Archive for the ‘Church Polity’ Category

Gisbert Voetius (1589-1676)

Before proceeding, let the reader be clear: people who are equally heartily committed to the Bible’s truths confessed in the Three Forms of Unity and the Westminster Standards may disagree over how these truths are to be applied.

The point of this post is a historical point, not a doctrinal difference, not a confessional disagreement, not a dispute about the validity of paedo-baptism. It is a point, however, with significant pastoral implications.

Given recent ecclesiastical discussions within Dr. Michael Horton’s own denomination, the United Reformed Churches in North America (URC), and given the practices of so very many orthodox Reformed and Presbyterian denominations around the world, his statement here simply cannot be allowed to go unchallenged.

In context, he writes:

Historically, Reformed and Presbyterian churches have required professing members and their children to be baptized. In the former, arising from Continental Reformed sources, all church members confess the Three Forms of Unity (Belgic Confession, Heidelberg Catechism, Canons of Dort) as the faithful summary of Scripture. What this means is that in Reformed churches historically, only those who affirmed the inclusion of children in covenant baptism could be members. Especially in the U.S., Presbyterian churches came to require only officers to subscribe the Westminster Standards. In Presbyterian churches, it has meant that all of the children of members should be baptized. What to do if they’re not is a matter of some debate and variation.

The statement highlighted in bold italics is substantively, verifiably, and culpably false.

It is substantively false, because at its Synod of the Hague in 1914, the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands decided to permit people who did not yet believe infant baptism to become members as long as they remained educable on the matter, did not agitate for their views, and exercised no leadership in the congregation.

The money quotes from the 1914 report are these paragraphs:

Although the Synod of Dort [1618-1619], presumably for the reasons we shall mention, did not give an affirmative answer to this question [whether someone not believing infant baptism was permitted to the Lord’s Table], nevertheless it appears from both the conduct of our older Reformed Churches and from the pronouncements of our best theologians, that with respect to members of the congregation (not with respect to office-bearers, for whom entirely different rules apply) who with good intention expressed doubt concerning any point of doctrine, so long as this did not affect the fundamental matters of truth, they should be treated with great patience and forbearance, with the proviso that they would exhibit readiness to be better instructed and that they would not propagandize on behalf of their deviating sentiment.

. . . .

[Gisbert] Voetius (in Politica Ecclesiastica, Part I, tract I, ch. IV, p. 56) correctly deduces from this that Scripture commands us to show such tolerance not only toward those who are ignorant, but even toward those who err. And although such tolerance will naturally be extended more broadly toward those who are already members of the congregation than toward those who affiliate for the first time with the church—because the church must see to it that she permits no enemies of the truth within her gates—nevertheless our forefathers showed, even during the time of the Remonstrant quarrels, how they dealt very patiently not only with members of the congregation who belonged to the Reformed Church and continued to harbor more or less Remonstrant sympathies, but even with those who for a time had joined the Remonstrant brotherhood and later wanted to return to the Reformed Church. Thus, such people were not required, for example, to subscribe to the Five Articles against the Remonstrants in their entirety, but a somewhat less sharply formulated declaration was substituted, as happened, for example, with the consistory in Utrecht.

. . . .

Although your committee [advising the Dutch Synod] is united in its opinion that, no matter how important the doctrine of infant baptism may be to the Reformed Churches, this doctrine nevertheless cannot be said to belong to the fundamental doctrines of the faith, and therefore tolerating a deviating view regarding this point of doctrine on the part of a brother who for the rest agrees wholeheartedly with the Reformed confession, does not appear to us impermissible.

. . . .

To this we would add that the response to the question whether in a particular case such tolerance is permitted, depends on a variety of circumstances, which cannot be evaluated by the General Synod, but only by the local consistory or classis. This variety of circumstances includes such considerations, for example, as whether the person involved is unmarried and past child-bearing years, in which case his deviating viewpoint regarding infant baptism would have practically no influence; or whether he already has children or presumably may receive children, in which case he should certainly be required to allow these children to be baptized. . . .

This position was later adopted by the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRC). At no point during the ecclesiastically turbulent decades of the 1970s, 80s, and 90s was this CRC position publicly criticized or cited as evidence of denominational unfaithfulness. Especially not by those, including Dr. Horton, who left the CRC to form the URC.

Secondly, Dr. Horton’s claim, published on the Gospel Coalition website, is verifiably false, because, since his own denomination (URC) has been studying this very issue for some years, the publicly available report of its own study committee contains an explanation of this historic 1914 decision and its role in the life of (continental) Reformed churches worldwide.

Finally, this claim is culpably false, since one of its damaging effects will be the advocacy of a narrow, sectarian, and pastorally unhelpful solution to a dilemma that has confronted faithful Reformed and Presbyterian churches for centuries.

Despite every suggestion and appearance that his narrow claim constitutes the classical, confessional, continental, ecclesiastical Reformed tradition, on this issue Gisbert Voetius and the 1914 Synod of the Hague are far more reliable, nuanced, and pastoral guides.

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We reported earlier about the bill pending before the Second Chamber of the States General of The Netherlands, which aims to ban the ritual non-anesthetized slaughter of animals, a ritual that belongs to the historic practice of Judaism and Islam. Our earlier report contained an explanation of both the process of and the justification for this religious practice.

With a view to reflecting on the relationship between church and state, we thought readers might be interested in the approach to this legislative issue being taken by one group of Reformed churches in The Netherlands, the Reformed Churches in The Netherlands (liberated). Their synodically appointed Deputies for the Relationship between Church and Government have judged this matter serious enough to make their voice heard. The deputies have written a letter to the Second Chamber that declares on behalf of the churches that the proposed ban against this ritual slaughter goes too far.

By synodically-given mandate, these deputies maintain contact with the national government regarding matters that concern the churches, and on such occasions they appropriately acknowledge the churches’ respect for the government (Church Order, Art. 27). In addition, they work for a greater societal involvement of the churches and their members on local, regional, and national levels. The societal functioning of the churches need to be strengthened and worked out practically, for example, by maintaining contact with the appropriate local and/or provincial governments. The deputies also seek to promote the higher public visibility of the churches. For this purpose, the president of the 2008 general synod, Rev. A. de Snoo, serves as national coordinator. He represents the churches at official occasions, and is authorized by the churches to raise matters for discussion and to participate in public debate. Where possible, this ecclesiastical voice will be strengthened by cooperation with other church denominations. (The Dutch version of this material is available here.)

Here is the letter drafted by the deputies and sent to the Second Chamber on 26 April 2011 (the Dutch original can be found here):

Most highly esteemed ladies and gentlemen,

You must soon make a decision regarding a bill that seeks to prohibit the non-anesthetized slaughter of animals that is part of Jewish and Islamic religious ritual.

We are not doubting the intentions of those in your Chamber who sponsored this bill. Nevertheless, we urge you to consider seriously whether this legislation does not unnecessarily disturb the balance between government intervention and the freedom of religion, to the detriment of constitutional justice.

We appreciate the intention to reduce animal suffering, because that is a mandate belonging to a responsible dominion over the Creation. This issue involves more, however, than animal suffering. In our opinion, more weight should be given to the freedom that has been granted for a long time now to the adherents of these religions for giving expression according to their conscience to the experience of their religion also with respect to this point. The relatively narrow restriction of animal suffering envisioned by the proposed bill is, in our view, not worth this violation of freedom of conscience.

We wish you wisdom for your deliberations.

With respectful greetings,
On behalf of the Deputies for the Relationship Between Church and Government
of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (liberated),

A. de Snoo, chairman

Interestingly, the Reformed Churches in The Netherlands have judged this issue to involve religious liberty—not their own (at this point), but the liberty of Jews and Muslims in their land. As they done so often in the past, our Reformed Dutch co-believers are once again showing their chutzpah as they stand up to defend the liberties of others, including their religious opponents. And I, for one, applaud their ecclesiastical style.

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