denomination and, as a result, be in a better position to ensure that they are used properly.