Reply to My Friend


In recent years the editors of TORCH AND TRUMPET have made clear their desire to awaken and promote a truly reformational concern in the hearts and lives of our readers. We have done so in the conviction that we must defend the Reformed faith and, at the same time, hold before our readers a positive direction for the expression of a biblical, reformational commitment concerned to meet the varied challenge of our age. We trust that this desire has reflected itself in the pages of our magazine.

In endeavoring to realize our desire we have taken grateful note of the significant reformational thought and writing of men connected with the Association for the Advancement of Christian Scholarship, and have included the articles of some of these men in our magazine. We have done so in full awareness that there are questions in the minds of some as to the positions and attitudes of many who are leaders of the A.A.C.S. These questions have been raised also in our meetings and have been the subject of an ongoing discussion in our fellowship and editorial board.

Many of the issues we have discussed are considered in the following article by Dr. P. Y. De Jong. His “friend” asks questions which others are asking. And, while it must be clear that the answers given are those of Dr. De Jong, we have decided to place this article because we appreciate the honest and loving spirit in which Dr. De Jong writes and his obvious eagerness to promote unity and understanding. We earnestly desire to have all those who are concerned to promote the cause of biblical reformation, including representatives of the A.A.C.S., to enter into an open discussion and consideration of the issues raised. We open our pages to such discussion, with the prayer that the Kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ will thus be promoted and advanced.



Some questions concerning the relation between AACS positions and the “old” Calvinistic life- and world-view.

Yesterday I received a letter from an old friend in Canada.

She is a veteran teacher in our Christian schools. When Christian Education was far from popular in that country she expended time and talent in this cause of the Lord. In several places she spearheaded the establishment and development of such schools in such a competent way that these have become flourishing, reputable educational institutions.

Well, why did she write?

Her heart is burdened. She and others are being told with vehemence by some leaders in the AACS (Association for the Advancement of Christian Studies) that her understanding and application of God’s will to life is hopelessly erroneous. According to them she hasn’t found the key to meaning, namely, that “all life is religion.” And this disturbs her deeply. As someone with a vital, dynamic faith in the gospel as God’s power unto salvation for all of life, she is confused. With these proponents of the “new” way she has been engaged in frequent discussion. But apparently none of them has been able to clarify where the difference lies between their position and hers. Since this has troubled not only her but also several of the churches and schools especially in Ontario, she wonders if I as her friend and former minister can assist in clarifying the situation. In fact, she requests not simply a personal letter but “an article in TORCH AND TRUMPET,” since many committed believers have become “as confused on this matter” as she.

Now this is a big order. Still more, it promises to be a difficult and even somewhat distasteful task. For here we find two “groups” belonging largely to the same confessional church and professing the same Reformed faith pitted against each other. To discuss the issues involved, even in a simple and somewhat superficial manner, requires raising the rug and uncovering matters which seem to have been swept under it for a season. Apparently we are confronted with additional evidence that by no means all is well within the Christian Reformed churches; that increasing polarizations are undermining the believing fellowship to produce alienation, misunderstanding and what to all practical purposes looks like schism.

Yet we make no progress by ignoring situations such as these. Here sins of omission can only contribute to increasing estrangement and frustration. Since some of the matters have been discussed in the public press and exist in the form of pressures where seemingly like-minded believers are called upon to cooperate, the issues should be brought into the open. This we will attempt to do in a cursory way but in the spirit of deep appreciation for the ideals professed by the leaders of AACS. Questions will be raised, in the hope that these will be answered in a simple, clear-cut way so that also “the common man” can understand what is being said. Any possible misrepresentation of these men and their movement we earnestly attempt to avoid. And if in some way misrepresentation does creep in, this will be cheerfully acknowledged upon proper demonstration.

Much confusion seems to arise from the challenges and charges which some AACS proponents have been raising repeatedly. Often this is done in such general terms, that adequate response and rebuttal has been difficult to make.

They insist that those who cling to the historic Reformed confessions and champion what has been called “the old Calvinistic life-and world-view,” are simply mouthing old cliches. Such people are caught in the trap of outmoded and indefensible scholastic distinctions. They are proclaiming and hearing from the pulpits a gospel which has no relevance for life in today’s world. They are guilty of producing a clergy-dominated and theology-riddled congregation which listens smugly to a flow of pious language but has become so secularized in daily life that it does nothing to demonstrate the Lordship of the Savior whom it professes. They have failed to come to grips with the challenge of modern existential thought. They are hopelessly “conservatistic” in approach, message and methodology. Some of the men making such charges have not hesitated in quasi-private discussions to brand her, myself and others who urge Christian action on all fronts as people who haven’t had a “new idea” in fifty years.

No wonder my friend is confused and burdened. Such wounds in the house of our friends occasion deep and perplexing pain. Yet this, comparatively speaking, is the least of the consequences of such charges. Wounded personal feelings can heal quickly by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. What is far worse is division which threatens our oneness in the faith. This is bad. All of us, without awareness, can fall into the devil’s clever trap of “Divide and conquer.” Few trends among Reformed believers on this continent are more threatening to our joyful service of the Lord in all things than this growing estrangement. It feeds on misunderstandings which spring from criticisms and charges levelled in quite generalized terms but scattered here and there and everywhere.

The question which my friend asks is relatively simple: “Can you tell me some of the differences between the ‘old’ Calvinistic life-and world-view and what the AACS leaders mean by ‘life is religion?’ I can’t see the difference, and they have been unable to make it clear to me.”

Frankly, I have trouble with this question too. Yet for the sake of our common loyalty to Christ and his cause I will try. Hopefully I shall be as careful and charitable as possible. It is far from my aim to drive an even deeper wedge between the two “groups” who should be striving with one mind and one heart for the faith of the gospel. Much less will I level charges, even though my words may perhaps create this impression among some of the readers. All I seek is greater clarity, and that not only for myself but for all those who love our Savior-King and would honor him in all things.

At the outset we should be clear what is meant by the “old” Calvinistic life-and world-view. This has been set forth convincingly and effectively by Groen van Prinsterer, Abraham Kuyper, Herman Bavinck, and many of their disciples in both the Netherlands and the lands on this side of the ocean. Always it stresses that all God’s children, enlightened by his Spirit and Word, arc called to read and understand and apply the teachings of Holy Scripture to all of life as created and redeemed by God through Jesus Christ our Lord. Now the AACS leaders seem to us to be saying basically the same things, yet…they insist that there are profound differences. Whether or not this is so they should make plain to us. In an attempt to open this up these lines are written.

The role of philosophy in man’s life

Without exception these men claim to be champions of the Philosophy of the Law-idea, set forth so competently by Vollenhoven, Dooyeweerd and some of their disciples. And from their statements it would seem that, unless one adopts the principles for critical theoretical thought as so formulated, one cannot rightly discern and act upon God’s will for all of life.

Now much of this philosophical construction is by no means bad. In fact, in many respects it is exceedingly profitable, since its basic “motives” are consistently Biblical. No believer would want to deny that we shall not understand life and its meaning, unless we recognize man in his relationship to Cod as created, fallen into sin, and redeemed by grace in Christ. However, in championing these biblical “motives,” they seem to be urging the necessity of adopting this “philosophy” in its detailed argumentation and with all of its terminology in order to ascertain God’s will. Much of this insistence seems to be by way of reaction to what they condemn as the bondage of the believing congregation to an antiquated and scholastic set of “theological” statements. Thus they would deliver us! Yet in their polemic against one kind of bondage, they seem to be delivering the believing church into another prison-house. Instead of being enslaved to theologizing, must we now be chained to the millstone of philosophizing before we can really serve our Lord knowingly and joyfully? Is it true that we can only thus read and understand and apply aright God’s “dynamic” word for all of life?

They are correct in deploring any kind of enslavement of the believers to some theoretical theological construction. But to exchange one set of fetters for another offers little hope. Both philosophy and theology—the fruits of critical theoretical reflection—are human enterprises and as such legitimate. In fact, each in its own way can be helpful either directly or indirectly for the believing congregation, when carried on in faith which honors our God who has clearly and sufficiently revealed himself and his mighty works in his inscripturated Word. But neither the one nor the other may “lord” it over the believer’s life.

This prohibition is as binding upon our philosophical as it is upon our theological endeavors. For unless both remain “helps,” “servants,” “ministers,” the living church of the Lord will be brought under the burdensome yoke of either the theological or the philosophical “experts.” And this would flagrantly conflict with our common confession (which, by the way, is not a “theological construct” as some so unthinkingly have affirmed):

We believe that these Holy Scriptures fully contain the will of God, and that whatsoever man ought to believe unto salvation is sufficiently taught therein…

and again,

Neither may we consider any writings of men, however holy these men may have been, of equal value with those divine Scriptures, nor ought we consider custom, or the great multitude, or antiquity, or succession of time and persons, or councils, decrees or statutes, as of equal worth with the truth of God, since the truth is above all… (Belgic Confession, art. vii, italics mine, D.J.)

Full well I realize that these brethren will repudiate as misleading ally warning that they may be, without full awareness, delivering us into philosophical chains. All they want is to insist on the Word and “its direction-giving power for life.” But as many of us listen to them, heartily saying “Amen” to that emphasis, we find it difficult to rid ourselves of the impression that for them this is compressed into a philosophical construct. Woe to anyone who does not day by day use the terminology which for many of them has become “the true language of Canaan.” It is this, I believe, which has contributed, at least to some extent, to an estrangement among fellow believers.

Where is the “dynamic” Word of God?

More fundamental to the difference which they claim exists, however, seems to be their understanding of what constitutes for the believer the Word of God.

Here I am not making any charges. All I would do is complain publicly that I, and many together with me, simply cannot come to clarity from their speaking and writing what some AACS leaders mean by the Word and its life-directing power. To them, perhaps, we appear more than a little thick-and muddle-headed, unable to think straight and comprehend what to them seems so completely obvious. To us, and I say this in all charity, they seem unable to tell us without ambiguity and hedging what they believe on this score.

Let me cite just a few examples. One of these consists of the few articles written by Dr. P. C. Scluotenboer, for whose person and work I cherish high regard, in International Reform ed Bulletin. The readers will remember that his first article elicited some adverse comments from one of the professors of Westminster Theological Seminary. Possibly this discussion is not yet concluded, since some pertinent questions remain unanswered. Another may be found in some significant statements made by Dr. Arnold De Graaff in what was in many respects a helpful booklet, Understanding the Scriptures. Questions were raised and criticisms offered by the Rev. Peter De Jong in Calvinist Contact without a response which could have helped to resolve some of the difficulties which seem to have been plaguing the discussions. And as early as 1959, when the “infallibility” controversy disturbed the Christian Reformed Church one of the AACS leaders took in private and quasi-public discussions what seemed to many a very weak and vacillating position on whether the Bible as given by God to his church is God’s Word in the sense confessed consistently in the Reformed creeds. Among some of the men there seems to be such a strong aversion to “propositional truth” when discussing the nature and message of the Scriptures, that the concern cannot be suppressed that their trumpet is not sounding forth clearly. At times their words seem strangely similar to those uttered by the champions of neo-orthodox positions, where the content of Scripture is relativized by a hermeneutical approach which regards the Bible as a human record rather than as the very word(s) of the Lord. In their effort to stress the dynamic (life-giving and life-directing) efficacy of the Word, they seem to do at least some injustice to the teaching of Scripture concerning itself; namely, that it is living to be sure but also that it abideth forever; that in all its parts as well as in its total impact it cannot be broken. Thus we hear disparaging remarks about the method which appeals to specific passages of the Bible to establish precisely what we must believe and how we should behave also in the twentieth century. If we have heard and read them aright, some hold a view of Scripture as God’s special revelation which leaves the door open to the same errors which are being freely propagated within the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands. Here positions may be producing strange bed-fellows indeed. It is especially on this issue that all of us urgently seek clarity from them. We trust that when this is forthcoming, many of the concerns and misunderstandings from both sides will disappear.

“Life is religion”

Misunderstanding seems to have been created also in connection with the insistence of the AACS leaders that “life is religion.”

Now this statement can he understood in a very positive, helpful, Biblical sense. No one less than Calvin—a keen Biblical scholar yet withal one who wrote in terms which the “common man” of his day could easily understand -taught from God’s Word that all men have an ineradicable sense or awareness of God. Because man is created in God’s image, he is always even in his sinful self-manifestations confronted in one way or another with the inescapable God. This holds true also when the most radical atheist spouts his views. In this sense every expression of our human existence is saturated with an ineradicable religious dimension. In maintaining this Reformed believers have attempted to stress the intimate relation between God’s work in creation and his work in redemption.

All this, however, we know only by grace as God’s redeemed people who have been instructed by his written Word. Thus we cannot speak meaningfully about our salvation in Christ apart from a recognition of what the Bible teaches about the created order. Already the first article of the Apostles’ Creed reminds us of this. But is it here that, perhaps, additional misunderstandings have sprung up? Some AACS leaders seem to leave the impression that we need not concern ourselves so precisely with what the Bible teaches about creation, especially in the opening chapter8 of Genesis. This has created division of conviction even among followers of the Philosophy of the Law-idea in the Netherlands as much as twelve years ago. Here we refer to the analysis and criticism of the views of Prof. J. Lever offered by no one less than the Rev. J. M. Spier in an article translated by Dr. Bernard Zylstra for The Banner of July 18, 1958. Sometimes it seems that the distinction between creation and redemption is so muted, that the two begin to merge. Then the radical distinction between sin and grace (which, I’m sure all AACS leaders want fully to maintain) may be relalivized, and the church’s call to repentance towards God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ will be muted.

Is it possible that some of our friends in the AACS have left the impression that speaking about the necessity of regeneration, repentance and personal faith which issues into godliness is “pietistic leaven” contrary to the Reformed faith? Must our concern for the reformational power of God’s Word in the societal structures be so stressed, that preaching which also calls for personal covenantal communion with God may be regarded as expendable? Indeed, we hear them speaking with great conviction about the radical antithesis between “true” and “apostate” religion. And with all this we find ourselves in wholehearted agreement. But what is the relationship of these antithetical forms to the authoritative Scriptures? And, can there be any reformational action upon and within the societal structures apart from a personal and daily “growing in the knowledge and grace of our Lord Jesus Christ?”

And now, what about the church?

Finally we would call attention to some very practical consequences which certain champions seem to have drawn from their positions. Please read carefully: we write “some” and “certain” advisedly, since wide varieties of approach and application of principle to practice are existent. But we do feel duty-bound in responding to the request of our friend to mention what has disturbed her and many others, an apparent deprecation of the church as gathered together in obedience to Christ to make use of “the means of grace.”

With all the issues, both theoretical and practical, which are involved this article cannot deal. With these both they and we who are called champions of the “old” Calvinistic life-and world-view are and should be engaged day after day. So much is being written about what the church is and where it can be found and what it should do, that no one can keep up with the flood of literature on the subject which flows from the printing presses. But surely among those who confess the Christ of the Scriptures according to the same Reformed declarations of faith a meeting of minds and hearts ought to be as possible as it is urgent.

Our friends in the AACS apparently fear (and not without a large measure of justification!) that many Reformed people make the church as defined above the end-all of man’s religious responsibilities. They see many who apparently confine their “religion” to Sunday public worship, psalm-singing and the devotional reading of God’s Word accompanied with a few prayers. What our friends want is all of life in control of and under the direction of “religion,” that is, of the self-revealing God in Jesus Christ who claims all of created life for his praise. And this, precisely, is what the advocates of the so-called “old” Calvinistic life-and world-view also want.

Yet our friends insist that Reformed believers are entirely too much church-as”institute centered. (Bear in mind, these friends of ours by and large don’t like the distinction which I am here making for the sake of clarity; in fact, some of them with whom I have had long discussions don’t want any of the terms which have long been used in such discussions, while not presenting us with more suitable terms. Perhaps much of the misunderstanding may be found right here.) Often they argue that a Christian school society, a Christian labor organization, a Christian political group, etc., are not only just as necessary and significant as church-as-institute-gathered-around-the-Word-with-its-Christ-appointed-officiary; some of their positions and practices seem to place a much higher value on the former than on the latter.

Hence we find among them not a few who are exceedingly critical of and indifferent to the public worship services of the believing congregation. They speak in disparaging tones about preachers and elders. Possibly because some of them are reacting so violently to what indeed are weaknesses and imperfections on this score, they as the more radical (reformational?) are ready to dispense with the church in this sense altogether or at least for a season.

Is there confusion here, which may perhaps be rather readily cleared up? All of us, I’m sure, arc agreed basically on what it means to be a Christian believer, responding to God’s Word unto salvation and therefore called to be prophets, priests and kings in his service (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day XII, 32). But does the fact of such calling to office rule out a legitimate place for “special offices” within the church as defined earlier, and that according to the New Testament by Christ’s own appointment through his apostles? And do these “special offices” not only have their unique warrant but also their unique authority, or are they in these respects to be placed on the same level with the secretary of the Christian school society or the president of a chess club organized by believers? Does Christ’s church in its institutional form belong to the “created” order in the same sense as does the family, the state, the voluntary societal groupings, or not?

None of the champions of the “old” Calvinistic life-and world-view, I’m sure, wants the life of believers dominated by church-as-institute. But neither do we believe it Biblically defensible to disparage the church-as-institute and its assigned place in our lives as Christians. With all the clamor for “underground church” with a select clientele, for sacraments administered without the proper supervision of the elders of the congregation as found in the New Testament, for a Christianity without a structured church organization, our brothers would clear the air by speaking on this issue unambiguously. Readily we admit that many of the theoretical distinctions made with respect to the doctrine of the church, also here, can be misinterpreted and are at times grossly misapplied. But rightly used, they can be exceedingly helpful in coming to a mutual understanding.

This is my response to my good friend.

These lines are written not to stir up controversy, much less to widen the gap which seems to exist among those who in sincerity and truth confess the same God and Savior. What we seek is clarification of what some claim to be profound differences. Many perhaps with an inexcusable naivete have regarded these differences as largely “terminological” ones. Fervently we still hope this is true. If this is so, let our friends say so in language which cannot be misconstrued. If this is not so, we trust they will make this clear to one and all. Then and only then will further discussion become profitable as all of us seek by God’s grace to understand his will and live obediently to his praise.

Dr. Peter Y. De Young is pastor of the First Christian Reformed Church of Sioux Center, Iowa.