A Re-formed Reformed Theology?

The Reformation is not an event but a movement. It is the dynamic of true progress in the Church of Jesus Christ. Reformation cannot be regarded as merely an achievement of the sixteenth century; it is a duty also in the twentieth century.

The church may never regard her reformation as completed at any point in her history. This is true because Scripture, her only rule of faith and practice, is an absolute and perfect standard, while the church at any time in her history is still imperfect and involved in sin and error. Because the actual state of the church falls short of the perfect standard of God’s Word, the status quo may never be regarded with complacency. Constant self-criticism on the basis of Scripture is imperative if the church is to make true and proper progress toward her ideal state. The whole of her life—including her doctrine, worship, government, discipline, mission program, educational institutions, publications—ought to be progressively Reformed according to Scripture. Ecclesia reformata reformanda est (A Reformed Church should keep on reforming—Ed.).

Whenever the church has been faithful in its reformation task it has been at its greatest, and has made an impact on the world. But when the church has refused to test its life by the Word and improve its condition according to the Word, it has grown weak, stagnant, and decadent.

It is from this viewpoint that Dr. James Daane appraises the Christian Reformed Church in “The State of Theology in the Church” (Reformed Journal, September, 1957). The Christian Reformed Church, he says, is theologically orthodox but theologically dead. Her theology is “correct” but has not been a corrective factor in her life. Theology in the church has grown stale, stagnant, and lifeless. Evidence of this, says Daane, is her indifference to the vigorous, challenging religious movements of recent times. The Christian Reformed Church has been largely unmoved and untouched by the current renaissance of biblical and theological studies that has been stimulated by such scholars as Barth, Brunner, Tillich, and others. Daane laments the fact that the Christian Reformed Church, with all her emphasis on theology, “has made no mentionable contribution to this resurgence of theology, and has done nothing to determine its direction.” Accordingly, her theology lacks contemporaneousness and her preaching often lacks relevancy to the great issues of our times.

What can he done about this state of affairs? Daane replies that “our theological plight calls for a fresh reformulation of the theological task and the creation and utilization of a new theological approach achieved in the light of the present and with the aid of what we have Iearned in the past” (Italics added). To be sure, this progress must be based on Scripture. It must be a theology of the Word. “Our theology must stand again in the direct light of the Scripture in order to see new light and in order continually to appraise the truth of her formulations.” Thus it would appear that Daane seeks to reform Reformed theology by pointing the way beyond the old orthodoxy toward a new and better orthodoxy.


Daane contends that the progress of theology in the church has been hindered by the study of theology itself. The Christian Reformed Church has been engaged in the study of theology for theology’s sake and accordingly has given a larger place to Systematic Theology than to Biblical Theology. This emphasis on a system of theology, says Daane, is particularly evident in the attempt to “centralize” theology by positing divine sovereignty as the master concept around which all other truth is arranged and to which all other truths are adjusted. The theological task, thus circumscribed, is limited in potential and has been long since finished. When theology is conceived of in terms of a fixed system of truth, it tends to become “static,” Further development of theology is impossible once theology is regarded as a finished system of truth. Thus theology in the Christian Reformed Church cannot advance beyond itself because it is conceived of abstractly as a closed system.

The Strait Jacket of Ultimate Causality

In keeping with his objection to theology as a system of truth, Daane also objects to the emphasis in Reformed theology on the idea of a plan of God for history according to which God controls everything that comes to pass. “Theological self-reflection upon the accepted central doctrine” (the sovereignty of God) determined the manner in which the counsel of God was defined by the church. “The method which made sovereignty as such the explanation of sin and reprobation, as well as of election, was applied to the counsel of God. Sovereignty per se was now made the explanation of everything, of ‘whatsoever comes to pass.’ Just as sovereignty was reduced to a philosophical concept of causality which made God as sovereign the Ultimate Cause of sin and reprobation, as well as of election, so divine sovereignty was made the Ultimate Cause of whatsoever comes to pass, and whatsoever comes to pass became the Ultimate Expression of God’s Ultimate Will” (p. 9).

Daane’s objection to this idea of God’s counsel as controlling all things follows from the fact that Daane deplores system in theology. System in theology implies that God has interpreted all of reality prior to man’s interpretation and that this interpretation is given in Scripture. God’s prior interpretation implies that for God all the facts are in. This means that God has a plan for history according to which he not only foreordains but also controls history. But for Daane this spells determinism. It also destroys freedom for man because man must move within the circuit of a closed system.

History thus conceived of has no room for genuine human choices, says Daane. Accordingly, here as in A Theology of Grace, he insists that Adam had as great or ultimate a freedom for obedience as for disobedience. He was in the ultimate sense free to sin or not to sin. There was equal ultimacy as to these two possibilities. On the other hand, Daane says that there is no equal ultimacy between the aspect of God’s counsel expressed in reprobation and the aspect of God’s counsel expressed in election. Election and reprobation, he argues, are not equally dependent on the counsel of God. This point fits in with the previous one and implies that abstract possibility is above God as well as man, and that God has to adjust himself to what man will do. Thus Daane’s view of human choice amounts to a rejection of God’s counsel as determining whatsoever comes to pass.

The idea of a plan back of history is for Daane an abstraction. When God’s counsel is conceived of in terms of a rationalized and fixed plan prior to existence, life itself is rendered meaningless. Contrariwise, we hold with Calvin that man’s choices have real significance just because they are within and therefore are subject to the ultimate plan of God. We hold that history has meaning because of the plan of God prior to history. Daane rejects this because for him this is a rationalistic conception of history. We hold that Daane’s conception of history is based on an ultimate irrationalism, and that the basic motif of his theology lies in his conception of history.

The Lure of Existentialism Daane tells us that the staleness of theology in the church is leading some of her more energetic minds to study theology in American and European seminaries and universities and to read the more liberal theological works with the relish of hungry appetites. He predicts that unless a fresh theology is offered before long to students of theology they will learn to relish Barth’s Dogmatik and to devour it without the discriminating taste of a connoisseur who is not hungry.

Daane himself has studied theology at Princeton Theological Seminary in recent years. From his writings from time to time it appears to us that Daane himself has digested some of the more tempting theological dishes offered at Princeton Seminary. On the menu there one finds a dessert called Existentialism, made according to the recipe of Soren Kierkegaard. Daane apparently devoured this with gusto, for in his dissertation, Kierkegaard’s Concept of the Moment, he expressed great appreciation for this existentialist philosopher’s conception of history.1 Kierkegaard does not believe in the God of Scripture. He does not believe in creation or the fall or the incarnation or the resurrection as historical facts. He is strongly opposed to all these truths. For him they form a system of truth. And truth, according to Kierkegaard, is not a system.2 With this in mind it becomes clear that Daane’s opposition to theology as a system of truth (i.e., Systematic Theology) is in line with Kierkegaard’s conception of history. In his Concluding Unscientific Postscript Kierkegaard argues against the existence of absolute truth as something that is discernible anywhere in history.3 And Daane, in rejecting the validity of a system in theology and a plan for history, agrees with Kierkegaard.

Daane too has a “Central Doctrine”

It is, we believe, Daane’s existential view of history that controls his theology. At the center of his view of history is the concept of the Moment. The Moment, as Daane views it, emphasizes the contemporaneousness of God’s relation to man, as distinguished from an eternal relation fixed prior to existence.

Viewed in the light of the Moment, Christian Reformed theology has a built-in staticism. This staticism appears in the traditional formulation of the covenant-idea, where God’s relationship to man is conceived of as an eternal-static relationship based on the decree of God. The church has emphasized the covenant as an eternal arrangement but has neglected its temporal establishment in history. Consequently, whenever the covenant has been preached upon, sinners have not really been confronted at the moment of preaching with a call for a decision to enter the covenant. “The covenant was regarded as at each moment eternal, so that the establishment of the covenant in history was regarded simply as a repetition of divine actions in successive moments. In this repetition of divine actions in successive moments, no moment of establishment (for example, the moment of Abraham or the moment of Gentile entrance) was any more (or less!) Significant than any other moment (for instance, the moment of Christ)” (p. 12).4

It is clear that Daane emphasizes the temporal relationship of God to man in the covenant as established in history in Christ. Here we meet the central point in Daane’s theology. His controlling concept is his (or Kierkegaard’s?) concept of the Moment, according to which God’s relationship to man is a temporal-dynamic, contemporaneous event. Daane’s most basic principle of interpretation, accordingly, is the Moment of Christ, viewed as the temporal relation of God to man in Christ.

Christocentric Fascination

In keeping with this motif Daane pleads for “a theology of Jesus Christ.” He contends that if we are to avoid an unbiblical theology we must not define sovereignty, election, covenant, abstractly in terms of God alone but concretely in terms of Jesus Christ. Sovereignty must not be thought of as God’s power as such but as the Lordship of Christ. Election must be thought of not in terms of God’s decree but in terms of Christ our Lord in whom our election takes place. “Had Christ been given preeminence in all things: He would then have been recognized as the central truth of Scripture, as the center of God’s counsel, as the supreme revelation of God’s ultimate will, and therefore as the Truth in reference to which other doctrines must be seen and understood” (p. 12).

Had the church centered her attention on Scripture instead of on Systematic Theology “the sovereignty of God would have been understood less abstractly and more intimately and concretely in terms of the Lordship of Christ, which is to say, in terms of God’s Elect, rather than in terms of election and reprobation abstractly understood apart from Christ” (p.12).

All this at first appears very plausible, but it is nevertheless expressive of the weak point in Daane’s theology. It is clear that Daane identifies the sovereignty of God with the Lordship of Christ and substitutes for God’s decree of election God’s relationship in Christ to us. This method is characteristic of Daane’s theology as a whole. What God is and does has significance for Daane only in reference to what God is and does in Christ.

Now we may ask. Is there no God apart from Jesus Christ? And does not this God exist in and by himself from all eternity prior to and independently of his relationship to man in Christ? These questions call be truly answered in the affirmative only if we make the self-contained trinity our starting point in theology. Daane does not do this. He does not begin with God as he is in himself but with God as he is in Jesus Christ. Daane himself tells us this in A Theology of Grace. “It is indeed true that no principle that violates the equal ultimacy of the one-many character of the nature of God can claim to be a Christian principle of interpretation. But it is quite the worst kind of abstractionism to make this principle. in distinction from all others, the most basic principle of interpretation….Is not the revelation of God in Christ the Christian’s most basic principle of interpretation?”5 It is clear now that Daane rejects the idea of the self-contained God (ontological trinity) as his basic principle and substitutes God’s relation to man as revealed in Christ (economical trinity). The same is true of dialectical theology. Barth and Brunner both identify God’s intertrinitarian activity with his works of creation, providence, and redemption. Both reject the idea of God as he is in himself, except as a limiting concept.6 For them the idea of God as he is in himself is merely complementary to the idea of God as he is in Christ. Barth conceives of God exclusively in terms of his relation to man in Christ. “Barth’s main principle is the revelation of God in Christ: to the exclusion of the God who exists from all eternity within himself, independently of his relation to the world.”7

Which Orthodoxy?

Daane has obviously constructed his theology around a central principle taken from dialectical theology. In this Daane has followed Kierkegaard who abhorred the idea of a God who exists apart from Christ. For Kierkegaard God is nothing but what he is in relation to man in Christ. In contrast to this, Reformed theology maintains that it is only if we take as our starting point for theology the concept of God as he exists within himself, independently of his relation to the world, that we can avoid the idea of a finite God. For it is primarily in the idea of a self0-contained triune God that we meet God as a Spirit who is infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in his Being and attributes.

This brings us to our conclusion, that Daane’s “Theology of Jesus Christ” is not purely a biblical theology but a rational theology taken partly from the Bible and partly from Existentialism. Daane has attempted to save both theology and history from rationalism by means of his theology of Jesus Christ. But if the reality and significance of the historical moment are maintained at the expense of the self-contained God of the Scriptures, the Christ of the Scriptures then disappears. History is actually impossible on the basis of Daane’s view. For unless the self-contained God and therefore the plan of God is back of all that takes place in history, all existence vanishes into the outer space of unrelated irrationalism.

Daane’s “new theological approach” would lead the Christian Reformed Church not in the direction of orthodoxy but of neo-orthodoxy. For all his insistence upon the need of a purely biblical theology as over against a systematic theology, Daane himself has not derived his idea of God and hence his theology exclusively from the Scriptures.

True reformation, the reformation we need today as ever, must be a reformation within the bounds of Scripture, not a reformation beyond Scripture.

1. C. Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, Philadelphia, 1955, p. 207.

2. Idem, p. 208.

3. See C. Van Til, op. cit., pp. 208ff.

4. Cf. Daane, Kierkegaard’s Concept of the Moment, quotation in C. Van Til, op. cit., p. 213.

5. James, Daane, A Theology of Grace, Grand Rapids, 1954, p. 103.

6. Limiting concept—a principle which cannot stand alone, perform duty by itself.

7. C. Van Til, op. cit., p. 411.