A Call to Traditionalism

I am pleased with and honored by the opportunity given me to speak to you this evening. But I am also sobered by the responsibility to present something to you by way of a significant and meaningful challenge. I seek in what I say to edify you as members of the Church and to assist you in the proclamation of the principles of the Reformation to the age and world in which we live. I am confident that this can be accomplished in no better way than by turning to the Word of our God. This certainly is in the spirit of the Protestant Reformation, which was—among other things—a return to the Word and its teachings.

Tonight through His infallible and all-sufficient Word, our God presents to us A CALL TO TRADITIONALISM. This is not a call to excessive reverence for the traditions of men. This is a call to adhere to the traditions which are true, which are revealed in the Word of God. This call is presented in the words of II Thessalonians 2:15, “So then, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye were taught, whether by word, or by epistle of ours.”

The Call Explained

Paul is living at this time ill the city of Corinth, in the home of Aquila and Priscilla. He is discouraged because of Jewish opposition to his preaching, and also because of his concern for the churches in Macedonia.

However, it is not long before Silas and Timothy arrive in Corinth with reports concerning the conditions in many of the churches. Timothy’s report dealt with the situation in the Church of Thessalonica. There were favorable aspects to the report. Generally speaking, the Thessalonians were constant in the faith, devoted to Paul, and facing persecution with bravery. And yet there were things which caused Paul great concern. A few members of the church were making charges, insinuating that Paul was not a legitimate minister of the Gospel. Further, the Thessalonian Christians were exposed to temptations to immorality. They were having difficulty with certain fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith. Many of their questions had to do with the return of Christ. Some said it was imminent. Others insisted that it was far off and were very indifferent to the whole matter. Finally, there was a laxity of discipline in the church and lack of respect for those who held offices in the church.

To Christians living and worshipping in this situation, Paul presents an exhortation to traditionalism.

This exhortation is prefaced by what Charles Erdman calls “a system of theology in miniature.” In this preface Paul speaks to the Thessalonians of their election from eternity, their sanctification by the Spirit, their call to salvation through the gospel, and their sharing the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ in the world to come. Paul speaks here of the marvels of divine grace. And it is this grace which serves as the foundation for the exhortation; “So then, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye were taught, whether by word or by epistle of ours.”

The Church of Rome has great appreciation for this text. As you know, they place the traditions of the church along-Side Scripture as the infallible rules for faith and life. And they insist that this passage constitutes biblical ground for their position.

But Rome uses this text erroneously. When Paul speaks of the traditions “which ye were taught,” he has reference to the whole body of truth presented to the Thessalonians from Christ through the writings and the preaching of Paul. The traditions are the special revelation of God, the Word of God. The Thessalonians, in the midst of persecution, temptation and doctrinal confusion, are not to be swept along but, trusting in the grace of God, they are to stand fast and hold on to the traditions of the Word of God.

This is how we must understand the call to traditionalism. It is a call to stand in and hold on to the Scripture. I would present such a call to you tonight.

The Call Attacked

As I place this call before you I realize that there are those who would present an attack against it. What a subject for a Reformation speech! It is contrary to everything for which the Reformation stands!

And it appears that those who present this attack have the witness of history on their side. They point to that great revival of learning. the Renaissance, as the forerunner of the Protestant Reformation.

In the year 1453 Constantinople fell into the hands of the Turks. As a result many Greek scholars fled to Italy, carrying with them manuscripts of the ancient Greek masters. Italy soon became the scene of a wonderful literary and artistic revival. This revival spread northward, over the Alps, to the rest of Europe. It produced renewed interest in the establishment of schools for the study of Greek and Latin literature, writing, painting and architecture.

The result of this revival in learning was a tremendous stir within the Church of Rome. Men began to question and attack the traditions of the church, the infallibility of the church and practices within the church. And it was this questioning of and attack upon the traditions of the church which led to the Reformation. The Reformation, a call to traditionalism? Ridiculous! The spirit of the Reformation is the opposite. In the Reformation men exchanged bondage to tradition for the freedom of the human mind and heart! The Reformation is a call to freedom of thought, speech and action. The Reformation is a call to progress. It calls us to leave behind that which is old. The old may have been useful back there, but it has now become worn and excess baggage. The Reformation calls us to reach forward to that which is new, fresh, and meaningful for our age.

This sounds like a valid presentation of the Reformation spirit and thought, doesn’t it? But it is not, and we would insist that the call to traditionalism must be defended as fully in harmony with the spirit of the Reformation.

The Call Defended

The revival of which the objectors speak was not the re….ival of Christianity, but the revival of paganism. The Greek and Latin masters, whose works were studied, were not Christians. They were pagans. Thus the study of their works resulted in a revival of paganism. The freedom which this revival produced was freedom from the Word of God. The progress which this revival produced was progress apart from the Word of God. Thus, as the new learning progressed, much of it was untouched by the Christian faith. TIle freedom spoken of was a freedom from God which has led to the rationalism of our age. The progress revered was a progress apart from God which gave birth to the evolutionistic thought of our day.

It is this so-called freedom and progress which have resulted in our modern theological situation. Consider the developments of the last fifty years. Subsequent to World War I and prior to World War II young professors in America were indoctrinating seminarians with a modernistic theology which they had received from Europe. What was happening at this time in Europe? The Europeans had already discarded their modernism for Barthianism. During and after World War 11 theologians in America were enthusiastically propounding Barthianism. And what was happening in Europe? Barth was being discarded for Bultmann. And what of the present? In the words of Carl F. Henry, “…now that the Bultmann empire is breaking down in Europe, the American Protestant seminaries are predictably becoming a Johnny-come-lately Bultmannian circuit.” (Christianity Today, September 11, 1964, page 28.) And in Europe, according to Helmut Thielicke (quoted by Henry in the same editorial) “students (are) no longer transfixed by the claims of the Bultmann scholars, and their minds are open to a hearing for alternative viewpoints.”

Is this freedom? No, this is the worst kind of bondage. Is this progress? No. this is regression personified.

It is this same spirit of so-called freedom and progress which has led much of philosophic thought down the road of constant change and alteration. In the name of freedom and progress, the mind of man has been enthroned as all-determinative in the search for truth. In the name of freedom and progress the history of philosophy has seen a movement from scholasticism to rationalism, from rationalism to empiricism, from empiricism to pragmatism, from pragmatism to existentialism, from existentialism to ? . But is this freedom and progress?

It is this spirit also which has produced our morals revolution. You’ve heard its slogans: “Sex is freedom, fun, love, status, nothing!” Several months ago, in Indianapolis, a fraternity convention in a luxurious motel turned out to be an orgy. A father was told that his daughter had been arrested on a charge of drunkeness and indecency. And he responded by crying, “Thank God! I thought she had been in an accident.” Again, this is not freedom, but bond. age. This is not progress, but regress.

Whenever man cuts himself off from the Word of God, he makes himself a slave. Whenever man tries to go ahead apart from the Word of God, he goes backward.

But this is not the spirit to which we are called. Indeed, as sons and daughters of the Reformation, we owe much to the revival of learning which was the Renaissance. It did lead to a great stir in the Church of Rome. It did produce questions and attacks upon the traditions, infallibility and practices of the Roman Catholic Church. But, in the case of the Reformers, such as Luther and Calvin, this revival did not produce absolute freedom for the human mind and progress which cut itself off from the past. Rather, this revival led to freedom to be bound, bound to the Word of God. It led to a progress which, first of all, went back, back to the infallible Word.

A reference to the Institutes should be sufficient to demonstrate this. In Book I, Chapter VI, Calvin writes:

For, if we consider the mutability of the human mind—how easy its lapse into forgetfulness 01 God; how great its propensity to errors of every kind; how violent its rage for the perpetual fabrication of new and false religions,—it will be easy to perceive the necessity of the heavenly doctrine being thus committed to writing, that it might not be lost in oblivion, or evaporate in error, or be corrupted by the presumption of men. Since it is evident, therefore, that God, foreseeing the inefficacy of his manifestation of himself in the equisite structure of the world, hath afforded the assistance of his word to all those to whom he determined to make his instructions effectual,—if we seriously aspire to a sincere contemplation of God, it is necessary for as to pursue this right way. We must come, I say, to the word, which contains a just and live1y description of God as he appears in his works, when those works are estimated, not according to our depraved judgment, but by the rule of eternal truth. If we deviate from it, as I have just observed. though we run with utmost celerity, yet, being out of the course, we shall never reach the goal.”

The Reformation was a call to traditionalism, that is, a cal1 to stand in and hold on to the traditions of the Word. It was and is a call to recognize that true freedom comes only when one is bound to the Word of God. It was and is a call to acknowledge that only when we go back to Scripture can we truly go ahead, ahead to the glory of God.

This is the can which comes to us tonight as members of the Christian Reformed Church. Again, let it be clearly understood that it is not a call to revere the traditions of men, but to honor the teachings of the Word.

For over a century our denomination has stood fast and has held to the principles of the Word of God. She has bound herself to the infallible Scripture. She has made progress without cutting herself off from the traditions of the Word. She has earnestly fought and zealously struggled to preserve and give expression to the true preaching of the Word, the proper administration of the sacraments, and the faithful exercise of Christian discipline. We do not say this in arrogance, but in gratitude to God.

However, the struggle is not at an end. It continues. Some years ago we faced the struggle relative to the infallibility question. Today we face the struggle relative to such matters as limited atonement, reprobation, creation, worldly amusements, etc. In addition we must contend with the spirit of a broad ecumenicity, which is constantly endeavoring to bring us to our knees in compromise.

Am I suggesting that I have the answer to these problems? Of course not. This would be the height of presumptuousness. Am I proposing that we not face these problems? Again the answer is a negative one.

But what I am saying is that we must not endeavor to meet these problems and issues with an attitude which is contrary to the exhortation which Paul presents to us. We must not alter our position on doctrinal issues merely because they defy the comprehension of our minds. We must not relinquish our view of creation just because it does not appear to be scientifically reputable. Nor must we adjust our stand on worldly amusements merely because it isn’t being observed. And, obviously, we must not jump into the ecumenical stream just because this is the thing which others are doing. To do so would be contrary to the spirit of the Reformation. The spirit of the Reformation moves us to heed another call. It is the call of Scripture, the call to traditionalism: “So then, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye were taught, whether by word, or by epistle of ours.” If we would remain free in the midst of the struggle, we must bind ourselves to the Word. If we would make progress through the struggle we must constant1y go back to the Word.

This call has been presented to others before us. Many have refused to heed and the result is that their churches are no longer Christian.

Therefore, members of the Christian Reformed Church, sons and daughters of the Reformation, stand fast1 Hold on to the Word of God, ever trusting in Him who declares, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me: and I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand.” (John 10:27, 28)

Not long ago the momentous event of the Protestant Reformation was again commemorated. We trust that our readers will appreciate this article by the Rev. John B. Hulst, pastor of Twelfth Ave. Christian Reformed Church of Jenison, MI. This address, delivered at a series of meetings in Chicagoland at the end of October, is printed here by special request.