Doctrinal Unity Is the Foundation for Denominational Unity
In their commentary (1954) of the Church Order of the Synod of Dort, Idzerd Van Dellen and Martin Monsma argue persuasively “that doctrinal unity forms the foundation for denominational unity.” They call the “confessional writings” the “very cornerstones” of the Dutch Reformed church and ably demonstrate that “The Reformed Churches have felt the need and import of doctrinal purity and unity from the very beginning of their existence” (221-222).
So what might doctrinal purity and unity look like in the Reformed Church in America?
At the very least, unity in the RCA means fidelity to the Heidelberg Catechism. Ministers in the RCA must accept the Catechism, along with the other Standards, as “historic and faithful witnesses to the Word of God.” Ministers are further required by the call form to “explain the points of doctrine contained in the Heidelberg Catechism.” Likewise, the consistory must see to it that the “points of doctrine contained in the Heidelberg Catechism shall be explained by the minister at regular services of worship on the Lord’s Day, so that the exposition of them is completed within a period of four years.” Even without a strict subscription formula, there can be no denying that every minister in the RCA ought to believe the points of doctrine in the Heidelberg Catechism and every church in the RCA ought to frequently and consistently teach what is contained in the Catechism. Our unity is predicated upon such theological uniformity.
So every RCA pulpit and every RCA minister should teach the following (the parenthetical numbers refer to Questions and Answers from the Catechism):
- We are born corrupt from conception on and have a natural tendency to hate God and our neighbors (5, 8).
- God is terribly angry about the sin we are born with and the sins we personally commit (10).
- God will punish these sins now and in eternity, with eternal punishment of body and soul (10, 11).
- Christ died as a propitiatory sacrifice, bearing the weight of God’s anger to set us free and make us right with God (17-18).
- No one can be saved apart from true faith, which is created through hearing the gospel and rests on the knowledge of Christ (20-21).
- Christians believe that everything God reveals in his Word is true (22).
- All things, whether good or bad, come to us from God’s fatherly hand (27).
- Nothing can move or be moved apart from the will of God (28).
- Salvation is found in no one else saved for Jesus (29).
- Jesus was born of a literal virgin (35).
- Christ sustained in body and soul the anger of God to set us free from eternal condemnation (37, 84).
- Christ will come again to take all his chosen ones into the joy and glory of heaven and to condemn his enemies to everlasting punishment (52).
- Infants as well as adults should be baptized as a mark of the covenant (74).
- The Christian church is duty-bound to exclude unbelieving and ungodly people until they reform their lives (82).
- The kingdom of heaven is opened to those who accept the gospel promise in true faith and the kingdom of heaven is closed to unbelievers and hypocrites who do not repent (84).
- Those who, though called Christians, profess unchristian teachings or live unchristian lives, after repeated loving counsel, should be excluded from the Christian fellowship and prevented from taking the sacraments (85).
- No ungodly, immoral, unchaste person will inherit the kingdom of God (87).
- Those who do not know Christ cannot do anything that is truly good (91).
- The devil is a real and personal being intent on harming God’s people (112, 123, 127).
- God through Christ has become our Father (120).
Of course, this is not anything like a complete list of the important points of doctrine in the Catechism. It’s only a list of the least attended to in our day. We face many difficulties in the RCA, but the biggest and the deepest may be our lack of confessional integrity. It’s no secret that the doctrinal affirmations above are not believed, taught, and defended by all our ministers and by all our churches. Many liberal churches and pastors complain that the Synod has no authority to settle controversial matters of theology and practice. We are, they say, only required to uphold the BCO and the Confessions. But I find it hard to believe these same churches and pastors do believe everything in our Confessions, important points of doctrine like: a literal virgin birth, a personal devil, the reality of eternal condemnation, the complete trustworthiness of everything in God’s word, penal substitutionary atonement, and the need to hear the gospel and put explicit faith in Jesus Christ in order to be saved. Likewise, every pastor should teach total human inability, practice church discipline, administer infant baptism, and celebrate a strong and all-controlling providence. Our denominational unity, not to mention our long-term viability and vitality, depend on re-establishing these doctrinal standards. Agreeing on the right theology is not eveything, but without this foundation we don’t have much of anything.
A robust celebration of the Reformed faith-rooted in Scripture, focused on the gospel, and centered on Christ is not the problem. It is our best answer.