Recommendation D & Confessional Status Part 3
The Heidelberg & Unchastity by Cedric Parsels
In Part I, I showed that the question of whether the CRC’s teaching on homosexual sex already has confessional status is one that we can only answer by reading our confessions directly. In Part II, I argued that the best way to go about interpreting our confessions is by using a revised form of the grammatical-historical method. Now, in Part III, we are ready to determine whether recommendation D’s claim is correct. So, is it the case that the CRC’s teaching on homosexual sex already has confessional status?
The debate over this question primarily revolves around how to interpret Heidelberg Catechism use of the word ‘unchastity.’ According to the human sexuality report (HSR), “By the word ‘unchastity’ the catechism intends to encompass all sexual immorality, including homosexual activity” (Agenda 2021, p.146). To support this interpretation, the HSR highlights two pieces of evidence. First, the HSR informs us that the Reformed Church in America (RCA) adopted this interpretation of the Catechism at its 2017 General Synod. Second, the HSR points out that Zacharias Ursinus (one of the catechism’s principal authors) also understood the Catechism’s use of ‘unchastity’ to encompass homosexual sex (see, Ursinus, Commentary, p.590-591).
Accordingly, the HSR concludes that the CRC has good reason to believe that the Catechism’s use of ‘unchastity’ encompasses homosexual sex and that, therefore, the church’s teaching already has confessional status.
The HSR presents a strong argument for its position. Nevertheless, I believe that they could have gone further in developing it. For example, they could have pointed out that the Catechism’s use of the terms ‘chaste’ and ‘unchaste’ presumes a definition of marriage. The Catechism expresses this when it says that God commands us in the seventh commandment to “live decent and chaste lives, within or outside of the holy state of marriage” (H.C., Q&A 108). So, in defining the terms ‘chaste’ and ‘unchaste’ the Catechism requires the reader to assume a particular definition of ‘marriage’; one which it directly refers to in Q&A 108.
So, what does the Heidelberg Catechism mean when it refers to ‘marriage’? Here there can be no doubt as to the answer. In a long chapter on marriage following his discussion of the seventh commandment, Ursinus defines ‘marriage’ as “a lawful and indissoluble union between one man and one women, instituted by God for the propagation of the human race, [etc.]” (Commentary, 592). This definition of marriage is the same one that the CRC has repeatedly reaffirmed throughout its history (see, Acts 1912, p.119; Acts 1934, p. 292-297; Acts 1936, p. 136; Acts 1980, p. 41; Acts 2016, p. 918; C.O., Suppl., Art. 69-c). Therefore, when readers come to Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 108, this definition of marriage is clearly the one they should assume and, consequently, the one they should use to determine what is contained in the Catechism’s reference to ‘unchastity.’ And, obviously, on such a view of marriage, the term ‘unchastity’ encompasses homosexual sex.
Understandably, revisionist members have raised a number of objections to the HSR’s interpretation of the Catechism. One objection that Dr. Jim Payton has raised has to do with the HSR’s use of the RCA’s 2017 interpretation. It is true, Dr. Payton says, that the 2017 RCA Synod adopted the view that homosexual sex is included in the Catechism’s use of the term ‘unchastity’. The problem, however, according to Dr. Payton, is that the HSR fails to inform CRC readers that this decision functions differently in RCA church polity than it would in CRC church polity. In CRC church polity, such a synodical decision would mean that all members in good standing must agree with the Synod’s interpretation. In the RCA, however, this is not the case. By not informing CRC readers of this difference, Dr. Payton argues that the HSR is misleading readers into thinking that the RCA’s membership has reached a ‘settled’ interpretation of this term when it has not.
Although I appreciate Dr. Payton’s explaining this difference between the RCA and the CRC, his argument is nevertheless a textbook example of the red herring fallacy. The question before us is: does the Heidelberg Catechism’s use of the term ‘unchastity’ encompass homosexual sex? In 2017, a majority of the RCA synodical deputies answered: Yes. The fact that that decision does not have the same effect in the RCA as it would in the CRC is irrelevant. Accordingly, Dr. Payton is incorrect. There is nothing misleading in the HSR’s pointing out that the 2017 RCA Synod’s interpretation of the Catechism agrees with their own.
In addition to Dr. Payton’s objection, revisionists have also objected to the HSR’s use of Ursinus. One objection is that the HSR is cherry picking from among Ursinus’s views. As Classis Grand Rapids East (GRE) rightly notes: “in the 16th century, unchastity....also included intentionally nonprocreative sex, masturbation, and divorce except in cases of adultery or abandonment” (Agenda 2021, p.431). Therefore, according to Classis GRE, “any consistent argument for confessional status on the matter of same-sex marriage from H.C. Q&A 108 and Ursinus’ commentary ought [also] to a seek confessional status to prohibit contraception, masturbation, and divorce in cases of domestic violence or emotional abuse” (Agenda 2021, p. 431). Presumably, the CRC should not want to do that, especially when it comes to domestic abuse, and, therefore, should discount Ursinus’s views on homosexual sex.
The problem with this argument is that it fails to recognize the type of literature that the Heidelberg Catechism represents. As I argued in Part II, when the CRC adopted the Heidelberg Catechism, it acquired authorial rights over it. Accordingly, when determining what the Catechism teaches, we must look not only to how the Reformed community would have originally understood it, but we must also examine how the CRC has officially received it. And, when it comes to the issues of birth control and remarriage after divorce, it is clear that past synods have reinterpreted unchastity so as to exclude the views expressed by Ursinus. And we can say the same for some of Ursinus’s other views as well. In contrast, Synod has reaffirmed Ursinus’s view of marriage and homosexual sex repeatedly.
The revisionists’ second objection to the HSR’s use of Ursinus is that it runs afoul of CRC church polity. According to Classis GRE, the HSR’s use of Ursinus is invalid, because, according to church polity, subscribers to our confessions are “not bound to the references, allusions, and remarks that are incidental to the formulation of these doctrines... (C.O, Suppl., Art.5.A.3).” Since “Ursinus’ commentary,” Classis GRE argues, “is not part of our confessions[, it] should not be given undue weight” (Agenda 2021, p.431).
The problem with this objection is that it begs the question against the HSR. The question is: are Ursinus’s comments with regard to unchastity (and I would argue ‘marriage’) incidental to the Catechism’s teaching? The HSR (and I) argue that the answer is: No, because Ursinus’s comments provide vital context for the proper interpretation of the Catechism’s use of those terms. Classis GRE, however, argues that the correct answer is: Yes, because, well, we says so.
This last point helps to answer another objection that some revisionists have raised on the basis of church polity. In his video for All One Body, the Rev. Paul Verhoef argues that the HSR’s contention that the term ‘unchastity’ encompasses ‘homosexual sex’ is invalid from a church polity standpoint, because it is the result of a ‘theological deduction’. To support this, Verhoef references an off-the-cuff comment that one of the HSR’s authors, Professor Matthew Tuininga, made during a seminary townhall. According to Verhoef, if the HSR’s interpretation represents a ‘theological deduction’, then it is invalid, because, according to church polity, subscribers to our confessions are not bound “to the theological deductions that some may draw from the doctrines set forth in the confessions” (C.O., Suppl., Art. 5, A, 3).
It seems to me that the proper response to Verhoef’s objection is to point out that, when it comes to interpreting our confessions, not all ‘theological deductions’ are created equal. As Verhoef rightly notes, some theological deductions that people draw are non-binding. In his commentary on the catechism, Henry DeMoor gives the good example of someone incorrectly ‘deducing’ from the Reformed doctrine of predestination that God’s relationship to His creatures is like that of a puppet master to his puppets (see, DeMoor, Commentary, p.46). The trouble with this type of theological deduction is that the flow of thought that leads to this conclusion is one that leads to a doctrine not already contained in our confessions.
In Part II, however, I pointed out that there is a legitimate type of theological deduction which sound readers of our confessions have always recognized. For example, when interpreting the term ‘Jeremiah’ in Belgic Confession, Article 4, a certain amount of theological deduction is required in order to arrive at the correct conclusion that the Confession teaches that the Book of Lamentations is canonical Scripture. This type of theological deduction or linear reasoning is valid, because its conclusion is something that the original confessing community would have understood as included in or vital to the Confession’s use of the term ‘Jeremiah’. Similarly, the HSR rightly argues that the CRC’s teaching on homosexual sex is contained in the Catechism’s references to ‘unchastity’.
At the beginning of this series I argued that, of all the recommendations coming to Synod 2022, recommendation D has the most potential to overturn the denominational status quo. As a result, it is understandable that revisionists within the CRC would seek to undermine the HSR’s rationale for that recommendation. As I have shown, however, none of these attempts to undermine recommendation D are successful. Instead, as I and the HSR have shown, there is very good reason for Synod 2022 to adopt recommendation D. I only hope that, if Synod adopts recommendation D, revisionists who cannot agree with that decision will have the honesty and the courage of their convictions to resign or disaffiliate from the CRC. It is far past time that the CRC move beyond debating these foundational issues with regard to human sexuality so that it can focus more intently on how we can best care for and disciple our LGBTQ brothers and sisters in Christ.