Reformation in Secular Sixty-Seven

As this issue arrives it will be time for the annual round of Reformation Day rallies, These are good meetings, generally, and we always feel that the willingness of many of the Reformed community to attend them is a sign of spiritual vigor. I hope that there will be such rallies in many places this year, and that they will be well-attended, not only, but also capably and stirringly addressed by worthy representatives of reformational Christianity!

The existence of such a custom as Reformation Day rallies does not necessarily prove very much, of course. Harvey Cox says it very simply in the book everyone quotes these days, The Secular City: “Cultural impulses continue to work long after their sources have been forgotten.”1 At best only a fraction of the members of the Christian Reformed churches, for example, make it a point to attend such gatherings, Perhaps the greater share of the people whose names make up the membership rosters never in their lifetime take part in the singing of Martin Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress” at such a meeting, betraying thereby very little concern for the significance of the Reformation.

Could anything else be expected in a day when observers and commentators everywhere are telling us that Christianity in general and Protestantism in particular is of little count in our time? This is the Age of the Secular City, says Cox, and he couldn’t be much more explicit than this as he tells us that

The forces of secularization have no serious interest in persecuting religion. Secularization simply bypasses and undercuts religion and goes on to other things. It has relativized religions world-views and thus rendered them innocuous. Religion has been privatized. It has been accepted as the peculiar prerogative and point of view of a particular person or group, Secularization has accomplished what fire and chain could not; It has convinced the believer that he could be wrong, and persuaded the devotee that there are more important things than dying for the faith. The gods of traditional religions live on as private fetishes or the patrons of congenial groups, but they play no role whatever in the public life of the secular metropolis.2

I re-read recently an article by 1. A. Diepenhorst which appeared in the March, 1955 issue of the Free University (Amsterdam) Quarterly. Its title was, “Has Christianity still a Task in Europe?” Diepenhorst’s general observation is terribly discouraging, “The Church is not honored, faith not respected and Christianity not counted as an invaluable asset of society everywhere on our continent.” This rather clumsy sentence (translated, I guess, from an original Dutch text) means to say that the day of great influence on the part of the Christian religion in Europe is past. And since Europe is still of paramount significance for the life and culture of our Western world, this can only cause alarm!

It is doubtful, of course, if anyone reading this article really needed help from Cox and Diepenhorst to discover that this is not a time of prosperity for the faith. It does seem as if the churches of Reformed persuasion arc often maintaining cultural impulses “long after their sources have been forgotten.” It is hard to find people who have much Biblical and creedal self-consciousness these days. We have relativized most everything, which means that we who profess undying opposition to all opponents of the Reformed Faith can be found looking to these very enemies for our spiritual stimulation and inspiration.

This brings me to what I hope will he a point for necessary discussion as we think of Reformation Day 1967. Please note that Cox says that today’s world no longer shows interest in persecution. Not that it has repented of such horrid things, but because it feels that such effort is not worth the candle. The effect of a secularized life is to make all things relative and one’s faith purely a personal or group characteristic. I accept this analysis lip to a point, and it seems evident to me that much of today’s expression on the part of “spiritual leaders” is a frantic effort to get back into a position of importance.

This is true of us, too, don’t you think? I’ve heard ministers of the Christian Reformed Church say that they were out to get “the Christian Reformed Church on Main Street.” For such people the attraction of the World Council of Churches is that we would then get in on the discussion taking place in the world’s ecclesiastical forum. It has even been suggested that the people “on the outside” are just waiting with baited breath for our witness. What a shame that we are shackled to all kinds of restrictions grounded in old-fashioned, isolationistic ideas. After all, we don’t have all that is good and true, do we? Why not share what we have, and listen to the rest?

Does the Reformation offer any kind of answer to such sentiments?

Reformation and Prophecy

It is true that the Reformation cannot be understood except in terms of the unfettered Word and the prophetic witness it always engenders.

The Bible is open. No man may close it. No institution may restrain the Word. No tradition may be allowed to curb its full and free movement. No power structure may delimit its truth “since the truth is above all” (Belgic Confession, Art. VII). All men, singly or collectively, all organizations of men, all human thought and action must serve, minister the Word.

Paul, moved by the same Spirit who inspired the sacred Scriptures, looked at the chains of his own Christian affliction to say, “the Word is not chained” (II Tim. 2:9). “For the Word that God speaks is alive and active: it cuts more keenly than any two-edged sword: it strikes through to the place where soul and spirit meet, to the innermost intimacies of a man’s being: it exposes the very thoughts and motives of a man’s heart” (Heb. 4:12, 13, Phillips).

Now we understand why the Reformation could take place, and why reformation does take place! ( For if reformation does not now take place, then the Reformation is just another historical monument of some interest to certain people who, somehow, concern themselves with such things.) It took place because the Word came to Luther and Calvin and others to overpower and to quicken. All praise on Reformation Day must be for God whose Word broke through the shackles of a Medieval power structure.

It is easy for us in connection with the Reformation to talk about the vices of the church and its officers. True enough, the evil practises and immoralities of the Roman Church in the days of Luther and Calvin were obvious, and cried out for correction. But we ought not to forget two things; this great cathedral of the Middle Ages was no mean edifice! The Church had succeeded to gain a place of real priority in the life of that time. The papacy was on a lofty throne, and the opinions and wishes of the Church were of primary significance in that world. And, the correction of the evils which we often speak of in connection with the Reformation did take place to a significant degree in the movement called the Counter-reformation. This means that Rome did not need Calvin and Luther and their Gospel to rid itself of such things.

I am trying to say that we must not think that the Reformation is just another reaction to an institution that had grown too large, or to a set of circumstances that called for change. The dynamic of the Reformation lies rather in the power of the Word. Through faithful prophets God’s unfettered Word was spoken, and the echo was heard round the world.

“Calvin Leader and Example”

In 1957 Prof. D. Nauta, church historian at the Free University, Amsterdam, wrote an article in Free University Quarterly under the title, “Calvin Leader and Example.” It was really an address prepared for the 75th anniversary of the foundation of the Free University (Oct. 20, 1955). Nauta recalls that one of the more appreciative voices at the time of the foundation of the university belonged to a certain Allard Pierson. His name to the contrary, he was a Netherlander (1831–1896) of some considerable standing as a philosopher, historian and theologian. He was not a Calvinist, however, nor even an orthodox Christian as we understand such terms, but an avowed liberal.

Allard Pierson was appreciative of the moral conviction, will-power and devotion of the founders of the Free University. He was not minded, however, to endorse the principles which the new university espoused. He saw no real prospect for “the possibility that the doctrine which owes its origin and its development especially to Calvin should…be made the foundation of scientific study.” In his opinion Calvin was not capable of furnishing such a doctrine. He was just another politician in the bad sense of the word, a schemer, ruthless and not worthy of respect. Nauta says,

It is not an attractive picture which Pierson gives us of Calvin. He accuses him of a superficial knowledge of Hebrew and Greek; an exegesis of a low standard; of arbitrariness and superficiality in adopting or rejecting tradition; of a propensity to availing himself of petty means, such as slander or insinuation; of following tortuous paths, for instance writing under a pseudonym and rendering too freely documents which the majority of his readers could not verify.3

This is not the place to do more than to say that Prof. Nauta takes such charges seriously, and, in the tradition of good and loyal Calvinists, offers impressive refutation. By refutation we do not mean whitewash, however! Nauta is willing to acknowledge fault in Calvin, and addresses himself basically to this question: Are the evidences of John Calvin’s weaknesses and mistakes such as to disqualify him as a respected leader and worthy example? To this question Nauta answers with a very vigorous No!

For what reason may we regard Calvin as leader and example? If he is not of an incomparably or unusually high moral and personal order, just what do we see in him that is so significant as to honor him as the chief inspiration for our Christian service?

Nauta’s answer is, in my opinion, correct and helpful. Calvin, he tells us, was a true Christian prophet. Take note of this paragraph:

(Calvin) showed himself willing to listen to the revelation of God in Holy Scripture and to the best of his ability interpret what he had heard from it to his contemporaries and to posterity. This relation to the Word of God dominated all his thought and conduct of life. It was to him not a relationship of a purely formal nature. On the contrary, he felt himself to be very directly, existentially concerned in it. He was actuated by a deep, living faith which always impelled him to search the Scriptures. His views were the result of the personal meeting which he had with the Bible. Not a single aspect presented by life—and he saw life large and wide in range would he withhold or conceal from this meeting. He felt that a demand was made on him and all his thinking and acting powers to acknowledge in everything the God of the Scriptures, to obey Him, to serve Him, to honor Him. He saw it his call and duty to be consumed in this service of God with his full personality.4

Nauta adds that because Calvin bound himself to the Word he became a worthy leader not only for his own time but for ours as well. Calvin has long slipped away into the vast ocean of time, but the Word abides forever. Calvin’s followers today sustain by faith the same contact with the Word as their long-departed leader. And by that contact they are free from any kind of Calvin-worship. Calvin’s words and practises are accepted by those who truly stand in his tradition only because and insofar as they will bear a close and repeated testing in the light of the Word.

In other words, if Christians of the Calvinistic conviction wish to leave their mark on “secular sixty-seven” they must re-consecrate themselves to the God of the Scriptures!

Prophetic Preaching

The idea of this piece is that even this secular age is penetrable by the power of the Word, and that a Church which does not relativize itself out or its very existence but holds to the truth of the Word of God will make a real impact. In this connection I think we must say a few things about preaching. Preaching, said the late Peter Eldersveld, is undergoing a process of devaluation in our time. I fear that this observation was quite accurate. I can remember a meeting of pastors at which Dr. Eldersveld had to defend the primary significance and effectiveness of preaching against a number of colleagues who rather stubbornly disagreed. Their contention was that the counselling chamber was more influential than the pulpit. The issue here is not a full-fledged either-or, of course. However, if the counselling session is going to be impressive, the pulpit had better be very strong in its required prophetic assertion. And that prophetic assertion is simply Thus saith the Lord.

This, says Harvey Cox, is not characteristic of today’s Christian churches. In place of a ringing “Thus saith the Lord” many preachers are offering an apologetic “might be wrong, but it seems to me…” Cox believes that this is chargeable to the al1pervasive secularization of modern life.

I remember asking an esteemed and veteran church leader from The Netherlands one time this question, “What would be the most effective means for the revival of spiritual life among today’s Christians?” His answer was ready and brief: “Concrete preaching.”

By “concrete preaching” he meant sermonizing that refuses to occupy the rarified territory of spiritual abstraction, preferring to grapple with the problems which face the Christian pilgrim today. This means “calling a spade a spade” in the pulpit, to borrow an expression from a rather disrespectful source. This implies that preaching will be intensely practical, fearlessly candid and explicit, and that it will deal with the problems faced by the very congregation which the preacher is facing. It is easy and comfortable to apply the truth of the Gospel to people far removed from the congregation before which one stands, but such application lacks reformational power.

Both Calvin and Luther were preachers of that caliber.

Here are a number of sentences from Calvin’s preaching:

We show and teach daily in our sermons, that God took upon Him our nature; but how do men hear them? Who is there that troubleth himself much to read the Scripture? There are very few that attend to these things; every man is occupied with his own business….If there be one day in the week reserved for religious instruction, when they have spent six days in their own business, they are apt to spend the day which is set apart for worship, in play and pastime; some rove about the fields, others go to the taverns to quaff: and there are undoubtedly at this time as many at the last mentioned place as are here assembled in the name of God.5

As for my part, I may say, that I am ashamed to preach the Word of God among you, seeing there is so much confusion and disorder manifested. And could I have my wish, I would desire God to take me out of this world. We may boast that we have a reformation among us, and that the gospel is preached to us; but all this is against us, unless we attend to the duty which God hath enjoined upon us. It is long ago that God warned us, and it is to be feared that He will speak no more in mercy, but will raise His mighty ann against us in judgment.6

Martin Luther’s vigor and forthrightness in preaching is well known. Here is one sample to exemplify his prophetic spirit:

I understand that this is the week for the church collection, and many of you do not want to give a thing. You ungrateful people should be ashamed of yourselves. You Wittenbergers have been relieved of schools and hospitals, which have been taken over by the common chest, and now you want to know why you are asked to give four pennies. They are for the ministers, school teachers, and sacristans. The first labor for your salvation, preach to you the precious treasure of the gospel, administer the sacraments, and visit you at great personal risk in the plague. The second train children to be good magistrates, judges and ministers. The third care for the poor. So far the common chest has cared for these, and now that you are asked to give four miserable pennies you are up in arms. What does this mean if not that you do not want the gospel preached, the children taught, and the poor helped? I am not saying this for myself. I receive nothing from you. I am the prince’s beggar. But I am sorry I ever freed you from the tyrants and the papists. You ungrateful beasts, you are not worthy of the treasure of the gospel. If you don’t improve, I will stop preaching rather than cast pearls before swine.

teachers, and sacristans. The first labor for your salvation, preach to you the precious treasure of the gospel, administer the sacraments, and visit you at great personal risk in the plague. The second train children to be good magistrates, judges and ministers. The third care for the poor. So far the common chest has cared for these, and now that you are asked to give four miserable pennies you are up in arms. What does this mean if not that you do not want the gospel preached, the children taught, and the poor helped? I am not saying this for myself. I receive nothing from you. I am the prince’s beggar. But I am sorry I ever freed you from the tyrants and the papists. You ungrateful beasts, you are not worthy of the treasure of the gospel. If you don’t improve, I will stop preaching rather than cast pearls before swine.

I know, these men were “children of their time,” and therefore their language was often rough and harsh. But this does not deliver us from the fact that their public preaching was marked by a prophetic fervor which was not merely a product of an uncouth, vulgar age. The Reformers were consumed with a passion for truth and integrity. And this passion came to expression in what we have labelled “concrete preaching.”

Head or Tail?

In 1922 the late K. Schilder addressed a rally of Calvinistic young men in Haarlem, speaking on the topic, “Head or Tail.” The title was borrowed from that great prophet, Isaiah, who said, “the elder and honored man is the head, and the prophet who teaches lies is the tail” (9:14). Schilder used this text in its setting to show that when a people is afflicted with false prophecy, prophecy that responds to patronage and favor rather than to the Word of the Lord, then the role of the prophet becomes something ridiculous. It is as a tail on a dumb beast, completely subordinate to the will and whim of the head. Schilder’s application was relevant then, and it is relevant today. It was this; when we as Calvinists no longer develop our own answers and our own policies out of our own principle we forfeit all possibility of being used of the Lord as leaders. We then become servile imitators. This is what 1 want to say in connection with Reformation Day in 1967, a time of secularization. Not Harvey Cox but John Calvin, not secularization but consecration, not the opinions of men but the revelation of God—these are our only hope for survival and usefulness today and always!

1. The Macmillan Co., New York, p. 17.

2. Op. Cit., p. 2.

3. Free University Quarterly, Vol. IV, No.4, p. 237.

4. Ibid. p. 256.

5. John Calvin, The Mystery of Godliness, And Other Selected Sermons, Wm. B. Eerdmans Co., Grand Rapids, p . 14.

6. Op. cit., p. 124.

7. Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand, A Life of Martin Luther, p.275.

Today many question the propriety of commemorating the Reformation as a gift of God. This is due to a lack of discernment that such commemoration should always challenge us as individuals and church to the ongoing work of reformation according to God’s Word. This alone, according to God’s Word. This alone, so writes the Rev. John H. Piersma, pastor of the First Christian Reformed Church of Pella, IA, enables us to escape the snare of secularism within the churches.