Prescription for Church Renewal?

Herewith is the review by Rev. Peter De Jong, pastor of the Dutton (Mich.) Christian Reformed Church, of the 255-page book, Will All the King’s Men . . . (Out of Concern for the Church Phase II) including essays by James H. Olthuis, Hendrik Hart, John Van Dyk, Arnold De Graaff, Calvin Seerveld, Bernard Zylstra, John A. Olthuis. (Wedge Publishing Foundation, 229 College St., Toronto 2B, Ontario, Canada, $3.95.)

In the past many of us have been attracted by and given support to the Association for the Advancement of Christian Scholarship (AACS) because of its expressed design to promote “scripturally directed higher learning.” As the movement developed, however, we became disillusioned with it. Contributing toward this disillusionment was the book issued in 1970 by leaders of the movement under the title Out of Concern. For the Church. The sweeping and often irresponsible charges, destructive direction and inflammatory style of the book turned many away from the movement and alienated former supporters. In 1972 Will All the Kings Men . . . appeared, largely written by the same authors, with the avowed, more constructive aim of proceeding “from protest to contribution.” Does the book achieve this intention? How shall we evaluate its “contribution”?

The Common Theme

The reader soon observes that the style is considerably more subdued than that of the earlier volume, but what must we say of the content? R. L. Carvill in his Introduction informs us that the book will offer “an agenda for reformation of the church today.” The writers contend that the “church” has become identified with and limited to an institution with its building, organization of pastors, elders, and deacons, and its meetings and agencies. Men have largely lost from sight that, as J. H. Olthuis expresses it, “The Church is the Communion of People who rule and serve in the Kingdom of Christ,” an area as wide as the world. In this vast Kingdom the “institutional church” is only one of many “rooms.” As Zylstra puts it, this “loss of the biblical vision of the Kingdom of God is the heart disease of the churches today.” Each of the writers in his own way suggests how the “institutional church” should be changed and put back in its Own, limited place to make its big aim the encouragement of all Christians, the real Church, to serve God everywhere.

Developing the Theme

In endeavoring to make this case James H. Olthuis denies that there was any organized church in Bible times or that the offices of minister, elder, and deacon can be properly traced to the church found in the Bible. Christian workers, for example, must bring their witness in the world, “a witness ‘free’ from the tentacles of the institutional church . . . .” This means all kinds of change for “New hearts will mean new forms.” “We have been given the Keys of the Kingdom in our various offices as parents, statesmen, teachers, politicians, etc.”

In the same vein Hendrik Hart suggests that observing Sunday as the official and special day of worship lacks biblical ground (p. 42), and that the Church Order as we trace it from the Synod of Dordt to the present is “a telling example of the cultic narrowing of the church” which needs correction, and that the current views of office in the church need drastic overhauling.

John Van Dyk attempts to trace this narrowing of the view of the church and the loss of “kingdom vision” through history. In the course of his survey he minimizes the significance of and deplores the theological controversies that have brought division, and Van Dyk suggests that recapturing the Kingdom vision may be expected to bring life to the church and to the world. In the course of his sweeping survey he suggests that the French Revolution was largely the result of the church’s “failure to bring bring the shalom of the Lord to a civilization that seemed stubbornly and apostately bent on bankruptcy.”

One can’t help observing that such a judgment takes no notice whatever of the Huguenot evangelical movement in France which was killed off or driven out in the massacre of St. Bartholomew, and which can therefore hardly be blamed for a lack of subsequent activity and that this also ignores the fact, which historians such as Halevy have stressed, Ulat the evangelical revival in England was extremely influential through such influential Christian statesman as Wilberforce in correcting abuses there which might otherwise have brought a similar revolution to England. To simply accuse the church in those times of “hiding within the institutional church, within the privacy of church walls and the safety of theologlcal doctrine,” is a gross misrepresentation, as unchantable as it is erroneous (p. 95).

Next Arnold De Graaff takes up the theme, observing that: “Already in the second century things went radically wrong. Instead of faithfully opposing and rejecting the Greco-Roman way of life, many newly converted Christians began to accommodate the Christian faith to pagan patterns of thinking and living. As a result, their commitment to Christ slowly became limited to the areas of worship, doctrine and morality. Instead of a people with a new way of life for the healing of the world, the people of Cod became a church-going and worshipping people preoccupied with doctrinal controversies. They lost the biblical view of the Christian life. Except for brief periods of reformation and renewal, the Christian community never completely recovered the scriptural view of life as service to God.”

The above is De Graaff’s well-stated indictment. His proposal to correct this state of affairs includes a criticism of the “marks” of the church as formulated in the Reformation (gospel preaching, proper sacraments, and discipline) suggesting that they be replaced with one: “whether or not the gospel of the Kingdom in its central meaning for all of life is preached, that is the norm by which a church must be judged” (p. 101). Accordingly worship should be radically changed to leave Christians free to express their “guilt . . . doubt . . . fear . . . love . . . hope.”

“Considering what we have learned during the last centuries about the nature of education and communication, we can only conclude that our present forms of preaching and teaching are very inadequate.” The Lord’s Supper too “should not be surrounded by a lot of explanations and self-examinations” which “may have been necessary at the time of the Reformation,” but “now . . . stand in the way of celebration.” (Apparently Paul’s views in I Cor. 11 too are historically out-dated!) Our church confessions too, mere “time-conditioned documents drawn up by believers with a certain, limited level of spiritual insight into the scriptures” narrow the Christian life and “lack a clear Kingdom vision,” and worse, they “reflect” the theological “controversies of their time of origin.” We need a new creed, drawn up along the lines of the AACS “educational creeds” to “draw a scattered and divided Christianity together.”

Calvin Seerveld thereupon, in language that at times stoops to obscenity or profanity, even in translating the Scriptures (pp. 132, 133), and tries to make sex explicit where the scriptures do not (pp. 134, 135) also urges that for renewal the church needs “prophetic proclamation in the language of the day.” Worship too needs to be loosened up even to having “a gifted child thank the Lord in the middle of the congregation” and having children take part in the Lord’s Supper. Christian activity must become more ecumenical. This “renewal of church communion is not for the sake of the churches but for healing the world at large, because this is what makes God happy!”

Weighing the Charge

What must one say about this reiterated charge that the church through the centuries has become narrowed down to one institution and lost the vision of God’s Kingdom and its duty in all of life, and that this lost vision and drive must be restored?

That the church often through its history has manifested this weakness cannot be denied. My observation over many years has been that the “office of believers” in the church’s history and in the present time has usually not been recognized as it should be.

At the same time this case should not be overstated. Such a hymn as “Take my life and let it be Consecrated, Lord, to Thee” was not composed by the AACS, and the generations of Christians who have been singing it for a hundred years were not all hypocrites who promptly forgot it when they left the church door. The sanctification of the church has at no point been complete—any more than it is in the AACS—but John Knox and his followers, who were used to transform to an almost unbelievable degree the life of Scotland, can hardly be accused of hiding behind the wall of the church building.

The Problem: Word or Kingdom?

Louis Berkhof was advocating Christian labor organization before these gentlemen who foolishly slander the theology he taught as lacking Kingdom vision were even born.

The main problem with the AACS call for church renewal lies not in the question about whether or how badly renewal is needed, but in the question as to what is to guide the direction and character of that renewal.

In words that sounds like the plea of the Reformers the writers of this book repeatedly urge the church to return to the Word of God. They would turn from tradition and confession back to the Bible. It docs not take one long to discover, however, that this Word of God to which they would have us return and which they claim as their guide is not really the Bible. Bernard Zylstra, in his essay entitled “Thy Word Our Life,” takes up this basic matter. He begins by stating that “the theme of the Kingdom of God is central in the scriptures” and that he will therefore “focus mainly on the scriptural context within which the theme of the Kingdom or God appears. I hope that this approach will contribute to meaningful discussion about the very way in which we are to understand the Bible today.”

In other words, we are informed that the “Kingdom” is basic and that the Bible will be understood in relation to it. This “Kingdom” therefore is to determine our view of the Bible rather than the Bible determining our view of the Kingdom! Someone might object, “Aren’t you quibbling? Does it make any difference whether we start with the Kingdom and proceed from it to the Kingdom? Don’t we arrive at the same place?” The answer is that we do not!

In the first case, if we begin with a certain notion of the Kingdom and proceed to see what in the Bible we can relate to it, we are not really being guided by the Bible at all but by our pre-conceived notion of Kingdom. Despite Dr. Zylstra’s and the other writers’ at times profuse reference to the Scriptures, it is evident throughout the essays that it is the AACS philosophical view of the “Kingdom” rather than the Scriptures that control the discussion. In fact we are repeatedly told that if we do not approach the Scriptures from this point of view we do not understand them.

Which Word?

Proceeding from this “Kingdom” approach this book tells us that “The Bible speaks of the Kingdom of God in two basic ways. First it is the Reign of God over the creation by His Word; second, it is the Realm where this Word is heard, obeyed and done. An understanding of the nature of the Kingdom therefore requires insight into the nature of the Word of God and the character of creation and its history.

Since the Bible speaks of ‘Word of God’ in at least four distinct, though closely interrelated ways, the theme of the Kingdom of God (as Reign) can be dealt with as the theme of the Word of God: (1) for creation, (2) for the history of redemption, (3) incarnate in Jesus Christ, and (4) for the New Testament Church.”

Having assumed, without at this time any biblical evidence, these at least four forms of the word of God, the writer speaks of “the word for creation” observing that “all reflection of the nature of the word of God, must, I think begin here.” We are told that “God’s Word is His power creating all things . . . upholding all things . . . directing all things, once created, to their divinely destined end. It is the very life of all things. ‘In Him was life’ (John 1:4). In a humanly halting way one might describe the Word as God’s calling creation into being-for-service” (p. 154).

In the light of these many “forms” of the Word of God, beginning from creation, traced through the history of redemption, considered as incarnate in Christ, communicated through the New Testament church, we are warned against misunderstanding the Bible and the plainly subordinate role that must be assigned to it: “The Word, as we have said earlier, is God’s power creating all things. The Word, after sin, is God’s power reconciling creation to its original relation with the Creator. That reconciliation is founded on Christ, the Word made flesh. The Word is the gospel, the power of God for salvation. What then is the Bible? The Bible is tile infallible record of the Word of God. Hence the Bible is the Word of God” (p. 182).

From this point of view regarding the Bible the writer goes on to criticize the modern liberals’ denial of the authority of the Bible as God’s Word because of their humanistic downgrading of creation and history. Even more sharply he criticizes the view found in orthodox theological circles that the Bible is looked upon as the Word of God because it contains ‘propositional truth,’ that is, rational verbal statements that are true in and of themselves.” He deplores especially the tendency revealed in current discussion of the Bible’s authority to regard it as “the Word of God, only and exclusively.” (One recalls the affirmative answer given by every officer in the CRC church at his installation to the question: “Do you believe the Old and New Testament to be the only Word of God . . . ?) This view Dr. Zylstra condemns as “undermining the authority of the scriptures,” making them a “closed book” because “the immensely rich variety of ways in which the Bible employs the phrase ‘Word of God’ simply does not enter the arguments of the reductionists. They seem to believe in the Bible rather than in God who reveals His word in the Bible. They seem to be more concerned with a theology of rational propositional truth than doing the truth, doing the Word” (p. 184).

Eliminating the Irrelevant

In order to see the issues clearly we must first quickly try to clear away the important but irrelevant matters that arc being dragged in to obscure them. We must, of course, not lift texts out of their setting if we are to understand them. We must not do that with human writings; much less must we do that with the Word of God. (Incidentally it is not those concerned with orthodoxy who particularly do this—this book abounds with examples of such misuse of texts in disregard of context!)

And we must as James says, “Be . . . doers of the word, and not hearers only, deluding your own selves.” (And at this point I can’t avoid recalling the incongruity of Seerveld’s call for respect for God’s Word while resorting to obscenities and profanity!) To try to make these important considerations a ground, as Zylstra does, for denying that the Bible includes propositional truths is to create nothing but confusion and to play into the hands of the liberal attack on the Bible.

The Bible Includes Propositions

For a half century or more a favorite liberal tactic has been to attack all Christian doctrines because faith is said to be not propositional, capable of being expressed in words or statements, but rather a relation to a person. On this point, instead of parroting such liberal cliches as these writers of this book seem to do, we ought to join with Dr. J. Gresham Machen in observing that the Bible (Heb. 11:6) teaches, “He that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him . . .” “The words, ‘God is’ . . . constitute a proposition. There could be no plainer insistence upon the doctrinal or intellectual basis of faith.” “Confidence in a person is more than intellectual assent to a series of propositions about a person, but it always involves those propositions, and becomes impossible the moment they are denied” (Machen, What Is Faith, pp. 47, 48).

What Does the Bible Say About Itself?

The most serious deficiency of the whole book and of the Zylstra lecture in particular is that although they call the church to return to the Word of God and propose to show us the way to do that, they nowhere devote any attention whatever to what the Bible says about itself as the Word of God! The immense difference between what might and should be said and this total neglect of it becomes apparent if one compares this lecture on “the Word” with one Dr. Norman Shepherd gave on “The Bible as the Word of God” at Trinity College in January 1972 in a discussion with some AACS representatives and others.

Shepherd’s 40-page paper was a careful exegetical study of what the Bible itself has to say on the subject. In the light of his survey of what the Bible says, Dr. Shepherd concluded: “There appears to be no place in Scripture where the expression Word of God or something like it is used for creation. The scriptural base for this figurative use of word of God is extremely narrow especially in view of the overwhelming usage of word of God to refer to the word revelation of God and his will.” “It is not without sensitivity to the biblical pattern of thought that the church virtually limits its application of Word of God to the word revelation of the gospel, especially as the gospel is embodied in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments.”

Shepherd observes further that although “there are three passages in the New Testament where the expression Word, Word of Life, and Word of God are used to refer to Jesus Christ,” “the infrequency of the designation in the Scriptures ought to teach us to observe care and reserve in our use of the expression with reference to Christ The Bible is the Word of God. It is not human witness about Christ, deriving its authority from its content, and thereby becoming Word of God to those of us who believe Scripture is the Father’s witness to his Son and it is the Son’s witness to himself . . . The word of God must be preached, but the preaching does not as such become the word of God.”

The Wrong Word a Bad Guide

In other words, careful study of what the Bible says about itself just leaves no grounds for the AACS’ basic assumption of many forms of the Word of God and the minimization of the Bible as just one, an older, “time-bound” one of them. The AACS view of the Bible falls very far short of recognizing it as the exclusive divinely inspired and authoritative book that it claims itself to be. Their “Word of God” to which they would have us turn for guidance for personal, church, and social renewal is not the clear book that the Reformers read but a composite and confused product of many forms of “revelation,” including man’s changing theories about the universe, to use De Graaff’s words: “What we have learned during the last centuries about the nature of education and communication,” in short, whatever subjective opinions or impressions Christians may think they have reached under the guidance of the Spirit!

After so pointedly downgrading and setting aside the Scriptures it should surprise no one that these men who set themselves up as guides to the new reformation of the church should prove to be such erring guides. When it so misuses the Scriptures it is not surprising that this movement, instead of pursuing its announced aim at “scripturally directed higher learning,” leads students away from the Bible; that although beginning as a “philosophy of law,” it promotes lawlessness; that calling for church union it breeds division; that its call for holiness even slips into profanity and obscenity. These are not the “fruits of the Spirit.” This is not the way the Lord has reformed or will reform His church.

Whose Word and Kingdom?

When in the concluding appeal John Olthuis envisions a people of God separated from all the doctrines that cause denominational differences becoming a “healing,” “contributing Christian communal presence in society,” it becomes evident that the Kingdom which is being promoted with such dedication differs remarkably from that of which our Lord preached when He said, “Think ye that I am come to give peace on earth? I tell you, Nay, but rather division” (Luke 12:51).

The Lord who commanded us to confess Him before men, never told us to reduce His Kingdom to an attempt to make “healing” “contributions” to solve the problems of a society that continues in revolt against Him and is in trouble under His judgments. The “enmity” God put between His Kingdom and that of the devil will not just evaporate if one can only hit upon the right “Kingdom” formula. The “Kingdom” that would be established by bridging those differences is not the kingdom of Christ, but another misdirected effort to synthesize the gospel and paganism, which these men themselves condemn in earlier ages of the church. A real renewal of the Church to prepare it to make a real testimony to the gospel of the Kingdom must, as the Apostle Paul forewarned us (II Tim. 3:13–17) return to “the Holy Scriptures which are able to make men wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus,” and because the Scriptures are “inspired of God” they qualify the believer to be “the man of God . . . complete, furnished completely for every good work.”

Let us labor and pray that many who have been misled by the devil like Peter into “minding not the things of God but the things of men” (Matt. 16:23) may be delivered from current forms of subjectivism including that promoted by the AACS, and brought back to know and obey the gospel of Christ which includes “all things that pertain to life and godliness” (II Peter 1:3; cf. 19–21).