Acts: Types of Texts & Their Authority
Exegesis is the activity of determining what a text says, hermeneutics is the rules for exegesis. This applies not only to Scripture, it also applies to legal texts, such as church orders, regulations, and acts of ecclesiastical assemblies. One basic rule for working with legal texts is understanding that not all texts or all parts of texts carry equal weight.
In the article Acts: Made Up of “Articles” the different types of articles found in acts of synods and their authority is described. This present article explains how articles reporting decisions of assemblies, the “fourth type of article”, consist of different types of texts and explains to what extent these texts are considered to be authoritative.
Texts of Implementation
The first type of text are acts of assemblies that require implementation. Examples are decisions to confess a certain doctrine (e.g. “marriage is a bond between one man and one woman”) or to follow or endorse a certain practice (e.g. this hymn can be sung in worship, this assessment needs to be paid). A decision requiring implementation is recorded in the Acts as a “recommendation” that has been “ADOPTED”. It is the duty of church members and of churches to implement such decisions unless they are contrary to God’s Word or the Church Order (CanRC CO art. 31).
Recommendations that have been “DEFEATED” do not have authority – there is even debate as to whether such should be recorded in the acts of Synod. For a defeated recommendation to have authority, its negative needs to be “ADOPTED”.
Texts of Application
Second are acts of assemblies that apply the Church Order and other regulations. Examples are judging appeals, receiving a church visitation report, entering into ecclesiastical fellowship with another church. A decision of application is recorded in the Acts as a “recommendation” that has been “ADOPTED”.
Application is also part of the process of coming to any decision, including those that will require implementation. Such texts of application are found in the “considerations” that precede a “recommendation” to implement.
Application carries more authority in a common law context (e.g. Canada or Australia) than in a civil law context (e.g. The Netherlands).
On the distinction common law & civil law see Polity: Systems of Law.
Texts of Commentary
Third are comments found within the acts that express the opinion of the majority of the assembly. Such comments tend to be interpretive. The well-considered commentary of an assembly is recorded in the “considerations” section of a decision.
Within a common law context such comments carry weight as they are considered to set a precedent by which to interpret law.
Because comments carry weight, some will argue that even recommendations which are DEFEATED need to be recorded. A defeated recommendation could be argued to undermine the validity between a consideration and a recommendation. However, it should be noted that acts rarely record why a recommendation was defeated. Without this information it is impossible to tell whether a recommendation was defeated because it was not considered to be the consequence of a consideration.
Note: Some acts record decisions by introducing the article with an expression such as “the following was adopted”. Analysis of these acts indicates that sometimes decisions are contained in the considerations, not in the recommendations. More clarity is gained when the word “adopted” is appended to the article and understood to apply explicitly to the recommendation and implicitly to the remainder of the article.
Within a civil law context the well-considered commentary of an assembly carries no weight. Hence Dutch churches do not record them in their acts.
There are three types of texts with varying authority: texts of implementation, texts of application, and texts of commentary.
For more see the article Acts: Standing and Current Decisions.