On Essential Tenets, Part 2 of 3: A Relational Problem
Even if it were possible to specify a list of "the essential tenets of the Reformed faith"--and I do not believe that it is--we would encounter a second problem, a relational problem, the question of its status in relation to the rest of the constitution of the denomination.
Creeds, confessions, and catechisms are, in effect and largely in self-understanding, summaries of the teachings of Scripture. They seek to understand the Scripture, and even though they use some extra-Scriptural vocabulary, they intend only to summarize and set forth what the Scripture teaches and not to introduce anything foreign to the Scriptures. They are summaries of the Scripture.
Would not, then, a list and specification of "essential tenets of the Reformed faith" be a summary of summaries? What else could it be? And yet, this raises a very pointed question: What would be the status of such a list relative to the rest of the constitution?
It would seem that there are three possibilities, none of which is satisfactory. First, as a summary of summaries, the list and specification of "the essential tenets of the Reformed faith" could stand above the other creeds and confessions, as a super-confession. It could then be part one of three parts in our constitution, standing between, as it were, the Scriptures and the other creeds and confessions. That is to say, it would have authority over the creeds and confessions, telling us what is--and therefore, what is not--essential in them. But surely we would not want to say that some document of our devising is of greater importance and authority than the Apostles' Creed or the Nicene Creed, recognized throughout much if not all of the church for centuries. That hardly seems appropriate.
Second, perhaps such a list and specification of "the essential tenets of the Reformed faith" could be placed among the confessions in The Book of Confessions. But then the question would have to be raised as to how it is different from any other document in that book.
Third, such a list could be placed under the confessions and in the Book of Order. But as we are painfully aware, the Book of Order is more easily amendable than The Book of Confessions. That is to say, the Book of Order is far less than essential! So how in the world could we put a list of "the essential tenets of the Reformed faith" in that part of our constitution that is more easily amendable than the portion containing the documents to which it refers? That would be nonsensical.
So, in addition to the first and inherent problem of the contradictory language itself, we have a second and also insurmountable problem of the nature and status of any such list and specification of "the essential tenets of the Reformed faith," if in fact such could be made.
Let me note in passing, before we go on in a third email to offer a counterproposal, that this second problem of the status of "the essential tenets of the Reformed faith" already itself suggests a far more suitable alternative. Instead of trying to devise a list of "the essential tenets of the Reformed faith," (i.e., binding in all times and places), let us instead confess what we believe here and now.
This is what Reformed Christians have always done. This is why we have so many Reformed confessions of faith. Instead of trying to create a summary of summaries, would we not be better served by writing our own new confession of faith and adding it to the others in The Book of Confessions? That would be the proper place and status for any new document. Perhaps some of the already attempted lists of "essential tenets" could be reworked and renamed to serve in this fashion. Surely this would be more faithful than attempting to compose a super-confession of "the essential tenets of the Reformed faith" for all times and places.