WERE THEY REALLY CALLED?
It is not an uncommon experience to be jolted by the startling title of some book or magazine article. That was my experience while glancing over the table of contents of the July 1962 issue of The Pulpit. My eye caught the words,“The Decline and Fall of the Parish Ministry”—the subject of an article written by Roy Pearson, Dean of Andover Newton Theological School. Perhaps it was an unconscious association with Edward Gibbon’s oft-mentioned Decline and Fall that partly accounted for my sharpened attention. At any rate, I quickly turned to the article. A decline and fall of the parish ministry certainly concerns me, even though I prefer the word “congregation” to the word “parish.”
Dr. Pearson loses no time in telling us what is on his mind. He is deeply concerned about the specific relevance which “call to the ministry” has to being pastor of a congregation. As I read the article it seemed as if the author had been an unseen listener at a ministerial “bull session” I recently had attended, and that he was now articulating and summarizing some of the discussion in which I had participated.
For the fact is that some of us pastors are concerned about the increasing number of ministerial students in our American seminaries who indicate a lack of interest in preparing themselves to assume leadership of a local congregation. This concern is shared by college and seminary professors who have a high regard for the pastoral office. Before the examining boards of the churches these prospective ministers of the gospel solemnly declare that they feel called of God to the ministry of the Word and the Sacraments. Hardly have they completed the first year of their theological training before they exhibit an interest in some specialized service in which the ministry of the Word and the Sacraments is not predominant.
Let me state it bluntly: The common pastorate no longer is highly regarded, as once it was, and one of the signs of this lowered estimation is the fact that when a minister terminates his pastorate in order to become almost anything else in the ecclesiastical, or shall I say, denominational structure, he is viewed by not a few clergy and laity alike as “on his way up,” and is actually envied by some clergy· men for his change of “elevation.”
This is not to disparage any of the competent services which an ordained minister can perform for the edification of the church in all her manifold operations. Nor am I closing my eyes to the varieties of gifts which God has bestowed. But the fact remains that in the American church today a strange deflecting activism has taken hold of some seminary students and is blinding them to the priority that belongs to the office of a spiritual shepherd. A physician in St. Mary’s Hospital here in Grand Rapids stopped me the other day—he is a doctor who takes good care of his patients, but also finds time to cast a wary eye on contemporary trends in the Church—and asked me this question: “Why is it that some pastors seem to be itching for assignments that will relieve them of the routine down-to-earth duties of their pastoral office?” Evidently, he shares the concern of this article.
The big question to be answered is, What has brought this about? Is the ordinary congregation too ordinary for these ambitious young men? Do they fear that they will become mere “ditto marks”? Mere “carbon copies”? Has a false careerism choked their earlier conviction that they were called to preach? Were they really called in the first instance?
I am not ready to answer this big question. But I do believe that it has to be asked with heart-searching inquiry. Meanwhile, whatever the answer may ultimately be, I consider it urgent that we revive respect for the conventional pastorate. I appreciate G. K. Chesterton’s comment that if he had the supervision of the Church, he would arrange to have young ministers begin as bishops and gradually work their way up to the high office of the parish priest.
Self-criticism is as necessary for churches as it is for individuals. The danger of complacency is greatly reduced if one engages in healthy self-criticism.
However, this self-criticism has its limits. One who engages in this practice too much becomes wholly negative in his approach. Again, this is true in the life of the church as well as in the lives of individuals.
We are informed daily that we are living in critical times. Most of us know and realize that too. We are also frequently informed that the future of the church looks dim. True, we are faced by many dangers. But, is this the whole picture?
Our eyes may never be closed to the blessings God sends us. These blessings are many. There are many hopeful signs for the future of the church. Which former generation sent 300 of its youth to witness to the grace of God in the American world? Our SWIMers did that this past summer. When so many of our young people give themselves voluntarily for this work. the work of evangelizing the nation, our view of “the youth of today” cannot be all pessimism. When has there been such a large percentage of our children enrolled in Christian schools? Which generation has had as large a percentage of well-trained and well-qualified people to give leadership in the church and Kingdom as our generation? These are blessings which we may not overlook but for which we should give unceasing thanks.
These are critical times. No doubt about it. The church is faced with many problems. Leadership is needed in both church and nation based on an unswerving loyalty to God and his Word. Critical times? Yes—but also the day of grace!
“We will bury you!” That by now notorious expression inspired both fear and ridicule. When the well known blustering dictator made that statement, perhaps you laughed as well as I. But when God says by the mouth of the prophet, “I will make thy grave, because thou art vile” that is no laughing matter. Strange that Khrushchev can inspire such fear. while when the God of heaven says, “I will bury you,” it causes not even a ripple on the placid waters of our complacency. Or do the words: “Because thou art vile” not apply to us as a nation? When the Ten Commandments are ignored; when every effort is made to banish the last remnants of the Christian religion from our educational system; when an atheistic materialism corrodes the very vitals of our national life; when crime steadily increases and nearly every area of American life is touched by the “organized empire of evil”; when police departments in some of our big cities are in league with the underworld and godless racketeers control some of our labor unions, does Nahum’s word (1:14) not apply to us? Just what must a nation do to become vile when the day of the Lord has become a day of carousing and debauchery; when night clubs and stage and theater deprave our manners; when it is reported as “shocking beyond belief” that “unionized underworld dancers in vicious underworld establishments peddle booze and flesh”; when there are at this very moment 15,000.000 divorced persons in the United States and when in March of this year in Kent County. Michigan—where we count Reformed and Christian Reformed churches by the dozens—the divorces exceeded by eight the number of marriages; when illegal gambling. prostitution. narcotics, and obscenity infiltrate every area of life? Again we ask. Does the inspired word of Nahum apply to us?
“There is the moral of all human tales, ‘Tis but the same rehearsal of the past, First freedom, then glory—when that fails— Wealth, vice, corruption—barbarism at last. And history with all her volumes vast Hath but one page.”
“I will make thy grave; because thou art vile…And when God makes that grave, He will fill it. Not, “We will bury you” but “I will bury you” is the word. God will conduct the funeral.
PREACHERS IN JAIL
Well, another group of preachers were “conscience-driven” to undertake another “pilgrimage” into the South on a mission of “emancipation.” Once on the scene, Albany. Georgia, they gathered in front of the city hall to pray. When the authorities ordered them to move along because they interfered with traffic, upon their refusal they were promptly arrested and jailed. Many of these preachers were from Chicago. Chicago has been pretty much in the news of late. It has not exactly become famous for its civic righteousness. Its police force was so scandal-ridden that it had to import a chief of police from another city to clean up the mess. The connections with the underworld were unmistakable. And the new chief was given a free hand divorced from all political influence. Just recently some forty or more postal employees were Bred because of nefarious traffic in narcotics carried on right out of the postoffice. This was done just one floor above the one where the Federal Bureau of Narcotics is located. If these Chicago preachers were so filled with righteous indignation that they crusaded in the name of God against the corruption and wickedness right under their noses, we have not heard of it. Of course, it is much easier to turn your head and look for a place to pray in your neighbor’s yard, especially if it is a thousand miles away. And the good folks in the South rightly resent these foreign intrusions into their affairs and are tempted to denounce them as disgusting and hypocritical stunts. These ventures are a sad reflection on the profession of the clergy. All credit to the sheriff of Albany for resolute and prompt action. Let preachers obey the laws of the land and mind their own business. Anyway, tho preachers who prayed together went to jail together. And it served them right.
THE MICHIGAN STORY
When a Michigan resident travels outside his own state he frequently hears remarks like the following; “Oh, Michigan…that’s the state where they have all the money problems.” Or he may hear something like this; “Michigan…oh yes, that’s the state where business and industry have a rough time.”
That has come to be the Michigan story for a considerable number of people. To make use of a well-worn phrase, this is the image that is abroad with respect to the state of Michigan.
Tho troublesome feature of this part of the Michigan story is that it is not without basis in fact. Herewith is presented what could be called a short paragraph in this story. I have no doubt as to its truth, since I regard the source as unimpeachable.
This part of the story has to do with an employer who runs a small, successful business in the state. He employed a man who turned out to be a ne‘er-do-well, a man with poor work habits whose pay went mostly for drink. His stay with the company was brief, but while he was there the management did try to help tho man with his problem and with the proper use of his money.
Out of this brief period of employment came a claim on the part of the employee that he had been injured while working for this mm. The complaint was a common one his back. Such a·cJaim is rather hard to dispute. He pressed his claim under the Workmen’s Compensation Act of the state of Michigan, and asked for damages in the amount of $16,000. The company disputed the claim that he had been injured while briefly in its employ, and was prepared to present testimony through counsel to this effect.
The company’s testimony was not heard. The Compensation Commission’s examiner in the case quickly advised a settlement in the amount of $5000. The insurance companies involved were glad to accept the settlement at that figure, for their consistent experience has been that appeal to the full Commission and then to the state Supreme Court is to no avail. In fact, they had good reason to expect the full judgment of $16,000 against them if they did appeal. Apparently the law says that the court is to accept the facts in the case from the Commission and is only to enter into questions of law in any particular case.
The telling of this little part of the story does not involve a lack of sympathy for the injured working man. Nor does it involve an anti-labor bias, as some people are quick to charge. The undersigned has no such bias, so far as he knows. And the Workmen’s Compensation Act should be regarded as a good act, for injured workmen should have such a means of help. But at the same time the Act should be administered justly and honestly. Politically motivated sympathy for laboring men or for any men is not a substitute for plain honesty. A check with several people who should know tells the same story as that related above. Plainly such lack of honor and such wanton disregard of integrity in the distribution of money must inevitably make its contribution to an economic situation that is far from healthy. Are there not enough righteous people left in the state to demand greater integrity in such and similar matters?
THE “BUGBEAR” OF FUNDAMENTALISM
Any one who reads Dutch religious publications as, for instance, such a weekly as Gereformeerd Weekblad and such a periodical as Bezinning, cannot escape the impression that there are serious disturbances in the Reformed Churches (Gereformeerde Kerken) over there. One also gets the idea that some of the leaders are almost frantically trying to keep the boat on an even keel. Of course, at this distance we must be careful in commenting on those difficulties. But circumstances are such that conditions on the other side of the ocean do influence us, there are repercussions, and it stands to reason that we should be interested and concerned. It appears to be safe to say that the disturbances in the Netherlands are characterized by at least two possibly interrelated and negative tendencies. In the first place, there seems to be a definite avowed tendency to break with the past, even the recent past. In the second place, quite a few Dutch authors are sure that what they describe as “fundamentalism” is to be avoided almost at any cost. In fact, they create a scare or a bugbear and doubtless seek to give the impression, at least to the man in the street, that fundamentalism is subversive and quite a terrible thing.
I wonder whether a revolutionary element cannot be detected in the tendency to break with the past. That should not be too surprising in these post-war times and in this age of the atomic bomb and nuclear fission. I have, for instance, been informed that such theologians as Kuyper and Bavinck are not regularly consulted anymore by our people in the Netherlands, not even by seminary students. People seem to be happy to break with the systems of such theologians, since they appear to be too exclusive, too definite, too comprehensive to suit the taste. Of course, those men, eminent though they were, have not spoken the last word on any subject, but they did say many very, very important things, which may be ignored only at a tremendous cost. Besides. one wonders just what substitute the critics desire to offer.
However, in this brief article I should not enlarge upon that tendency as much as upon the scare or the bugbear which several authors seek to create in regard to fundamentalism. For quite some time these authors had me wondering as to the implications and the exact connotation which they understood this term to have. It must be known that the term is American in origin and should be traced to the publication and distribution of a number of booklets containing “evangelical” essays intending to defend the faith. Many of these essays arc very good. It should likewise be known that the term is vague and challenges exact description. Doubtless its meaning changes with different authors. However. it is evident that the word upon the lips of the critics in the Netherlands stands for an approach to Scripture which they condemn and which they very definitely and insistently reject. Of course, practically every thing depends on the definition given of such a term. As well as I know Dr. R. Schippers has sought to satisfy this curiosity better than any. He wrote an article in Bezinning (1959–No.2) in which he admits. “Fundamentalist has become an invective (scheldwoord),” that is, in the Netherlands. A startling statement indeed, which certainly does not create the impression of calm and erudite reasoning! But Schippers also gives his description of fundamentalism. which is the only one I have seen anywhere. He writes that to him fundamentalism appears, “…as a remarkable rationalistic-nomistic [wettische] simplification and impoverishment [verschraling] of the results of orthodox tradition in the dogmatic reflection [bezjnning] combined with an old-fashioned biblicistic employment of tex~ of the Bible.”
Indeed, if this description really fits the case, fundamentalism would be enough to scare anyone who wants to be Reformed in his theology. However, I have noticed that the critics, explicitly or implicitly, at times attribute the term to men who cannot be placed within the confines of such a definition by any stretch of the imagination. Van Til and Stonehouse and, I suppose, others on this side of the Atlantic have been marked as fundamentalists, as well as Aalders and Berkouwer on the other side. Moreover, I feel rather certain that the entire array of iIlustrious theologians of the recent past, Kuyper, Bavinck. Warfield. Vos, Berkhof and others, would be called fundamentalists, at least by some of the Netherlands critics. This becomes all the more ludicrous, when we consider that many a real American fundamentalist would exclude these men from the group.
Naturally, progress should be made in the study of Scripture. The one generation should learn to receive whatever is good and sound from preceding generations. They should also prayerfully seek to advance beyond them. Scripture is never exhausted. The task of searching it is never finished. All generations must labor hard to discover old as well as new treasures in the Bible. These treasures or truths should also be expressed according to the needs of the times. But let’s be very careful. Do not rock the boat for the sake of rocking it and for purposes of ostentation!
Moreover, attention should be called to the fact that the ailments implied in Schippers’ definition have not been identified and diagnosed for the first time by the Dutch critics of fundamentalism. I have reason to assume that our brethren in Holland have, at least before the Second War, neglected to pay due attention to dissertations by such American scholars as Ralph Bronkema on The Essence of Puritanism, and W. H. Rutgers on Premillennialism in America. Had they done that, they would not now have raised a hue and cry, as if they were the first to discover the weaknesses of SOME fundamentalists. We in America were acquainted with those aberrations for quite some time. But we also know that the term should not be used as recklessly as is done in the Netherlands. Biblicism may doubtless be found with some, possibly with many, fundamentalist. However, that’s by no means the only deviation found among them. Many of them, if not the majority of them. are premillennialists. dispensationalists. and Arminians. At the same time some of them, according to the opinion of some non-fundamentalists, are soundly Reformed.
I wish to venture an idea. It may be wrong and if it IS, I gladly stand corrected. But to be frank I would state that theologians in the Netherlands were not the first to criticize Fundamentalism and use it as an invective (Schippers). I am inclined to believe that the natural scientists there are guilty of starting these suspicions and of presenting fundamentalism as a bugbear. I surmise that to such authors as Dr. J. Lever, as well as to others (cf. Bezinning, 1962 – No. 1), the traditional Reformed approach to Scripture (hermeneutics) was an obstacle. If this Reformed approach was maintained, they would not be able to reconcile their theories or hypotheses with Scripture. So they were led to change their approach to and evaluation of Scripture and to adapt them to their hypotheses. The traditional Reformed hermeneutics, therefore. became a bugbear and was labeled “fundamentalism.” This accounts for the fact that Lever, for instance, labors hard, though apodictically, that is, as if his views are indisputable. to square his views and interpretations of Scripture with his “scientific” theories. From the beginning Lever thus designates the traditional Reformed approach to and evaluation of Scripture as fundamentalistic. I do not imply that he and others have selected the label with ulterior purposes in mind. But I am suggesting that they needed a label and recklessly selected “fundamentalism.”
I should also say that Schippers’ description or definition appears to be too restricted. In America, the land where the term fundamentalism has its origin, its meaning is not as restricted as Dr. Schippers seems to think.
Besides, would it not be proper and scholarly for the Dutch objectors to seek to revise Reformed hermeneutics? I am wondering why someone over there docs not get busy and write a book on this subject. At least they seem to be very sure that Scripture must be approached and evaluated differently.
May I conclude by suggesting that the disturbances in the Dutch churches may at least in part be due to the carelessness and even recklessness of some authors in the use of terms. In that way moorings are lost and the rocking of the boat may become disastrous.