A New Sales Pitch for Modern Theology

In this timely and informative article, Rev. Peter De Jong calls attention to and gives a critical evaluation of a recent article in The Reformed Journal by Rev. Philip C. Holtrop, pastor of the North Haledon (N.J.) Christian Reformed Church. Rev. Holtrop has been nominated for a teaching position at Calvin College. Rev. De Jong now asks: “Will the 1977 Synod by its decision approve the views and teachings which this [Holtrop’s] article reveals, as acceptable to prepare its young people for leadership, or will it investigate and reject them?”

The “New” Look—10 Years Ago – One of the leading features of much, possibly most, modern religious thinking is that it is no longer interested in facts but only in human relations and how people feel. In the January 1971 issue of THE OUTLOOK, I called attention to this movement in an article entitled, “The Inroads of Subjectivism.” An unusual clear explanation of the movement was given by Rev. John Timmer in the December 1969 issue of The Reformed Journal in which he quoted Dr. Comelis Van Peursem, professor of philosophy at the Free University. Dr. Van Peursem writing in 1967, observed that whereas people used to think “ontologically,” in our time they think “functionally.” Whereas people used to be concerned about definitions, about understanding what is, all that is now past. In our present “functional” stage of thought man is only concerned about what works. Now “Real is what directly relates to us. Heal is what functions in our life . . . .”Reality is that which functions . . . .” “Functional man does not ask: who or what is God? but: what does God do?” Similarly, concerning man he observed: “Man‘s time and context co-determine who and what he is.” The modern mind no longer thinks in terms of “being and substance,” but it “thinks in terms of event and action. Our thinking is dynamic rather than static.”

It was Dr. Van Peursem’s contention that we share this transition with other men of our time. “We hear the Bible through the patterns that we share with our contemporaries.”If we are to witness effectively to our generation we must do this in the language and thought patterns in which modern man feels at home.” Rev. John Timmer cited this analysis of Van Peursem as very helpful toward gaining an understanding of Berkouwer and the new theological trends in the Netherlands and he heartily recommended that we go along with this movement.

Again, the Same “New” View of Truth – What now again brings this matter to our attention is an article in the February 1977 issue of The Reformed Journal by Philip C. Holtrop, pastor of the Christian Reformed Church of North Haledon, New Jersey, entitled, “A Strange Language: Toward a Biblical Conception of Truth and a New Mood for Doing Reformed Theology.” In this article Rev. Holtrop, who for some years took graduate work at the Free University, sets out to defend and promote the “new view” of truth as a biblical teaching which we ought to adopt Notice the similarity between what he writes and what Dr. Van Peursem wrote in 1947.

In the article the claim is made that the old idea that truth is what “is” is an erroneous Greek idea. The Bible‘s teaching, it is alleged, is that truth is rather a matter of “doing” and “living.” “Truth in Scripture, not merely is objectively. It cannot be identified with the correspondence of intellectual knowledge and facts. It must be done, it is in actu.For the Greeks, by and large, truth was an ontological category. For the Scripture, by and large, it can be experienced, known, and found in the realm of what you do. Christ is called the Truth because he is the great Act of the Father toward us.”

Proceding from this view of “truth,” Rev. Holtrop goes on to criticize our traditional views of “sound doctrine,” of a “form of subscription,” and of creeds. “‘Sound doctrine’—in contrast to Reformed (or any other) scholasticism—must be seen in the light of . . . ‘doing the truth.’ It can only be understood in the sphere of living in a covenantal relation or response to God and my fellow-man. That means that doctrine and Christian living, faith and life, ‘orthodoxy’ and ‘orthopraxis’ cannot be separated, held in balance, or even considered apart from each other. Here we see, in my judgment, a fundamental error of Reformed Orthodoxy. If I tell the ‘truth’ apart from love and piety I am not ‘doing the truth’ at all, and consequently I am not telling the truth, according to the Scriptures.”

Accordingly Holtrop criticizes the statement of the Form of Subscription that we “heartily believe . . . that all the articles and points of doctrine contained in the Confession and Catechism of the Reformed Churches, together with the explanation of some points . . . made by the National Synod of Dordrecht, 1618–‘19, do fully agree with the Word of God,” as embodying this old “agreement or correspondence theory of truth,” “presuppositions” which are “wrong,” and therefore produce the “disastrous” results of heresy-hunts and trials.

Although he qualifies this sweeping judgment, saying, “My point does not minimize but maximizes the importance of correct statements in most contexts,” yet he maintains that “on the basis of Scripture I do not identify those statements with the truth . . . .”When John tells us to ‘test the spirits’ he is not commanding us to be suspicious of other people and their intellectual formulas. Orthodoxy has shown confusion at that point.” Although he admits that “even Scripture, on rare occasions,” may “speak of truth as accurate expression” (I refer in passing to Mark 5:33 and II Corinthians 12:6) he insists that “truth is a relational, covenantal concept.”

Of creeds Holtrop says, “I have high regard for creeds, but I do not equate them With the truth: They are expressions of my community’s odyssey, and they are beacon-lights at critical junctures, especially in moments of high threat.” From this point of view he says, “I recognize that the Canons of Dort present us with a certain view of the relation of eternity and time, a view which I, along with others, want to challenge today on the basis of Scripture. But I do not want to change the Canons . . .” “I acknowledge that the creeds are historical and were not dropped from heaven.”

Realizing “the radical implications” of what he is saying, Holtrop pleads for “a new mood for doing Reformed theology,” one having “to do with living relations and not primarily abstract definitions and essences.” “A compartmentalized loci-theology, with its heady accent on definitions and the ‘system of Reformed thought,’ is simply ‘not where the action is’; hence it is irrelevant, the reason being that finally its overarching concept of truth is more Greek than biblical. (In candor, in eighteen years since leaving the seminary I have rarely consulted my copy of Louis Berkhofs Systematic Theology, except to find appropriate proof texts or inappropriate ways of organizing theology, or fascinating lines of connection . . .”We need a renewed Reformed theology—partly to free scholarship for responsible activity; partly to liberate the scholar from unbiblical threats and reprisals and to open a life of joy and doxology; and certainly to provide a foundation for Christian personal and social action and thus to serve the entire community by dealing with life ‘where the action is.’”

An Evaluation – What shall we say about this argument and its proposals? Is it true that the Bible teaches us to see truth as something to be lived? indeed, it is. Recall James’ “Be ye doers of the word and not hearers only, deluding your own selves” (James 1:22). Does the Bible stress love? Of course, it does. Have Reformed theologians in the past at times become abstract, speculative, and gone beyond what the Scriptures teach? They have. Is it true that creeds arise in historical situations and arc in that respect limited statements of truth not to be placed beside or over the Scriptures? It is.

Must we therefore conclude that Rev. Holtrop has proved the correctness of his view of truth and the rightness of the policy he is advocating? He has done neither.

Bible Truth Is Factual as Well as Relational – As to the nature of truth, although the Bible teaches us that the truth must be “done” it teaches us just as plainly that truth involves statements about facts which must be believed. Remember Jesus’ rebuke to His disciples, “O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken!” (Luke 24:25)

God’s revelation of Himself reveals Who and What He is (“I am”Ex. 3:14; compare Rev. 1:8) as well as what He does. He is concerned with what is as well as with what happens. He is not only concerned about fidelity to Him and to one’s fellow men, but also with our believing and speaking what conforms to what He has created and revealed. One may not dismiss this concern as the product of an unbiblical, pagan, Greek philosophy. It is expressed in the Bible from the very beginning. God said, “In the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die,” and was contradicted by the devil’s lie, ‘“Ye shall not surely die.” God is concerned about both proper relations and speech that conforms to fact.

The commandment, “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor” is concerned about both conformity to fact and human relations. The devil is both the “father of lies” and “a murderer from the beginning” (John 8:44). This concern of the Bible about fidelity to facts as well as about relations is not “rare” as the article suggests, but the assumption from one end of it to the other. The last chapter of Revelation classifies “everyone that loveth and maketh a lie” beside the “fornicators, and murderers and idolators” as barred from the Lord’s city (Rev. 22:15). Ananias and Sapphira were confronted with the question “whether ye sold the land for so much.” Peter condemned and the Lord destroyed them for “lying” about the price they had been paid. The point here is that truth is conformity to fact, not merely relational. The Gospel of Luke begins by informing us that the writer has “traced the course of all things accurately from the first.” And the word translated “accurately” means “carefully, exactly, strictly,” indicating the kind of careful attention to detail that characterizes responsible historians. And the purpose of the writing was to assure the reader of the “certainty concerning the things” in which he had been instructed. This cannot possibly be twisted to mean anything other than a concern about the facts. Watch Paul in I Corinthians 15 muster the evidence to establish the facts with which the whole Christian faith stands or falls. Listen to Peter (II Pet. 1:16) insisting that he and his companions “did not follow cunningly devised fables” (literally, “myth”) but were speaking and writing the things they had seen as “eye-witnesses.” The Bible is as concerned about establishing facts through the testimony of reliable witnesses as any court of law is supposed to be.

God’s Covenant Too Includes Facts, Definitions and Laws – To observe, as the article does, that the Bible is concerned about God‘s covenant relations does not imply that its “truth” is not conformity to facts or that it excludes precise definitions and prescriptions. It implies the exact opposite. That “covenant” revelation included laws divinely formulated and expressed in words. Think of Psalms 1, 19 and 119 which express the believers’ “delight” and enthusiasm about exactly the clear and carefully defined character of God’s revelation to His people in contrast with the murky confusion of surrounding paganism—and, one might add, of too much modern religion.

Paul in Galatians 3:15 compares God’s covenant with human contracts and similar legal documents: “Brethren, I speak after the manner of men: Though it be but a man‘s covenant, yet when it hath been confirmed, no one maketh it void or addeth thereto,” and he grounds his further argument on the difference between a singular and a plural in the formulation of God’s promise. The argument runs that if even human contracts are treated with a concern for the accuracy and precision of their statements, much more must we receive God’s covenant revelation with such an appreciation of and attention to the verbal accuracy and precision with which He caused it to be expressed and written.

The Lord Jesus was just as insistent that in this inscripturated covenant revelation even the “jot” and “tittle” (Matt. 5:18) mattered. The gospel as Christ came to fulfill it must be preached and taught “holding the pattern of sound words” in which it was embodied “in faith and love which is in Christ Jesus.” This “pattern” we must “guard through the Holy Spirit which dwelleth in us” (II Tim. 1:13, 14). The “Spirit of Truth,” promised and given, to remain with believers for ever (John 14:16), would work and has worked with the church through the centuries in its efforts to formulate, preserve, and teach its doctrines through the centuries of history. This is what our creeds and “system of Reformed thought” for which the writer expressed such scant appreciation, seek to express and preserve. The Bible’s concern with both facts and relations is well reflected in the Heidelberg Catechism’s characterization of “true faith” as “not only a sure knowledge, whereby I hold for truth all that God has revealed to us in His Word, but also a firm confidence . . .” (Qu. 21).

This “New” View of Truth Comes From Modern Philosophy – The notion that “truth” in the biblical sense is not concerned with definitions, accuracy or even means conformity to facts does not arise out of the Bible at all but it is the product of modern existential philosophy. Taken over by liberal theologians, it had a strong appeal, for it enabled one to claim all of the old Christian tradition and at the same time join the mainstream of modern antiChristian thinking in repudiating every biblical fact and doctrine. It justified saying from the pulpit, “I believe,” and at the same time explaining, “Of course, I dont believe it happened in the way the Bible tells it or that it means what people used to think it did.” This had a special appeal to the ecumenical movement which tried to bring churches together, because it reassured uncritical orthodox who had their minds put at ease by hearing the traditional Christian words, and it accommodated the liberals who knew that everyone was free to make of those words whatever he pleased. It is probably not an overstatement to say that this modern redefinition of “truth” is one of the most successful methods the devil ever devised to create confusion within Christian churches, to break down their faith and silence their gospel.

An Old and Common Liberal View – These allegedly “new” ideas are not new. Almost thirty years ago Dorothy Sayers, looking at the demoralized church scene in England wrote, “‘Take away theology and give us some nice religion’ has been a popular slogan for so long that we are apt to accept it, without inquiring whether religion without theology has any meaning. And however unpopular I may make myself I shall and will affirm that the reason why the Churches arc discredited today is not that they are too bigoted about theology, but that they have run away from theology. . . It is not true that all dogma is ‘hopelessly irrelevant’ to the life and thought of the average man. What is true is that ministers of the Christian religion often assert that it is, present it for consideration as though it were, and in fact, by their faulty exposition of it make it so.”

Dorothy Sayers saw the result of this state of affairs: “Theologically, this country is at present in a state of utter chaos, established in the name of religious toleration, and rapidly degenerating into the flight from reason and the death of hope. We are not happy in this condition and there are signs of a very great eagerness, especially among the younger people, to find a creed to which they can give whole-hearted adherence” (Creed or Chaos, pp. 29, 30, 32).

In our time Francis Schaeffer has been pointing out to an ever increasing audience, especially of interested young people, this course of modern philosophical and religious thought. Near the end of his early book, Escape from Reason, he calls attention to the fact that even the name “Jesus” is being “used as a contentless banner.” “There is no rational, scriptural content by which to test it, and thus the word is being used to teach the very opposite things from those which Jesus taught.” Schaeffer wonders whether this movement is not that of Anti-Christ predicted in the Scriptures. “If evangelical Christians begin to . . . separate an encounter with Jesus from the content of the Scriptures (including the discussable and the verifiable), we shall, without intending to, be throwing ourselves and the next generation into the millstream of the modern system” (pp. 78, 79).

“The view of truth Rev. Holtrop is advocating as new is not new but an old commonplace in the liberal movement. Glancing over a recent issue (March 21) of the Lutheran Christian News I noticed an article discussing the Liberalism of Professor Uitti (p. 13). It includes the observation, “He supports the position of ‘contemporary scholarship’ that ultimately revelation lies in relationship, confrontation, communion, rather than in communication of facts.” “Uitti argues that any idea of abstract, absolute, propositional ‘truth’ in a ‘Hellenistic’ sense is not present in the Bible.”

A Road to Ruin instead of Revival – Rev. Holtrop believes that if our churches will adopt this view of truth, that it is concerned with relation rather than with facts, they will bc freed from the frustrations and annoyances of heresy cases and will find new joy and progress in the Christian faith and life.

Most liberal church leaders of the past and present have expressed the same expectations, but has the experience of churches that followed their lead ever fulfilled such expectations? Every report we get from the old mother churches in the Netherlands as they pursue the course being advocated in this article tells not of growth and progress, but of increasing troubles and general decline. The history of other churches around us who have been following this course shows the same kind of result.

How could we expect else? How could subjectivizing and relativizing the very meaning of truth, and minimizing all doctrines and creeds possibly strengthen anyone’s or any church‘s faith an influence? That course is contrary to God’s Word and must lead to His judgment. We can only expect new life and influence for the Christian church when we begin to take much more seriously God‘s Word as His Truth, “truth” both in the sense of relatedness to Him and His people and of faithfulness to what He has said and revealed.

Time for Decision – Our churches are increasingly being compelled to decide whether we are going to return to a deepened and renewed commitment to the Bible and its truths or get further away from them. Our Synod will face decisions again in June regarding which course we will take. One point at which such a decision will have to be made will be when the Synod is asked to approve the Calvin Board‘s recommended appointment of the writer of this article, Rev. Philip Holtrop, to a teaching position at Calvin College. will the 1977 Synod by its decision approve the views and teachings which this article reveals, as acceptable to prepare its young people for leadership. or will it investigate and reject them?

Peter De Jong is pastor of the Christian Reformed Church of Dutton, Michigan.