Christian Reformed Theology Through Daane’s Spectacles

James Daane does not claim to have “20-20 vision, nor a comparable analytical perceptiveness.” In view of what Daane sees in Christian Reformed theology one can do nothing other than agree with that statement. At the same time one cannot help wondering about the kind of spectacles Daane wears in his theological perception.

To be sure, Daane does not have zero vision, not even with the strange spectacles he wears. He sees certain things in the Christian Reformed theological world that all would do well to see. He sees “staticism” in his church’s theology. Maybe there is truth in that charge. The church should always examine herself to make sure that she has not sunk into this dangerous inertia. Possibly as the church ceases to quote Kuyper and Bavinck with enthusiasm and devotion, she has not discovered a new and vital existential orientation.

Daane sees “subservience to institutionalism.” There may be truth in that charge also. A church always courts the danger of putting the peace and prosperity of her institutions at such a high price that any disturbing of the peace is frowned upon. He who questions an accepted formulation or an accepted manner of doing things is soon labeled a troublemaker.

Furthermore, Daane is to be commended for taking a long, critical look at the theological situation in the church. Such self-analysis is usually wholesome. The Christian Reformed Church is known for her theological steadfastness. Does this steadfastness suffer from what Daane calls “theological self-fascination”? Daane raises an interesting question here, whatever one may think of his analysis of the matter.



Such things Daane sees. They are not phantoms. They are very likely quite real. But with the theological spectacles he uses Daane sees these things in astigmatic vision. He doesn’t see them clearly. They are seen in distortion.

Daane gives much space in his evaluation to the views of Hoeksema and C. Van Til. The latter’s thinking was the subject of Daane’s book “A Theology of Grace” published in 1954. His sharply critical appraisal of the thinking of Hoeksema and Van Til serves as a kind of backdrop for the Christian Reformed theological scene as viewed through Daane’s spectacles. That being the case, we are justified in asking how accurate and convincing Daane’s critique of Van Til was in 1954. If that critique was valid and convincing, then we have a prejudice in favor of the validity of Daane’s recent evaluation of Christian Reformed theology.

Have we such a prejudice favoring the accuracy of Daane’s evaluation of Christian Reformed theology in his critique of Van Til? The present writer would answer with a definite “No.” In fact, Daane’s 1954 effort suffered from precisely the same serious fault that his latest effort reveals. In support of this appraisal of Daane’s 1954 effort the review by Dr. S. J. Ridderbos in Daane’s own paper The Reformed Journal (February 1955) is very pointed. This significant review criticizes Daane’s book on Van Til with phrases like these: “Daane has wrongly interpreted the sentence in question” . . . “wholly forced interpretation” . . . “similarly forced impression” . . . “seems unfair to me to freight a sentence made in passing, and in another connection, so heavily, and to hang so much upon it” . . . “unnecessarily sharp” . . . “looks for hidden meanings” . . . “proves too much.” Ridderbos makes the following summary judgment on Daane’s treatment of Van Til “My criticism, moreover, continually comes down to the same thing: Daane casts himself repeatedly upon a single sentence of Van Til, interprets such an isolated passage wrongly in many instances, in my opinion, and then arrives (often in an original manner) at his little convincing vIsion on the whole of Van Til’s thought.”

These things are not recalled with any particular relish. It was felt to be necessary to do so in view of Daane’s use of Van Til in his recent critique of Christian Reformed theology. For what it is worth, the fact is adduced that the present writer agreed with the above evaluation by Ridderbos (Calvin Forum, April 1955).

Theology in Distortion

The distorting vision that was involved in Daane’s study of Van Til is also at work in his critique of Christian Reformed theology. There are especially three points where Daane’s astigmatism is evident.

The first illustration of Daane’s defective vision is apparent in his charge that sovereign election has not been sufficiently expressed “in terms of Christ as Lord in whom our election takes place, but in terms of God’s sovereignty as expressed in terms of both an election and reprobation apart from Christ” (p. 7). Here Daane has a curious footnote, and a revealing one. He says in the footnote, ‘“Thus, just as it discusses divine sovereignty before it discusses Christ, Berkhof’s Systematic Theology discusses predestination, including both election and reprobation, in its first loci where it treats the subject of God, before it discusses the person and work of Christ.”

One is somewhat amazed at all of this. As a matter of fact, Berkhof does not treat sovereign election apart from Christ, as a study of his work (pages 113ff.) clearly shows. And as to the charge that Berkhof treats predestination before he treats the person and work of Christ the question is properly asked if Berkhof is not true to the order of things in the Belgic Confession and the Canons of Dort, to which confessional statements Berkhof must adhere. One cannot escape the impression that Berkhof was quite true to the biblical emphasis in the matter of sovereign election and Christ’s place in that election. In this connection we refer also to what Anthony A. Hoekema has recently pointed out, namely, that Herman Bavinck has stressed the point that election is in Christ, according to the teaching of Ephesians 1:4.1

Daane’s free-swinging generalizations declare further at this point that because election has been construed mainly in terms of divine sovereignty, the fact of the lordship of Christ over all of life has not come into its own in the theology and life of the Christian Reformed Church. This strikes one as being another instance of what Ridderbos referred to, putting far too much freight on a point, a point seen in distortion in the first place. And it should be added that, if the present writer is not sorely mistaken, there is much evidence of stress on the lordship or kingship of Christ over all of life among those who are sympathetic to Van Til and Berkhof.

The present writer would not be understood as saying that theology has said all that is to be said on what it means to be elect “in Christ.” By no means. This is without doubt a very rich aren for sound reflection. But Daane is saying more than this. He is pushing the point out of biblical and confessional focus. Where he would go with this point he does not make clear in his very general treatment.

Distortion No. 2

Daane’s notions as to the “antithesis” are puzzling. He charges that there is present in the Christian Reformed Church an “abstract and static conception” of the antithesis. And this means that “the world is eternally divided. into eternally warring halves engaged in an eternal conflict in which there is no victory because no decisive battle is ever waged. This conception of the antithesis is wholly static because it is defined apart from Christ and His victorious death and resurrection. Indeed, in this view Christ is merely the executive of this antithesis, not the Savior of the world who abolishes death, sets the devil at naught, and takes away the sins of the world.”

One hardly knows what to make of such a statement, characterized as it is by reckless language. A careful reading of the statement by any intelligent reader should make further comment unnecessary. Let these few observations suffice. In the first place Daane’s use of the words “eternally” and “eternal” is reckless. Although the antithesis must always be viewed against the background of God’s selective grace, the antithesis as such is always regarded as an historical conflict involving living beings.

In the second place we note the fact that after Daane has described the antithesis as an “eternal conflict” he proceeds to condemn “this conception,” as if to suggest that he is thereby condemning the Christian Reformed idea of the antithesis. He is only condemning his own false statement of it. What Christian Reformed person who does any thinking at all regards the antithesis as n conflict in which “no decisive battle is ever waged,” and as “apart from Christ and His victorious death and resurrection?” From the very beginning (Genesis 3:15) the antithesis was related to Christ and his victory over Satan. The very existence of the Church through all the ages is evidence of the victory of the Mediator of the Covenant of Grace. Furthermore, it is just because Christ has redeemed him that the child of God is called upon to engage in holy warfare for Christ and his kingdom. The apostles are sent forth to evangelize the world just because all authority has been given to the victorious Christ. And the Christian does battle for Christ in the rewarding assurance of eschatological finality, when the King of kings will rule over the new heavens and the new earth.

Then there is, in the third place, the question raised by the last sentence of the paragraph quoted above. Daane feels that the Christian Reformed idea of the antithesis (as he understands that idea) does not do justice to the fact that Jesus Christ is “the Savior of the world who abolishes death, sets the devil at naught and takes away the sin of the world.” What does he mean to say here? Does he mean to say that Christ has really done away with the antithesis? We are reminded of a passage in Daane’s book on Van Til where we read the following: “Is the Christian witness a testimony to the antithesis, or to the fact that the antithesis has in principle been overcome by Christ? Is the gospel a gospel of antithesis or a gospel of reconciliation?” (p. 85).

Here is confusion indeed. The antithesis is always between believers and unbelievers, between the redeemed and the unredeemed, between the church and the world. The reconciliation wrought by Christ on the cross does not refer to this conflict between believer and unbeliever, but rather refers to the breach of sin and judgment between the holy God and sinful man (see II Corinthians 5:18–21). Christ’s saving work did not accomplish reconciliation between the church and the world, between the redeemed and tIle unredeemed. That antithesis still stands and will stand to the end of time. Then the sheep will finally be separated from the goats and the sound of the battle of the church will no longer be heard. And in the meantime what is the assurance of the soldier of the Cross? A centuries-old victory cry goads him on: In hoc signa vinces. That old Latin battle-cry means: In this sign you will conquer. That sign is the Cross of Christ.

Distortion No. 3

Daane’s distorting vision is nowhere more obvious than it is in his description of the concept of the “sovereignty of God” as related particularly to election and reprobation. This concept, so precious to the Christian of sound Reformed persuasion, is seen in distortion by Daane as follows: “Yet it was not always observed that a sovereignty which in and of and by itself explains both sin and righteousness, election and reprobation, is a sovereignty without any essential ethical character. Such sovereignty is an unqualified, naked power, a brute fact.”

It is to be noted that Daane finds such a notion of God’s sovereignty in the thinking of Van Til and Hoeksema. In view of Daane’s persistent misunderstanding and misrepresentntion of Van Til (also in the section on this question in the article now under consideration) we can dismiss his criticisms so far as Van Til is concerned. And we are not minded to enter into his evaluation of Hoeksema, even though Daane’s remarks on the precise point in question would seem to have a measure of validity.

We are concerned now with the theology of the Christian Reformed Church. And there seems little reason to doubt that Daane’s description of God’s sovereignty in election and reprobation as naked, brute, unethical force can be quickly dismissed as a monstrous distortion. The present writer grew up in the Christian Reformed Church. He has had his catechetical training under her tutelage and he has had more than one solid course in Reformed doctrine in her schools. A sovereignty “in and of and by itself” did not occur in that instruction; this abstraction is Daane’s invention. Always God’s sovereign decrees and works were placed in relation to all of God’s holy perfections, his attributes. Always the net result of such instruction was a strong compulsion on the student to fall down in humble adoration before the Living God, who is “eternal, incomprehensible, invisible, immutable, infinite, almighty, perfectly wise, just, good, and the overflowing fountain of all good” (Confession of Faith, I). And the writer would add that his training in Westminster Theological Seminary (Dr. Van Til’s classes included ) produced nothing that in any way altered the impact of his training in the Christian Reformed Church. Rather, that impact was refined and enriched.

Daane’s casting of the teaching of the sovereignty of God in an extreme supralapsarian mold is a gross distortion of Christian Reformed theology. Our God is unspeakably and unceasingly holy. Never at any point is that glorious fact forgotten or ignored in Reformed theology. Whatever problems or questions arise in our theological reflections, God is always God in the totality of his holy perfections.

The Focal Point of True Piety

In conclusion, the relation between theology and piety deserves mention. In the great theologians of the church one always detects a close, yes indissoluble, tie between theological reflection and piety. This intimate bond is evident in the writings of Paul, Augustine, Calvin, Kuyper, Bavinck, Machen. And there should be such a tie. A true child of God is conscious of his utter dependence on God’s grace and of his solemn duties of love and gratitude at all times, whether he is at worship or sits in his study.

And what is the focal point of true piety? It is that at which the child of God flows in humble adoration and simple trust before the living, almighty, and sovereign triune God who is altogether holy, righteous, just, and loving. His piety is one of loving obedience to God through Jesus Christ, his Savior and Lord.

After the apostle Paul has dwelt at length on God’s sovereign works in the election of his people and the rejection of those on whom he has not placed his love, he concludes his great discourse with a magnificent doxology in which the depths of theology and piety are perfectly fused.

God’s works of sovereign grace call forth this grand declaration: “O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and the knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past tracing out! For who hath known the mind of the Lord? or who hath been his counselor? or who hath first given to him, and it shall be recompensed unto him again? For of him, and through him, and unto him, are all things. To him be the glory for ever. Amen” ( Romans 11:33–36).

Daane’s distorted vision of the sovereignty of God not only throws the theological picture out of focus. It also seriously distorts that blessed and robust godliness which is the focal point of true piety.

In Conclusion

In calling attention to Daane’s distorted perspective on Christian Reformed theology the writer does not mean to suggest that be is completely satisfied with the state of theology in the Church. Not at all. As intimated in the introductory part of this article, there are areas where one can readily share Daane’s concern for the vital character of the theological life of the Church.

However, if we are to make progress toward a more vital theology, a theology that is more existentially pertinent, then we shall have to begin with a true and sound understanding of what the Church has today. And that true and sound understanding is lacking in Daane’s evaluation, as this article has tried to point out. Daane’s distortions and free-swinging generalizations are of little help in meeting the ever-present challenge to the development of a more truly biblical, Reformed, and living theology.

In the end one aspect of proper concern for the state of theology in the Church deserves mention. That concern has to do with the character of the spectacles through which Daane views the theological scene. A person can’t help wondering; just where did Daane get those spectacles? [For the answer to this question read Rev. Joseph A. Hill’s article in the January issue on: A Re-formed Reformed Theology. –H. J. K.]

1. The Reformed Journal, June 1957; p.18.