What’s at Stake in Recommendation D? (Part 1)
Written By Craig Hoekema
That synod declare that the church’s teaching on premarital sex, extra-marital sex, adultery, polyamory, pornography, and homosexual sex already has confessional status.”
- Recommendation D of the Human Sexuality Report, Agenda for Synod 2022, pg. 461
I love being a part of a confessional denomination. I love the depth of unity it fosters between us as churches. I love being a part of an intimate theological heritage that transcends the boundaries of geography and culture. I love the freedom it gives me in the pulpit to unapologetically preach from a particular perspective on questions that may be touched on only vaguely in other Christian churches. I love having a rich tradition to appeal to when I reach the frequently exposed limits of my own ability to read the scriptures. And honestly, I love the idea that my brothers and sisters all across the continent have a vested interest in what’s being taught in our congregation and the right to hold us accountable if we violate our covenantal commitment.
One of the most pressing questions in the CRC right now is about the integrity of our confessional life together. It comes to the fore particularly in recommendation D of the Human Sexuality Report (quoted above). Critics of the recommendation say that, far from affirming what is already the case (i.e. that these six behaviors are condemned by Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 41), adopting this recommendation would constitute a significant and problematic change to our confessional life together. And for many, that settles it. If voting down this recommendation means keeping things the way they are, let’s vote it down.
My contention is that this is significantly mistaken. I believe that voting down this recommendation would constitute a drastic change to our confessional life together. More than that, I submit that it would be a substantial step toward the end of the CRC remaining a confessional denomination in any meaningful sense.
In order to determine whether the six behaviors in recommendation D are already condemned by Lord’s Day 41, we need some principles for determining the meaning of the word “unchastity”—principles that could be consistently applied when determining the meaning of any other word in our confessions as well. I’d suggest those principles are actually fairly intuitive.
In order to try to think through this without some of the freight that comes with the subject of sexuality, imagine if the dispute were not over the meaning of the word “unchastity” but over the meaning of the word “neighbor” (which the catechism uses repeatedly to tell us of our duties to one another). What if a growing segment in our denomination began teaching that the catechism’s reference to “neighbor” refers only to some and not all human beings? Would we say, “Well, because ‘neighbor’ isn’t explicitly defined in the catechism itself, no particular definition of neighbor should be considered to have confessional status”? I hope not, and I doubt it. I think we’d rather intuitively turn to the following interpretive principles:
Principle 1: What does scripture say?
It’s more of a reflex than a conscious decision for most of us to turn immediately to scripture. While reading the previous paragraph, many of us probably recalled that this very question (“Who is my neighbor?”) was posed directly to Jesus before he told his famous parable about a good Samaritan (Luke 10:25ff). However, let’s be fair to this hypothetical scenario and assume that anyone in our denomination arguing for a limited definition of “neighbor” knows his/her Bible well enough to have an answer (however unsatisfying it may seem) for why the scriptures are compatible with his/her understanding. The reality is that anytime there might arise a dispute about the definition of a word in our confessions, it’s inevitably due to the fact that there’s a dispute about the right way to understand scripture. So we’ll need more than just this one principle if we’re to settle the debate.
Principle 2: What did the original author mean?
This principle too is quite intuitive given that this is how we go about determining the meaning of virtually every written document—from the Bible, to novels, to magazine articles, to graffiti, to shopping lists. Even if we’re left in the dark because we can’t get back to the original author’s meaning, we still know that his/her intent would be the determinative factor. And in the case of a dispute over the meaning of ‘neighbor’ in the catechism, we’d have little difficulty demonstrating Ursinus’ intended meaning from his commentary.
Some have argued that Ursinus’ definition of the word “unchastity” cannot be considered confessionally binding unless Synod has explicitly said so. Others say that using Ursinus in this way constitutes a violation of the Church Order which states that officebearers are “not bound…to the theological deductions that some may draw from the doctrines” (Supplement, Article 5.A.3). Still others have argued that using Ursinus’ commentary in this way would expand the scope of confessional teaching to an extent that is unworkable—should everything Ursinus says in his commentary be considered confessional?
However, we’re not here talking about theological deductions or extrapolations; nor are we talking about the authority of Ursinus’ commentary. We’re talking specifically about the meaning of a word in our confessions. Appealing to the original author’s intent is hardly an aberrant or dangerous precedent for making such a determination. In addition, Synod does not need to define every word in the confessions before those words have binding meaning.
Principle 3: Has Synod said anything that would refine or revise the original author’s meaning?
To my knowledge, Synod has never explicitly stated the confessionally binding definition of ‘neighbor’ in the catechism (though it’s said many things that are consistent with Ursinus’ understanding). We don’t therefore conclude that the word has no binding meaning. Rather, we content ourselves with the previous two principles of interpretation.
However, Synod does have the authority to refine or revise what’s binding on officebearers in a way that is different from the confessional authors’ intent. For example, it’s been noted that Ursinus would have considered some things unchaste that probably most CRC leaders do not (e.g. birth control). However, since Synod has spoken specifically on the permissibility of birth control, we are not bound by the fact that Ursinus would have considered it condemned by LD 41. Similar examples of where our confessional obligations may be different than the authors’ intent would be whether children can come to the Lord’s Supper (Q&A 81) and whether women can be ordained to ecclesiastical office (BC Article 30). With regard to the six behaviours in recommendation D, Synod has never refined or revised Ursinus’ meaning, and in some cases has reaffirmed his position that such behaviors are unchaste.
If the principles of interpretation listed above are correct, then the word “neighbor” in the Heidelberg Catechism has always had a settled and binding meaning—and so has the word “unchastity.” It has always has included the behaviors listed in recommendation D, and as such, anyone wanting to avoid making significant changes to our confessional life together would be wise to affirm the HSR’s recommendation.
By contrast, for Synod to vote down recommendation D would be truly perplexing in its meaning and implication. Does it mean that the three principles above are not how we determine the meaning of the words in our confessions? (And if not, what are the correct principles?) Does it mean that none of the words in our confessions have any binding meaning unless or until Synod explicitly defines them? Does it mean we’re somehow bound by our confessions but not by the meaning of the words in our confessions? Voting down recommendation D might be intended to keep things the way they are, but it would actually leave our feet planted in mid-air when it comes to interpreting our own confessions. It would throw the door wide open for any CRC congregation or officebearer to explicitly contradict the confessions while appealing to the precedent of Synod 2022 which would have effectively (even if inadvertently) eviscerated the confessions of any binding meaning. As such, voting down recommendation D would be a significant step toward the end of us remaining a confessional denomination in any meaningful sense.
Critics of my claim would likely point out that there are a number of arguments that have been put forth by various overtures for why we can and must vote down recommendation D. I will turn to at least some of those arguments in part 2. They do not mitigate my concern about confessional disintegration, and in fact, some of them only exacerbate the problem.
Craig Hoekema was ordained in 2008 and has served Calvin CRC in Ottawa, Ontario for 6 years.