MEN OF THE GRAND RAPIDS LEAGUE OF REFORMED MEN’S SOCIETIES,
GUESTS AND FRIENDS,
This is a truly imposing sight, this mighty gathering of men we have here this evening in this Grandville Ave. Christian Reformed Church. Men confessing the Christ of God to be the Savior of their hearts and Sovereign of their lives!
What is it really, men, that we are experiencing here tonight? Is it a mere collection of individuals? No, much more than that. A manifestation of the Kingdom of the Most High God. The Body of Christ. Communion of the Saints. Union. The City of God. Never forget it, men. We in America especially are inclined to think too exclusively in terms of single individuals. God does not. Individualism is not a Scriptural view of human life. OUR God is Jehovah, God of the covenant. His law unites us as acceptance of the law of the land constitutes us a nation. Do we not experience that afresh each Lord’s Day morning? The Savior also prayed, “That they all may be one, as Thou, Father, art in me and I in Thee.” The Spirit unites us, as Body, to one Head…Such community is being expressed here tonight in your coming together as the Grand Rapids League of Reformed Men’s Societies. Indeed, it is an imposing sight.
To stand here before you is for me a stirring experience. Some of you know me as a relative new-comer to the Christian Reformed Church. In the American church world in which I grew up little or nothing was known of Christianity as a life-and world-view. Everything there was concentrated upon the soul’s eternal salvation—the heart of the matter, to be sure, but a heart without a body is a poor spectacle indeed and goes against nature. Think of Hebrews 6:1 where we are commanded to “leave the doctrine of the first principles of Christ and to press on to full growth; not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works, and of faith toward God.” In fundamentalism our thoughts were constantly being directed within, to an analysis of our feelings. Introspective old ladies and frustrated younger ones were conspicuous in our services. And then I came by God’s grace to know of Calvinism. Of Calvinism as a principle of life, as a life-system. Then I saw not only the necessity of having a new heart, but the gracious possibility of serving the Lord in the world. I felt a responsibility of finding out the meaning of God’s word-revelation for each and every life-situation. Christianity was no longer for me an unwholesome turning within, it became a daily walking—everywhere in my life—before the face of Jehovah.
O, that such a reformation as came to me might come to Christians all over this great land! Now the energies in my life emanating from the Spirit of God were released from being consumed in inner searchings and wrestlings, in doubts and fears, and were concentrated upon the service of God in the land of the living. Christ now was to me not a way out of this world, but the Way in the world. Calvinism had shown me Christianity as an all-embracing way of life, as revelation from God upon and for this life; revelation that would point the way for the righteous man in any situation he might ever encounter in his busy-ness out in the world. God’s truth, I saw, was a religion for men. For men like David, and Daniel. What instrument had God used to work this change in me? Men of the Christian Reformed Church, men who had enjoyed the benefits of God’s manifold blessings bestowed upon the Dutch Calvinists in the nineteenth century. And here I am privileged this night to stand before this Grand Rapids League of Reformed Men’s Societies, to see before me, in this concrete form, the heritage of our great Reformed Fathers in the faith. It is, I repeat, an uncommonly stirring experience.
Yet, it is not an unmixed exhilaration that I feel as I stand here before you tonight. One would have to be as good as dead not to be sensible of the crisis which the life of our men’s societies is passing through. Grave is me question that has to be put: W’hat has happened to our inheritance? What have we done to it? Where have we gone wrong? Everywhere about me I hear troubled voices, questioning, doubting, almost despairing. I am told that only about 5% of the men of our churches participate in the society life. I know something of the day in which the after-coffee part of the evening is provided for. Perhaps we might just as well put it this way: it is always a desperate headache to know whom to get for a speaker, and it is the available persons rather than where you are in the study of a program of principles that determines your choice. Persons are in the foreground. It is usually assumed that the person’s principles are in agreement with Reformed truth—no, not even that is always the case, as I have seen—but what is assumed is not expressed, not put out in the foreground. It is not the principal standpoint which stands out in the program, but the individual’s experiences. Neither is there any connection from week to…week. In The Netherlands one would say of our programs: “Man, er zit geen lijn in.” That is to say, You can’t see any positive, constant line of development in the programs. The programs do not build up the members in a systematic understanding of the meaning of Reformed religion for our many life-situations. To put it briefly, and perhaps roughly, but not incorrectly, the charge would sound like this: You do not think or proceed principally.
Now such a charge may very well be just. For certainly one of the most fundamental characteristics of Americans generally is their inability to think principally, out of a principle or starting-point. It is no accident tint America produced the philosophy of pragmatism: for all Americans really think pragmatically instead of principally, That is, Americans ask, How does it work? What are its effects, its consequences? instead of starting from a principle, a beginning-point that determines how you go from that first step onwards, And it just possible that we Reformed Christians who live in America have, in our process of Americanization, picked up this way of thinking from the whole American wav of life which is everywhere about us. I fear indeed that it is so. Just check yourself, ask yourself whether, in thinking about h ow our Christian schools are to be governed—by a society or a consistory—whether you ask if God’s revealed truth contains that which suggests the answer to such a question or whether you begin by examining certain observable practical effects of the one system, and, upon finding them undesirable, take the sovereign liberty, without consulting the Sovereign God, of recommending a change. Are there divine ordinances for human society, or is it permitted to us humans to figure out a way by our own thinking and experimenting? Again, take the question, how we Christians are to approach the area of politics. Do we ask ourselves what God’s Word directs us to, or do we by our own thinking try to find out how we can best hope to get into an influential position, given the existing circumstances? But may not God’s Word provide a criticism and require a reformation of just those existing circumstances? In these two instances you see the difference between thinking out from an authoritative starting-point, which is what is meant by principal thinking, and thinking pragmatically from the point of view of possible consequences. The latter asks, Will it succeed, judged from an analysis of factors that can be weighed by humans? The former, Will the blessing of God rest upon it because we have faithfully followed the principles of the Word of God? There’s the difference. And I said a moment ago, It may just be that in our process of Americanization we have, all unnoticed, made the fateful transition from principal thinking to pragmatic thinking’ from possible consequences.
Now pragmatism arose as a way of thinking in America after and because the authoritative Word of God was no longer believed in. There simply was no authoritative starting-point, no principle, that commanded men’s belief. Faith in the Word of God being lacking, men developed a confident faith in their independent ability to solve all problems by the try-it.out-and-see-how-it-works method. Any problem not capable of being solved in this manner—that is, most problems dealing with ultimate issues—are simply declared by these self-styled sovereign men to be unmeaningful. This pragmatic belief is what in the Scriptures is called unbelief. The antithesis of true and false faith.
Let us not therefore be all too quick about dispensing with this reaction of an imaginary Dutch Calvinist to our after-coffee programs. The matter is far too serious for that. His charge, “dat er geen lijn in zit” may represent not so much a clash of personality-types, or a supposedly, relatively innocent clash between a tradition·bound European and an open-minded, progressive American. Not so much a possibly troublesome difference of national cultures. It may rather indicate the difference, in that which is the root of all cultures, of two basic faiths men live by, The difference between submissive, obedient thinking and rebellious, disobedient thinking, between a Christian awareness of how to tackle these matters and an anti-Christian life and world-view. It may be, in other words, not the difference between a Dutch Calvinist and an American Calvinist but between a Dutch Calvinist and a pseudo-Calvinistic American. It may be that we in the Christian Reformed Church have been bitten more severely than we realize by the American pragmatic bug. At least, our after-coffee programs do not speak loudly of our sense of responsibility in finding out by diligent study what God’s Word has to say about our life in the world.
But that is, after all, how we got our men’s societies. The distinctive thing about Calvinism is that it believes that God’s revelation presents, in principle, a life-and world-view. A life-and world-view which we must first, with the Spirit’s aid, think ourselves into, in order thereafter to go out and bring this gracious, this regenerating, this reforming, saving Truth-from-God to bear upon a society corrupt and broken, condemned to death and actually dying. The rise of men’s societies hangs together with this Reformed conviction about; God’s Word’s presenting us with a gospel not only for the heart within but for the whole of human society.
In the American church world you do not find men’s societies as we know them. There are men’s Bible classes. There are men’s clubs or men’s and women’s clubs. But there are not Reformed men’s societies as we have inherited them from Our Fathers of the Dutch Calvinistic revival of the last century. These belong with a study of the principles of God’s Word that pertain to our life in this world. Men’s societies and principal thinking go together. Men’s societies and Calvinism go together. Necessary to the kind of study that characterizes men’s society is that view of Calvinism to which Prof. H.H. Kuyper, a son of the great Abraham Kuyper, once gave expression. “Calvinism,” he wrote, “is not a phenomenon that is constantly changing its shape, or that is abandoned to the arbitrariness of each individual’s insight and opinion; it is a mighty current in the sphere of the spirits, a current which proceeds from a principle of its own and obeys its own vital law. Whoever would claim a right to the name Reformed must investigate this principle, this law of life, in history: must allow himself to be guided by it and so go on building upon the once laid foundation.”1 Our imaginary Netherlander, if he were listening, might break in with: “Man, daar zit een lijn in.” At least, the possibility is opened up.
Calvinism would see life whole. Not restrict itself to some quiet inner chamber of the heart. No, Calvinism sees all of life, body and soul, this life and the next, church, state, art, labor, science—all in one grand perspective. And now, men, why does Calvinism do that? Why? Because that’s the way the Bible is. Simply that. The Bible is not a book of exercises for the mystic: the Bible is the book of Jehovah’s covenant. It tells us that our life is a life in the covenant of God; it tells us how to live our whole life before Jehovah. We2 do not read in the Bible that God talked with Noah about the so-called “spiritual things” or about h is religious feelings. But that was not necessary, for when Noah began to build the ark, that was the spiritual—through the Holy Spirit. And this was his religion, that when he stepped out of that ark he offered sacrifice to Jehovah. Noah’s religion, just like his carpentering, was out of faith. And his whole life was in the Covenant, with the Father in Christ.
With Abraham the same thing. With the whole Abraham Jehovah spoke. And the work of faith by the Holy Spirit, that was…a moving-day for the large household of a shepherd-prince. And the promises of God—heavy with spiritual gifts—were no mystical words of “being in communion with God in the loneliness of the soul”—no, but rather that that old Abraham would have of Sarah a son of promise, and that in his seed the earth would be blessed. For that reason Abraham did not settle down in a strange Canaan: he was expecting a separate people. the people of God, out of his loins -the Zion of God, the Church of Christ, the city of which God is the architect and which has genuine eternal foundations, the city of God which John in his visions on Patmos saw descending out of heaven. For this city, which God was preparing through the birth of Isaac, Abraham passed up citizenship in Canaan’s cities. That was the Holy Spirit’s work. And that occurred over and again in communion with Jehovah, who talked with Abraham. How Jehovah sometimes came and talked with Abraham we can read in Genesis 18. There the Lord comes in the form of a weary, hungry traveller, grimy with dust from the long root-journey, in the heat of the day. Abraham invites him and the two others to stop. He has their feet washed and provides a resting-place under the tree that stands before his tent. Then he hastens off to Sarah and says, “Hurry up and make some cakes.” He himself goes to select a nice calf, which he then has slaughtered and prepared. He takes butter and milk and serves it to…Jehovah! We can leave unanswered whether Abraham knew at once who his guest was, but when soon he does know his attitude as host does not change. We read that Abraham went with them to accompany them. Just as one accompanies one’s guests a part of the way. And just as we commonly talk as we go, so Jehovah tells of his plan with Sodom. And now, notice how respectfully and humbly, yes, but also how familiarly the Semite Abraham talks with the Lord of heaven and earth. He who dwells in the high and holy place is here dwelling covenantally with him that is of a contrite and humble spirit, in the midst of this world.
That’s the way the Bible is. Religion is a matter of faith and obedience in our whole life. To be spiritual is to obey as whole man. The Bible is God’s revelation of his will for our life taken as a unit, for our life as the Creator constituted it at the beginning. That is why Calvinism would see life whole, why it compels us to embrace a life-and world-view, covering all the many relations of our concrete life·situation. For the Calvinist life is of one piece, here and hereafter, body and soul, religion and culture, worship and service. For the Calvinist life is obedience to the divinely-revealed norm for all of it.
Calvin saw the Bible as just such an all-enveloping norm. In his day the revived knowledge of true religion came with tremendous force to re·constitute the church, the family, the state, business, art—in short, all human actIvity. All such activity was seen as living before the face of Jehovah, pleasing to him when it was of the obedience of faith. Faithful obedience to the truth revealed. And such is the truth of God that men who submit to it find themselves swept up in a mighty stream flowing for the healing of the nations. Men’s energies are unleashed; enormous tasks are always waiting for the obedient servant of Jehovah. Such was the Reformation in Calvin’s day. It envisaged a reformation of all our human existence.
But then something happened. I cannot tonight tell you the story in any fulness, but here, in the words of a German scholar, is what took place.
The Reformation at its very beginning found itself in the presence of problems and exigencies of indefinite range, first of all, conflicts of purely religious and theological character—doctrinal, liturgical. and constitutional conflicts. What an amount of spiritual strength was consumed even by these conflicts! How much there was which went wrong! What unrest, what losses these conflicts produced! And yet the problems which then appeared could he settled by reference to the fundamental religious principle of Protestantism, and on the whole were in fact settled in a truly Protestant way. Much more difficult and dangerous, however, was a second adjustment, which lay more on the periphery of religious truth and yet was no less necessary—namely the adjustment to the general ethical, political and social problems, to science and art. This adjustment, I say, was unavoidable, for if Protestantism, over against the medieval-Catholic world, involves a new world-view, then there must necessarily be a Protestant science of politics, a Protestant philosophy and science, a Protestant art…For such an adjustment, however, in the very nature of things, time is required; it cannot be accomplished by one man or by one generation…But now the tasks and problems of culture came upon the young evangelical Church in a storm. The Reformed were obliged to fight the hardest battles for existence; then, after the final victory, they had new states to found both at home and in the wilderness, above all, they had to settle the question of tolerance between the different parties that had arisen in their own camp. But the tasks were met by the will to accomplish them. Calvin had inspired in his disciples that energy of piety which abhors all halfway measures, which boldly endeavors to make all the affairs of life subject to Christ, the Head and Lord. But what was needed, firm principles about the relation of the Reformation to the forces of culture—to the state, science and art—that was lacking, and how could it be attained all at once in the midst of an the unrest of the time? [So it was that views hostile to the Reformation crept in.] A doctrine of the state constructed on evangelical principles was not in existence. But such a doctrine was imperatively demanded by the need of the time. Men needed to have clearness about the relation of the ruler to the subjects, about the problem of church and state, about the relation between different churches in the same country. No wonder that in the lack of a conception of the state revised in the light of fundamental evangelical ideas, men had recourse to the political theory [of natural law] taught in the traditional jurisprudence, without heeding the fact that that theory had an origin foreign to the Reformation and involved tendencies and consequences which would lead away from the Reformation. These tendencies, of course, did become apparent later in slowly-developing after-effects, and then, especially after the spiritual enervation sustained in the protracted religious wars, they could not fail gradually to dissipate and destroy the Reformation’s basis of faith. Unless all indications are deceptive, the progress of events was similar in the case of other cultural questions. The desire for knowledge, the desire for activity, which was experienced by the individual after he had been liberated through the Reformation, plunged itself into all problems of the spiritual life of man, became absorbed in the traditional manner of their treatment, and was all too Quickly satisfied with solutions which were not in agreement with the fundamental ethico-religious factors of the practical religious life of the Reformation. The reaction did not remain absent. The evangelical life of faith became shallower, instead of deepening itself and developing in all directions. [The religious spirit of the Reformation moved all a downward path through Deism, the ‘Enlightenment’ of the 18th century and the complete secularization of the nineteenth.]
From this account you can see that the failure to come to grips with life as a whole, the failure to work out the Reformed principle for all of life’s areas, did not just constitute a lack somewhere along the line, but contributed to the destruction of Reformed religion itself. For life is a whole and principles do exist. And sooner or later one fundamental principle or another will demand the whole. There is no middle way. Either the Reformed church will work out a Reformed program for all our life or the Reformed faith itself will change into something else. That is what happened in history.
Two departures from Reformed religion resulted from the failure to work out a full-orbed life-and world-view on the basis of the Reformed principle. They go by the names of intellectualism and mysticism. Let me say a word about each. As the world of cultural activity came more and more to be dominated by a spirit, a principle. hostile to the principle of the Reformation, men came increasingly to look upon the Bible as a source·book of theological doctrine. Now of course the Bible is the source of our theological doctrines, but it is not a manual of theology. It is concrete, the book of Jehovah’s covenant with man, and comes with God’s comprehensive demand upon our total existence. When that true nature of God’s revelation is lost to view and the Bible is used only to make elaborate theological schemes, not only is the Bible made to be what it is not, but our failure to allow it, as the power of God, as spirit and life. To change our lives at every point blinds us to what God really has to tell us. Bible study becomes :ill intellectual sport and actually visionless. Those who thus go through exercises in doctrine without being aroused to whole-souled service of God, must in time become drowsy in their study of the Scriptures. Finally it becomes a dull, dead practice, meaningless, unrelated to those who are studying. How far such are from knowing the Word of life! The next step is to admit that it gets you nowhere and to look to the world for an activity with which to replace the traditional one.
Mysticism, though it came as a reaction to the deadness of intellectualism, did not recover the Bible as it is. Here too men withdrew from the whole world of human action and regarded religion as an inner communion of the individual soul with God. The Bible provided food [or the strengthening of the soul in its inward experience of God. Here again we are far removed from the Reformed conception of the Word of God and of the religious life. Religion is not the inner as opposed to the outer, which is then regarded as of little or no value. Religion is the heart-service of Jehovah which spreads out from the center until it touches and regenerates all the areas, all the levels of our bodily existence in this world.
It was to churches thus sunk in intellectualism and mysticism that the prophetic voice of Abraham Kuyper came. Through him God was calling us to see the Scriptures as they me and to be obedient in all our life. In the beginning of his work on Common Grace Kuyper writes that we have “discovered the joyful truth that the Reformed, in their original development, had put forward principles which, when developed broadly and logically, naturally gave rise to an all-embracing life· and world-view, possessing more than sufficient elasticity to determine in this century also our conscious position in the midst of the presently living generation. “If God is Sovereign,” he says just a bit later, “then his dominion must extend over all life and cannot be shut up within the walls of a church or the circle of Christians. The world outside of Christianity has not been abandoned to Satan, not to fallen man, nor to chance. God’s Sovereignty is also in the life of that unbaptized world great and all-controlling, and for that reason Christ’s church on earth, for that reason the child of God, cannot summarily withdraw from that life. If his God is working in that world then his hand too must be put to the plow in that world, and also there the Name of the Lord must be glorified.”
The full significance of Kuyper’s reformatory work can be summed up in these words he wrote at the end of the introduction to his Common Grace: “Spiritual as well as ecclesiastical isolation is anti-Reformed, and only then will this work accomplish the purpose I had in view, when it has broken tInt isolation, without which God prevent!—ever anyone’s being-tempted to lose himself in that world; it must not control him, but he it, in the strength of his God.”
Kuyper taught the Christians of his day their responsibility to live at every point out of the Scriptures. He taught them how to set in motion, in many spheres of life, an opposite action to the action carried on in the spirit, out of the principle, of unbelief. That is what we know as organizational antithesis. Through organizations informed and permeated with the Christian principle we are to be the channels of life and salvation where the efforts of unregenerate men end uniformly in destruction and death.
But, you say to me, that accounts for Christian political parties, Christian employers associations, Christian labor unions, Christian schools and. all that, hut, pray tell me, what has all this to do with men’s societies?
Is it not significant, I reply, that the erection of men’s societies in connection with the churches accompanied this historic, this blessed revival of Reformed religion in the last century? And notice the place of men’s societies in the whole complex of organizations. Close to the church. Not a function of the organized church—an independent movement among—the men of the local church, yet under the surveillance of the consistory. The place gives the clue to the function or purpose of the Reformed men’s society: it is not where the preaching of the Gospel takes place, nor is it the sphere of direct action, as are the unions, parties, etc. It is in between. Men’s Society is the place where the principles of the Word that is preached from the pulpit are studied by the men of the church to find out what those principles require of them in their lives in the world, in the organizations of direct action. Men’s Society is the seedbed, the seminary where the men of the church strengthen themselves in a knowledge of the principles before they go out and apply the principles. Not only the wise, therefore, but certainly also the continued existence of the Reformed Men’s Society depends upon the continued existence of the Reformed concept of religion and of the study of biblical principles for our life society.
The crisis in the life of our men’s societies is thus a manifestation of the crisis throughout the Christian Reformed Church. Do we believe the Reformed faith? Yes or no? Dare we think of our lives as a walking in Jehovah’s covenant, or does that thought embarrass us? Is our life ours only to serve the risen King, or are we having too good a time in this good America to be troubled by the question? The question is one as to our faith.
Should we drop men’s society and put in its place a more sociable Mr. and Mrs. Club? Should we drop the after-coffee program entirely and just study the Bible? All of these alternatives would merely indicate that we are departing from the insight of the Reformation. In this sense what happens to our men’s societies is a sensitive indicator of the vitality of our Reformed faith.
You say to me, All right, but how in the world are we, who are even now so far removed from thinking principalIy, how are we ever to set up such a program of principal study as you suggest? That is indeed a difficult question. Difficult not because it is insoluble but because it requires the greatest exertion and an extended. period of time to teach men who are not used to it how to think principally. Human efforts here will scarcely avail. Only the power of Christ, the great Reformer of his church, can convince men’s hearts of this their responsibility to him. Only the Spirit of God can wean men away from a love of this present world and its ways of doing to the point where they see their very existence as but a subsistence in God alone. Time, too, is required. And it is for that reason that I so enthusiastically welcomed the Calvinistic Culture Association last February. There are men who have been raised on principal study in The Netherlands, and in that organization those of us who right now feel the awful need for a study of principles can get to work without delay. Where the Reformed faith still lives in our churches, that example will soon win adherents, and gradually, perhaps, our men’s societies can be restored to the purpose for which they were devised. When men see the exceeding fruitfulness of the Reformed principle for our life in its entirety, the vitality of our society life will once again wax strong. Principles unify and make strong. Think of what the effect of this body of men could be if through a study of principles we were united on a course of action in the world!
A final word to those who are willing but fearful. David did not look to the weapons of his mighty opponent. Neither must we be overwhelmed by the tremendous fagade of worldly vanity. If we walk simply before Jehovah in the light of his Word, he will direct us to the point of vital weakness in all that external show of strength. I asked your chairman tonight to read the fifth chapter of Daniel. This Daniel had only been faithful in walking before Jehovah in the place of his appointment. He chose simple fare instead of the King’s fine foods. Imagine! Would we? What harm could there be in that? He prayed openly. He continually served the Lord, he was known for it. Would we have been in such a public position? Is there any need to make a show of religion? But then…God blessed Daniel. That’s the way it always will be, men. We need never fear our impotence. For after all it is God who does it. Christ has won the victory over the world. And now we are simply to believe. Our faith is the victory that overcometh the world. That’s the way it was with Daniel. And did you hear what an impression his life had made in that great world-capital? Listen! Belshazzar’s queen is speaking. “There is a man in thy kingdom, in whom is the spirit of the holy gods; and in the days of thy father light and understanding and wisdom, like the wisdom of the gods, was found in him.” And in the next chapter we read how Daniel’s faithful obedience brought an alteration in the laws of the Medes and Persians which—the world said in its haughtiness—do not change. Power? The power of God.
May it be that in the coming crisis of the United Nations, of the American state, and of the whole world of culture, we shall not be found bankrupt, our hearts empty of God’s saving principles for our human existence! God grant that our quiet unnoticed faithfulness in the coming days and years may be blessed of him, so that in that great crisis of the future the world may say of us, There are men in your republic in whom is the spirit of the holy God. Light, understanding and wisdom, like the wisdom of God, are to be found in them.
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May God forgive our slothfulness and redeem us from our infidelity. And cause us once more to become a light set on a hill, that cannot be hid. Amen.
1. H. H. Kuyperer, De Opeiding tot den Dienst des Woords bij de Gereformeerden I (1891), p. XIV.
2. For the following section I am indebted to A. Janse, Leven in Het Verbond, Kok, Kampen, 1937.
3. The quotation is from an article by August Lang. “The Reformation and Natural Law” appearing first in The Princeton Theological Review and reprinted in the volume, Calvin and the Reformation, Revell, 1909.