13 July, 2017

Argument: “We have no right to interpret the creeds and confessions in a way that goes against the beliefs of the original authors that wrote it.”

[The following is a private correspondence between myself and Prof. David J. Engelsma, who is emeritus professor of Dogmatics and Old Testament at the Protestant Reformed Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I have been kindly granted permission to share this dialogue on this website for informative and educational purposes.]

Dear Prof. Engelsma,

Hope you are doing well by God’s grace and providence. I hope to be able to make it to the upcoming Reformation Conference on 21st October (2017) at the CPRC in N.I. at which you are scheduled to speak. (DV)

I have a number of questions and objections posted to me that require some assistance as some of them concern the PRCA as a denomination, as well as their sister denominations throughout the world.

The questioner sends the following:


Dear Mr. Hutchings,

From what I understand from reading your blog, “Common Grace Deliberations,” it is your contention that the Three Forms of Unity which you hold to does not teach either common grace or the free/well-meant offer.

My objection is as follows:

The Canons of Dordt do not speak for themselves, but must be interpreted in the light of the newly translated Synopsis Purioris Theologiae (Synopsis of a Purer Theology)—a three-volume work written by the very authors of the Canons—Professors of note at the University of Leiden during the 17th century—and contains their thoughts in full regarding total depravity, grace, the gospel call, the image of God, etc. The Canons are only a brief summary of their thoughts. The Synopsis is a sort of hand-book, if you will, explaining to us what the authors meant by words or concepts such as “grace,” “sin,” “depraved,” “offer,” “covenant,” etc.
Also, the Heidelberg Catechism is likewise subordinated to and must be read alongside Olevianus’/Ursinus’ commentaries on that catechism—for they were the ones that wrote the Catechism and the commentaries, like the Synopsis, explain to us what the authors meant by the words and phrases they wrote.

Now, a creed/confession never speaks for itself—it is not written in a vacuum—but is 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, and neither you nor I have any right to interpret a creed/confession (e.g. the Three Forms of Unity) “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, that man still has some good in him after the fall and is not therefore absolutely depraved, that man still retains the image of God, and that there is a Covenant of Works by which Adam could merit eternal life upon perfect obedience during a probationary period, etc.—facts which can all be verified and confirmed from a careful study of either Heinrich Heppe’s Reformed Dogmatics (which is a ‘snapshot’ of what “THE” Reformed church has always taught in the 16/17th century) or in the Synopsis Purioris Theologiae—we have no right to interpret the Three Forms of Unity which they wrote in a way that goes against those beliefs.

In the light of Heppe’s Reformed Dogmatics, Olevianus’/Ursinus’ commentaries on the Heidelberg Catechism, and also the Synopsis Purioris Theologiae, the contention that “the Three Forms of Unity do not teach common grace and the well-meant offer” is not only absurd, but refuted. And, consequently to all this, any church, denomination, or organization that is founded upon the idea that the Three Forms of Unity (or the Reformed church at large) do not teach common grace or the well-meant offer (be it the PRCA, any of their sister denominations worldwide, or the British Reformed Fellowship in the UK) has no business being in existence, but are duty-bound to re-join themselves to the churches/denominations that hold to the true interpretation of the Three Forms of Unity (i.e. those that hold to the above mentioned works)—and only those churches are truly classified as “Reformed”: for “Reformed” doctrine is a set-in-stone body of doctrine held during a particular part of history: i.e. during the 16/17th centuries, and anything that contradicts it is not “Reformed” but, rather, an innovation.




That is the argument in full from my correspondent.

As you can see it appears from the outset quite weighty and could easily be convincing to younger Reformed believers.

I would greatly appreciate whatever response you can give to it.

Many thanks.

Every blessing,

David Hutchings



Dear David,

I look forward to seeing you and speaking with you again in October at the celebration of the Reformation sponsored by the church in Ballymena, God willing.

As for the questions posed by your acquaintance concerning the creeds and those used by God to compose them, the response 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. 

It might very well have been the case that the body that adopted the Canons were uncertain about, or even opposed to, some of the views mentioned by your correspondent which contradict the Canons as adopted. 

But the fundamental truth is that the Holy Spirit guided that body so that it adopted a creed that was faithful to Scripture and not corrupted by the views espoused by your correspondent.  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 your correspondent appeals to the views excluded from the Canons to justify his embrace 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 not a “handbook” summarizing what individual theologians thought.  They are authoritative declarations of the Reformed churches of what is necessary to be believed by all Reformed churches and believers.  “Creed” derives 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 the creed.

Your correspondent, therefore, is judged rightly to be un-Reformed when he confesses a saving love of God for all humans, as he does by embracing common grace’s well-meant offer—for the official, authoritative Canons confesses particular, saving grace in the doctrine of predestination. 

Your correspondent is ignorant of the nature and authority of creeds.

                                                                                        Cordially in Christ,

                                                                                                Prof. David J. Engelsma

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