May I still be Reformed if the Belgic is Wrong?

I love being Reformed. Our emphasis on participating in union with Christ, a missional sense of God’s election and virtually everything Karl Barth says about revelation (the act of God communicating… not the book in the New Testament) is pretty compelling stuff. John Calvin is pretty touch and go at times, but the Reformed tradition(s) is(/are) pretty cool stuff.

I also have become a conditionalist, a term meaning that I believe the biblical language of hell is not eternal conscious torment but non-existence. For some reasons why, check out these links. I will not belabor points which are better articulated by these scholars.

Here’s the rub. Apparently, I can’t be both. Belgic Article 37 reads, in part, “The evil ones will be convicted by the witness of their own consciences, and shall be made immortal—but only to be tormented in the eternal fire prepared for the devil and the fallen angels.” Conditionalism holds that the human soul is not immortal all on its own, and so there is no need for the soul to consciously “go anywhere” for all eternity. The Belgic Confession resists the Platonism of the immortal soul as well, but makes up for it in believing that God resurrects the soul and the body and holds the resurrected person in eternal and fiery torment. It’s actually worse than I would have thought.

By this definition, hell is not actually the eternal absence of God. Life cannot exist without God’s presence. Hell is the eternal presence of God just enough to torment you for all eternity. I cannot go there. If I believe that the wages of sin is death, than I cannot buy into Belgic 37. I have to edit my copy of Romans to read: “death*, *by death, I mean having enough life to still be tortured for all eternity.” My Reformed understanding of the atonement, of communion with God and the soul cannot compute with the line in Belgic 37.

The question is… may I still be Reformed? Is the Reformed tradition of which I am a part (RCA) big enough for my doubts? Is it big enough to hold differences in tension while affirming the deep and rich places of agreement? Some days, particularly around General Synod, I am not sure. Most days, I can graciously affirm that Reformed is a big tent and there is plenty of room for conditionalists and traditionalists to live, sing, pray and serve together.

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23 thoughts on “May I still be Reformed if the Belgic is Wrong?

  1. “The question is… may I still be Reformed? Is the Reformed tradition of which I am a part (RCA) big enough for my doubts? Is it big enough to hold differences in tension while affirming the deep and rich places of agreement?”

    Thank you for this, I have often had similar thoughts in regards to the confessions and creeds.

  2. I always thought you had to interpret the book of Revelation literally to believe in eternal conscious torment.. ie:

    Revelation 14:11 And the smoke of their torment will rise for ever and ever. There will be no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and its image, or for anyone who receives the mark of its name.”

    I will say one of the (many) strange ways I struggle with the whole Christianity thing is the hell of annihilationism sounds like a reward to me. I’d rather cease to exist than live eternally, even in bliss. I guess I should be a Buddhist.

  3. I loved reading this piece. At the end of the day, I answered your question, “no” — meaning the Reformed tradition of which I was a part was not capable of handling tension and doubt and mystery. I think there is at least one (if not many) ways forward tho’ which is to realize that the tent is not “reformed” or any other particular slice of human reckoning. We are all, as we profess Christ, under the same tent with the possibility of engaging each other mindfully and incarnationally on these topics of faith and doubt, mystery and confidence. I feel this is precisely what you are doing in this piece and appreciate it greatly!

  4. Of course you can be Reformed (even RCA) and struggle and have tensions with the Belgic, the Heidelberg, Dort, AND the Belhar. If you’re a pastor in the RCA, imo, you’re duty bound to honor them sufficiently to be able to teach them sympathetically and to point out why they say what they say, and their context, and their Biblical warrants. In other words, it is incumbent on you to be able to demonstrate the extent to which these are both historic AND faithful. Different people will have different takes on ‘the extent.’ But you are also free to say, “and here’s where I have issues with this particular teaching.” (It’s what you just did, right? And the Classis isn’t coming after you?)

  5. BTW you might want to say “if I believe the Belgic is Wrong”. Maybe it’s wrong. Maybe you’re wrong. Maybe we’re all 98%, at least, off base. But our belief that something’s wrong doesn’t invalidate that thing. It’s a statement about us, not about the article in question.

    • Thanks for the comment. My title was a bit of a wink and a nudge to the tension between wanting to be included in the tradition, all the meanwhile believing it to be incomplete. All in fun- no arrogance intended.

  6. We are NOT Reformed by our identification with the Belgic, the Heidelberger, the Canons, the Westminister, the Barmen or even (our latest confessional hot potato) the Belhar. These are tool…helpful tools….yet, nevertheless, tools to help us be Reformed. There is no ex-cathedra in the Reformed tradition and I don’t think anyone wants to venture on the tentative turf of literalism, inerrancy etc of our confessional statements. As a former Roman Catholic…I have real problems with the Heidelberger in QA 80. In fact QA 80 were not even in the 1st edition of the Catechism and in the 2nd edition were only included in a much abridged way. Do we want to explore “original intent” by Olevianus and Ursinus? If Elektor Frederic initiated the catechism as a means of unifying the believers in the Palatinate, do we bastardize it by using it as a sword to beat down those who are not politically correct in any contemporary understanding of the faith? I’ll spare you my expletives on that one….Suffice to say that our tradition is ever reforming and sometimes that reformation is not always to the glory of God, such as when apartheid was rationalized by a skewed view of election and predestination in the Canons. As has occasionally been the problem in our Reformed Tradition – too much head and not enough heart….too much law and not enough gospel…as Jesus said, let the wheat and the tares grow together and in the end….only the One who can inerrantly distinguish, will indeed sort out the details. To that One be the glory.

  7. I really like Paul Janssen’s points above, especially as relates to the “historic and faithful” clause of our form of declaration for ministers. All of us are saying that “yes, you can definitely be Reformed within the RCA.” Of course, that doesn’t account for all flavors of being Reformed: Al Janssen points out that a big difference between the Dort/Belgic/Heidelberg tradition and the Westminster tradition is that the three continental Reformed standards talk about what one believes–with plenty of room for doubt and growth–while Westminster talks about what the subscriber would know. That makes me think three or four times about every being Presbyterian.

    And I suspect that a lot of us wonder if we are able to be RCA during the days around General Synod. The fact that we are all still here, I like to think, is an outward and visible sign of inward and invisible grace.

  8. In answer to the blog post title and in the context of a minister in the RCA:

    No, in that the declaration that is made before a classis and signed before a classis requires a minister to affirm the standards as “[expressing] the gospel of the grace of God in Jesus Christ” and as “historic and faithful witnesses to the word of God.”

    Yes, in that it is up to the minister’s classis to determine what “express” and “historic and faithful” means in the event that a charge against a minister brought to said classis.

    • David- thank you for your comments. What is interesting is that I still affirm everything I said about the confessions (including our new friend the Belhar) on the day of my ordination. The Belgic is my favorite of the four, in fact. I think it tells the Gospel story really well and is both historic and faithful. I do not question the faithful interpretation of hell as eternal conscious punishment- I just disagree with that interpretation.

  9. I look at the documents as historical, how faith and tradition evolved over time in the church. We do not take them literally just as we do not take scripture literally. They are learning tools. When they were written hell was a belief, Now, not so much. We have evolved from there to even note that hell is not even a biblical notion (Rob Bell’s “Love Wins.”)

  10. Hi Andy…my biggest problem with Conditionalism is that the non-existence of a currently sentient being is contradictory. If I am aware of my existence and my existence makes sense and is not an anomalous absurdity; then non-existence does not follow and is actually worse than any other kind of existence. Paul expressed this in I Cor. 15…”If the dead are not raised then I am most to be pitied.” Just some thoughts.

    • In regards to Paul’s comment in 1 Corinthians 15, I think he was referring to the hope of the Gospel found in the resurrection to eternal life with God in Christ. I think that the neuroscience of consciousness will be really helpful to this discussion, especially as more and more is found about the brain.

  11. Perhaps your struggle is with the entire reformed tradition after all. Unconditional election seems to be the catalyst to problems accepting the notion of Hell. Einstein proved that anialation is not possible, only changes of state from matter to energy and energy to matter. Jesus claims to have conquered Death…all of it, not just His own. Not just Him, or just us, but every thing that has ever lived and died. What Conditionalism is really asking for is eternal unconsciousness, so as not to experience pain. Reformed folk get themselves into trouble, as did the Jews, by adding codified interpretation to scripture in your creeds. As an Evangelical, I can take comfort in the revelation that God’s ways and thoughts are not my ways and thoughts yet, but I trust Him in all things. I can only share and live the Gospel in the power of the Holy Spirit, the rest is up to Him.

    • Daniel, I want to be respectful and give you the benefit of the doubt, especially since we don’t know each other and true understanding of various view points are usually not reached in such a forum. That said, you said some pretty problematic and self-contradictory things to come out with guns blazing as you have.

      1) You’ve assumed ‘unconditional election to be the catalyst to Andy’s problem accepting the notion of Hell’

      a) He never calls election (unconditional or not) into question in this post
      b) If you equate election with salvation it is time to do some series re-reading of the Bible and Christian tradition
      c) Andy NEVER denies hell in this post just the eternality of the soul apart from God sustaining it and making it so

      2) The Einstein comment is just silly. But neither scripture nor the Reformed tradition seems to give much credence to life apart from the body. Yes our dear Paul says to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. But the heart of Paul’s teaching and the whole New Testament as well as the ecumenical creeds is a restored earth, a material redemption and resurrection for which Christ is the first fruits.

      3) You absolutely cannot go about making statements that sound anti Semitic, anti-Reformed or at the very least anti-tradition in general and then call yourself an evangelical. If you believe in the usual precepts of evangelicalism then you probably believe in that Jesus was fully God and fully human, that the Holy Spirit is God and believe the God is Trinity: Father Son and Holy Spirit. These are topics unclear enough in the biblical witness that people argued and fought and some died for over 400 years. These teachings that evangelicals and many other Christians take for granted were codified in The Chalcedonian Definition and the Nicene Creed. If you are an evangelical Christian, you stand on the shoulders of giants in the Christian tradition and the interpretation of Scripture they passed down, as well as on scripture itself.

      4) Finally, when you say “your creeds” I hope what you meant to say was the Reformed confessions, that you seem to have such a distaste for. I surely hope you are not calling into question those ecumenical Creeds that are common to all Christians, especially the Nicene Creed that the Eastern Church, the Catholic Church and all Protestants share. If so than please stop calling yourself an evangelical.

      • Wayne;

        I apologize for the negativity that seems to have been generated by my post. Please allow me to explain my points again now that I have seen the locations of the landmines.

        1. My reformed friends uniformly seem to struggle with the balance of unconditional election with an implied unconditional damnation. Putting all the unelected to sleep for eternity seems to make that easier to bear.

        2. Not sure about the “…just silly” comment, but the point I was trying to make is that there is no material or scriptural basis for oblivion. You ignored my more pointed comments that Revelation is clear that Death is eliminated, all are raised, not to a “restored” earth but to NEW Heavens and Earth. Everything, including Plankton, fish, horseflies, dogs, and people. The question is where the alive things will reside. Hell is “reserved” according to the scriptures, forever.

        3. I was disappointed by the anti-Semitic slap. Jesus himself was very disappointed at the way the interpretations of scripture had taken precedence over the heart of the law in the Pharisee’s minds and hearts. There has always been a struggle for Jews and Christians between their spiritual and material traditions. Moses’ body, Gideon’s thingy, the Temple itself, statue’s, Icons, the true cross, etc.

        4. Most of my reformed brethren are engineers or lawyers. It does not surprise me that they seem to need very tightly defined doctrine – Westminster Confession with proofs is about the size of the New Testament. Anglicans did it too. Roman Catholics have them all beat by a mile. My point here is the same as Jesus…writing God’s law on our heart, not in a four volume set.

        My point to the original post is that we don’t have to understand the idea of eternal damnation, and it should both sicken and sadden us. If we ignore it or take it with a wink and a nod, we have hot given up the original sin of Lucifer, Adam, and Eve – which is making ourselves gods.

      • Daniel, thank you for your thoughtful response. I accused you of coming out swinging when I was equally as heated [my comment was twice as long as yours]. I do think there is plenty of scriptural warrant for oblivion as you’ve called it or conditionalism in Andy’s language above. I would simply say I see nothing in the biblical witness that teaches anything about life apart from the body as a possibility or something we should hope for. We hope for the resurrection of the dead on the last day. As for the state in between there has been a lot of debate in Christian tradition as to whether God sustains a temporary dualism of body & soul or whether we are just dead until we rise again. I don’t see a clear answer to that in scripture or the Christian tradition (broadly speaking) so I remain agnostic about the intermediate state and hopeful about the last day when God gathers up all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth. As for what kind of “new” God is making things, Ive never understood it to be completely burned down and a brand new creation out of brand new stuff. It would seem the Resurrection of Jesus points us in a slightly different direction: there was continuity and discontinuity with what came before the crucifixion. But he was still bore the marks in his body and was recognizable to his disciples.

    • Daniel- Interesting thoughts, and I appreciate them. I’m not sure I need to or want to chuck the Reformed tradition because of a quibble. If you want to interpret conditionalism as eternal unconsciousness, I suppose that’s fine. I still hold that there is a soul, or some immaterial part of human existence, and so I believe there must be a destruction of some kind. Thanks again for commenting!

  12. Andy, great thought provoking post! I probably would have – as Paul suggested above – went with something like “Can I still be Reformed if I believe that parts of the Belgic are Wrong?” But I do understand you posted this, as you say, “with a wink and a nudge” and apparently you know how to get people talking!

    Perhaps I could learn a thing or two from you about brevity. I expected my last post on “the role of women” vis-à-vis the doctrine of biblical inerrancy to get a lot of response. But I think – perhaps in my attempt to answer possible objections – I was overly cautious and nuanced.

  13. Tempers are flaring, and dialogue is getting heated…..GET A LIFE….ITS THEOLOGY….some of us agree and some of us disagree….God is still God….and…take to heart that “IT truly IS FINISHED”. If youwant to call yourself “Evangelical” or “confessional” or “Reformed”…do so…they are words…be who you are – whom you were created to be…and if that creates issues for others they’ll deal with it. Life is too short to create enemies over the likes of all this! If fences continue to be built out of theological bricks, then our theology is misplaced, our God is merely a god…and our creeds are fodder for the burn barrel.

    • Bill, thanks for the good reminder! I guess for my part, I was getting a bit heated.

      I also appreciated your comment above. I too struggle with Heidelberger in QA 80 (and its anti-Roman Catholic sentiments). But man I love me some Belgic article 35!

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