Reformation of Consequence

Tribute to a Reformer

In commemoration of the Great Reformation it is fitting to recognize John Calvin’s personal legacy to Christendom. Roger Nicole (quoting from an address by Calvin’s countryman, Emile Domnerque) writes. “John Calvin’s death occurred on May 27, 1564, toward eight o’clock in the evening. For him this was a welcome relief from an host of ailments that had burdened him for a long time. Yet in spite of almost unbearable sufferings, Calvin had taken with poise and forethought all necessary steps to prepare for his death. In February, he preached and lectured for the last time. In April, he said his farewell to the civil authorities of Geneva, and later to his fellow pastors. Late in April Calvin prepared his testament. The sum total of his property was 225 pounds, probably less than $1,000. Two days after his death, his body was brought in a simple pine box to the common cemetery of Plainpalais, Geneva. There was no ceremony, not even a stone for his grave, so that the place where he is buried is lost altogether. These were his express instructions. He did not want any monument. What he wanted was that attention should be paid to the Word of God and to the glory of God. Thus, his epitaph can be expressed in the motto that dominated the whole Reformation movement, Sola Scriptura, “total submission to the Word.”

The enormity of this theme controlled Calvin’s thinking and his life’s work. It was the basis and moving force of the Reformation. The many weaknesses which beset the Reformation in its subsequent course, and nearly ruined it, stemmed from a lack of faithfulness to the dynamic of the Scriptures.

The Genius of the Early Reformation

The early Reformers were not guilty of slogan adoration. “Sola Scriptura,” wrote Calvin in the section of “Christian Life” in his Institutes, “comes to us in the cross of Jesus Christ. If any man would be my disciple, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” Reformation is that simple and that exacting. Christ’s men and women know themselves gripped in their hearts by the regenerating power of Christ. He is in the driver’s seat and now directs the ways of that heart, its thought, emotions, works, hopes, and relationships. This doesn’t sound bad, but it had for the early Reformers all the pain of Joseph tearing himself loose from a pernicious woman’s enticement, all the agonies of soul which Daniel suffered when he refused the dainties of the king’s table thereby condemning a culture that offered him everything.

The Reformation was that radical because it had that simple God-given vision of life. Those Christian believers, against all the limitations of their day, knew the balance of personal salvation—a naked soul before God—and the subsequent obedience as all of life relates to the heart’s commitment. They knew the secret of a heart still before God in meditation as well as the ambitious vision of a God-centered culture. And, indeed, the cross of Christ is that inclusive. Every issue that springs from man’s soul is bent upward by the Cross, or it stands condemned in judgment by that Cross. Christ is the Rock on which the redeemed stands with the complete range of his concerns, and conversely, what is not founded on the Rock is ultimately crushed by that Rock. They knew the power of the totalitarian and antithetical demands of the Cross.

The Rise of Humanism

The Reformation thus forced Western civilization to a decision. For the Spirit of God came upon a benighted world and discovered it unto the Word of God. The Spirit opened the hearts of some so that they understood. The flame was small, hesitant first, then burning brightly, and then a blaze. Men and women of vision held that Word high. They held it high in palaces and barns, and the effects were unavoidable. The sixteenth century community had to take a stand. Some bowed before the Word and accepted its sway over the totality of life. Some continued the status quo in the hierarchical church of Rome. Some refused its healing power for their lives and society. Thus, Humanism entered Western civilization, never to loosen its grip on its life utterances again. Humanism’s confessed faith in man as the acme of meaning brought along its unmatched elan to prove man’s greatness. As such it latched on to whatever human imagination and industry had produced, and infused it with man-centered faith. Marco Polo had spread his tales of the Mongolian empires, Diaz had sailed Cape Hope, Columbus had discovered the New World, Cabot had traversed the American continent, Magellan had sailed the globe, Cabral had reached Brazil, Copernicus had scanned the universe, and Gutenberg had given Europe its printing presses, bringing all the exciting news within the grasp of Europe’s citizens. Humanism tuned it all to man’s supposed inherent greatness and goodness. It severed man’s work and possessions from service for God’s sake and established the absolutism of property as an end itself. It rejected authority from a Source above man and injected the drive for’ democracy with the venom of revolutionism. It took hold of the early manifestations of the Renaissance and molded the arts and letters into odes to the glory of man.

Humanism, though filled with divisiveness, contradictions and self destruction, has, nevertheless, consistently shaped Western civilization and, as a philosophy of life, has captured the loyalty of leaders in every sector of human endeavor up to the present. Today’s prevailing secularism is its offspring. The only theories of interpretation which can claim any degree of respectability in today’s academic circles are Humanist inspired.

And the Reformation Glory Departed

This much cannot be said of the further developments of either the Great Reformation or Roman Catholicism. The latter, caught in its dualism of nature and grace, though an historic force of some consequence, never affected the direction of Western civilization.

The successors of the early Reformers all too soon lost the breadth of vision of the fathers. Their interest gradually narrowed to discussions of doctrinal matters. Their strength was consumed in battling theological heresies. Their concern for life limited itself to problems of personal piety. Casuistry, Moralism and spiritualization followed in its wake. Even when Reformed theology was conducted with vigor there was a notable lack of concern for the impact of the Word of Cod on society and culture. While the Synod of Dordt was in session the great French humanist, Descartes, met with the headmaster of the Latin Academy, a few blocks away from the Synod’s meeting place, and discussed the implications of humanistic rationalism for education. While the Church triumphed doctrinally, Humanism slew its thousands in the educational world. Meanwhile Reformed theology found itself hard pressed to keep its own ground. Modernism, Anabaptism, and Pietism, and more recent trends in Fundamentalism and Neo-orthodoxism dominated and took over the scene. The Reformation world vision gradually receded to a force of little consequence in shaping the destiny of Western civilization.

The Bankruptcy of Humanism

Like a flower cannot bloom for long once it has been severed from its roots and put in a vase, so a civilization that has known the source of the Christian faith and abolished it must, sooner or later, face doom. Humanism spawned a dozen gods, and idol worship demands heavy sacrifices. “No God, no Master,” shouted the rebels in Paris’ streets, and to this day the fall-out of the great Revolution rains its blight upon the Western world. Upheaval and suffering marked the years following. Marx drew the full revolutionary consequences and his prophecy reverberated in countless hearts, “Laborers unite, you have nothing to loose but your chains.” His gospel, however, brought neither unity nor bliss. But one thing the people maintained in common, guarding it carefully: God played no role in life. “God emeritus,” Shailer Matthews called it. “They amputated God from the heart,” said Christophcr Morley, “scarcily leaving a twinge where the arteries were sewn up.” Searching for a balm for life’s many wounds, the humanists turned to science, and the positivists became humanism’s avant-garde of whom Samuel Miller said, “Everything became natural, biological, social and quite clinical to them.” And they are still with us in the universities. Observing their paganism, Paul Ramsey made a parody, Psalm 151, “O come let us sing unto sociology, let us heartily rejoice in the strength of our group consciousness.”

In the meantime the bill ran frightfully high.

A great war erupted in 1914 that wasn’t supposed to have been. “It’s all right,” the humanists said. “A war to end all war.” The Roaring Twenties followed, until they collapsed into the Dire Thirties. A new philosophy sprang up from the humanist hot bed, Fascism. They said it could not happen, but enlightened man returned to the jungle, and World War II left millions dead and maimed. It seemed that the day belonged to the gloomy existentialist, “marooned in his cellophane wrapper, filled with anxiety about death,” as someone observed, “yet drumming up enough courage to face the absurd, the gloom, the alienation,” of which Sartre spoke and Kafka and Camus too.

Life threatened to fall apart.

The theorizers sat down and said, “We need unity! Let the government provide unity!” The voices of the blind echoed gratefully, “Let the state bind us together, lest we be scattered.” Again the vacuum was filled. With benevolent concern the state saw the children of the land and decreed that they attend one school, a school on a common basis, “by leaving religion out.” If there should be parents who would maintain the God of the Bible as Author, Maker, Lawgiver, Upholder, Redeemer and Finisher of all that exists, well those parents are abnormal and they may have their own private schools, at penalty of forfeiting their legitimate share in the tax revenue.

The state looked at the world of industrial and labor relations and ruled that production, energy and money are matters upon which we are all agreed if we leave them isolated from faith. Hence, be it resolved by law that one union in one place of employment will serve all the workers best. Are there now people who say that work is not just selling energy, that the class struggle is Marxist, that work is service to God, and that justice in labor must be rooted in the Scriptures? Well, then they better come around or be excluded from work.

This is an amazing development, you say. Indeed. And it couldn’t have happened if Humanism didn’t have a parallel approach in politics which paved the legislative way for Humanism’s victory in the two most vital areas of life, learning and daily bread. The governing principle of the political parties in Anglo Saxon tradition is the same “neutrality-toward-God” ideal. We are cordially assured that “religion is wonderful in the home,” but quite unnecessary in politics and public life. There we need no more than the commonly accepted principles of good will, good sense and fair play, as summed up in Walter Lippmann’s “Public Philosophy.”

But only a few years later Lippmann had his moment of pessimistic clarity: “We ourselves were so sure that at long last a generation had arisen keen and eager to put this disorderly earth to right…and fit to do it…we meant so well, we tried so hard, and look what we have made of it. We can only muddle into muddle. What is required is a new kind of man.”

He could have heard it earlier from T. S. Eliot, “Here was a decent godless people, their only monument the asphalt road and a thousand..lost golfballs.”

Arthur Krock, veteran Washington newsman, in his forthcoming memoirs, states: “The United States merits the dubious distinction of having discarded its past and its meaning.”

The present wave of corruption, rebellion, frustration, crime, disregard for authority and life, drug addiction, racial strife, divorce and juvenile delinquency have. undoubtedly, a variety of causes, but it would be extremely shortsighted not to identify Humanism as the one deeper cause which is responsible for the distress of modern life.

Harvard University’s husband-and-wife experts on delinquency, Drs. Sheldon and Eleonore Glueck, have published a study presenting evidence that a much bigger crime wave is yet to come.

The New Reformation

Christendom must rediscover the boundless authority and power of the Word (Isaiah 40:8). Believers are strong when they live and speak from the Word. They are weak when they impose limitations on the Word. Rather, the Word must impose its own direction for use on the believing community. As Christians of the Reformation we have generally recognized the all -sufficiency of the Word in our personal salvation. We confess that the Holy Spirit overwhelms us with the Word in regeneration, repentance, and faith.

When it comes, however, to applying the Word to broader life. and especially to society around us, differences spring up in the Reformed community.

There are some who accept the Word for personal guidance in their role in life and society. Armed with it they enter upon society and sit down with the Humanists to map out the direction of a course of action, design policies and strategy, and figure out solutions for problems.

There are other believers, however, who reject this course of action. To be sure they are deeply aware of the fact that Christians must move into the world and have all sorts of contacts with unbelievers with whom they share a great task in society. But for them it is very important at which stage they enter into this contact. They feel that the Word of God must have full sway in the whole process of studying its application to life and society.

Thus, as believers, they isolate themselves with the Word of God when it comes to designing the Christian philosophy of life and society. Though paying careful attention to the Humanist, they, as a Christian community, want to be alone with the Word, as they ponder in its Light the direction of society, the problems of the day, and the policies and solutions that are suggested from its midst. Thus, in togetherness, in complete submission to the Word of God, they avail themselves of the sovereign power of the Word of God at all levels of consideration. And only then, when the Word has spoken at every step along the way, do these Christians feel prepared to enter the societal arena, assume their responsibilities, and take part in deliberations with other groupings in society. Their actions and their message at this stage have been tuned to the Word of God; it is the outcome of that Christian community’s wrestling with the Word of God. Though the proposals of the Christian community may not be accepted by society at large, the Word, nevertheless has had its sway; society has then rejected God. The outcome of it all can be safely left in the hand of God. This means that, in order for the Word to be voiced consistently and pertinently we need an organized Christian social movement in the various major areas of life. such as polities, labor and industrial relationships, science and arts, as we have them already in education in the form of Christian schools and colleges.

Such a Reformation will not strive for earthly strongholds. Communal faithfulness to the Word of God, at all levels, may lead to persecution, although it must be kept in mind that such solidified Christian action has tremendous blessings in store for the nation which even the Humanist may well discern and recognize.

The New Reformation, if it is to be a Reformation of consequence, will have to agree not to accept any limitations on the full sovereignty of the Word over the entire range of human experiences and relationships. It must refuse the Humanist’s invitation to conduct deliberations within the framework of his organized neutralistic establishment. Only that dialogue in society is worthwhile and of benefit to society when the Kingdom Community speaks with authenticity and relevance. It is only an organized Christian social movement that can produce that type of dialogue. Thus, also, not a few individuals, but the whole Christian community comes to grips with applying the Word to the broader aspects of life. This, in turn, will present a great challenge to the Church. The people will turn to the Church hungering for the Word. They will eagerly seek the strengthening of their faith and fellowship with other believers. True Reformation begins within the Church of Christ. From there, in great personal holiness and devotion, the members go into life, and, in the unity of the Body of Christ, with the audacity of the early Reformers, they hold high that Word of God in society. The New Reformation is that big, that simple, and that radical, a Reformation of consequence.

Rev. Louis M. Tamminga is pastor of Bethel Christian Reformed Church, Sioux Center, Iowa.