Stories Please

One of the core values at First Hamilton CRC (the church I am currently serving) is anticipating change. Those who served here before me poured themselves into forming a vision that not only made room for change, but saw change as a fundamental part of our Christian identity. The reasoning for this core value flows out of a cluster of convictions: the Gospel of Jesus Christ transforms us personally and communally; as we change, the neighborhoods, work environments, leisure spaces, and places we call home are transformed; God’s mission includes the prophetic reassurance that Jesus Christ is at work making all things new.  Change is woven throughout the story of God’s people. Rooted in the biblical narrative (Creation, Fall, Redemption, Renewed Creation), these convictions are expressions of the Lenten-Easter motif of dying and rising with Christ. The Christian life is one in which God’s people are consistently being called to lay down their own lives in order to receive the life of Christ more fully with each other. Rather than resisting change, we are called to embrace a way of life that is marked by ongoing transformation with others in Jesus Christ.

I’ve been thinking about this particular core value while listening to discussions in my denomination (CRCNA) about what it means to have a confessional identity. In a few weeks, delegates from across the CRCNA will gather for an annual synod. This June, delegates will discuss (along with a few other topics) a Form of Subscription (FoS). This form is seen as one of the means through which the theological integrity of the denomination is maintained. The FoS roots ministers, elders and deacons, and faculty at Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary to three ecumenical creeds and three Reformed confessions. The conversation around the FoS and the proposed changes to it have drawn out some heated exchanges and a variety of opinions on how we got here, what the tension or concern really is, who’s to blame, and, of course, more than a few suggestions on ways to move forward.

Interestingly enough the conversation has exposed a fair number of conclusions associated with generational dynamics. There have been a few comments that have the potential to further the conversation. I am finding Jamie Smith’s question today about whether the threat that young people will leave the church is a form of generational blackmail particularly thought provoking. But overall I have been left wondering if inserting a generational bias analysis into the FoS conversation is ultimately beneficial. So far, the generational comments seem to reveal more of a playground strategy around picking teams than of substantively engaging the FoS implications: who among us can claim the youth for our side? I have yet to see how a debate over whether Millennials are on the Gen-X team or the Boomer team will help transform any of us personally or all of us communally.

From where I am sitting, there are a couple other questions around which I would love to hear some dialogue. For now, I’ll  ask one of them:

Practically speaking, how are the Creeds and Confessions informing the ongoing transformation of our personal and communal character so that our life together more fully embodies the good news of Jesus Christ?

I know this question opens the potential of anecdotal competition: “I’ve got a story of how great they are” vs. “Well, my story is about how they were used to harm others.” However, even with this risk of story-topping, the pragmatic question still needs to be asked. I wonder if part of the difficulty we find in considering a revised FoS is that our conversations about Creeds and Confessions tend to center around defending them. As a response to complaints regarding damaging practices attributed to the application of those Creeds and Confessions, how often hasn’t the response been to argue the correctness of doctrines contained in the Creeds and Confessions? In other words, we often fail to recognize and lament the experiential disconnections between orthodoxy (right belief) and orthopraxis (right living).

I wonder if it would be too much to suggest that the orthodoxy of the Creeds and Confessions ultimately is found not in the clarity with which they articulate an abstract truth but in the degree to which their articulation of truth informs the ongoing personal and communal transformation of God’s people in accordance with the character, practice, and person of Jesus Christ? From such a perspective, any application of orthodoxy that fails to cultivate and nurture orthopraxis is at best a benign decoration and at worst a dangerous toxin or invasive species in the vineyard of God’s people.

If the Creeds and Confessions are to provide a formative channel through which the Word of God can more pointedly transform us personally and communally (and I believe they have the capacity to do so), there needs to be much more pervasive attention throughout our communion as to how the Creeds and Confessions are contributing to our ongoing transformation in Christ. We need to hear and encounter the stories of transformation in people we see and know today if the Creeds and Confessions are to be anything more than appended reference documents on our FoS.

I recognize that I am being unabashedly pragmatic at the moment, but I would like to hear the stories. How are the Creeds and Confessions informing personal and communal transformation so that people of God are more fully embodying the good news of Jesus Christ?

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2 responses to “Stories Please

  1. Dan Postma

    “How are the Creeds and Confessions informing personal and communal transformation”? Short answer: they’re not. At least, not for me, and I haven’t seen any of my friends reading or reciting any but the Contemporary Testimony in a long time.

  2. Paul Van Stralen

    Alistair Begg tells the story of a guy walking down a street in some town. He’d no sooner walked past a total stranger when the stranger turned around and said, “What’s the chief end of man?” To which he replied, “To know God and enjoy him forever. What made you ask me that out of the blue?” The stranger replied, “I could tell by your walk, you are a Westminster Shorter Catechism guy.”

    Sometimes the impact of doctrine is more subtle than we realise. It does form and shape us. The words of Lord’s Day 1 have comforted me tremendously at times of darkness and difficulty. Yesterday I preached at a non-denominational, ecumenical, Gospel oriented Cowboy church. I used the HC teaching on Ascension Day (How does Christ’s ascension benefit us?) to form the framework of my message. I guess it all depends upon your attitude. Either they are old, irrelevant, relics from the past, or words of instruction and wisdom from saints who have walked the path ahead of us.

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