Response to the Book Review on “Steps in Faith”

The February, 1967, issue of TORCH AND TRUMPET carried a review of the catechism curriculum material produced by the Committee on Education for grade six. The course is entitled Steps in Faith. In this review the Rev. Henry Vanden Heuvel lodges some very serious criticisms against this course and comes to the conclusion that “this book cannot be commended to the constituency of the Christian Reformed Church without serious reservations.” The criticisms that led the reviewer to this conclusion appear to me to be wholly unjust and unwarranted. Let us examine these criticisms in the light of the evidence.

The first criticism concerns the entire catechism curriculum as produced by the Committee on Education. The reviewer takes exception to delaying the introduction of the compendium until the ninth grade. This, of course, is his right. He is not justified. however, in concluding that the postponement of compendium study will contribute to a lessened doctrinal consciousness of our young people. The curriculum materials for grades three through seven are solidly doctrinal and follow the systematic approach to doctrine, that is, the order of the Belgic Confession. To conclude that the systematic approach to doctrine rather than the basically experiential approach embodied in the Catechism and Compendium—will contribute to a lessening doctrinal consciousness is unwarranted, to say the least.

The second charge is that, in the particular—course under review, “the author does not attempt to teach by way of doctrinal propositions; rather he invites the pupil to learn by discussion.” This type of criticism reveals that the reviewer did not familiarize himself with the material under review.

Steps in Faith comprises the following student materials. First, there is a book of programmed instruction. This book, consisting of 133 pages, is filled with frames of factual information regarding the doctrines under discussion. There is only one adequate description for this material: this is a book of factual information with biblical support regarding doctrinal propositions. The course is built upon this book. The programmed instruction is used at home by the student. By filling in blanks, and checking his answers for accuracy, the student learns to understand the substance of the doctrine contained in each lesson. Incidentally, statistics prove that this method of learning is one of the most effective means available today for teaching factual information. Over a period of two years this material was classroom-tested in various churches in our denomination. In some of these classes students were tested both before and after the course. The evidence confirmed the conclusion that programmed instruction is very effective in teaching the facts of doctrinal knowledge.

The teaching materials for this course also include a book designed to stimulate classroom discussion. Because this book contains discussion material, it is necessarily open-ended. requiring the student to make judgments, decisions, choices, or even to reject all alternatives. The purpose of this book is to aid the student in assimilating the doctrinal information gained from the programmed instruction and to apply this information to his life. Its unique value is that it makes the catechism instruction eminently practical. It is undoubtedly true that even many adult Christians have difficulty in relating doctrine to life and translating the practical implications of doctrine into Christian living. The effectiveness of discussion in the classroom, with active participation by the students, should be known to all who have ever engaged in teaching. It is up to the teacher to see that the discussion is guided to a predetermined conclusion, as spelled out in the teacher’s manual. The reviewer states. “The author docs not attempt to teach by way of doctrinal propositions; rather, he invites the pupil to learn by discussion.” That the pupil is invited to learn by discussion is true but that the author does not attempt to teach by way of doctrinal propositions is absolutely untrue. The statement, “The student has not been given a foundation upon which he can base the opinion that is requested,” would lead one to believe that the reviewer failed to pay significant attention to the programmed instructional material.

There are several statements in this review which simply do not ring true. The review states, “Therefore, instead of teaching that the Bible is God’s infallible Word revealed to men, the author suggests several opinions as to the nature of Scripture.” It seems incredible to me that the reviewer could make such a statement. Nowhere in this material does “the author suggest several opinions as to the nature of Scripture.” While the doctrine of the infallibility of the Word is taught specifically at the seventh grade level and the curriculum for the course under review called for the teaching of the various forms of writing in the Bible (poetic, historical, doctrinal, and so forth), it is impossible to read the lesson on Scripture in both the programmed and discussion material without being impressed with the emphasis on the unique and sole authority of Scripture as God’s special revelation to man.

An illustration will bear this out. On page 8, of the Programmed Instruction, frame 33 reads, “Some Bible books give us a clearer revelation of Christ than others. There are also different kinds of books in the Bible. But the whole Bible is God’s revelation to us. Paul says, ‘All Scripture is given by inspiration of God’ (II Timothy 3:16). We must accept the whole [This was the word to be filled in by the student] Bible as God’s Word to us.” (See also frames 41, 42a, 43, and 44 on page 9).

Another untrue statement taken from the review reads: “There is no positive statement regarding the virgin birth of Christ.” The author of the review apparently overlooked the following material in the Programmed Instruction: page 45. frame 17; page 48, frame 36; page 50. frame 47. The curriculum plan called for teaching different aspects of the marvelous fact of the incarnation at different age levels. The fifth-grade course stresses the humiliation involved in the incarnation. The course under review teaches the necessity of Christ’s having a human nature in order to bear the penalty for our sins. The seventh-grade book deals specifically with the fact of the virgin birth. This curriculum plan was drawn up to avoid duplication of the several aspects of the doctrines covered. It is certainly unfair to criticize a particular course because it does not teach everything that could be taught about each of the doctrines discussed.

Perhaps the most unjust criticism came to expression in the following statements expressed in the review. “The suffering of Christ is made to appear as if it were the result of the misunderstanding of the people to whom He was sent, rather than the curse of God against sin.” Again, “No mention is made at all [italics mine] of Scripture’s doctrine of the wrath of Cod against the sin of man as the reason for the terrible sufferings of Christ. There is no teaching in this manual about the nature of the curse that rested upon Christ because of our sin. Instead the emphasis is upon man’s failure to understand Christ when He taught. when He cast out demons, and when He told His disciples that He had to suffer and die. These are the causes [italics mine] for His suffering according to the book and the manual.”

Apparently the reviewer overlooked all of lesson eight in the Programmed Instruction. The lesson title is, “My Sin Punished by a Holy God.” This lesson teaches God’s attitude toward sin because of His attribute of righteousness. Following this lesson the reason for Christ’s suffering and death, as the judgment of God against sin, is mentioned again and again. We can only cite the references in the Programmed Instruction: Lesson 9, frames 2, 3, 18; 26, 27,28,30,32,34; Lesson 10, frames 1, 3, 5, 6, 18, 19, 27, 28,29; Lesson 11, frame 38; Lesson 12, frames 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, 8, 11, 24, 26, 27. This thought carries through in the rest of the Programmed Instruction. See page 77, frame 23; page 79, frame 46, 47, 48, 49; page 121, frames 13, 14, 15, 16. The same truth appears in the Summary Questions and Answers, in the Memory Texts, the Worship material, and in the classroom discussion material. Anyone interested in the facts should take time to check these references.

The Committee on Education is not averse to criticism. In fact, criticism is solicited. For this reason specific appraisal sheets have recently been mailed to churches using our curriculum materials. These have been mailed to all churches having accounts with our office—that is, to all churches who have ordered directly from us. Churches that have secured their books through book-dealers may receive these appraisal sheets by requesting them from the Committee. We are interested in having as wide a response as possible. Only in the light of valid criticism can this material be improved.

While the Committee welcomes valid criticism, we have also been subjected to unjust criticism. It was disappointing to find this type of criticism in this review. One could wish that the reviewer would have studied the material more carefully before writing his review. As a denominational agency we are expending every effort to produce material that is soundly Reformed and true to Scripture. We are trying to utilize the best pedagogical methods available in communicating the faith to our youth. This work is so crucially important that we need the co-operation and support of the entire church.



Rev. Vander Haak has criticized my review of the book Steps in Faith. Allow me to answer these criticisms. The first thing that he comments on is my statement that “the author does not attempt to teach by way of doctrinal propositions; rather he invites the pupil to learn by discussion.” As Rev. Vander Haak points out, the study material that is presented comprises both a student manual and the hard covered book with suggestions for student discussions. The manual is supposed to be the book that deals with doctrinal propositions. The way in which Dr. Hoekstra teaches the sixth grade student is by way of frames of factual information regarding the doctrines under discussion. But the crucial word or phrases, apart from which the statement in the frame would be meaningless or false, are to be supplied by the student. An example is frame 4 in Lesson 12. There the statement is, “In order to save us from our sim, God (could have just forgotten about Our sins; had to punish someone with a human nature for our sin because of His attribute of righteousness; didn’t need to punish anyone for our sins because of His attribute of love; could have punished a sheep or a goat for our sins as long as it was a bloody sacrifice).” The student is called upon to supply the correct answer to finish this doctrinal statement. The author gives the correct answer elsewhere on the page, but the point is that this is supposed to be doctrinal propositions which will be the basis for the discussions found in the hard-covered book. The student discovers the truth for himself, thus becoming his own teacher, rather than being taught the doctrines from the catechism teacher. Everyone of the frames in this manual is based on this kind of teaching. If the student were taught propositionally, and then by way of review he was given this kind of exercise, it would be helpful indeed. But this is by no means what the book intends to do. This is the doctrinal teaching. As such I feel that it is indeed true that the author does not attempt to teach by way of doctrinal propositions.

Furthermore, the inclusion of wrong choices in the answers opens the possibility at least for wrong impressions to enter the mind of the sixth grade student. Used properly in high school groups, this could be successful. But my feeling is that for sixth graders, the wrong answers next to the correct answers, will allow for the dangerous possibility of serious misunderstanding. Thus in the example above, even though the correct answer is provided elsewhere on the page, the student has been exposed to some very unscriptural answers too. When this is the method for teaching doctrine to sixth graders, I have serious reservations. Sometimes even the answer supplied by the author is not the correct one. Frame 24 of Lesson 3 is a case in point. “We don’t work but go to church on Sunday because we are created (to need a rest; in the image of God who also rested; so that we like a day off once in a while).” The answer supplied by the author, which the student should choose is “in the image of God who also rested.” But the Heidelberg Catechism and Reformed thinking in general has always maintained that we rest from our labors and worship God in a special way on Sunday because of the fourth commandment. Cf. L.D. 38, Q. 103. The suggestions for discussion in the hard-covered book sometimes deliberately give only the wrong suggestions with the result that the student must reject all of the suggestions. This is true of Lesson 3, where the author gives two views of man, each of which is clearly an unbiblical view. In my opinion, this type of doctrinal teaching is not teaching by way of doctrinal propositions.

The second charge that Rev. Vander Haak raises is the statement in my review, “Therefore, instead of teaching that the Bible is God’s infallible Word revealed to men, the author suggests several opinions as to the nature of Scripture.” I would just remind the reader of the fact that in Lesson 1, frames 41 and 42, the author does give various opinions as to the nature of Scripture: the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church regarding the addition of extra books besides those in our Bible, and the statement in frame 42, “Other religious groups, such as the Mormons, have extra books written by their own leaders. They claim that in addition to believing the Bible it is also necessary to believe these extra books written by their leaders in order to be saved.” But of a more serious nature, the author fails to explain the doctrine of the inspiration and infallibility of Scripture. Where is the doctrinal proposition which even mentions the word “inerrancy” or “infallibility”? Where is a statement that explains the meaning of the inspiration of Scripture? Nor does the hard-covered book give any statement as to the inspiration and infallibility of Scripture. It may indeed be true that the seventh grade level course teaches more specifically the doctrine of infallibility of Scripture. But this certainly does not preclude .its necessity in the sixth grade course.

The third criticism that Rev. Vander Haak levels at my review is the statement regarding the Virgin Birth of Christ. The author does indeed allude to the Virgin Birth on three occasions, when he quotes Isaiah 7:14, Matthew 1:21, and Genesis 3:15. The explanation of the Virgin Birth that is given by Dr. Hoekstra is presented in frame 36 on p. 48 of the Progranned Instruction Manual in connection with the quotation from Isaiah 7:14. There the author writes, “Isaiah also tells how we will know when God’s one plan of salvation will finally be completed. He writes, therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call His name Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14). Here we learn that when a certain unmarried woman [italics mine] is expecting a baby called Immanuel that God’s plan of salvation will be complete. It is highly unsatisfactory, in my opinion, to explain the Virgin Birth of Christ as his birth from a “certain unmarried woman.” This is however, not the only problem with that kind of terminology. The ambiguity of this language is brought to light in Hoekstra’s use of almost the same wording in a different context. In lesson 19, “My Neighbor,” he deals with the second table of the law. In the form of class discussion there are 28 statements listed, each having to do with one of the commandments in the second table of the law. One of these statements is “Gossiping with your friends about that ‘terrible’ girl in the church who is going to have a baby when she isn’t married.” Whatever one may think of such a statement as a way of helping sixth graders to understand the ways in which the commandments are disobeyed, it certainly leaves a very poor impression in the mind of a child who remembers that Dr. Hoekstra said that Jesus was born of a “certain unmarried woman.” If it is considered “terrible” that a girl has a child out of wedlock, what prevents the child from thinking that the author’s interpretation of Christ’s birth carries something of that kind of stigma? Furthermore, if the sixth grader is ready for the kind of statements that are contained in this list in Lesson 19, as for example, “Writing nasty sayings or drawing dirty pictures on restroom walls”; “Looking at movies that show people with not much clothing on hugging and kissing each other”; then he is certainly entitled to a clear explanation of the Virgin Birth that will leave no doubt as to the beauty and purity of the birth of Jesus Christ.

The last criticism which Rev. Vander Haak raises has to do with my reference to the treatment of the atonement of Jesus Christ in the book Steps in Faith. It is true that the author mentions the wrath of God and the righteousness of God, but in my opinion the emphasis is not placed upon this in the author’s treatment of the atonement. A few examples will bear this out. In Lesson 10, frame 17 we read, “Jesus’ birth was a part of His suffering mainly because (at that time there was no palace in the world that was beautiful enough for Him; His father was only a carpenter; He took on a human nature).” The answer to be supplied is that he took on a human nature. Again in Lesson 11, frame I says, “Jesus suffered because He took on a human nature.” Frame 2, “Since Jesus kept the same human nature all the while He lived on earth, He suffered (only when He was a baby; throughout His life; only when He grew up).” The correct answer to be supplied is “throughout His life.” The hard-covered book carries through on this emphasis upon the human nature as the cause for the suffering of Christ. In Lesson 10, the question for memorization is, “How was Christ able to suffer and to pay for our sins?” And the answer is, “Christ was able to suffer and pay for our sins by taking on a weak human nature.” The questions for memorization in Lesson 11 emphasize the fact that Jesus suffered because of the misunderstanding by both his friends and enemies. “When did Jesus suffer?” And the answer is, “Jesus suffered all during His life, but He suffered more as He grew up and was misunderstood and disliked by men.” “Who made Jesus suffer by misunderstanding and disliking Him?” “Jesus was often misunderstood and disliked by both His enemies and His friends.” “In what other way did Jesus suffer?” “Jesus suffered by becoming poor, by being called a devil for doing good works, and by knowing that He would he beaten and crucified at the end of His life.” These same emphases, namely that Jesus suffered because he had a human nature, and because he was misunderstood and disliked by his friends and enemies, are found in frames 2, 3, 5, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 14, 16, 17, 20, 23, 26, 29 of Lesson 10; and in Lesson 11, the frames 1, 2, 3, 7, 8, 9, 10, 14, 15, 17, 18, 20, 21, 26, 27 28, 31, 33, 34. The discussion lessons in the hard-covered book give additional reason for the opinion that the emphasis is not upon the atonement as the suffering of Jesus Christ under the Jaw of God. Lesson 11 centers around a play that the students are to give depicting the kind of suffering that Jesus endured. His suffering is compared to that of a preacher who returned to his home town to conduct the services, only to be misunderstood and eventually run out of town. Lesson 12, “A King Gives His Life,” presents the death of Christ from the point of view of the Jerusalem Times, with editorials, news items, and interviews regarding the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. The emphasis in these lessons is clearly not upon the atonement as the bearing of our sins under the wrath of God, and I feel that this emphasis must constantly be present when the suffering of Christ is discussed. One has only to compare the examples given here with the Heidelberg Catechism in Lord’s Day 5, 6, and 15 to see where the emphasis ought to be placed.

I am happy that the Committee appreciates criticism. But I am unhappy that Rev. Vander Haak feels that my criticism is unjust. I would leave it to the discriminate reader to judge on the basis of his own reading of the book in question.