As thoughtful observers of our cultural moment, American Christians are witnessing an identity crisis of unprecedented proportions. Especially among young people, there is widespread confusion over issues of gender, race, and sexual orientation. The growing bewilderment is matched by increasing rates of suicidal ideation. As more and more teenagers contemplate and plan the taking of their own lives, the despair overwhelming our society is undeniable.
In the wake of this unfolding catastrophe, government agencies offer supposed solutions. Many of their proposed programs only facilitate the downward slide toward cultural extinction. At most, they can diagnose some of the causes of the problem. Yet identifying the reasons for a crisis does nothing to avert the disaster.
In all honesty, certain important components of a healthy society have been lost. The importance of religious institutions, the centrality of two-parent families, the need for respectful public debate, and the practice of widespread self-government are just a few of those components that have disappeared from view.
The growing consensus seems to be that we are hurtling toward the edge of a cliff that drops into an abyss. If western society does not halt its insane rush toward self-destruction, we will go over the edge and into the abyss. Society, as we know it, cannot continue indefinitely on this trajectory. If we are not attacked and overwhelmed by our enemies, we will implode sooner or later. Most likely it will happen sooner.
Coming back to our thoughtful Christian observers, what are we to do? How do we answer this challenge, and at least guard our children and grandchildren from catastrophic social collapse? Do we have any answers to offer to a clueless culture that senses the serious questions but has no substantial answers of its own?
I would suggest that heritage and history can help us maintain (or regain) a Christian identity that has been fading away. Please understand that I’m not proposing a generic heritage and history. Binge-watching the History Channel will do us no good whatsoever. What we need is a rediscovery of a distinctively Christian history and heritage. Indeed, a distinctively Reformed Christian heritage is needful, if we are to recover a sense of our identity.
But what is a “heritage”? What do we mean by that term? In the Old Testament, there are various references to heritage. One instance is Psalm 135:12 (New King James Version), “And gave their land as a heritage, a heritage to Israel His people.”
The Hebrew word nachalah is often translated “inheritance” but can also be rendered “heritage.” The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (rev. ed.) sorts this out: heritage is “that which is passed down to descendants or succeeding generations, distinguished from ‘inheritance’ in that ‘heritage’ frequently refers to things other than property (i.e. traditions) while ‘inheritance’ is used especially of property.” So a heritage is the non-material aspects that are passed down—the non-material parts of an inheritance.
Having grown up in a Christian Reformed home, church, and school, I have a clear sense of my own heritage—my Dutch Reformed heritage. That heritage is deeply connected to history—not only my personal and family history but also the history of Dutch Reformed Christianity, especially in the United States. Having such a heritage brings certain advantages and benefits, but it also has pitfalls connected to it. Spiritual pride that boasts in one’s heritage is always out of place.
What do I include in the heritage I have received? Here are some of the more valuable customs that have been handed down to me: attending church on Sunday morning and evening, rain or shine. My parents, and their parents before them, made church attendance a priority. We had to be very sick to miss a worship service. That was as true for the evening service as it was for the morning service. Even when we were on vacation, we would seek out a sound church where we could attend morning and evening worship.
Reading the Bible at mealtimes is another component. Growing up in my parents’ home, we opened each meal with a prayer of thanksgiving for the food we were about to enjoy. After everyone had finished eating, my dad would bring out the Bible and read a portion to us. He sometimes explained what he had read, and at other times he asked us questions. And he then always closed with prayer. That was just what we did, and it seemed natural and normal to me.
Prioritizing family times and extended family gatherings is another part of the heritage I received. Whenever there were family reunions, we would make plans to attend. If we could meet for a meal with other members of our family, that was prioritized. Vacations often included aunts and uncles sitting around the campfire, roasting marshmallows, listening to campfire stories, and enjoying conversation. Family mattered to my parents and grandparents, so family matters to me too.
Humor was another enjoyable ingredient in my upbringing. We loved to laugh and to tell jokes and make puns that evoked laughter from others. Though we knew how to be sober and serious, the De Jongs also knew how to have a good time.
Most of all, we grew up with a deep commitment to Jesus Christ and to his Word, the Bible. Here my late father, Dr. Norman De Jong, set the tone most clearly. He was devoted to his Savior and zealous for the honor and glory of Christ in this world. Though faith is not passed down from father to son, because it is a gift of the Holy Spirit to our hearts, yet my father’s faith made a deep impression upon me. The Spirit used my father’s example to shape my faith and mold me into the person I am.
I am thankful to the Lord for the heritage I have received and the advantages that has afforded to me in life. I am also conscious of the need to pass these benefits to my children and grandchildren, that they may also enjoy these good things.
Connected to heritage is the study of history—of Reformed Christian history. Here we need to hit the books again, to read and consider the history of God’s dealings with his people. This goes all the way back to the beginning of the world, as we read and study the Scriptures. In both Old and New Testaments, we find much history that tells us how God deals covenantally with his people.
Take the book of Judges, for instance. In Judges, we see a historical pattern playing out. The people of God are unfaithful and fall into the idolatry of the nations around them. God is displeased with his people for their violations of his commandments, and so he sends oppressors to afflict them. As Israel groans under the tyranny of their foreign adversaries and cries to God for help, he has mercy on them and raises up a judge to deliver them. The judges come as saviors for the Israelites and set them free from bondage. The people then live peacefully under the rule of that judge for a time. When the judge dies, the cycle starts over again. This Judges cycle is seen throughout church history, not only in the Bible but also after the New Testament era concluded.
Along with the diligent study of the inspired history found in Scripture, there is also value in studying uninspired historical accounts. The life, trials, and struggles of Athanasius are worth serious consideration. Similarly, the story of Augustine is fascinating and edifying. Examining the councils of the early church and their dealings with various heretics and heresies sheds light on many modern cults. Even the dark history of the medieval Roman church with its corruptions and compromises can help us appreciate God’s marvelous work during the Reformation of the 1500s. A serious Christian will never regret getting to know Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Knox, and many other Reformers. Likewise, the English Puritans and Scottish Presbyterians have stories to tell that can equip us for life in our own time.
One era of history has become increasingly interesting to me—the period from 1850 to the present. This was the era of great men of God, like Charles Spurgeon and J. C. Ryle. That time also witnessed the rise of liberal theology, German higher criticism, and modernism in many of the mainline churches in the United States.
In the Presbyterian Church in the USA, modernism gradually took control of the structures and institutions of that once great denomination. Those who questioned modernism, such as J. Gresham Machen, John J. DeWaard, Arthur F. Perkins, and others, were persecuted and prosecuted. Eventually they were disciplined and put out of their church. In June 1936, they came together to form the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) as a continuation of the lost heritage of Presbyterianism. The OPC continued the Reformed witness and Presbyterian presence to a culture that was quickly moving away from Old School orthodoxy and Christian identity.
My ecclesiastical journey started, as I said, in the Christian Reformed Church. During college, I attended a Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) church and became acquainted with Presbyterianism. After being ordained to the gospel ministry and serving within the PCA, I transferred to the OPC. This has been my home for the last twenty-three years. Among my greatest privileges is to serve as the archivist and historian of my presbytery and to be on the Committee for the Historian of the OPC. In these two capacities I have come to understand and appreciate much of our own history and heritage.
If we do not have a sense of our history, we cannot understand our heritage. If we lack both history and heritage, we can have no accurate sense of our Christian identity. Being believers who are savingly united to Christ, we did not drop magically and mysteriously out of heaven. We were born to human parents, raised in families, received an education, and (one hopes) grew up attending church. In church we heard God’s Word read and taught, and we were introduced to the glorious good news of a Savior, who is Jesus Christ the Lord. As God has drawn us to himself by the work of the Spirit, we are being discipled toward maturity. We are gradually being shaped into “the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13).
If this were to become the regular and normal experience for people in our society, the current confusion could dissipate. We could regain our lost equilibrium and recover a sense of propriety and shared purpose. But if ignorance of our history and heritage persists and intensifies, the future looks grim as we are gradually engulfed by cultural confusion.
Rev. Brian De Jong is the second son of the late Dr. Norman De Jong. He is the pastor of Grace Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Sheboygan, WI. He serves as the archivist and historian of the Presbytery of Wisconsin and Minnesota of the OPC, as well as being a member of the denomination’s Committee for the Historian. He and his wife, DeLou, have six children and eight grandchildren.