A Confessional Ministry: Seminary Graduation 2013 (1)
By Barry Gritters
This is the graduation speech—slightly modified for publication—given on Thursday evening, June 13, 2013, at Hudsonville PRC, in the presence of Synod, the church, and the family and friends of Mr. Erik Guichelaar.
Mr. Guichelaar, on this momentous evening for you we call you to be a confessional minister. A “confessional” or “creedal” minister is a minister who knows, loves, and uses the creeds, whose ministry is governed by the creeds.
The churches call you to be a creedal minister. The Protestant Reformed Churches are a confessional denomination: as churches, we know, love, and use the creeds; as churches, our lives are governed by them. The PRC call all her servants to serve her by promoting what she is.
This does not mean that the churches want you to be something different than a biblical minister—a minister who knows, loves, uses, and is governed by something other than the Bible! No, the Bible governs us. But our understanding of creedal is that it is the only way for a minister to be truly biblical—biblical in the best sense of the word!
As a servant of the churches, I call you tonight to a creedal ministry.
This call is not a surprise to you. Although I may put it a little differently now than you have heard it in your four years under our instruction, what you hear tonight will conform to everything the other professors and I have taught you.
But by doing this, I want to inform, to call, and to send.
I inform your friends and audience what kind of seminary is the Protestant Reformed Theological School. I call us as churches to continue to be what we have always been determined to be: a denomination committed to walk in the old paths, and train young men to do the same. And I send you off with a charge that, I pray, rings in your ears until the last day of your ministry in the churches, if the Lord so pleases to give you one: Be a creedal minister!
The Calling to Be a Creedal Minister
To be creedal does not mean merely to have a creed. Everyone has a creed. All Christians are confessional. That point needs to be established first of all because the old claim is still being made: “We have no creed but Christ,” or “We have no confession but the Bible.” It’s simply false to say that some Christians are confessional and other Christians are not.1
Rather, the division is between those whose creed is written, public, and open to scrutiny and critique, and those whose creed is unwritten, not open to scrutiny and critique, and probably known only after you’ve signed on as a member—maybe after four or five years.
A few examples will make that clear. Because “creed” means “belief,” and every church has a belief about baptism, every church has a creed on baptism! Perhaps “We believe that infants must not be baptized” is their creed! Or, “We testify that we will only baptize adult believers!” is their creed. The question is not whether they are creedal, but whether they put that on paper for the public to see and examine! Every corner church has a creed on baptism. You must ask yourself whether they have the integrity to put that down on paper. To use another example: every church has a creed (a “we believe”) on church leadership. “We believe that women have a place in the government of the church.” Or, “We believe that government is the exclusive domain of men.” Perhaps, “We are governed by no human authority.” Each of those is a creedal statement, and no one may deny that this is creedal. Again, the point is whether they will print that for examination and critique.
The same is true with respect to every matter that has been controversial over the years.
Rather, to be creedal means that one officially adopts creeds, knows them, loves them, uses them, and binds himself officially to them. Being creedal means, first, that one officially adopts creeds as his (or their) own.
Second, being creedal means binding oneself to them with a solemn oath. We do that when we require all our officebearers to subscribe them. Officebearers must sign the Formula of Subscription. The very first action tonight’s graduate will take after a classis approves his classical examination—soon, God willing— will be to sign this Formula. Also, each confessing member—non-officebearers—binds himself to the creeds. Even though the level of knowledge of the common members of the church is less than that required of officebearers, all confessing members publicly swear an oath that they believe all the truths contained in the creeds to be “the true and complete doctrine of salvation,” and that they will stick to2 the doctrine confessed in them.
Third, being creedal means that we know the creeds. No one may bind himself to something, or promise to adhere to something, without knowing that something.
Fourth (and this I wish to emphasize tonight), being creedal means that we know, love, and use them in such a way that we adopt a mentality—that it becomes our spiritual DNA—that we are consciously a part of the historic, Christian church that has been in the world from the very beginning, the church that has been compelled to confess the truth and develop that confession as she has lived in the world for 6,000 years. We are a part of that church that has a history—a God-directed and God-preserved history. Being creedal is at the center of that mentality.
This is what it means to be Reformed!
When I teach teenagers the doctrinal catechism classes, especially the high school students and older, I emphasize to them that to be Reformed means especially three things. We are Calvinists; we are Covenantal; and we are Confessional. I require the young people each week to name our three major creeds, and then explain what it means to be confessional: that we hold the creeds, use them, love them, and bind ourselves to them. I especially emphasize to them the relationship the creeds have to the Bible.
The Protestant Reformed Churches are creedal churches; our seminary is a creedal seminary; and the work of PRC pastors is to exercise a creedal ministry.
Brother Guichelaar, be a confessional minister!
The PRC are confessional in every dimension of their life.
First, the churches have officially adopted, bind themselves to, use, and love the Three Forms of Unity— the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dordt. We have adopted the four ancient ecumenical creeds. Not to be forgotten are the Church Order of Dordt as well as all the liturgical forms: the forms for Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, for Christian Discipline, for Installation/Ordination of officebearers, and for the Confirmation of Marriage Before the Church.3
Second, our seminary teaches these creeds. A denomination cannot remain confessional unless her denominational seminary is governed by the creeds, in order that the future teachers in the church learn to be creedal. So the seminary teaches two courses specially dedicated to learning the content and the history of the Three Forms of Unity. In another—Liturgics—we pay attention to the liturgical forms. And for two semesters we study the 86 articles of the Protestant Reformed Church Order.
But our students soon learn that our entire approach in our seminary instruction is a creedal approach. Instruction in Dogmatics—the heart and core of our curriculum—is governed and controlled by the creeds. History of Dogma and Church History teach the circumstances of the confessions’ formation. Catechetics equips the men to teach the confessions. Even the class on pastoral counseling directs these future pastors to use the confessions in their counseling.
But perhaps the best example of a comprehensive creedal approach in our instruction is what I tell the men in the introductory exegesis course. I use an illustration from computing. When a man searches the Scriptures in preparation for making a sermon, the mental and spiritual “program” he uses to perform this work is a confessional program. To change the figure only slightly: a large part of his RAM (his “random access memory”)—actively running in the background of his mind, always accessible, instantly available, that cannot be ignored—is the confessions. That is, the stance that the men must take as they come to the Scriptures is a confessional stance, so that they approach every text with a keen consciousness of the creeds to which they freely bind themselves.
Being creedal is part of the very “fabric” of this institution. Take away “being creedal” and this institution will not exist as a Reformed seminary.
It is not too strong to say that nothing is done in the life of the PRC independent of the creeds.
A little-known “creedal” document the PRC holds highlights this point. In the opening session of our annual synod, and as nearly the first item of business, the president reads a document called the “Public Declaration of Agreement with the Three Forms of Unity.” In what must always be a solemn ceremony, the newlyelected chairman asks all the delegates to arise while he reads. This short formula begins with this impressive statement: “Of all the marks by which the true church distinguishes itself from all human societies, the confession of the truth must be mentioned in the first place…” (emphasis mine). Then, the form has the delegates publicly declaring their agreement with the confessions held by the denomination, and their determination to conform all their actions to them, according to the Church Order of Dordt.
As the churches have adopted the creeds and the seminary teaches them, the pastor’s calling is so to use the creeds that they become a conscious and vital part of the flock under his care.
Mr. Guichelaar, in your calling to be a confessional pastor, I call you to adopt the proper attitude towards the creeds, live and breathe that attitude in your ministry, and let your love for the Lord Jesus Christ be manifested as a love for His work in the church that produced the creeds. Have a creedal ministry!
... to be concluded.
1 Although my yellowed seminary notes show my own seminary professors making this point emphatically over 30 years ago, recently Carl R. Trueman has restated it in a fine new book, The Creedal Imperative (Crossway Books, 2012), which served as part of the catalyst for this speech.
2 “Adhere” is the graphic language of the question put to prospective members.
3 In addition to the fact that we print these forms in our Psalter, our official adoption of these is evident in our “Declaration of Principles,” which states that we “accept” these forms as part of the PRC’s doctrinal basis.