Overture 18 from Classis Wisconsin
While the Banner gets all the sizzle the massive overture from Classis Wisconsin deserves the prize for most ambitious. The overture lays out the teachings not only of the Walhout who wrote one of the scorned Banner articles but also the two Calvin profs who published papers regarding questions of historicity and Genesis. Their published words were laid out in contrast pertinent articles of the confessions.
First let me say that part of me LOVES challenges like this. It is a stand-up, ambitious, “let’s live what we say we believe” type of overture that asks the CRC to put up or shut up. We’re subscribed to these historical words and we are facing these contemporary challenges, let’s put the champions in the ring and see who prevails! Life is too short and precious to always equivocate!
Another part of me just says, “oh no”. A 5 years study committee will spend tens of thousands of dollars in expenses and triple that in uncompensated salary levies for the institutions that these “brightest and best” are already working for. At the end of 5 years they will bring forth a document the size of a book that some will read carefully and fewer will be swayed by it only to have the same theological factions be for or against it based on their commitments to these matters formed prior to Synod 2020 and mostly shaped by sociological factors in their own communities of confidence. Is it worth it?
Those same political forces will be arrayed at this Synod. Some will say “we don’t want to study this because the committee may ask for change” The same fear that motivated last year’s debate on a homosexuality study committee. Another group will think “we need this so that we can stop picking on Calvin profs and these persecuted fellows can be vindicated…” Another group will say “we’ll go through all of this effort and it won’t change a thing. Confessions work best when we pledge allegiance to them and like Victorian children are seen but not heard. The church should focus its energy on evangelism, church growth, pastoral care, and all of the things that make a real difference. These squabbles we will always have with us. They only divide us. We need to make disciples of Jesus…”
The Denomination Question Again
I’m not going to weigh in on the substance of the debate right now but rather observe the process in the light of the denominational question. What is a denomination and if it still works.
The premise of a study committee proposal like this one is that this committee will be able to speak with authority. This small group of champions will tackle the big subjects that pastors and elders don’t have time, gifts or expertise to grapple with. They will speak to us and if Synod agrees for us. We will do what they say.
I would love to see this project go forward, just because I’d love to see what they have to say. I’d love to see an inter-disciplinary group of talented scholars wrestle with the issues and produce something that is wise yet readable, measured yet bold, clear yet competent. It can happen.
What are the chances that it will resolve the controversy? Small.
How to Have a Productive Conversation: Hot-house vs. Market?
This project faces a similar challenge to the agency question. Do we make more progress with a hot-house method like a study committee or does the broader marketplace of ideas do a better job of sorting through these issues? Do we have to choose?
We’ve also been experimenting with other processes like the Faith Formation team that sought to address a constellation of issues not necessarily by yielding a singular report but by trying to host a conversation, influencing the production of denominational materials, hosting conversations, etc. They also produced a website that is a part of the denominational Internet presence.
I suspect that after the new Executive Director gets installed we’ll see a similar approach to the 5 streams priority. The debate at last year’s synod over a proposed study committee on homosexuality elicited a lot of voiced support from the floor that we not do a standard study committee but approach it like we did Faith Formation. Can we see culture developing here?
If we look outside our borders, however, we might note that the CRC has had a presence in shaping http://Biologos.org after it was initiated by Francis Collins. Some CRC leaders have helped the foundation get organized and it is currently lead by Deborah Haarsma former professor at Calvin College. Biologos has hosted articles and posts on these subjects by Christian scientists and scholars from around the world.
- Biologos does a nice job hosting a conversation but of course doesn’t speak with ecclesiastical authority as presumably a Synod could with the report they solicit.Does this authority really matter?
- Two Calvin profs were dismissed quietly. If they had not published earlier might they themselves been on the study committee?
- Will an in-house team be better equipped to produce a better product than the cacophony of scholars all over the theological playing field that are writing and publishing and conversing on these matters whose voices and work we can sample via blogs and Google and Facebook and Twitter and Amazon?
- Won’t in the minds of many the “trusted” word of non-CRC voices like John Piper or Ken Ham or Tim Keller or NT Wright or Biologos trump whatever sense of denominational authority we have left?
I don’t know. These questions haunt me on this matter.
A World Full of Choosers and Judgers
The irony of course of any Synodical study report is that it is published in the Agenda for Synod where we all take shots at it. It goes to the Synodical advisory committee, where we assume others like myself who are not “the brightest and the best” will pass judgment on it . It then gets to the floor where over more “others” will have their way with it, finally yielding some sort of compromise that asks the church to consider what the report and Synod have said.
Will the report be more present to CRC folks than Ken Ham and Bill Nye the science guy? Will it trump what the kids were taught at the Christian school, public school or at home school?
What kinds of outcomes might we expect?
Door #1 What if the report said “well we’ve consulted the best biologists and they’re all pretty sure that homo sapien arose from a breeding community and so our conclusion is that Adam and Eve were a literary devices for Genesis 2-3 that got passed on through the rest of the Jewish and Christian communities who didn’t have the science we’ve got to inform us. Because of this we need to get to work to radically re-write all our creeds and confessions.”
Oh, OK. Can’t wait to see what the Synod will do with that!
On the other hand, suppose the report says,
Door #2 “Science is a bunch of godless folly that we can’t depend upon apart from trusting in for our medical treatments and engineering that feeds and powers this world. Paul, Augustine, Calvin and our historic creeds and confessions all have it perfectly right. Anyone who dares suggest anything is different from what we’ve always said it is should shut up or kicked out of the CRC.”
OK, well then at least we don’t have more work to do on the confessions.
Door #3 Or the report can come back and talk about the old Report 44 that was kicked around when I was at CTS and talk about “event character”, make similar noises as NT Wright on the issues, and give people enough wiggle room so that in the CRC big tent we can have fans of Ken Ham and fans of Peter Enns sing and pray together. We’ll keep the confessions as we’ve always done understanding that we’ve grown more enlightened about Roman Catholics, Anabaptists and a host of things that our theological ancestors couldn’t have conceived.
If you don’t imagine that these doors numbers 1, 2 and 3 aren’t on the minds of the study committee and everyone else then you’re not paying attention and you surely haven’t selected the “best lights” of the CRCNA.
Real theology always meets a real church filled with real people.
To Study or Not To Study, that really isn’t the question
If we continue to look at this from the perspective of denominational leadership, the question revolves around how the community can both stay together and work productively with difficult, polarizing and important topics. This is all the work of the church and the work that every church has to figure out how to do.
- What is the value of an in-house/hot-house theological product around a subject that is theologically consequential and also likely not to be settled by a report?
- Do our denominational boundaries function sufficiently well to bless those within and outside of them?
- How can we address difficult theological issues with an eye to the pastoral needs of our members for whom the theology is done?
I’ve got more questions. We’ll see what Synod does. pvk