The Christian Reformed Church of North America (CRC) and my Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC) are fraternal, ecumenical partners and are both denominational members of the World Communion of Reformed Churches as well as the World Reformed Fellowship. The CRC in 2016 appointed a study committee to address questions of human sexuality, with that committee publishing its report this past weekend. The report can be found here and its executive summary here. The committee is soliciting feedback from CRC congregations and classes, and its 2021 synod may yet edit their report in light of that response. The EPC similarly dealt with these subjects through a revised position paper (2016) and extensive pastoral letter (2018). There is much to commend in the CRC’s report, and several areas that the EPC could stand to emulate or consider imitating in modifying our own position and pastoral papers on this subject. My areas of concern focus in particular on the report’s therapeutic approach, minimizing the necessity of repentance, sidestepping important confessional questions on transgenderism and preferred pronouns, and the intrinsic evil of pornography.
Areas of Appreciation
I want to begin my comments with the report’s strong conclusion, which addresses the CRC’s confessional position regarding human sexuality: It observes that Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 108’s teaching that the 7th commandment (“You shall not commit adultery”) condemns all “unchastity”, which includes premarital sex, extramarital sex, adultery, polyamory, pornography, and homosexual sex (pg. 146, 148). Citing Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 81-82 and Belgic Confession 29, the report affirms that the CRC’s confessions already teach that the church may never ignore or affirm these expressions of unchaste sexual immorality, and instead must warn that those who practice such sins and refuse to repent will not inherit the kingdom of heaven (pg. 146). The report concludes that the CRC’s confessional teaching is biblically warranted “because these sins threaten a person’s salvation. The Scriptures call the church to warn people to flee sexual immorality for the sake of their souls and to encourage them with God’s presence and power to equip them for holy living. A church that fails to call people to repentance and offer them the hope of God’s loving deliverance is acting like a false church (pg. 148).”
This is sober and hard language, but loving…
R. Scott Clark and D. G. Hart have been hammering home for years that the term “Reformed” must derive from the confessions of the Reformed churches. This matters because if the definition of Reformed becomes muddied, then those in the “old” Reformed world are less likely to appropriately scrutinize those who in the “new” who apply the label to themselves.
I was thinking about this definitional struggle when I read this article by Stephen Wellum, professor at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, “3 Reasons Sunday Is Not the Christian Sabbath.” Wellum is a proponent of “progressive covenantalism” and “new covenant theology”, a hermeneutic on which he recently wrote a large book. Progressive covenantalism essentially divides the administration of God’s mercy into two eras: old covenant and new covenant, the old covenant encompassing the entirety of the Old Testament. The old covenant prefigures and anticipates the new, and never shall the twain meet. In contrast, Reformed, covenant theology holds that God’s covenant of grace is one throughout postlapsarian history, only administered differently in different eras.
Wellum’s article underscores this difference significantly: He rejects that the Sabbath is a creation ordinance, holds that the Mosaic administration of the Sabbath is a uniquely old covenant relic, and that Christ’s fulfillment of the Sabbath means that requirements of its observance are now abolished. All of these things are contrary to the Reformed confessions, the divergence springing from the difference in hermeneutics. What is notable is not that a Baptist is making the case for a non-Reformed understanding of the Sabbath, but that recently the president of Indianapolis Theological Seminary, which employs Wellum as an adjunct professor to teach hermeneutics, insisted to me that he is “basically” a covenant theologian and is soundly Reformed. This is an example of definitional slippage, and why “Reformed” ought to mean “confessional.” Otherwise you end up thinking that you are being educated in Reformed hermeneutics, only to discover later that in reality you were trained in a different traditions masquerading as your own.
I have an article ‘All Monuments Must Fall’, up at Mere Orthodoxy. Here’s a brief taste,
“It was with puritanical glee that I read the Archbishop of Canterbury’s comments on the portrayal of Jesus as white. Should that representation of him be rethought in light of recent events? Yes, “You go into [global] churches and you don’t see a White Jesus — you see a Black Jesus, or Chinese Jesus, or a Middle Eastern Jesus — which is of course the most accurate. You see a Fijian Jesus — you see Jesus portrayed in as many ways as there are cultures, languages and understandings.” We don’t worship these representations, but they are a “reminder of the universality of the God who became fully human.”
What Archbishop Welby intuited is precisely what the iconoclasts of Geneva and Black Lives Matter have been crying: All human-created celebrations of God are inextricably intertwined with the self-regard of the image-casters. This is precisely why some Reformed Christians have read the 2nd Commandment in the way that they have historically. The recently deceased Anglican divine J. I. Packer noted that the 2nd Commandment prohibits images of God because it is impossible to craft an image of God which does not fall into our likeness. God becomes conformed to us, not us to him, with our virtues and values (be they ethical or cultural) being imposed. This is not a reflection of the universality of God, but locating him in a man-created image of man. Human-crafted images of God are but inpourings of the self into our conception of the divine.”
Something I’ve wondered since a kid is how the Christian church would react if intelligent, sentient life from outside Earth were discovered. A silly question in some ways, since there is no evidence of space alien life, either scientifically or from scripture. But particularly in light of the recent declassified U.S. Navy files and videos on U.F.O.s, the subject deserves serious consideration. What effect would the existence of alien life have on the truth of Christianity?
Most likely, the revelation of alien life would lead to a massive departure from the Christian faith and organized religion in general. While there may be a temporary surge in church attendance from people looking for a familiar comfort, like after the September 11th attacks, a large chunk of people would see alien life as fatally undermining the claims of Christianity, discrediting the religion.
In 2014 Pope Francis said that he would baptize Martians if they requested it. This would be the second reaction: all persons, human or alien, have a need for a savior, who is Jesus. This is a plot point in Orson Scott Card’s famous Speaker for the Dead…