Is Our Theology Vital?

From the city of The Angels the voice of Dr. James Daane has been emitting warning signals intermittently concerning the state of the Church. Dr. Daane does not hide his hopes and fears. They are of such a nature that he has no peace but must needs cry out, However, this watchman upon the walls of Zion is not so much concerned about the enemy without the gate as he is alarmed at the sad state of the defenses within our own fortifications. The result of this inward gaze is that Daane indicts his brethren for holding to a dead orthodoxy. The Christian Reformed Church is guilty of not having developed a vital, vibrant, existential theology for the times. (Cf. The Reformed Journal, Sept. 1957, art., “The State of Theology in the Church.”)

At the same time the author is profuse in his praise of Christian Reformed orthodoxy, which, says he, is “as wide and big as the denomination,” and “evenly and unbrokenly distributed.” In fact, “It may be said with confidence that the sound of that gospel, which is the power of God unto salvation, is heard in every pulpit.” Again, “It can be said without reservation that there is not a single church or minister in the Christian Reformed denomination which preaches another gospel than the gospel of God concerning his Son” (p. 3). Finally, “As regards Modernism, the truth is more that it did not arise in our churches, than that it was expelled.”

We must confess, at this point, that we do not share this optimism but have serious misgivings about this evaluation, even though the author claims that “the actual facts protect such a claim from possible charge of pride” (p. 3).

To our mind, there are definite storm signals in this area. There are evidences that our churches suffer from spiritual inertia, doctrinal insensitivity, ecclesiastical indifference. tendencies toward Arminianism, attempts at liberalizing the ethical demands of the gospel

When there are men who no longer want to preach the wrath of God, because he is a God of love; when there are leaders who are afraid of being militant and shun controversy concerning matters of the faith, we do not see how we can say that all is well and that orthodoxy is evenly distributed. We submit that it is time to sound a general alarm and to call men to their battIe stations instead of encouraging complacency.

For Modernism, according to its best representatives, is a method rather than a creed. It is not primarily a set of liberal dogmas, and there is no official Modernist theology. Modernism is a spirit, an attitude of mind, and a way of approach to the problems of theology (Cf. Alan Richardson, The Redemption of Modernism, 1935. pp. 18, 19). Modernism, on this point, may be compared to profanity. The blasphemous habit of taking God’s holy name in vain is but the bubbling over, the last expression, of what abides and grows in the heart, namely, godlessness. So, too, when men finally reach the stage of denying such essentials of the faith as the virgin birth of our Lord, and the historicity of Genesis, or when they begin to chisel away at the verbal inspiration of Scripture. they have merely reached the last stage of Liberalism. But—and this is the point to observe—men who come to such denials have for a long time had an attitude, an approach, and a spirit which may be called liberal.

To deny that this spirit is found among us is to be blind or willfully ignorant of reality. This finds illustration in Daane’s evaluation of the heresy trials in our churches. I cordially disagree with him when he holds that Modernism did not arise in our churches. This is Simply beside the truth. In two such cases the Church was certainly confronted with Modernism. Present in these cases were forms of destructive Higher Criticism which were condemned by our Synods. However, this spirit is not dead. I have heard a student of the Old Testament, who now holds a position in one of the leading liberal Seminaries of the country, say that Driver was an evangelical, and that we ought not to use the term evolutionary naturalism of the Graf-Kuenen-Wellhausen theory. Another example of what I have in mind is the fact that Dr. Daane’s own magazine, The Reformed Journal, bas run book reviews by men outside of the Reformed tradition, one of whom is an outstanding liberal who teaches at Union Theological Seminary. What kind of leadership is it which puts that kind of cargo under the Reformed flag? If we put our trust in such leadership, are we not falling into the ditch of doctrinal indifference?


Barth, Brunner, Tillich

After having celebrated the orthodoxy of the Church, both in theory and practice, Daane suddenly complains about the state of ill health in which our theology is today, Though we have an orthodox theology, it lacks life, vibrancy, growth, sensitivity, and responsiveness to the existential theological challenge and the mind of our times. This is supported by the assertion that in a day when “such men as Barth, Brunner, Tillich, and Chafer are again writing systematic theologies, the Christian Reformed Church has been largely untouched and unmoved by this robust outburst of theological vitality” (p. 4).

Granted that our Church “has made no mentionable contribution to this resurgence of theology…”! So what? Thank God! This so-called revitalized, vibrant, growing theology is an existentialistic, dialectical speculation, inspired by certain motifs from modem philosophy which run counter to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. J. Theodore Mueller of Concordia Seminary says of this vibrant, growing theology of Barth that it “overthrows the sola scriptura (Scripture alone—V.T.) of the Reformation as surely as does Modernism.” He goes on to say that Barth is unable to teach the sola gratia (grace alone) of the Protestant Reformers because he does not have the Christ of the Scriptures (Christianity Today, Vol. II, No.2, October 28, 1957). Brunner and Tillich need not concern us at this point for both of them have gone much further in denying the faith. As a matter of fact, I would not accord the name Christian Dogmatics to Tillich’s two volumes of theological philosophy. That Daane speaks of him in this connection and holds him up as an example for Christian theologians is beyond my comprehension.

In answer to the author’s question why we “do so much less theologically with the Bible than those who hold so much lower views” I would simply say: Because we cannot do with the Bible as we please; because we may not wrest the Scriptures to our own destruction and must handle the Word of God aright, as workmen that need not be ashamed. Besides all this, we need not start anew from the ground up. Indeed, we stand in a great, vibrant, living theological tradition, from Calvin through Kuyper, Bavinck, War6eld, Machen, Berkhof to the present.

It is easy to despise or to reject lightly what we have by grace received, but it is not a sign of prudence or humility. As a matter of fact, we have rather definitive works in Dogmatics, whereas the crisis theologians and the existentialists had to start from scratch. We build on what God in his grace has given to the churches in the past, and we intend to hold fast to the faith once delivered to the saints also in theology!

Daane’s Fear

That the state of theology in the Church is unhealthy is not argued at great length. The author is more concerned with the causes of this alleged sad situation. The major reason, says Daane. is the fact that our Church is an immigrant Church in which “Fear and defensive mood are natural psychological reactions to the strange and unfamiliar” (p. 5). Although this was natural and necessary at first, it has now served its purpose and can no longer be considered wholesome. Besides, the fear of theological liberalism, so frequently voiced at present, is often more a reflex of this immigrant psychology of preserving what we have’ than a legitimate fear elicited by actual threat. Indeed, the greatest damage and threat to genuine orthodoxy stems from this fear. It is this insistence on ecclesiastical and theological insularity that causes our theology to stagnate and atrophy, which in turn causes our more lively theological minds, many of whom now pursue study in American and European seminaries and universities, to read the mare liberal theological works with the relish of hungry appetites, and to find our own theology by comparison quite warmed-up and cooked-over. Theological hunger will feed on what is available. Unless our theology comes alive and constructively progressive, we shall soon see the day when Barth’s Dogmatik in English is devoured with relish, without the refined, discriminating taste connoisseurs exercise only when not excessively hungry. Barth and many others have raised new questions which our old answers do not answer, not because they are old or wrong, but because they do not fit the new form of the question. We cannot therefore rely on the old psychology of ‘holding the fort’ and ‘keeping what we have’ for the indications are already present that it will not hold tho fort nor keep what we have. He that hath eyes, let him see” (p. 5.).

This rather extensive quotation cans for several comments. First of all, we naturally agree that holding the fort and keeping what we have are not going to save the day; but we ought to launch an all-out, full-scale attack against Barth, Brunner, Tillich, Bultman, Ferre, and others—the modem perverters of the Gospel—as Paul did in his day. We agree that a policy of isolation, in the sense of avoiding contact and conflict, would be dangerous to our theological health. However, we would not go so far as to say that training our children in separate schools is isolationism and having separate labor organizations is withdrawing from the conflict. The former is simply a recognition of the spiritual warfare to which we with our children have been called in the covenant. It is simple prudence to train the recruits of Christ in a camp where his manual of arms is used and where the officers have taken an oath of allegiance to him.

However, is the attitude of holding the fort (apart from the fact that it does not go far enough) in itself wrong? Does not the exalted Lord, through the apostle John on Patmos, say with great emphasis, “Hold fast that which thou hast”? And is not this the consistent call of the gospels and the epistles, to persevere to the end, to continue in the words of Christ and the apostles, to stand fast in Christian liberty, to put on the whole armor of God for the purpose of standing against the wiles of the devil? Paul especially warns his son, Timothy, to hold the pattern of sound words which he had heard from his spiritual mentor; to guard that good thing which he had received. as well as committing it to faithful men for transmission. Because grievous times are coming and imposters shall wax worse and worse, Timothy must abide in the things he has learned and has been assured of for the time will come when men shall have itching ears, and will turn away from the truth. Keeping the faith and guarding that which was committed loomed large in the final testament of Paul.

We have been hearing altogether too much of the “fear-psychology” argument of late. The same people who refuse to apply the term militant to our relationship to the world and to the Christian walk in this world are scoffing at fear. But in warfare, as every good line officer knows, fear is a very important protective factor. Unless the soldier is cautioned by fear not to expose himself, unless he senses danger of am bush, he will not last long enough to make a forward push and to make contact with the enemy. Only a fool knows no fear. So also in the spiritual warfare it is a sign of foolhardiness and lack of spiritual discernment to deprecate fear, as though it were unworthy of the Christian soldier.

It is our experience that the fear of theological liberalism is not simply a reflex of the immigrant mind; it is a realistic appraisal of the world in which we live. For in that world practically all the churches have more or less departed from the faith of the fathers. It would be very unrealistic to think that we as a Church are immune to the blandishments of the modern mind. To deny that ours is a “legitimate fear, elicited by actual threat” is like crying from the watchtower, “Peace, Peace,” when there is no peace. This tends to put the defenders upon the walls to sleep with the fatal delusion that all is well. This breeds indifference, complacency, and spiritual pride.

Immigrant Production

We have one further observation with regard to this fear and defensive mood as the natural reaction of the small immigrant Church and as the major reason for our unproductiveness. We do not believe that this can be established as fact. The facts are quite otherwise. Our Church is not as unproductive as she has been made to appear. Neither were the immigrants fearful to the degree of theological sterility. In fact, it is the immigrants that have been productive. To prove this we shall take the liberty of following Daane’s example and include in the discussion the legitimate sons of our Church who have produced their works while no longer members of our communion.

First of all, let us pay tribute to the memory of Dr. Geerhardus Vos, who was a bona-fide son of our Church and himself an immigrant. This man was a professor at our seminary and then taught at Princeton for many years. He gave a real stimulus to the development of Biblical Theology in our country and his class lectures were deemed so important that Eerdmans recently published them. This is the area in which we are said to have produced nothing! But Vos also wrote on the covenant of grace, the nature of the kingdom and the Church, and Pauline eschatology. He produced an important work in New Testament scholarship: The Self-Disclosure of Jesus, and for many years he contributed learned articles to the Princeton Theological Review and . other scholarly periodicals. His lectures on Dogmatics were published about fifty years ago.

Then there was the late Professor Louis Berkhof, who produced a Biblical Hermeneutics and whose Dogmatics is world renowned, being used in various seminaries and Bible schools throughout the world. This man was an immigrant who knew the modern mind. He wrote many shorter works—for example, on the Kingdom of God and modern liberal trends and kept on writing until the day of his death for the instruction of God’s people. If there be those who scoff at the labors of this pioneer, as though he were merely a compiler of “theological lore,” Jet them give us a theological monument that excels his. Let no one say that Berkhof was an isolationist or that he was fearful and faint-hearted!

Another redoubtable immigrant, who has been very productive while holding the fort and maintaining the faith, as he conceives of it, is Professor Herman Hoeksema of the Protestant Reformed Seminary. This man has produced prodigiously. While pastoring his people he taught many subjects to his theological students and managed to write a ten-volume commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism and a complete Dogmatics, which is available at his Seminary. Hoeksema is no mean exegete and dogmatician, but neither has he neglected biblical theology, as may be seen from the articles he has written for the last thirty or more years in The Standard Bearer. Although we believe Hoeksema’s rejection of Common Grace vitiates his work at many points and we must agree with Professor John Murray that he sometimes commits exegetical violence, we must acknowledge that he has been theologically productive.

Another immigrant who was productive in his special field in theology was the late Professor Diedrich H. Kromminga. This man wrote a history of our own denomination not only but also a history of the whole Church, while toward the end of his life he produced a study in eschatology.

Then there is Dr. William Hendriksen, also an immigrant, who has been lecturing and writing on the last things for many years. One of the best sellers in this field is More Than Conquerors, which has been on the market about twenty years. Dr. Hendriksen has also written a Bible History and is now engaged single-handedly in producing a New Testament Commentary.

Since Daane has made reference in his article to my name-sake at Westminster Theological Seminary, I want to include the contribution that has been made at that place by sons of our Church. When J. Gresham Machen organized Westminster in the summer of 1929 and shortly thereafter, he called three Christian Reformed men to be members of the staff: Professor R. B. Kuiper, Dr. Ned B. Stonehouse, and Dr. Cornelius Van Til. Two of these also happen to be immigrants, but neither has ever been accused, as far as I know, of fearfulness because of it.

All three of these men have stood in the front ranks of the Reformed faith and have sought and found contact with the enemy. R. B. Kuiper, Professor and President-Emeritus of our Seminary, not only served Calvin College as president, but also, after he transferred to Westminster as Professor of Homiletics, he became chairman of that faculty upon the death of Machen in 1937. He is the author of many books, articles, and pamphlets, and a major work on the Church has just appeared from his pen.

Dr. Stonehouse has been teaching at Westminster since its founding in 1929. He has produced several scholarly works in the field of New Testament studies, has been very active in establishing ecumenical relationships, has given the Tyndale Lecture on Pauls Areopagus Address and has written a religious biography of his friend and mentor, Dr. Machen: Valiant for Truth. At present Stonehouse is serving as editor-in-chief of the new conservative international commentary on the New Testament. With almost thirty years of teaching to his credit the present chairman of the New Testament department is a comparatively young man from whom great things may still be expected.

With respect to Dr. Cornelius Van Til, it can be said that he is well-known in the Christian Reformed Church, having received at one time or another appointments to the chairs of Philosophy, Dogmatics and Apologetics in our institutions. During almost thirty years of teaching he has produced a distinctive Apologetics of the Refonned Faith, which is recognized here and abroad. Ten years ago, under the title The New Modernism, the author attacked Karl Barth and analyzed his philosophic roots and presuppositions and showed that Barthianism is not historically Christian, much less Reformed. This judgment was just now confirmed by Dr. Mueller (see above) who says, “Cornelius Van Til, after all, was right when he judged neo-orthodoxy to be a new form of liberalism, and he was supported in this view by Charles Clayton Morrison, as we shall show later” (p. 9).

Furthermore, this son of our Church has written on Common Grace, has contributed many articles and book reviews to various popular and scholarJy periodicals, the latest being a contribution to a symposium in “Religion in Life,” in which he was asked, along with. Tillich and others, to appraise N. Ferre’s evaluation of the state of theology today. We shall not dwell on the extensive class notes, which have been run off on modern reproduction machinery and deal with Apologetics, Metaphysics, Epistemology, Psychology, Ethics, Prolegomena to Systematic Theology, etc.

Theological Appetite

We venture one more observation with respect to Dr. Daane’s charge that the mind of fear is the “greatest damage and threat to genuine orthodoxy.” Presumably our students are voraciously devouring liberal theological works because they are being fed on warmed-up and cooked-over fare at home. Says Daane, “Theological hunger will feed on what is available” (p. 5).

But is this a fact? Is theological appetite a neutral thing? Is it so undiscerning and promiscuous in its tastes? Does not a Reformed theological appetite have a definite taste, or bias, for the truth? Does it long after the flesh-pots of Egypt garnished with leeks and onions—the dialectical vagaries of K. Barth?

Isn’t it distressingly reckless to say that “theological hunger will feed on what is available”? Have we reached the point where we must grab at any morsel of theological food, even if found in a garbage can? Does Daane’s metaphor imply such a state of near-starvation that any theological food is reached for regardless of its worth or truth? Christian scholars who have learned to discern the spirits do not, in spite of their voracious appetites, devour existentialist and dialectical theology uncritically. To allow appetite to overrule Christian caution and discernment is to follow reason instead of revelation, personal inclination instead of loyalty to truth, and is to forswear one’s allegiance (a matter of the heart) in favor of intellectual pride.

Here, of course, a little learning is a dangerous thing. A well-schooled theological appetite does not find satisfaction in mere availability. If we have drunk deeply at the springs provided in our Reformed heritage, we shall have become connoisseurs before we cut our teeth on the dialectical biscuits of Barth with their “unintelligible, contradictory pronouncements,” as Mueller says so pointedly.