An important question
There can be little doubt that the question stated in the title of this article is a very important one for all who claim to be Reformed. Particularly in our time the question is of extreme importance.
(1) In recent years we have witnessed all kinds of new theological developments, which are so totally different from our traditional Reformed theology that the old term “Reformed” seems to be completely outdated. On all sides we hear that we have to bring the Gospel in new ways, so that it will appear to modern man. The message as we find it in the Bible is completely unintelligible to modern man. The Bible is full of mythological stories which modern man, who consciously or subconsciously has accepted the modern, scientific world view can no longer understand. It is therefore our task to de-mythologize the Bible. We have to take the old mythological stories and “unwrap” them in order to find the real message and then this message has to be translated into the language and thought categories of our time. Rudolf Bultmann, the man who started the new liberalism, believes that the message has to be translated into the categories of modern existentialism, Others try to translate it into some other -ism. Many American theologians, for instance, try to translate it into the thought patterns of the social process philosophy of A, N. Whitehead. In his bestseller Honest to God, the former bishop of Woolwich, Dr. J. A .T. Robinson, following the example of Paul Tillich, advocated a “translation” of the entire biblical message. Not only such doctrines of the pre-existence and virgin birth of Christ, his resurrection, ascension and second coming, have to be re-interpreted into modern language and ideas, but the whole biblical idea of God must change. We should no longer think of God as the transcendent One, the One who is far exalted above the creation, the One who does not need the creation but who in full divine freedom created this universe, but we should think of God as the One who is in the universe as the Ground of all Being (whatever that may mean!). Others have gone even further and have spoken of the “death of God,” but this fad seems to have been short-lived. One hears very little of it nowadays, which is not surprising, for a theologian who speaks of the “death of God” is digging his own theological grave, A theologian, by definition, is one who “speaks of God,” but what remains to be said by the theologian, when God is dead?
It is obvious that all these modern theological developments mean a great challenge for Reformed theology. What is more, they raise the question of this article: Is it still possible and worthwhile to be Reformed, to be just Reformed, in such a time? Are we not getting out of touch with the spirit of our age, if we still cling to our traditional Reformed positions? Will people not regard us as museum pieces, as obscurantists, as old-fashioned, antiquated fundamentalists?
(2) There is the Ecumenical Movement of our day, which wants to make an end to all old divisions. It is not denied that to some extent these divisions were meaningful in the past, but in our modern age they have lost all relevance and they have become the great obstacle to preaching the Gospel. Everywhere throughout the whole world union discussions are being carried on. Here in Australia they have been going for some years between the Presbyterian, the Methodist and the Congregationalist Church and it is expected that in the near future the union will actually take place. But there are discussions not only between the so-called “free churches,” but also between the “free churches” and episcopal churches. In New Zealand, for instance, the three above-mentioned churches are joined in the discussions by the Churches of Christ and the Church of England. The usual result of episcopal participation is that the uniting church adopts an episcopal structure, which means that the old Reformed (or Presbyterian) structure, in which the presbyter or the elder is the linchpin, is abandoned. In fact, the elder usually disappears completely. Three orders are accepted: bishop, minister and deacon. The minister is called the “presbyter” (which as such is correct, for he is also a presbyter), but the so-called lay-presbyter, our present elder, disappears from the offices of the church. Usually the advocates of this system assert that he now functions as a deacon, but what is overlooked is the fact that the deacon traditionally (both in the Reformed and in the Episcopalian organization) has quite a different position. He is not a ruling elder, but at best an assistant of the minister. In other words, the governing power of the church is put into the hands of the minister, either locally (the local minister) or supra-locally (the bishop).
As far as we can see, all recent attempts 10 bridge the chasm between the Protestant and the Catholic view of the church have resulted or are resulting in the abandonment of the Protestant heritage on this point. And again the question arises: Is it still meaningful to be just Reformed in this time? Are we not isolating ourselves from the main stream developments in Christianity? Should we really try to maintain our Reformed witness in this situation?
Before trying to answer these vital questions, we want first to state one thing emphatically, namely, that we may not remain Reformed for purely traditional reasons.
(a) Traditionalism is sterile and barren, and in the long run it is obnoxious and harmful. Traditionalism is like a stagnant pool. At first it may look nice, but there is no life in it. Even worse, after a while it becomes poisonous and begins to smell.
(b) We may never forget that there is always development in history. No two periods of history are alike, but each time has its own problems and each time has to find an answer to its problems. The old answers, however true in themselves, often do not fit the problems of the new situation. John Calvin, for instance, did not’ speak the last word. He was a great man, one of the greatest men of his time. Dr. J.I. Packer writes that “Calvin was in effect the producer, not merely of Protestantism in its most virile and thoroughgoing form, but of some of the most fundamental ingredients of post-Renaissance western civilization. It is doubtful whether any other theologian has ever played so significant a part in world history” (International Reformed Bulletin, Oct. 1959, p. 15). Yet he was not infallible. Just as all great men he too was a child of his time. He had to wrestle with the problems of that day. For example, he had to deal with the Roman Catholicism of the 16th century, the Roman Catholicism of the Counter-Reformation, following the Council of Trent. Today the situation is quite different. The Roman Catholicism we have to deal with is that of and following after the Second Vatican Council. This does not mean that Calvin no longer has a message for us. On the contrary, we can still learn much from him and we are still proud of belonging to the tradition which he set into motion, but we cannot simply copy his answers. We shall have to do our homework. Another example is that of the famous Synod of Dort, 1618–19. This Synod has been one of the most important church gatherings in Reformed Protestantism. Its decisions are still of the greatest importance for our day. But again we must add that it did not speak the last word. We are living in a different time with different problems. The new Church Order, which in recent years has been accepted by several Reformed churches (The Gereformeerde Kerken of the Netherlands, the Christian Reformed Church of America, the Reformed Churches of Australia and of New Zealand) is not simply a revised copy of the old Church Order of Dort, but quite a few new articles have been added because so many matters had changed since the 17th century.
It is therefore not enough to be Reformed for merely traditional reasons. If we want to be Reformed, we must be Reformed in om own day, Anno 1970.
How necessary this is became quite evident at the last meeting of the reformed Ecumenical Synod, at Lunteren, 1968. This Synod is a meeting of churches from all over the world, all holding the Reformed confessions. The last Synod had to deal with some very concrete and very contemporary problems. There were the ecumenical questions: Can we join the World Council of Churches? What shall be our attitude toward the International Council of Christian Churches? There was the racial issue: How must racial groups, living together in the same country, solve their interracial problems? To what extent may they intentionally differentiate and insist on separate development? There was the problem of the office of the church: May women be admitted to all three traditional offices (minister, elder and deacon)? Does the Pauline injunction that women must he silent in the church still apply to our 20th century, in which women generally have quite a different place in society, compared with the lst century in which Paul lived?
Another striking aspect of this Synod was that the differences between the delegates were to quite a large extent connected with the local or national situation of the churches concerned. This came to the fore in particular with regard to the racial and ecumenical questions. Delegates from countries that do not have a racial problem were most vocal in their condemnation of all racial discrimination and even of all differentiation, while delegates from countries that are burdened with these problems were much more cautious in their approach to the problems. This applied not only to the delegates from South Africa, but also to those who represented various Reformed and Presbyterian denominations in the U.S.A. With regard to the ecumenical problem something similar could be noticed. Churches that in their own country are involved in ecumenical discussion and dialogue (the Gereformeerde Kerken of the Netherlands; several of the Indonesian Churches) were in favour of a positive attitude toward the W.C.C., while churches from countries where neo-orthodoxy and neo-liberalism is dominating the National Councils were strongly opposed to any rapprochement to the W.C.C. of course, this is only one aspect of the problem. There are also important theological issues involved. But it cannot be denied that the particular historical situation in which a church finds itself plays a great part in its decisions. And again it proves that we cannot but be Reformed in our time, Anno 1970.
But what is Reformed? This important question we intend to answer in the next article in this series.
Dr. Klaas Runia is professor of theology at the Reformed Theological College, Geelong, Victoria, Australia.