Part IV - The Boer Case (1975-1977)
by Cedric Parsels
This is a new series from Rev. Cedric Parsels covering the history of gravamina in the Christian Reformed Church.
In Part III, we saw that, throughout the 1950s and 60s, the Christian Reformed Church’s (CRC) official policy with regard to confessional subscription was the same as it had always been: ministers, elders, and deacons, as well as professors at Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary were required to subscribe ‘unconditionally’ to all the doctrines contained in the confessions. No exceptions allowed. Furthermore, we saw in Van Dellen’s and Monsma’s Revised Church Order Commentary (1969) that, when an officebearer or professor submitted a gravamen, consistories had only two options. They could either (1) attempt to persuade the officebearer or professor that they were in error or (2) they could send the gravamen to synod for review and for a potential revision of the confessions. So far, then, we have not found any clear or compelling evidence for what Prof. Smith and the denominational offices claim about ‘confessional-difficulty gravamina,’ i.e., that they permit officebearers to take exception to our creeds and confessions.
In this article, we turn to consider the events that led to Synod 1976’s deciding to adopt our current guidelines for gravamina (cf., Suppl. Art. 5). In her Summary of the History Behind the Guidelines for Gravamina, Prof. Smith strongly suggests that we should put significant distance between Synod 1976’s decision to adopt the guidelines for gravamina and the way that it addressed Harry Boer’s gravamen. Given her endorsement of the 2022 FAQ, her wanting to create significant distance between these two issues makes sense, because, if we allow Synod 1976’s handling of ‘the Boer case’ to define the way in which we interpret our guidelines, then her interpretation of a confessional-difficulty gravamen is shown not only to have no real basis in the text, but, in fact, to be contrary to Synod’s original intent. In other words, such a close connection would show that, in establishing our guidelines, Synod 1976 did not envision itself as creating a way for councils and classes to grant exceptions to confessional doctrines. Unfortunately, for Prof. Smith’s argument, however, there is abundant evidence that Synod 1976’s decision to adopt our guidelines and its handling of the Boer case were intimately related. In fact, it is not too much to say that, without the Boer case, we wouldn’t even have the category of ‘confessional-difficulty gravamina’ to begin with.
Dr. Boer’s Crusade
The character at the heart of our story is a person by the name of Dr. Harry R. Boer (1913-1999). By his own admission, Dr. Boer had harbored deep misgivings about the doctrine of reprobation since at least 1963.[i] In fact, in that year, he wrote a gravamen to send to Synod which would have asked for the doctrine to be removed from the Canons, but he never sent it. The Love of God controversy was heating up at the time and he did not want to appear to be making a political statement in support of his friend, Harold Dekker, Professor of Missions at Calvin Theological Seminary.[ii]
After the Love of God controversy had more or less ended in 1967, Dr. Boer decided once again to take up the work of trying to get the CRC to revise the Canons of Dordt. On furlough from the mission field in 1968, Dr. Boer approached his consistory and asked them to provide him with the Biblical basis for the doctrine of reprobation.[iii] His consistory refused to do so, saying that his request for ‘information’ needed to take the form of a gravamen [i.e., a confessional-revision gravamen]. As a result, Dr. Boer appealed to Classis Chicago South, a request which the classis also refused for the same reason as his consistory.
At this point, Dr. Boer had the opportunity to appeal to Synod, but he held off yet again for several years.[iv] In preparation for his discussions with his consistory and classis, Dr. Boer had engaged in an extensive study of the Form of Subscription (FOS). And he had come to the conclusion that the FOS itself needed to be revised before the CRC could adequately take up his request for a revision of the Canons. Accordingly, from October 1970 to August 1971, Dr. Boer published nine articles in The Reformed Journal in which he attempted to make his case for a revision of the FOS.[v]
Dr. Boer’s hope was that someone would read his articles and lead the charge to revise the FOS. But, after several months of waiting, it became clear that he was going to have to request that revision himself. So, in September 1972, Dr. Boer submitted an overture to Classis Chicago South asking it to petition Synod for a new FOS.
Although Prof. Boer had a number of things that he did not like about the FOS, he had two primary criticisms. First, Dr. Boer argued that the FOS’s approach to credal revision did not reflect a Reformed doctrine of the Church and, in particular, the Reformed doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. According to Prof. Boer, as written, the FOS limited the number of people who could debate any proposed confessional revision. On his interpretation, only members of the assembly handling the gravamen could debate it. All other officebearers and professors were required to remain silent. For Dr. Boer this was an unacceptable “hierarchalism” more in keeping with Catholicism than Reformed Christianity.[vi]
Boer’s second criticism of the FOS was that it required an unconditional, ‘wholehearted,’ subscription to all the doctrines contained in the confessions. This, he argued, put the confessions on the same level of authority as Holy Scripture.[vii] And it made virtually everyone who signed the Form into a double-minded, hypocrite, because very few, if anyone, actually believed everything that the Confessions taught. For example, hardly anyone believed that Paul wrote Hebrews (Belg. Conf. Art. 4) or that they should “detest the Anabaptists” (Belg. Conf. Art. 36). Accordingly, to require officebearers to sign the FOS ‘without mental reservation’ was an act of spiritual abuse.
Classis Chicago South refused to adopt Dr. Boer’s overture. Nevertheless, it did have sympathy with his first criticism. As a result, the classis overtured Synod 1973 to add a line to the FOS which they hoped would address their and Dr. Boer’s shared concern (cf., Acts of Synod 1973, Overture 7, p.720).
Dr. Boer himself appealed the decision of his classis (cf. Acts of Synod 1973, Overture 18, pp.729-731). Accordingly, Synod 1973 had two overtures before it having to do with revising the FOS. In handling them, Synod chose to reject Dr. Boer’s overture and to adopt Classis Chicago South’s. Yet, it decided that it should postpone final ratification of its decision until Synod 1974.
When Synod 1974 met in June of that year, it had a number of overtures on its docket both for and against the ratification of Synod 1973’s decision. Because of the importance of the FOS for both the life of the CRC and its ecumenical relationships, Synod 1974 decided to postpone ratification once again. At the same time, they appointed a committee to study revision of the FOS. This committee would solicit the views of CRC churches as well as the college and seminary. And they would also communicate with our Reformed ecumenical partners.
Having gotten Synod 1973 and 1974 to act on revising the FOS, Dr. Boer decided that the time had finally come for him to start pressing for what he had always truly wanted: to revise the Canons of Dordt. Instead of submitting a gravamen, however, as he had planned to do in 1963, Dr. Boer decided to send a ‘communication’ to Synod 1975. In this ‘communication’, he asked the same question he had asked his consistory and classis in 1968: what is the Biblical basis for the Canon’s doctrine of reprobation?
Upon receiving his communication, Synod 1975 did two things. First, Synod agreed that Dr. Boer had “raised a legitimate concern to which the church should address herself” (Acts of Synod 1975, Art. 104, p.105). At the same time, however, Synod was confused about the nature of Dr. Boer’s communication. On the one hand, Dr. Boer was apparently asking the church to justify its teaching on reprobation, a direct challenge to the confessions. On the other hand, according to Dr. Boer, his communication was neither an appeal nor a gravamen. It was simply a request for information. So, what was the nature of this communication and how should Synod process it?
Synod 1975 decided that the question of how to categorize and process Dr. Boer’s communication needed to be answered before addressing his concerns about the Canons of Dordt. Accordingly, Synod appointed a study committee to determine the status of Dr. Boer’s communication and to spell out a process for how synods should deal with similar ‘communications’ in the future. The result was that as Synod 1976 convened it had two reports on its agenda that had directly originated from Dr. Boer’s actions: the Committee to Study Revision of the Form of Subscription and the Committee to Study Dr. Boer’s Communication.
At this point, we are ready to consider the relationship between Dr. Boer’s communication to Synod 1975 and Synod 1976’s decision to create the category of ‘confessional-difficulty gravamina.’ An important detail missing from Prof. Smith’s analysis of Synod 1976 in her Summary is that Synod 1976 handed both of the above reports to the same synodical advisory committee for reflection and for recommendations. This is important, because, while “the Boer case…was a separate matter” from the question of the revision of the Form of Subscription, as Prof. Smith says, the two were nevertheless directly related in the reflections of the advisory committee. In fact, in its report to Synod 1976, the advisory committee explicitly stated that its recommendation to distinguish between two types of gravamina directly arose out of its reflecting on the two study committee reports together. As the advisory committee put it:
“As [the] advisory committee for both Reports 38 [Revision of the Form of Subscription] and 45 [Dr. Boer’s Communication], we wish to point out that the authors of Report 38 follow the traditional Christian Reformed distinction between “difficulties and different sentiments” and gravamen, but the authors of Report 45 adopt the broader scope of gravamen as defined in the Christelijke Encyclopedie. Not only are overtures for credal revision regarded as gravamina but questions of ‘difficulties and different sentiments’ also fall within the area of gravamina. Your advisory committee then, in order to do justice to a traditional view of gravamina held in our churches [i.e., Report 38] as well as to the definition of the Christelijke Encyclopedie [i.e., Report 45] has chosen to speak of gravamen [sic.] in a two-fold sense…” (Acts of Synod 1976, Art. 64, p.67).[viii]
In addition to this direct link between the emergence of our guidelines and the Boer case, it is also significant to point out that both the advisory committee and Synod 1976 felt the need to vote twice on ratifying the distinction between the two types of gravamina. The first ratification took place on the morning of June 15th in conjunction with Synod’s dealing with the proposed revision of the FOS (Acts of Synod 1976, Art. 64, pp.68-70). The second ratification took place on the morning of June 16th when Synod was dealing with how to address the communication from Dr. Boer (Acts of Synod 1976, Art, 68, p.75). Procedurally, of course, this double ratification was redundant. Nevertheless, it shows the close connection between the new category of confessional-difficulty gravamina and the case of Dr. Boer in the minds both of the advisory committee and of the other synodical delegates.
Accordingly, there is no justification in the evidence for the gapping chasm that Prof. Smith would have us open between the 1976 guidelines for gravamina and the way that Synod 1976 handled the case of Dr. Boer. To understand the one, we must understand the other. To properly interpret the one, we need to examine the way in which synod processed the other.
The conclusion reached in the last section is all the more significant when we consider how Synod 1976 processed Dr. Boer’s newly minted confessional-difficulty gravamen. Unlike Prof. Smith’s and the denominational office’s view of confessional-difficulty gravamina, Synod 1976 did not grant Dr. Boer an exemption from having to confess the doctrine of reprobation. Instead, it appointed a committee of knowledgeable people to meet with Dr. Boer in order to help him resolve his difficulties. If, after meeting with that committee, Dr. Boer was still not satisfied, Synod 1976 permitted that Dr. Boer would be allowed to submit a confessional-revision gravamen (Acts of Synod 1976, Art. 68., p.75).
Unfortunately, the synodical committee appointed to meet with Dr. Boer never had a chance. Before they could meet, Dr. Boer informed the committee that he had decided to submit a confessional-revision gravamen to Synod 1977. (Whether this was the same gravamen he had already written in 1963 we do not know.) In any case, Synods 1980 and 1981 eventually ruled that the Canons were not in need of revision.
Before concluding, it is relevant to point out that Dr. Boer himself never gave any indication that he believed that Synod 1976 had created a process whereby officebearers could receive an exemption from having to affirm without reservation all the doctrines contained in our confessions. In fact, in December 1976, Dr. Boer published an article in The Reformed Journal reflecting on Synod 1976’s decisions. When it came to addressing his first concern (i.e., the FOS’s hierarchalism) Dr. Boer wrote that he thought that Synod 1976 had done reasonably well. When it came to his second problem, however, (i.e., that the FOS required wholehearted, unconditional subscription) he thought that Synod 1976 had failed miserably. According to Dr. Boer, “a person of good will [who signs the FOS] can only suffer the double tongue and the hypocritical stance in which the signing of the Form involves them…Either they sign their name to incontestable error and to doctrines that stand in the shadow of great and acknowledged uncertainty as fully agreeing with the Word of God, or they refuse office or leave it.” And again, commenting on the Form’s statement that all the doctrines “do fully agree with the Word of God,” Dr. Boer comments, “There is nothing in that statement about…exemptions.” For Dr. Boer, then, Synod 1976 had done nothing to change the CRC’s approach to confessional subscription.
Nor did Synod 1980 or 1981 change Dr. Boer’s views on the CRC’s approach to confessional subscription. In response to Synod 1981’s final ruling, Dr. Boer – now in retirement – published a book in 1983, entitled, The Doctrine of Reprobation in the Christian Reformed Church. In this book he laid out his case against the CRC’s handling of his gravamen and continued his denunciation of the CRC’s practice of confessional subscription. Instead of praising Synod 1976 for providing a way for CRC officebearers to take exception to the doctrine of reprobation, Dr. Boer lamented:
The Form of Subscription [still] requires of all office-bearers and all professors of Calvin College and Seminary believing and heartfelt adherence to the teachings of the Canons, and of the other two creeds as understood in light of the Canons; it further requires solemn promises from said subscribers to defend, teach, and otherwise implement these teaching in the church….[ix]
Prof. Smith’s recent articles on gravamina give the impression that her and the denominational office’s understanding of a confessional-difficulty gravamen is one that has been part of our church’s practice of confessional subscription for a long time. In the last three articles in this series, we have seen that her claim is almost certainly false. Instead, we have seen that from 1861 down to at least 1983, there was no official recognition given to the idea that officebearers could take exception to the doctrines contained in our confessions. But if that is the case, how then do we explain the emergence of this practice among our churches? We will consider that question in Part VI. Before considering it, however, let us first briefly examine Prof. Smith’s claim that the way Synod 1976 handled Dr. Boer’s confessional-difficulty gravamen is “unique” (Smith, Summary).
[i] Boer, Harry R. The Doctrine of Reprobation in the Christian Reformed Church. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1983), 1.
[iii] Boer, The Doctrine of Reprobation, 2.
[v] Boer, The Doctrine of Reprobation, 3. Dr. Boer’s series can be found in The Reformed Journal, Vol. 20. (Oct-Dec. 1970) and The Reformed Journal, Vol. 21, (Jan.-July/Aug. 1971). Even if I might not agree with everything he says, these articles are still interesting to read. They can be found at Hekman Library, Calvin University, Fourth Floor, call number: BR1.R23.
[vi] Boer, Harry. R., “The Hierarchicalism of the Form of Subscription” in The Reformed Journal, Vol. 21 (Jan. 1971), pp.18-22.
[vii] Boer, Harry R., “Toward Responsible Ordination Vows” in The Reformed Journal, Vol 21 (July/Aug., 1971), p.16.
[viii] I am aware that the 1976 Advisory Committee here refers to the “traditional Christian Reformed distinction between ‘difficulties and different sentiments’ and gravamen” and that this could imply that such a distinction was widely recognized among CRC churches. This assertion by the advisory committee seems at odds with the way that Prof. Kromminga’s communication was handled by synod in the 1940s and with the way that Dr. Boer’s initial requests for information was handled by his consistory and classis in 1968. In any case, as can be seen from the advisory committee’s recommendations regarding Boer’s confessional-difficulty gravamen, the committee did not apparently consider an officebearer’s divulging their ‘difficulties and sentiments’ as a basis on which to grant them an exemption from the requirements of confessional subscription. It should also be pointed out in this regard that Dr. Boer himself challenged this understanding of the CRC’s ‘traditional’ approach to “difficulties and different sentiments” (cf., Boer, Harry R. “The Reports On The Form of Subscription,” in The Banner, (May 28, 1976), pp.14-15.
[ix] Boer, The Doctrine of Reprobation, 76.