Recommendation D & Confessional Status Part 2
The Hermeneutics of Confessional Subscription by Cedric Parsels
Is the church’s teaching on homosexual sex already contained in the confessions? As I explained in Part I, many revisionist members – and even some traditionalists – believe that the answer to this question is: No. And they believe this primarily on the basis of a particular interpretation of CRC church polity. In Part I, I showed that that interpretation is incorrect and that, if we are to answer the question of whether the church’s teaching on homosexual sex already has confessional status, we need to examine our confessions directly.
Here, however, things get complicated. For, how are we to determine what our confessions teach? For some people this might seem like a rather silly question. If we want to know what our confessions teach, just read them! However, it is not that simple. If research in the field of Biblical interpretation has taught us anything over the last fifty years, it is that reading is a complex skill. It requires readers to follow a set of rules; rules which – when applied properly – enable readers to interpret texts correctly. So, if we are to succeed in learning what our confessions teach, we need to know the rules for reading them rightly.
What, then, are these rules? Given the obvious importance of this question for a ‘confessional’ denomination, some might be surprised (and possibly unnerved) to learn that the CRC has not given much official guidance on how to answer this question. The closest we get to anything like rules for reading the confessions is in Church Order, Supplement, Article 5-A. And those rules are clearly insufficient for arriving at an accurate interpretation of our confessions.
The reason why the church order rules are insufficient is because all the rules have to do with defining what our confessions do not teach rather than with what they do. For example, the church order tells us that signatories to the confessions are not bound to the exact wording of the confessions, nor are they bound “to the references, allusions, or remarks that are incidental to the formulation of [the doctrines in our confessions], nor [are they bound] to the theological deductions that some may draw from [those] doctrines....” All this is fine, so far as it goes, but these rules don’t really get us much closer to what our confessions teach. Accordingly, if we are to become competent readers of our confessions, we are going to need additional rules.
So, what additional rules should we follow? One rule that some revisionists have suggested is: that subscribers are only bound to doctrines that are explicitly stated in the confessions. The Rev. Paul Verhoef employs this rule, for example, in his argument against recommendation D. According to Verhoef, the church’s teaching on homosexual sex is not contained in our confessions, because none of our confessions “explicitly” refer to ‘homosexual sex.’ Yes, Verhoef acknowledges, the Heidelberg Catechism says that “God condemns all unchastity” (HC, Q/A 108) and that “no unchaste person...will inherit the kingdom of God” (HC, Q/A 87). But – apart from adultery – the Heidelberg Catechism never explicitly defines what the term ‘unchastity’ means. As a result, Verhoef concludes that the Heidelberg Catechism’s use of the term ‘unchastity’ cannot be used to argue that the church’s teaching has confessional status.
The great strength of Verhoef’s rule is its apparent simplicity. Nevertheless, it faces a fatal problem. Specifically, it fails to recognize how important historical and literary context are for establishing the right meaning of a word. For example, Belgic Confession Article 4 provides a list of books contained in the Bible. And, according to Article 5, “We receive all these books and these only as holy and canonical for the regulating, founding, and establishing of our faith.” If we apply Verhoef’s rule to these articles, however, we run into problems, because Belgic Confession Article 4 does not explicitly refer to the book of Lamentations. Are we to conclude, then, that CRC members are free to treat the canonicity of Lamentations as a non-confessional issue? Are they free to object to Lamentations being used “for the regulating, founding, and establishing of our faith”? If we employ Verhoef’s rule, it seems we must.
Someone might argue that the Belgic Confession’s author(s) understood Article 4’s reference to ‘Jeremiah’ as including both ‘Jeremiah’ and ‘Lamentations.’ And so, there really is no problem. But, according to Verhoef’s rule, this point is merely of historical interest. It is not explicitly stated that Lamentations is part of the Old Testament canon. And we are supposedly not bound to any ‘theological deductions’ that others may draw from the text.
Another example of this fatal problem involves the doctrine of God in Belgic Confession, Article 1. When I lecture on this article, it is common for people to wonder why the Belgic Confession describes God as “simple.” In everyday speech, the term ‘simple’ almost always refers to something ‘uncomplicated’ or ‘easily understood’ – concepts that seem very odd to use in reference to God. As a result, I explain that, by the term ‘simple’, the confession means that God is not made up of parts.
According to Verhoef’s rule, however, it is not clear that this is the case. The text does not explicitly say that “God is not made of parts.” Perhaps the word ‘simple’ in Article 1 really means ‘easily understood’ or some other alternative meaning, such as, ‘humble.’ With multiple possible meanings for the word, how do we determine which meaning is meant?
It is clear, then, that Verhoef’s rule is a bad rule. It fails to adequately account for the way that words receive their concrete meanings. And, consequently, it inadvertently deconfessionalizes doctrines which everyone knows are confessional.
Despite its failure as a rule, however, Verhoef’s rule does point us in the direction of better rules. And, for brevity’s sake, I suggest that those rules are largely identical to the rules associated with what is called the historical-grammatical method, a method of interpretation that most CRC ministers are formally introduced to in seminary.
According to the historical-grammatical method, reading a text rightly requires us to read that text in its literary and historical contexts. So, for example, a person using this method will first look at how a word like ‘Jeremiah’ or ‘simple’ is used in the paragraph in which it appears. Secondly, they will look to see how that word is used elsewhere in the text in order to ensure that they have not missed a nuance which was not fully expressed originally. Finally, they will study how a term, like ‘simple’ or ‘Jeremiah,’ was understood at the time that the text was written. And, in this way, a reader comes closer and closer to a right understanding of what the text’s author(s) intended to communicate.
It is important to note, however, that a proper approach to reading our confessions requires more than what we might consider a ‘straightforward’ application of the historical-grammatical method. This is because our confessions belong to the CRC. By adopting the confessions, the CRC acquired authorial rights over them. Thus, the CRC has the right to amend or reinterpret our confessions. Therefore, in determining what our confessions teach, we must not only investigate how the confessions were originally understood, but we must also investigate how subsequent Reformed generations have received them.
I submit that it is only by using the method sketched here that we will arrive at what our confessions actually teach. And, as we will see in Part III, one of the things that this method shows us is that recommendation D is correct; the church’s teaching on homosexual sex already has confessional status.
Stay Tuned for: “Recommendation D & Confessional Status, Part III: Unchastity in Heidelberg Q&A 108