Before briefly addressing that paper, let me first say that it is significant to note what is not said. They do not say that the overall theology of marriage and sexuality presented in the GLC is unbiblical or out of line with the historic stance of RCA and Reformed churches in general. In other words, the Commission seems to largely agree with the theological content of the document, even if they raise some valid questions and ultimately decline to receive it as a “catechism.” Because of their apparent agreement with the overall content of the GLC, my remarks below should be understood as an intramural discussion between people who share the same framework of Scripture and theology, but who may have some points of differences on the details. A representative from the Commission did contact me after this paper was written to communicate the details to me, for which I am thankful. After reflecting more on the paper, here are a few of my thoughts on the paper.
First, the paper criticizes the use of the term “creation order” because it could suggest an authority independent of Scripture. Thus, the Commission is concerned that this term could suggest an appeal to natural theology, reason, or experience apart from Scripture. They say, “Given the reality of sin and its devastating effects on creation and human reason, it seems hard to imagine that we could ever ascertain the purposes of God in sexuality or marriage by seeking them in the ‘creation order’ outside of the witness of Scripture” (284).
To be honest, I found this a bit puzzling because Q1 of the GLC reads “We see in Scripture that God created us male and female as part of the creation order…” Far from asserting that creation order is something we can just read clearly apart from Scripture, the point of Q1 is precisely the same point that the Commission is trying to make: Scripture itself must be the lens through which we read our experience. Furthermore, Q3 is entirely devoted to the kind of natural theology that looks at our experience or reason apart from Scripture. For my part, I don’t think the catechism would lose much by just deleting “as part of the creation order” and just read: “God created us male and female.” But I also think that, in context of both Q1 and Q3, it’s abundantly clear that the GLC is not in any way claiming to draw on a creation order “outside of the witness of Scripture.”
The paper also notes that the term “creation order” has been misused. I agree. But so have many other terms in the GLC, including “God.” Abuse doesn’t nullify proper use, and I’d argue that there is a creation order (ontology) knowable through the lens of Scripture (epistemology).
Second, the paper takes issue with some of the verses in footnotes. To be honest, I thought about not using footnotes at all. I should clarify that rarely do I think you can support a theological claim simply by pointing to one single verse of Scripture. The verses footnoted were not meant to indicate that one could sustain the claims of each line or section solely by reference to that verse. Instead, the verses were meant as biblical texts that speak in some way to the matter at hand. In that sense, I think I agree with the Commission’s assessment that “the Scriptures given do not always bear the weight of the answers offered.” Particularly when it comes to matters of marriage and sexuality, the orthodox biblical and theological position involves a synthesis of a wide variety of biblical texts in order to see the canonical coherence on these matters. So perhaps this was just a matter of different, unstated expectations about how those verses were functioning in the Catechism.
I’d be curious as to the Commission’s view on whether the biblical footnotes in the Heidelberg Catechism “bear the weight of the answers offered” in every case. As I’ve used that document in the past, I’ve sometimes scratched my head a bit at the references given.
Third, the Commission asks for more development on theological anthropology, the meaning of gender, and the body. This is probably true. There’s a lot more that could be said on these matters, but the Catechism was working with a limited scope. Does the GLC fail to place the body in the story of God and redemption, though? I don’t think so, although I could be wrong. Q12-15 are devoted to placing sex and bodies within the broader scope of marriage and personhood, and showing how those in fact are visible signs that point to the mystery of the gospel: Christ and the church. Q14 in particular shows how sexual union and the covenant of marriage are a sign and symbol of the gospel.
Could more be said here? Certainly. The Commission’s comments have made me think about further questions and answers that could be included, and I’m thankful for that.
Fourth, the Commission asserts, following T. F. Torrance’s definition of “catechism,” that the document doesn’t rise to the standard of being a catechism in this technical sense because it does not “aim to give a comprehensive exposition of the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the context of the whole Counsel of God and the whole life of the people of God.” The Commission therefore recommends that this document not be given the title “catechism.” What’s not clear to me is whether the Commission’s more technical definition is spelled out anywhere in the RCA Standards or Polity, or if the assumption is that Torrance’s definition is normative for all Reformed folks everywhere.
To me, this is more a matter of terminology than of substance. It seems as though the Commission is employing a more technical sense of the word “catechism,” whereas I am simply using it to refer to a series of questions and answers. In other words, I labeled it a catechism because of its form, but they want to use the term “catechism” only for certain documents whose content meets a certain standard. I’d argue that part of the goal of the GLC is to place sexuality, singleness, and marriage within the context of the gospel, though that could be spelled out more clearly.
I guess part of the question is whether the Commission’s more technical usage or my more everyday usage of the term ‘catechism’ communicates what is meant to be communicated. Up until the CoT’s paper, I’d never had anyone in the RCA claim that the GLC wasn’t actually a catechism. Perhaps that means that the vast majority of people are uninformed on the technical definition of a catechism. In any case, it shows that the actual usage of the term “catechism” is largely understood to be about the form of the document, not the content.
For my part, I understand the GLC to be a kind of addendum to the Heidelberg Catechism Q108 and 109. My goal was not to give a “comprehensive exposition of the Gospel of Jesus Christ” in part because the Heidelberg Catechism already does that. I’m sure there are ways to foreground the Gospel more clearly in the GLC, but I see the questions of marriage, singleness, and sexuality as questions of what it means to practically live out the gospel in a specific area of our lives. In that sense, everything in the GLC assumes and builds on the gospel even if it doesn’t give a comprehensive exposition of the gospel.
I want to thank the Commission on Theology again for the time and effort that they put into engaging the Great Lakes Catechism. As I said above, I’m encouraged by the fact that they seem to agree with Scripture’s teaching on marriage and sexuality and they seem to affirm the RCA’s historical stance on this matter. Whatever differences remain seem to be differences of emphasis, assumptions, and terminology rather than of substance.