California Covenant Conversation

Introduction

On a hot summer night in Visalia, California, four men sat down together for a theological conversation, a colloquium. The night was June 4, 2014. The discussion, or colloquium, took place in the middle of the schedule of the Synod of the United Reformed Churches in North America (URCNA), in the presence of all of its delegates and before a number of interested guests. The conversation that night focused in on the doctrine of the covenants in Scripture. This has always been a hot topic among the Reformed churches, and sadly, a teaching that has been at the center of theological disputes and church schisms throughout the generations.

On this particular evening, however, cooler heads prevailed. To be sure, the discussion was not cold, or cold-hearted. Not by any stretch of the imagination. How could it have been as the dialogue partners engaged one another on that which is most fundamental to the Reformed faith, yes, to the Christian religion—the blessing of our fellowship with the living, triune God, in Christ! The discussions were calm and careful but appropriately warm and engaging as the participants engaged one another winsomely and in a brotherly fashion with the Scriptures and our Reformed confessions.

The participants in the dialogue were four theological professors who had come to this conversation in California from across North America. Two represented the United Reformed Churches in North America, Dr. Robert Godfrey, president of Westminster Seminary in California, and Dr. Cornel Venema, president of Mid-America Reformed Seminary. The other two came from Hamilton, Ontario, Canada; Dr. Ted Van Raalte and Dr. Jason Van Vliet are both professors of the Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary.

In context of the ongoing merger discussions between the Canadian Reformed Churches and the United Reformed Churches, the challenge for the evening was to seek to give an answer to the question whether there is agreement between our federations of churches within the confessions on the doctrine of the covenant. In a warm, congenial, and fraternal manner, the discussion partners were able, not superficially, but seriously and honestly to engage the issues. They were able to do so comfortably, with helpful injections of humor, demonstrating their mutual respect and appreciation for one another as brothers. The end result was a blessing both in its clarifying of the issues and in the way it helped to remove a deterrent in the ongoing challenge to pursue more complete unity. The upshot of the discussion was that the colloquium participants, as careful scholars and respected leaders and churchmen in our respective federations, could together conclude that despite differing historical developments and the resulting variations of articulation with regard to the way the doctrines of the covenants are taught in our respective churches, from what was articulated at the colloquium, we can nevertheless find each other within the bounds of the confessions. For whatever differences of expression on the matter, we are confessionally united.

The Background

The United Reformed Churches and the Canadian Reformed Churches have been in a Phase 2—Ecclesiastical Fellowship relationship as sister churches since the decisions of their respective synods (Neerlandia and Escondido) in 2001. The hope and expressed commitment of the churches when entering into such a sister-church relationship has always been that, should the Lord in His grace bless and prosper our efforts as churches, the ideal would be that one day full merger or organic union would come to pass, making the two bodies one. Since the 2001 decisions, the Lord has blessed and prospered the relationship between our churches, especially in Canada where our respective churches, being in proximity to one another, have come to know and appreciate each other more and more. On the broader level, our relationship has not been without its challenges, however. We have been learning over the years that this is a relationship that needs the Lord’s blessing and must not be pursued lightly, superficially, or hastily.

Our challenges and failings notwithstanding, our federations have, as a whole, sought to be faithful to our scriptural calling and synodical mandate to work “toward complete church unity.” The two most recent URC synods have committed the churches “to continue to engage the issue of an eventual merger between the CanRC and the URC.” Most of the progress has been made where our respective churches are in geographical proximity to one another. Growing love, mutual knowledge and trust, as well as increased cooperation in such things as education, evangelism, youth activities, conferences, joint services, and pulpit exchanges have marked the past number of years. It is significant that the closer and more frequent the interaction has been, the greater is the interest and openness toward pressing onward in this endeavor.

The Challenges

From our observations and experience, we would characterize three types of concerns that have developed and persisted over against the prospect of full unity between these two federations. The first is theological, pertaining to the doctrine of the covenants. The second is church political. Given negative past experiences with hierarchicalism, there are continued fears concerning perceived hierarchical tendencies in the Proposed Joint Church Order. The third has to do with the will to ecumenism generally; some are not convinced that churches that share a confession are required to seek organizational unity. In our discussions we came to the conclusion that if the first two types of objections could be addressed to our mutual satisfaction, many of the hesitations with regards to the third could also be alleviated.

The intent in preparing for the colloquium that took place was to begin by addressing the fundamental, foundational doctrinal matter, namely, the doctrine of the covenants. With the appearance on the North American scene of the Federal Vision movement, and with the response to these developments by the United Reformed Churches in the way of Pastoral Advice (Synod Schererville, 2007) and Doctrinal Affirmations (Synod London, 2010), the perception has arisen among some that the Canadian Reformed Churches are more tolerant of Federal Vision teachings than are the United Reformed. At the same time the Canadian Reformed, given their own experiences, historically, with the Liberation of 1944, have expressed their own apprehensions, particularly in terms of their general aversion to what they perceive as the danger of making extraconfessional statements. Is it possible that in our respective concerns over against one another, that we have ended up speaking past one another, and missing one another? Certainly, if there is to be ecumenical progress between us we would need to be convinced as churches that the doctrine of the covenant taught in our respective churches can live healthily side by side in one federation within the bounds of our confessions.

The Colloquium: A Conversation Proposed

In order that we might seek to face the challenge directly and thoroughly, it was decided to organize a colloquium to be held in the context of a URC synod. Four men were assembled for the task, all of whom are at the same time reputable scholars and respected churchmen. In preparation for the colloquium, each pair of men was asked to interact with the other pair in an effort to come to an agreement together concerning the matters of potential concern that would need to be addressed. Papers and responses were then prepared[L1]  (they are appended in what follows in the following chapters of this publication). These papers were then distributed to the consistories of the churches; for the URC consistories this was done in preparation for the URC synod. With this information in hand, the delegates could be prepared to profit from the public conversation or colloquium that would take place between the four men, as they discussed their conclusions and concerns and interacted with one another publicly before the delegates.

The original intent was that all of this would take place in the space of an hour of the synod’s time. In God’s gracious providence, the synodical delegates graciously and wisely determined to set aside a whole evening session for the discussion, one hour for the discussion among the participants, and a subsequent, additional hour for discussion and interaction with the synodical delegates from the floor. The hope and expectation was that such a discussion would promote greater confidence in our mutual adherence to our confessions. The participants, it will be appreciated, are men of eminent qualification and ability, as well as of integrity. They were not asked to participate in a sort of sell-job for unity. They all understood very clearly that they would serve the Lord and the churches best with a clear articulation and engagement of the concerns that would need to be addressed. We believe that by engaging each other in the way they did, they have succeeded in helping the churches both better to understand the issues and to be the more convinced of the confessional unity enjoyed between our federations.

The Fruitful Contribution

A word is in order regarding the particularly helpful contributions of the participants.

Dr. Venema, with his breadth of knowledge and experience in the field of Reformed dogmatics, served the colloquium very well, both in getting the discussion going as well as in having it focused on the areas of greatest potential challenge. We would not have been helped by skirting the challenges. Dr. Venema’s appreciation, Bavinck-like, for something of the historical Reformed consensus on the matters that most needed to be discussed among us provided the indispensable foundation that enabled a discussion of considerable substance and profit to take place.

Dr. Godfrey, together with his injection of a number of humorous, sometimes graciously self-deprecating comments was also able to make a contribution that was extremely significant and important. His remarks regarding the URC being the more presbyterianized over against the Canadian Reformed who have not experienced as much of that influence, were trenchant and will continue to serve us in our understanding of each other and in the way forward. It was particularly helpful that these remarks of Dr. Godfrey were made in the context of his recognition of and deepened appreciation for the confessional unity that exists between us and the Canadian Reformed Churches. Dr. Godfrey’s expressed challenges to the Canadian Reformed brothers in the three areas of objectivity vs. subjectivity, communal vs. personal, and the area of ecclesiastical exclusivity, were helpfully pithy and focused the dialogue profitably. Once again, his periodic injections of humor also helped us to be comfortable with each other and contributed wonderfully to the fraternal spirit we enjoyed together.

Dr. Van Vliet and Dr. Van Raalte are to be thanked for their patient willingness to be placed on the hot seat in the midst of the URC synodical assembly, to face the difficult questions, and even for the way in which they could face challenging anecdotal questions that were later directed to them from the floor. Their kind, gracious, thorough, and helpful answers modeled a spirit of Christ-likeness that was an encouragement to all of us, set an excellent tone for the colloquium, and exemplified the grace we all continue to require, going forward.

Dr. Van Vliet began his verbal presentation with the awe of Abraham in Genesis 15:12 to try to help us keep perspective that we can approach the wonder of God’s grace to us in covenant with a deep sense of awe. His patient, thorough instruction was flavored with down-to-earth and fruitful analogies. Most helpful of all were his repeated relevant references to Scripture, to our confessions, and even to our tertiary standards, the liturgical forms.

Dr. Van Raalte’s use of Scripture, confessions, and our liturgical forms was equally prominent and helpful. The particular portion of the pre-synod write-up that has proved helpful was where he wrote: We agree that in the decisive matter of the believer’s justification, law and gospel are antithetical concepts. What has also served the advancement of our discussion quite noticeably has been Dr. Van Raalte’s familiarity and comfort with the developments of Reformed theology in the Scholastic period of the Reformed orthodox. We trust that Dr. Van Raalte’s interest and expertise in this area will continue both to serve the Canadian Reformed Churches as well as our developing relationship, ecumenically. Finally, Dr. Van Raalte’s words at the closing of the colloquium evening directing us to Christ—“Sir, we would see Jesus” (John 12:21)—gloriously brought our discussion full circle and left us with the focus where it should be, on our faithful Savior.

We want to express our hearty thanks to each of the colloquium participants for their scholarship, for their collegiality, and for their love for the gospel and the well-being of the churches. We believe it was a useful and profitable exercise and was one that enjoyed the rich blessing of God. It is our prayer that the progress we’ve made may be built upon in God’s good time.

The Outcome

So what was accomplished?

Much in every way. When the participants were able to conclude that in spite of our historical differences and varieties of expression (and there are varieties of expression within each federation as well), we do nevertheless find each other’s positions within confessional bounds, it means we have, and ought to enjoy, fundamental confessional unity.

This is a far-reaching conclusion that must not be overlooked or forgotten. The universal response communicated to us subsequent to the colloquium, by both ecumenical enthusiast and skeptic alike, was that the colloquium was a resounding success, a seriously helpful contribution, and a tremendous blessing. We ought to rejoice in it. We need to hold each other to it. We need to stand upon it and live out of it. Ecumenically speaking, as we live up to and out of our confession, we can see that we have a place to stand and a place from which to move forward, in God’s good time.

Dr. Alan Strange, the Orthodox Presbyterian ecumenical delegate to synod (who was therefore completely unbiased, being neither United Reformed nor Canadian Reformed) remarked to several of us afterward that the Holy Spirit’s blessing on the colloquium compelled him to say that that day was his best personal experience at an ecclesiastical assembly, ever. The lesson is that as we wait for, pray for, and look for the Spirit’s blessing, not forcing the issue but thoroughly working matters through, we can anticipate even more fruitful progress, with the Lord’s blessing in the Lord’s time.

All of which helps to put into perspective the “one ecumenical step backward” (if we should even call it that) that synod took the very next morning after we took “three steps forward” at the colloquium itself. In actual fact it wasn’t a step backward, it was simply no-step, or a not-yet step, an expression of the churches’ desire to catch our breath. The vote “to postpone indefinitely” the motion to encourage CERCU (the Ecumenical Relations Committee of the URC) to come with a proposal to move to the next phase of unity with the Canadian Reformed, Development of a Plan of Union, Phase 3a was done conscientiously, as the mover of the motion to postpone explicitly expressed, out of a concern not to want to say no to such a motion. It was not a no but a not yet.

What the colloquium, and particularly some of the follow-up discussion afterward, made clear was that, now that we have enjoyed the success of the colloquium on the foundational questions, we might consider facing some of the other outstanding practical questions with the same approach in the days and years to come.

The Reporting

In the chapters that follow we will present the opening written contribution of the URC professors (chapter 1) followed by contribution and response of the Canadian Reformed professors (chapter 2). In the next chapter (chapter 3) we present a transcript of the conversation itself between the four professors, and that is followed with the transcript of the questions and answers and discussion period that followed at the synod (chapter 4). Chapter 5 is the piece written by URC minister Rev. Daniel Hyde subsequent to the synod, and printed in Christian Renewal, wherein he interacts appreciatively with the Canadian Reformed professors and follows up with certain questions. The response of the professors to Rev. Hyde is included next (chapter 6). Some postsynodical reflections of Dr. Van Vliet are included in chapter 7.

In appendix 1 we have included the document that was prepared in dialogue with the Interchurch Relations Committee of the Free Reformed Churches and submitted to our respective synods. This document interacts with and reflects upon the Conclusions of Utrecht (a decision of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands in 1905). Our committee has done so in an effort to give expression to the Free Reformed Churches of how the United Reformed Churches see these matters. It is also clear that the Conclusions of Utrecht have no confessional standing among the United Reformed Churches. The relevance of the inclusion of this material (as well as the conclusions themselves in appendix 2) with regard to this discussion is that the matters of covenant and its application or appropriation have always been a significant part of our ecumenical discussions with sister-Reformed bodies. Furthermore, our answers to the Free Reformed over against concerns about the error of presumptive regeneration flesh out and inform the concerns we have expressed in dialogue with the Canadian Reformed.

What is particularly noteworthy and, we would say, encouraging, is how in the course of our ecumenical dialogue as confessionally Reformed bodies on these matters, there appears to be a growing consensus about the precious teaching of God’s covenant and how that blessing is to be experienced and enjoyed among God’s people by grace through faith.

Rev. John A. Bouwers
is chairman of the Committee for Ecumenical Relations and Church Unity, URCNA.

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For more in depth reading:

John A. Bouwers and Theodore G. Van Raalte, eds., The Bond
of the Covenant Within the Bounds of the Confessions: A
Conversation between the URCNA and CanRC 
(St. Catharines: Church Unity Publications, 2015). 150 pages.
Perfect bound $6.00 USD, $8.00 CAD. ISBN 9780994796301
Also available in electronic formats for Kindle, iBooks,
etc. for $2.00. 

ISBN 9780994796318

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