The Pastoral Character of the Canons
Reformed Free Publishing Association
There are, undoubtedly, many reasons why wholesale departure from scripture truth is so characteristic of Reformed churches today, but not least among those reasons is the fact that churches and denominations often forget that they are part of the church of all ages, and that, also with regard to doctrine, they stand in organic connection with the church of the past. If the church is faithful to the truth then she is built on the foundation of apostolic doctrine and prophetic teaching, and by the grace of God that doctrine and that teaching is an inheritance received from the faithful church of years past. It is not only to her disgrace but to her own ruin that the church forgets this.
For Reformed churches, perhaps more than any others, this heritage of truth is to be found in their creeds. Those creeds or confessions are the fruit of hard study, careful interpretation, and life-long defense of the word of God by those who have gone before, and it is through faithful use of those creeds that we as Reformed Christians “come into” our inheritance. The trouble is that Reformed churches today, almost without exception, are churches without a heritage, not because they have discarded their creeds but because they have neglected them. The creeds are useful and profitable only in so far as they are used in the preaching, the teaching, and in all the work of the church. Through neglect of her creeds, a church cuts herself off from the organism of the church and lays herself open to the withering influence of false teaching and worldliness.
The argument is that the creeds which we have are not useful. They were written at a time when cold, abstract discussion of obscure doctrinal points was the order of the day, but now the church has progressed from such dogmatic argumentation to real, meaningful activity. The creeds are full of scholasticism, are far removed from the simple, practical teaching of scripture, and are therefore, all but useless in the church of Jesus Christ. The strange thing is, however, that this attitude is fostered by those who also want nothing to do with the so-called practical teaching of the scriptures on such matters as women in office and homosexuality. Nonetheless, this attitude does find fertile soil in the ignorance of the creeds which is so widespread, even among those of Reformed heritage.
Among those who subscribe to our Three Forms of Unity, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Canons of Dordt, this attitude is found especially in respect to the Canons. So generally are the Canons considered to be “outdated” that there are few any more who know anything about them. There are few who know that the Canons, in five chapters or “heads,” defend, prove from scripture, the five points of Calvinism. Many do not even know what the five points are. Even fewer know that rather than speaking of errors which vanished from the church hundreds of years ago, the Canons deal pointedly and scripturally with those errors which are troubling the church today. But perhaps the most surprising thing of all to those who to a greater or lesser degree are ignorant of their Reformed heritage, is the fact that the Canons, even more than the Heidelberg Catechism and the Belgic Confession, are deliberately, deeply, and warmly pastoral in their presentation of the great truths of the Christian faith.
When we speak of the pastoral character of the Canons, we mean not only that the Canons set forth sound doctrine, but that in the Canons these doctrines (including the doctrines of election and reprobation) are applied in a very practical and personal way to the difficulties and problems of the Christian life. That is, after all, what pastoral work is all about: the personal, private application of the word of God to the needs of God’s saints. From that perspective the Canons are in a very real sense, “The Pastor's Handbook,” and can be used—often and with much profit—by the officebearers of the church in their pastoral labors.
One example is the problem of lack of assurance of salvation, very troubling to those who are seeking such assurance, and a problem which ministers of the gospel must oftentimes face in pastoral counseling. The Canons have much to say here. They speak in general of the fact that God’s people not only may but do obtain the assurance of election, forgiveness, and eternal life (I, 12 and V, 9); and they reject the error of those who teach “that there is in this life no fruit and no consciousness of the eternal election to glory, nor any certainty” (I, B, 7). So too, the Canons emphatically declare that this assurance does not come in the way of some kind of subjective “revelation” but always in connection with the word of God and the work of the Spirit as he applies that word to us (V, 10 and 14). At the same time the Canons do not let us forget that this assurance is very closely connected with a sanctified walk and even warn against all carnal security, licentiousness, rash presumption, wanton trifling with the grace of election, and stubborn refusal to walk in the ways of the elect (I, 12, 13 and V, 10, 12 and 13), speaking of the “grievous torments of conscience” which this produces (V, 5 and 13). Thus, too, there is the necessity of watching and prayer (V, 4).
Nor do the Canons forget that this assurance is not given to all in the same measure (I, 12) and that there are some “who do not yet experience a lively faith in Christ, an assured confidence of souls, (and) peace of conscience,” or, again, some “who cannot yet reach that measure of holiness and faith to which they aspire” (I, 16). To these the Canons speak with comfort of not being alarmed at the mention of reprobation, or of ranking themselves among the reprobate, but of persevering in the use of the means of grace and humbly waiting for a season of richer grace, quoting the promise of a “merciful God” that he will not quench the smoking flax or break the bruised reed (I, 16). In the midst of our temptations, the Canons say, we are not always sensible of the full assurance of faith, but we must not forget that God, who is the Father of all consolation, does not suffer us to be tempted above what we are able, but always makes a way of escape that we may be able to bear it, quoting scripture once again and adding the promise that by his Spirit God always renews that “comfortable assurance” (V, 11). We are even assured that it is impossible for God's people to commit the “sin unto death” (V, 6).
In connection with the doctrine of election, the Canons address another soul-wrenching question, that of the salvation of the children of believers who die in infancy. Also here the Canons bring rich comfort, quoting I Corinthians 7:14 and assuring us that “godly parents have no reason to doubt of the election and salvation” of such infants (I, 17). What could be more comforting than that to godly parents who must bring a little one to the grave, and what more pastoral on the part of the minister than to bring them that confession of the church?
These are just two examples; there are many others. The Canons speak of our attitude both toward those who live “regular lives” and toward those who have not yet been called, warning against the sins of pride and of judging others (III & IV, 15). They speak of the practical importance and comfort of the doctrines of election and the perseverance of saints (I, 6, 14 and V, 15). They have much to say about the importance of the preaching of the gospel as the God-appointed means of grace, the neglect of which is always and again a matter of “pastoral” concern (I, 3; III & IV, 6 and V, 14), and they warn that it is “tempting God” to separate his grace from the means that he in his wisdom has chosen to bring that grace to his people (III & IV, 17).
Other examples of the pastoral character of our Canons can easily be found, but the point is that the church is standing on solid ground when she, through her offices, brings the word of God in connection with the confessions which she has received from the church of the past. There is comfort even in knowing that it is the same truth, as expounded and set forth in our confessions, which builds up the church of Jesus Christ today as well as four hundred years ago; comfort also for those who bring that word, that they are not facing new problems, but problems which have always been found in the church, the solution to which the church has always found in God’s holy word. Without our confessions, or in ignorance of them we have every reason to feel that we stand alone, and reason also, therefore, to be afraid. But through our confessions, that is, through faithful use, faithful study, faithful reading of our confessions, including the Canons, we stand in living connection with the church of all ages “fair as the moon, clear as the sun, and terrible as an army with banners” before which even the devils tremble and fear.
This article was written by Rev. Ron Hanko and was published in the October 1, 1981 issue of the Standard Bearer.