The March 1965 issue of the popular Missionary Monthly contains a courageous editorial entitled “The Widening Gulf Between the Pulpit and the Pew.” Its author, the Reverend G. De Witt, finds that gulf in Protestant churches in general and in his own denomination, the Reformed Church in America, in particular. “The pew” is said to distrust “the pulpit” because of a liberalizing trend in the latter. The telling conclusion is reached: “There is a ray of hope and this lies in the people who man the pews. Will they raise their voices? Will they demand an accounting, or be led as sheep to the slaughter?”
What the Situation Is
I second De Witt’s motion and am constrained to add that the distrust spoken of by him has invaded the Christian Reformed Church also. So patent is that fact that few, if indeed any, members of the Christian Reformed Church who have their eyes and their ears open will care to dispute it. Not all will admit that there is good reason for “the pew” to distrust “the pulpit,” but even those who contend that such distrust is unreasonable will have to admit its existence.
Here are some of the things that bother and, I dare say, not without reason, a considerable segment of our “laity,” if in the interest of convenience I may use an admittedly debatable term.
Although the World Council of Churches undeniably harbors, and even honors, deniers of such cardinal Christian truths as that of the Holy Trinity and that of the substitutionary atonement, some of am leaders have expressed themselves as being in sympathy with the position prevalent in “de Gereformeerde Kerken” of Holland, that from the viewpoint of principle it is, to say the least, permissible for a Reformed Church to unite with that Council.
Although beyond doubt all of our ministers are agreed that the Bible is the one infallible rule for faith and practice, it is difficult to suppress the question whether we can be altogether certain that all of them subscribe to the proposition that the Bible is inerrant and infallible in all that it tells us, even on matters that bear only indirectly and slightly on Christian belief or Christian practice, and that therefore, in the words of Article IV of our Confession of Faith, “nothing can be alleged against” either the Old Testament or the New.
While undoubtedly the Christian Reformed Church is on Scriptural ground when it teaches that God loves all men and in perfect sincerity offers salvation to all to whom the gospel comes, and those who deny these truths are in serious error, do not some of our leaders of late present those truths in such a manner as to do violence to the special love of God for his elect and the saving grace bestowed by God on the elect alone and, therefore, to the five points of Calvinism?
While not one of our leaders proclaims with Karl Barth that all men are elected in Christ and that Christ became reprobate for all men, so that by the death of Christ the reprobation or rejection of each and every man was nullified, and that the function of the gospel is to inform all men of that fact, does not the teaching of some of our leaders that Christ died redemptively for everybody and that it is the prime duty of the preacher of the gospel to so inform everybody, come dangerously close to Barth’s position?
Our laymen by and large are firmly convinced that the historicity of the first few chapters of Genesis rules out all evolutionism, but they wonder whether some of our teachers do not interpret these chapters in such a way as to leave room for so-called theistic evolution.
Our laymen have heard it said by those who ought to know that in the estimation of some of our prospective ministers the theology of Kuyper, Bavinck, Warfield and Vos is largely out of date and that our own Berkhof was little more than a traditionalist.
While likely no Christian Reformed layman would care to charge anyone of our teachers or preachers with communism, many of our laymen are convinced that by advocating a welfare state some of our teachers and preachers have taken a step, and a big one, in the direction of socialism.
Many of our laymen are wondering whether all of our leaders are upholding the emphatic Scriptural teaching of the antithesis of the regenerate and the unregenerate, believers and unbelievers.
In consequence of the foregoing a truly disturbing situation obtains in the Christian Reformed Church. I shall describe it in simple terms. Every once in a while I am consulted by elders of churches which are in process of calling a pastor. Frankly, often I find such interviews annoying, and I am sure that often the elders concerned find me annoyingly uncommunicative. I have a way an such occasions of skipping censure and confining myself to praise. However, one fact has struck me and remained with mc. Almost invariably the chief concern of the elders is not the likelihood of securing a pastor soon, nor the talents of their pastor-to-be, nor yet his personality, but his doctrinal soundness. Now about that there is indeed something disturbing. Time was, not many years ago, when the complete doctrinal soundness of practically every Christian Reformed minister was taken for granted by the entire denomination. Exceedingly sad to say, that is not the case today. To put the matter mildly, many of our laymen think there exist among our ministers -for that matter, among our professors too -differing degrees of doctrinal soundness.
What the Situation Requires
What should be the attitude of the Church, particularly of its leaders, to our disturbed laymen?
To ignore them would be most unrealistic and the height of folly. To heap scorn upon them by labeling them “ignoramuses” or “extremists” or “fanatics” or “heresy-hunters” or “hate-mongers” would be not only unkind but decidedly un-Christian. Many of them have considerable erudition, and those who have had little or no formal education may not on that account be treated disrespectfully. To question their sincerity would amount to judging where only God can judge. Difficult though it may be, we must love our critics. To love them when they are right may require a special effort.
But our laymen may well need guidance, for they are beset by perils, some of which I shall name. They are in danger of traditionalism, a clinging to the old for no other reason than that it is old, a rejecting of the new for no other reason than that it is new. That is quite unworthy of a Reformed Church, for, as an old saying has it, a Church is truly Reformed only if it keeps reforming. Such traditionalism even savors of Pharisaism. There is also the danger of “suspicionism,” if I may coin a word. It is the attitude of finding, or at least looking for, a heretic behind every shrub in the ecclesiastical garden and of placing the worst possible construction on every sound that issue… from a suspect. Further there is the danger of personal prejudice. One does not particularly like, let us say, the person of one’s pastor. In fact, one definitely dislikes some of his traits of character. That is not necessarily sinful for on occasion, especially under criticism, some pastors can be a bit difficult. But when one feels thus toward his pastor one may well watch his step lest he be unduly critical of the man’s theology. And always present is the danger of orthodoxism or dead orthodoxy, a forgetting that truth is unto goodness and that truth is not only to be believed and confessed but also to be practiced. He who forgets that may speak the truth but is hardly qualified to do so in love.
Certainly, all of us must pray and work for the peace of Jerusalem. However, in doing so may we be kept from that colossal blunder which has sent more churches than one down the road to ruin. I have reference to striving for peace at the expense of truth. The Word of God commands us: “Love truth and peace” (Zech. 8:19). Truth comes first. Truth is prerequisite to peace. True peace is rooted in truth. Peace divorced from truth is the peace of the cemetery, not of Christ’s Church.
There is, then, a positive rule of the greatest importance for dealing with a troubled laity. It must always be dealt with in honesty so complete and so evident that there is no room for suspicion. Needless to say, any attempt to deceive God’s people is in God’s sight an abomination. But even the appearance of deception must be avoided. That means, among other things, that, in case a minister or a teacher comes to the conclusion that the doctrinal standards of the Church are in error on a point of any significance at all, he must adhere strictly to the promise made by him when he signed the Form of Subscription. That form reads: “We, the undersigned, do hereby, sincerely and in good conscience before the Lord, declare by this our subscription that we heartily believe and are persuaded 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 of the aforesaid doctrine made by the National Synod of Dordrecht, 1618–19, do full y agree with the Word of God. We promise, therefore, diligently to teach and faithfully to defend the aforesaid doctrine, without either directly or indirectly contradicting the same by our public teaching or writing. We declare, moreover, that we not only reject all errors that militate against this doctrine and particularly those which were condemned by the above mentioned Synod, but that we arc disposed to refute and contradict these, and to exert ourselves in keeping the Church free from such errors. And if hereafter any difficulties or different sentiments respecting the aforesaid doctrines should arise in our minds, we promise that we will neither publicly nor privately propose, teach, or defend the same, either by preaching or writing, until we have first revealed such sentiments to the Consistory, Classis, or Synod, under the penalty in case of refusal, to be, by that very fact, suspended from our office.”
It is not at all difficult to think of several concrete examples of the point at issue. I shall elaborate on just two. In the first place, it is an undeniable fact that within “de Gereformeerde Kerken” of The Netherlands there are professors of theology who call into serious question the doctrine of reprobation as taught in the Canons of Dort, First Head of Doctrine, Articles 6 and 15. They themselves have said so. If there are among those of us in the Christian Reformed Church who have Signed the Form of Subscription such as have misgivings concerning that doctrine, they too should reveal that fact, and they should do so without any beating around the bush and in strict accord with the procedure prescribed in that pledge. Thus the Church would be compelled to face and to answer the question whether or not the doctrine concerned as set forth in the Canons is in harmony with Holy Scripture.
Here is a second example. The February 1965 issue of The Reformed Journal contains an article, “Another Look at Common Grace”, written by Dr. James Daane in defense of the teaching of Professor Harold Dekker of Calvin Seminary, that the grace of God is one. Rejecting the distinction between saving grace and non-saving grace, Daane contends that God bestows the same grace on all who hear the gospel and that, whatever the reason may be for the fact that some, and only some, who hear the gospel are saved, it is not true that God sovereignly imparts qualitatively distinctive, efficacious, saving grace to some, and some only, namely the elect. Thus Daane admittedly contradicts the Christian Reformed Synod of 1959, which said: “The doctrine of irresistible grace would indeed be jeopardized, if we held that the grace shown the elect is the same as that shown to creatures in general. We would then be guilty of the error of the Arminians, who teach that all men enjoy the same grace.” It is clear that Daane also Contradicts the Synod of 1924, which stated: “Concerning the favorable attitude of God toward mankind in general and not only toward the elect, the Synod declares that it is certain, on the ground of Scripture and the Confession, that there is, besides the saving grace of God, shown only to those chosen unto eternal life, also a certain favor or grace of God which He shows to all His creatures.” Now to contradict a Synod is not in every instance serious. However, what makes these contradictions serious indeed is the fact that they entail contradiction of the Canons of Dort, one of the Church’s doctrinal standards. The Canons employ the term “saving grace” and make mention of those “to whom this grace is not given” ( I II and IV, 5, 7). They speak of “the grace of election” (I, 15, 18 ), “the grace of regeneration” (III and IV, 16), “the grace of conversion” (I, 15). Obviously, the grace of election is not bestowed on the non-elect, the grace of regeneration is not bestowed on those who remain unregenerate, and the grace of .conversion is not bestowed on those who continue unconverted. Of course, Dr. Daane has the right to petition the Church to subject the teaching of the Canons, as well as his own, to the test of Scripturalness; but is it not evident that the solemn vow made by him when he signed the Form of Subscription ought to have kept him from advocating, as he is now doing, his own view, at grave odds as it is with the Canons? The recommendation of the 1924 Synod that further study ought to be made of the doctrine of common grace was, no doubt, in order, and Dr. Daane, as well as Dr. Cornelius Van Til, may well be credited with a serious attempt in that direction, but there certainly is no justification for open violence to the very heart of the Canons—particular grace.
A warning may well be added. In dealing with an aroused laity a Church ought by all means to give heed. to a lesson of history. Historically, heresy has usually, although not always, arisen with the clergy, not the laity; and truth has been upheld against error frequently, although not always, by the laity rather than the clergy. The Christian Reformed Church owes much to both “de Afscheiding” of 1834 and “de Doleantie” of 1886. The former was a movement largely of “kleine luyden” and, although the latter was under more highly educated leadership, in it too laymen played a very important part. Such having been the case in the past, it behooves a Church today to be slow to dismiss as groundless, fears on the part of the laity concerning the matter of doctrinal soundness. To use a graphic Dutch expression, often the laity has highly sensitive “voelhorens.” It also follows that a seemingly absurd question raised in a recent issue of The Presbyterian Journal and discussed by Dr. Jerome De Jong in the March number of the Missionary Monthly is in reality anything but absurd. The question is how a student in one of today’s seminaries can keep the faith. De Jong feels sure that in such liberal or neo-orthodox institutions as Harvard Divinity School, Chicago Divinity School, Union Seminary of New York, and Princeton Theological Seminary this must be difficult. He intimates that perhaps even Calvin Seminary and Western Seminary are not doing al} that they ought to be doing to establish their students in the Reformed faith and to enthuse them for it.
When the Jewish Sanhedrin was sitting in judgment on certain “unlearned. and ignorant men” (Acts 4:13) who were boldly indicting the religious leaders of that day and by so doing were disturbing the peace of the Church, a wise member gave the court some excellent advice. Spoke Gamaliel: “Take heed to yourselves as touching these men, what ye are about to do….Refrain from these men and let them alone: for if this counsel or this work be of men, it will be overthrown; but if it is of God, ye will not be able to overthrow them, Jest haply ye be found even to be fighting against God” (Acts 5:35, 38, 39). However much our case admittedly differs from that, there may well be a lesson here for us.
Throughout the churches in our day there is a renewed emphasis on the role which the Christian “layman” is called to play in the service of the Lord Jesus Christ. This is a major theme discussed both by Protestant and Roman Catholic churchmen. But as this emphasis is more strongly made, we find growing dissatisfaction among the laity (a term which is actually foreign to Reformed thought but used for want a better one) with the church.
In this article Prof. R.B. Kuiper, one-time president of Calvin Seminary, Grand Rapids, MI, analyzes this dissatisfaction which at times manifests distrust and suggests how the church should face it.