20 August, 2016

FAQ - Questions pertaining to creeds and confessions. Are we allowed to interpret creeds in a way that contradicts the personal opinions of the men who wrote those creeds?

Q. 1. “Does not the word “offer” appear in Calvin, in other Reformed theologians, and in such Reformed creeds as the Canons of Dordt and the Westminster Confession of Faith?”

The word “offer” is used in most of the Reformed creeds and has been used by Calvinists since the Reformation itself. But the question is not, “Did they use it?” so much as, “What did they mean by it?” (British Reformed Journal, Issue 9 [Jan - Mar 1995], p. 25)

The term "offer" has an entirely different connotation today from its original Latin definition. In the Canons, the term "offer" simply means "to present" or "to set forth." The idea is that of Acts 13:46, where Paul and Barnabas addressed the Jews, and said, "It was necessary that the word of God should first have been spoken to you: but seeing ye put it from you, and judge yourselves unworthy of everlasting life, lo, we tum to the Gentiles." To take the simple concept, well understood by the fathers at Dordt, and to add the baggage associated with the idea of a well-meant offer is unwarranted. (Rev. Steven Key, Protestant Reformed Theological Journal, vol. 37, number 2, p. 51)

Although our quarrel with the offer is not a quibbling over words, the word offer should be dropped from the Reformed vocabulary. Not a biblical term, it is so loaded with Arminian connotations today that it is no longer serviceable. Instead of anoffer of the gospel, we should speak of the call of the gospel as the scriptures do. (Prof. David J. Engelsma, Hyper-Calvinism and the Call of the Gospel [RFPA, 2014], p. 48)

It is true, as we observed in an earlier chapter, that sometimes among Reformed theologians the word "offer" was used in this sense. And when it is used in this sense, we have no quarrel with the idea that is proposed by it. Nevertheless, the idea must be distinguished from what is commonly taught by those who maintain a free offer. The latter teach that through the preaching God expresses His desire, willingness and intention to save all that hear the gospel because it is His revealed will to save all—a will that is rooted in some sense in an atonement which is for all. That through the preaching of the gospel the command to repent of sin and believe comes to all is an entirely different idea. (Prof. Herman C. Hanko, The History of the Free Offer, Chp. 4)


Q. 2. "Does not Canons of Dordt, Head II, Article 5 say that the promise must be “declared and published to all nations, and to all persons promiscuously” thereby teaching a general, conditional promise?"

The article in question states as follows: 

Moreover the promise of the gospel is, that whosoever believeth in Christ crucified shall not perish, but have everlasting life. This promise, together with the command to repent and believe, ought to be declared and published to all nations, and to all persons promiscuously and without distinction, to whom God out of his good pleasure sends the gospel (Philip Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, p. 586).

Canons, 2.5 states and teaches a **particular** promise of grace: “whosoever believeth in Christ crucified shall not perish, but have everlasting life.” The promise applies itself to the believer: “whosoever believeth.” It is **for** the believer. It is **to** the believer. The promise is not for the unbeliever remaining in his unbelief. The promise itself excludes the unbeliever as its object. The particular promise itself implies a warning to those who do not believe: “whosoever believeth not shall perish.”

The general publication of the promise is not the same as the publication of a general promise. Even the average unbeliever understands the distinction. The promise of the lottery that the person turning in the winning number 666 will receive a million dollars, although announced to the entire nation, is a particular promise: to and for the one person with the winning number. It is for no one else. Similarly, God wills, and the Reformed church practices, that the particular promise, “whosoever believes shall be saved,” be published indiscriminately to all and sundry.

(Prof. David J. Engelsma, “Protestant Reformed Theological Journal,” April 2014)


Q. 3. The authors of the three points of 1924 say that the preaching of the gospel is grace to all who hear the preaching. Thus they say the first point is an interpretation of Canons II:5. Are they right?

I reply that this is not interpreting but augmenting the confession.

Such a would-be interpretation proceeds from the tacit assumption that the preaching of the gospel per se is grace to all who hear. This surely is not expressed in Canons II:5. The rest of the Canons makes clear that such an interpretation does not harmonize with the purpose of the fathers of Dordrecht. The Canons were composed for the purpose of opposing the doctrine of the Remonstrants. Therefore, we can be assured that our fathers were very afraid to speak of the preaching of the gospel as general, or common, grace.

Besides, if this had been the fathers’ intention, how easily they could have expressed that idea clearly and without ambiguity by declaring, “Moreover, God manifests his grace to all men without distinction in that he wills that the promise of the gospel, together with the command to repent and believe, shall be preached to all nations and persons promiscuously, to whom in his good pleasure he sends the gospel.” This, however, they intentionally avoided. I say intentionally, for we can depend on it that the fathers of Dordrecht were perfectly able to express their thoughts in clear language. Instead, they merely affirmed that although God’s grace is particular and is bestowed only on the elect, nevertheless God’s will is that the gospel shall be preached to all without distinction.

I conclude, therefore, that the first point is not an interpretation of Canons II:5.

(Rev. Herman Hoeksema, “The Rock Whence We Are Hewn,” p. 364)


Q. 4. “The Three Forms of Unity (and other Reformed creeds) do not speak for themselves, but must be interpreted in the light of the theological works of the men that wrote those confessions (e.g. the Synopsis Purioris Theologiae)—works that contain their thoughts in full regarding total depravity, grace, the gospel call, the image of God, etc. The creeds and confessions are only a brief summary of their thoughts. Their official books on dogmatics are a sort of hand-book, if you will, explaining to us what the authors meant by words or concepts contained in those confessions, such as ‘grace,’ ‘sin,’ ‘depraved,’ ‘offer,’ ‘covenant,’ etc.
The Heidelberg Catechism, for instance, must be subordinated to and must be read alongside of Ursinus’ commentary on that catechism—for he was the one who wrote the Catechism and the commentary to go alongside it.
The creeds were not written in a vacuum, but are part of an organic whole. That organic whole is the sum total of beliefs and teachings of the very author/s of that creed/confession.
Neither you nor I have any right to interpret a creed/confession ‘as it plainly stands,’ in isolation from or a way that contradicts, the full organic body of teaching of the author/s of that creed.
Properly stated, if the authors of the Canons and the Heidelberg Catechism (and even the Belgic Confession) believed in common grace, the free offer, a love of God for all men, and that man still has some good in him after the fall, etc., then we have no right to interpret those documents in a way that goes against those beliefs.

The response to this argument is quick and simple:  the Reformed churches have bound themselves to the creeds as written, not to the private opinions of those who were used to write them.  The Reformed churches at Dordt adopted the Canons as written, as carefully phrased.  They did not adopt the views of individual theologians at Dordt, who also joined in adopting the creed as it appeared at that time and as we have it today, whether the theologians were weaker or stronger, for example, Gomarus, who argued for a supralapsarian presentation of predestination. 
The fundamental truth is that the Holy Spirit guided that body of theologians [the Synod of Dordt] so that it adopted a creed that was faithful to Scripture and not corrupted by the views of many, such as [a general love of God for all men, fallen man retaining the image of God, the covenant of works, etc.] There is a special guidance of the Spirit in the forming and adopting of the creeds of the church, whether the ecumenical creeds or the later distinctively Reformed creeds.  A creed stands in judgment of personal doctrinal views, rather than personal doctrinal views judging the creed.
It seems odd to me that [appeal is often made] to the views excluded from the Canons to justify [the embracing] of these views, setting aside and contradicting what the Canons does confess, rather than to allow the confession of the Canons to judge as false the views that the Canons did not confess—views that contradict what the Canons does confess. 
The creeds have authority in the Reformed churches that individual views do not have.  The creeds are authoritative declarations of the Reformed churches of what is necessary to be believed by all Reformed churches and believers.  “Creed” is derived from credo, expressing what the churches believe.  The creeds are not to be explained from the commentaries, but the commentaries are to be judged by the creeds.  If a theologian in the early church explained the Nicene Creed in such a way as to compromise the creed’s statement concerning the deity of Jesus, which is not far-fetched, the church must repudiate the theologian in light of that creed.
[A man] is judged rightly to be un-Reformed when he confesses a saving love of God for all humans, by embracing common grace’s well-meant offer—for the official, authoritative Canons confesses particular, saving grace in the doctrine of predestination. (Prof. David J. Engelsma, 10/07/2017)

The **language** of the creeds is binding upon the church. [For example], the Heidelberg Catechism is binding upon the church, not the commentary of Ursinus on the Heidelberg Catechism (although the commentary of Ursinus is certainly interesting and useful).
If commentaries and theological treatises by the authors of creeds were binding upon the church, then the officebearers of the church, who might not have read such volumes, would be unable to subscribe to the creeds—which would create a “tyranny of scholarship” in the church. The creeds are designed to be clear, simple statements of faith for use in the church. (Rev. Martyn McGeown, 03/05/2018)

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