In last semester’s Symbolics class, we had to write a research paper on some aspect of one of the ecumenical creeds. I chose for my topic the final two lines of the Nicene Creed: “and we look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.” I loved writing that paper. If mastering the languages has proven to be a struggle for me, writing papers has been a joy. In particular, digging into the early church fathers was especially interesting. For one thing, the world in which they lived became very mysterious the farther you went from the Mediterranean. So when Cyril of Jerusalem speaks of India, you get the same sense you get when Tolkien talks about the Easterlings, or the Haradrim; peoples and lands on the edge of imagination. In another place, when Cyril was trying to prove the reality of the resurrection to the unbelieving Greek culture around him, he appealed to nature for evidence. Exhibit A was the phoenix bird, which he pointed to with the same degree of self-evidence we would use when speaking of, say, sunrises. Since it was so obvious that phoenix birds burnt to ash at the end of their lives, only to be reborn from the ashes, so it was obvious that humans would be resurrected at the Second Coming. It was a rich and imaginative world.
We have Symbolics again this semester, and once again we have been assigned a research paper. This time, we have to write a paper on some part of the Belgic Confession. We can choose an entire article, or a particular phrase or subject. There is a great deal of interesting material in the confession, ranging from the authority of Scripture, to civil government, to the sacraments, to the final judgment. I chose for my topic Article 28, Everyone’s Duty to Join the Church. It’s a broad topic, so I met with Dr. Van Vliet and we narrowed it down to the idea of submitting to the Church’s teachings.
Guido de Bres, the author of the confession, had grown up in the Roman Catholic Church. So how did Article 28 fit with his dissension from the church’s teachings, considering the article says that members of the church “must submit themselves to its instruction and discipline”? How did he justify this? Do members of the Church have to submit themselves to instruction only as far as they agree with the Church? At what point, if any, may a member’s personal interpretation trump what the Church says Scripture says?
A few years ago in Abbotsford, a number of members withdrew themselves from fellowship against the authority of the Church, and declared themselves to be the true church at Abbotsford. So it’s clearly a contemporary issue. In the broader evangelical world as well, there are movements striving for closer ties with Rome. However, it’s the absolute authority of the RCC that proves to be the sticking point. Purgatory exists because the church says it does, and that’s that. If you don’t read about it in Scripture, it’s because the church knows things that you don’t. So is there a way in which we can articulate to the Catholics what we confess here in Article 28, with the hopes of one day uniting again under the Word of God? It’s a very big question, of course, and one that I could not hope to answer now. Still, I’m looking forward to the opportunity this paper will bring to reflect more deeply on these things.