I've been asked by several friends to comment on the recent URCNA synod. I suspect the reason for this is two-fold: (a) I served as a URCNA minister for 12 years, attended all the synods, participated in several advisory committees and federational committees and even functioned for a time as the federation's stated clerk, in which capacity I assembled the Agenda for, and recorded the minutes of, Synod 2004 in Calgary; (b) I was quite critical on this blog of the FV Report drafted by the committee appointed by Synod 2007.
In what follows I will present an assessment of the recent URCNA synod, though it will be prefaced by a lengthly autobiographical account which hopefully will shed light on how I've reached my assessment. What follows is borderline "stream of consciousness" and I apologize at the outset for grammatical and spelling blunders. I don't have the time to edit!!
I am presently happy to be a minister in the Canadian Reformed Churches, though I cherish my friendships with URCNA colleages and have fond memories of serving two wonderful congregations, in Grande Prairie, AB and Kansas City, MO. In both locales I was surrounded by loving people and wise and considerate elders who shaped me more than they will ever realize. Leaving congregations is painful, and some of that pain is still with me. I am indebted the URCNA, particularly for the lessons in ministry I learned.
I was baptized as an infant in the Canadian Reformed church I now pastor. I was catechized in the Canadian Reformed churches and schooled by Canadian Reformed teachers. Some would say, "You can take a man out of the Canadian Reformed churches, but you can't take the Canadian Reformed churches out of a man." Though I tended be critical of my ecclesiastical context in my youth (and continue to harbor some critique), I remained loyal to essence of what I was taught by my pastors and teachers because I've increasingly recognized their biblical rootedness.
When I was a student at Redeemer University College I was taught by, among others, Dr. Theodore Plantinga. In my early years as student at Redeemer he was busy translating Rudolf Van Reest's book, which was later published under the title, "Schilder's Struggle for the Unity of the Church." Dr. Plantinga gave me pre-publication drafts of the chapters he had completed, assuming I'd be interested. The fact is, I wasn't, but as I read these chapters I became interested. I still chuckle about Van Reest's depiction of Schilder: his fondness for Schilder was sometimes excessive, as in "No one could smoke a cigar quite like Schilder." All of this prompted in me a desire to learn more about Schilder and the theological tradition I had inherited.
In the spring of 1992 I studied in the Netherlands through the then Netherlandic SPICE program under the auspices of Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa. I acquired a basic reading knowledge of Dutch and began to read materials by Benne Holwerda and Cornelis Trimp, both of whom I regard as brilliant intellects and creative thinkers in the Reformed tradition. While in Holland, I visited the Theological University in Kampen (Broederweg), had tea with Dr. Jochem Douma and Drs. Ohmann (sp?) and listened to some lectures in church history by a Dr. Vanderpol (I think).
Towards the end of my time at Redeemer I became very intrigued by Kuyper and the neo-Calvinism of Dooyeweerd and Vollenhoven. Dr. Al Wolters must shoulder the burden of this -- his lectures on the subject are among the most memorable I've ever heard. I applied and was accepted into a Master's program at the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto. I applied and was accepted simultaneously at Mid-America Reformed Seminary (then in Orange City, IA) since I had friends who had gone there who said it was quite fun: classes in the morning, golf in the afternoon, movies at night, as one friend put it. Over lunch at my summer job (managing a small garden center outside of Toronto) I decided to abandon my plans to study at the ICS and go the MARS instead.
Mid-America was fantastic in those days. I loved every minute of my seminary training. Rev. Vanderhart taught Hebrew as an enthusiast; Dr. Venema taught theology carefully and winsomely, sometimes with an open Hebrew or Greek Bible in front of him; Dr. Kloosterman taught everything with his characteristic charisma. Rev. Zorn was an ardent VanTilian who lectured from his wide experience, though my recollection is that every lecture ended with a digression into the thinking of the philosopher Kant. When I think of Zorn's lectures I immediately imagine a chart with the noumenal and the phenomenlogical.
I felt very much at home at Mid-America in those days. There was a lot of fondness for Klaas Schilder and the so-called "Liberated tradition." This was reflected in Dr. Venema's lectures. Dr. Venema sided with Schilder in just about every debate, though he was always and properly concerned about extremes. Back in those days, he didn't care much for the term "covenant of works," defended the objectivity of the covenant, was critical of the concept of the "invisible church" (preferring the language of "unsurveyable") and didn't say much about a law-gospel dichotomy, etc. Moreover, whenever the name Norman Shepherd was mentioned, it was in the context of appreciation. That was then.
I was the first individual to go through the ordination process of the newly formed federation, then called, "The Uniting Reformed Churches in North America." I accepted a call from the Orthodox Reformed Church in Edmonton to help plant a church in Grande Prairie. Those were fabulous days, and I was happy to have Rev. Bill Pols mentor me. In my first year of ministry I wrote a monograph on the covenant which some found helpful. It was translated into a couple of languages, and eventually found its way into the hands of Scott Clark. Scott didn't care for it. It didn't help that in my preface I indicated that my understanding of the covenant was shaped largely by people like Klaas Schilder, Jelle Faber, Cornelius Vander Waal and Norman Shepherd.
One of the things I argued in that monograph was that Genesis 15:6 (quoted in Romans 4) does not refer to the imputation of Christ's righteousness. This is what Shepherd also taught, and Clark wasn't happy. Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness. To me, it was an unacceptable exegetical stretch to call this theological shorthand for "the imputation of Christ's righteousness." We must not impose our theological categories on the text of Scripture. To me, the text was simply saying that God reckoned Abraham as righteous through (and only through) his faith. This reading finds an elaborate defense in Dr. Gert Kwakkel's monograph, "De Gerechtigheid van Abram." Since Scott stumbled upon this paper, he hasn't thought too highly of me (which means, he has never thought too highly of me!!).
During my Grande Prairie days I was also introduced to the writings of James B. Jordan and they have revolutionized my thinking. I know of no one who knows the Bible better than Jim Jordan. My friend John Barach and I used to quip that Jim was either ON TO something or he was ON something, because some of his ideas sound outlandish initially. Jim was shaped by a lot of the same thinkers as I was (i.e., the Dutch redemptive-historical interpreters), and so his ideas resonated with me.
During my GP days I also stumbled upon the writings of N.T. Wright, and I read his column in "Bible Review" faithfully. Wright's book, "Jesus and the Victory of God" has radically altered my understanding of the New Testament. I didn't care too much for his book, "What Saint Paul Really Said" though I've found his later books on Paul much more palatable, if not helpful.
During these years a strong friendship was forged between John Barach, Tim Gallant and me --- someone apparently referred to us as Mid-America's Canadian triumvirate. We graduated in different years, but shared interests and a connection to Grande Prairie, AB. John and Tim are extraordinarily bright individuals. John's memory is photographic and Tim is brilliantly creative. There was once talk of some seminary in Mexico hiring John to teach. When it was pointed out that John didn't know Spanish, Bill Pols quipped, "That's no problem. He'll learn it on the plane on the way down."
John had become very enamored with the "Liberated" tradition in his second year at seminary. I remember him stumbling into class (he was not a morning person) saying, "I've experienced a major paradigm shift." Dr. Kloosterman taught John Dutch and soon enough John was throwing around words like "verbond" and "verkiezing." Since then John has read numerous Dutch books in the Liberated tradition and even translated a couple of them.
Things began to change at Mid-America about three years after I graduated. If I had to pinpoint a watershed moment, it would be the publication of Cornel Venema's article defending the covenant of works. This article was published around the time that Tim Gallant had written a paper in seminary quite critical of the covenant of works. Venema defended the concept of merit in the covenant of works, but since he recognized that merit is not merit strictly speaking, he put the word in quotation marks. You will note Venema's influence in the recent synodical recommendations re: FV. Merit appears as "merit." To me, he conceded the debate in so doing. We can call Adam's obedience meritorious, but it's not really meritorious. I'm fine with that.
John and I were blogging back then about N.T. Wright and Venema wasn't thrilled. On a visit to the seminary, I was called into his principal's office where I was "rebuked" for my generally positive appraisal of Wright. Moreover, Tim came out in favor of paedocommunion. Since then, Venema has devoted much of his career, it seems, to refuting N.T. Wright and paedocommunion. The subtext could be: I hope no more students turn out like Bill, John or Tim. And we generally agree!!
In the years that followed, Mid-America became more oriented, it seems, to the Westminster Standards. That's why I think the publication of Venema's article on the covenant of works is a watershed moment. The terminology of "covenant of works" is nowhere in the Three Forms of Unity, but Venema felt obliged to employ it, in part because of its appearance in the Westminster Standards. Mid-America professors, after all, are required to subscribe to the Westminster Confession of Faith, in addition to the Three Forms of Unity. Today at Mid-America you will hear robust defenses of the visible/invisible church distinction, of the law/gospel dialectic and of a meritorious covenant of works (confirmed by recent students who have been kind to share their notes).
This move to a more robust Westminster perspective coincided with a distancing from Schilder and the Liberated tradition. One professor at Mid-America who had nothing but fondness for Schilder while I was a student alleged some five years ago that Schilder was a "latent Arminian." A new theological orientation was emerging at Mid-America, and one not so different from the orientation at Westminster Seminary in California.
Professors at Westminster Seminary in California are also required to subscribe to the Westminster Standards. That's perfectly understandable. WSCAL is a Presbyterian seminary, and it's reflected in the name. Moreover, it's no secret that Scott Clark (in particular) is not impressed by Klaas Schilder whose theology he routinely depicts as "idiosyncratic" at best.
Thus, the main two seminaries feeding the URCNA are confessionally committed to a theological foundation the URCNA is not --- namely, the Westminster theological tradition. The result is that the theology of the pastors in the URCNA looks and sounds increasingly very Westminsterish. This is going to make them very squeamish about emphases in the Canadian Reformed tradition and in the so-called "Federal Vision" school of thought.
At synod 2007 in Schererville there was a lot of opposition to the proposed merger with the Can Ref. The delegates talked often about "applying the brakes" to the whole process. In the adoption of the nine points, there was a clear, though implicit message, to the Can Ref -- namely, "we are not friends of Schilder around here."
Similarly, there was an implicit message to the Can Ref in the recent adoption of the anti-FV recommendations -- namely, "we know the Can Ref don't like extra-confessional declarations, but we're going to make them anyways."
People in the Can Ref churches should not see these decisions as benign. They are telling, and they are not encouraging.
What's being lost in the URCNA is the Afscheiding theological tradition and the commitment to historic Reformed polity. A new federation is emerging in which the theology will look increasingly Westminsterish and in which synods will have no qualms about making extra-confessional pronouncements. In both instances, the loser is the Three Forms of Unity. That's what's especially sad for me.