“…the issue that finally led to the calling of the Synod of Dort was the question whether Arminian theology should be tolerated as a permissible teaching in a state university where men were being trained for the ministry of the national church. Now, strangely enough, we who claim the decision of the Synod of Dort as one of our confessions, find ourselves taking a leading role in setting up a seminary in which Arminian and other divergent beliefs are to be taught along with the Reformed faith to men who are being trained for the ministry in another national church.”
The words printed at the head of this page set the mood for this article. They are taken from a footnote in a contribution to the Reformed Journal of March, 1958, by Rev. Peter De Jong, of Seattle, Washington, a member of our Board of Indian and Foreign Missions. In that article Mr. De Jong states the reason for his opposition to a decision of the Synod of 1957 and his reaction to a contribution supporting that decision by Dr. Harry R. Boer which appeared in a much earlier issue and which was entitled: “Why United Theological Education in Northern Nigeria?”
The decision of 1957, which promised support to a proposed united seminary in Nigeria in which instruction will be given by Dr. Harry R. Boer but aim by men of other faiths, namely Episcopalian. Baptist, Brethren, and Lutheran, has justly caused grave concern in our Church. The issue will doubtless he among the most important questions—perhaps the most important—of any with which this year’s Synod will have to deal.
The decisions of 1957 was preceded by one made at the Synod of 1955 which adopted the recommendation to accede to the request of the Board of Missions “for authorization to lend a teacher at Gindiri for native pastor training.” The Board had reported that this school would be under the auspices of “several missions associated with the Sudan United Mission.” It did not request Synod to appoint one of our men as a teacher at this proposed School but merely announced that it was willing to send Dr. Harry Boer to serve in that capacity. Note that nothing was said either in the decision of the Synod or the recommendation of the Board to the effect that we should help to establish such a school and provide for its needs.
“In the Spring of 1957 the Board was confronted with a new plan, no longer for merely lending a teacher to the proposed school but for ‘a completely new, independent institution at another place.’ It was proposed that all of the missions who were willing to do so should cooperate in establishing and maintaining an interdenominational seminary. Our initial contribution to the first buildings was to be $12,600.” Thus we read in the Minority Report of the Board of 1958, signed by Rev. Peter De Jong and Rev. Peter Vander Weide. It adds: “The discussion at the Board meeting (1957–K) disclosed that there were extensive misgivings about the whole plan and the Board did not accept it.”
That Board of 1957 recommended the following to the Synod of that same year:
“1. That Dr. H.R. Boer be encouraged to carry forward the plans to teach in the united theological seminary as originally proposed two years ago.” (italics not mine—K).
“2. That the initial program be conducted in the facilities at Gindiri.
“3. That the N.G.C. (Nigerian General Conference) initiate such steps that the program become more obviously a native church program rather than a missionary-imposed matter” (Acts 1957, p. 273).
Classis Sioux Center registered its protest to the Synod of 1957 against “the united effort of theological training in one seminary of interdenominational character” stating that “we cannot and may not compromise our doctrinal and ecclesiastical principles” (Acts 1957, pages 132,133).
The Synod rejected this overture and adopted the recommendation of the Board.
This year the Board received a request from the Nigerian General Conference (of missionaries on the field) “to declare its full participation in the proposed theological training program.” Its plea was based on “past decisions of the Board and the synod, the action of other missions, the need for theological education, the need to participate if we are to influence the institution, and the embarrassment of trying to withdraw now.” May we add here that not all the missionaries on the field are in favor of this inter-faith school.
This Spring the Board met again and changed its position on the issue, after much discussion. It is pertinent to state that Dr. Harry R. Boer, ardent advocate of the proposed united seminary, was present and pleaded for the adoption of the Conference request. The decision was to recommend to Synod that it “participate in the program fur United Theological Education in Northern Nigeria.” The grounds are that the General Nigerian Conference urgently requests it; the African church desires it; all the other missions and churches with which we as a mission are most intimately associated are supporting the school; Synod also rejected the Sioux Center overturn which claimed that the united theological school would compromise our theological and ecclesiastical principles.”
A minority report opposing our participation in the united seminary failed to carry. It will appear in the Agenda and be considered at Synod.
THE REAL ISSUE NOT UNDERSTOOD IN 1957
Our first comment on this matter is that it is quite apparent that the basic issue involved in the request for a united seminary was not yet clear in the minds of the 1957 delegates to Synod, nor even in the minds of the members of the Advisory Committee. For example, the report of this Committee. For example, the report of this Committee stated that “the plans previously approved by Synod in 1955 do not involve the Christian Reformed Church as such in any program of interdenominational theological education. These plans provide only for the loaning of a missionary teacher by the Christian Reformed Church to the Church of Christ, Benue Province…It is this Church, which contemplates participation in a program of interdenominational theological education.” Therefore Synod was advised to declare, and it did declare, that “there is ‘no compromise of our ecclesiastical principles’ in the plans for theological education which were approved by the Synod of 1955.”
After all that has taken place and has been written about the matter since the Synod of 1957, it should be clear that the Synod’s presentation was not correct. The fact is that it is not the Nigerian Church, known as the Church of Christ, Benue Province, but the Christian Reformed Church which will participate in a program of interdenominational theological education. The General Conference requests literally that “we participate in the program”; and the “we” can refer only to the Christian Reformed Church. It is admitted that the Nigerian Church is unable to participate in the financing and staffing of the proposed school. It will contribute financially toward its erection and support. It is quite evident that the Advisory Committee of last year was mistaken when it is said that “It is…not the Christian Reformed Church which contemplates participation in a program of interdenominational education.” Yet that participation does not mean that we shall have a voice in the management of the school. Dr. Boer states that Rev. Edgar H. Smith will be president of the board of governors; but he will not represent the Christian Reformed Church on that Board. Our people will be asked for donations for that school but the Christian Reformed Church will have absolutely nothing to say about its government.
As a matter of fact, we should have nothing to say about that school for the simple reason that we should not participate in any sense or degree in its program. What follows will be a defense of this statement.
COMPROMISING WITH ARMINIANISM
By participating in the establishment and support of an interdenominational school, in which Episcopalians, Lutherans, Baptists, and Independents will teach, we are lending support to an institution which will teach Arminianism and probably other errors as well as Calvinism. This is a betrayal of our conviction that the Reformed faith is the only undiluted, unadulterated, and complete presentation of the gospel revealed in Holy Writ. By making the Canons of Dort one of its doctrinal standards the Christian Reformed Church has taken an official stand against all Arminianism. By supporting the proposed seminary we would be encouraging and aiding the propagation of unsound doctrine. A few years ago our Church withdrew from the National Association of Evangelicals because in certain radio broadcasts and evangelistic programs sponsored by the N.A.E., but not participated in by our churches, the messages sometimes had an Arminian flavor. But far more serious than occasional Arminian utterances by members of the N.A.E. will be the systematic teaching of Arminian ideas to future pastors of the African churches in Northern Nigeria. We cannot consistently endorse the establishment of a school where such doctrines are taught. This is far from asserting or implying that Arminians cannot be saved; but we should do nothing to countenance their false doctrines. We are committed to the Reformed faith and are in duty bound to withhold support from all institutions and teachings which are in conflict with that faith.
NO REFORMED WITNESS POSSIBLE
In defense of our participation in a united seminary in Nigeria it is said that the teacher who will represent our Church at the proposed school will be expected to teach the Reformed faith. In fact, we are told in a synodical decision of 1957 that “the presence of a missionary teacher of Reformed conviction in a school which is planned to train native pastors for all of Northern Nigeria enlarges the opportunity for a Reformed witness in Nigeria.” Is this not mere wishful thinking? For one thing, when the Reformed faith is taught alongside of deviating faiths in one institution under one roof in an atmosphere of ecumenism, we fail utterly to see how this can be done faithfully and frankly and at the same time with the preservation of peace and goodwill among the members of the faculty. There is bound to be a measure of compromise. We cannot see how a seminary like the one under consideration can have anything but a tumultuous history if all the teachers present their conflicting views without a good deal of reserve. A house divided against itself cannot stand. On the other hand, if the teachers soft-pedal their doctrinal convictions, they will be untrue to themselves and their conscience. The latter course is far more likely than the former. We can scarcely imagine an interdenominational school in which those who teach will not to a great extent suppress their doctrinal positions for the sake of getting along and perpetuating the institution; and convictions which are constantly stifled usually fade.
DOCTRINAL CONFUSION INEVITABLE
Let us look at this matter from the point of view of the welfare of the churches of Northern Nigeria which will have to be served by the graduates of a united seminary. It seems to us that the students who attend the united seminary. It seems to us that the students who attend the united seminary are bound to leave the school in a confused state of mind on matters pertaining to doctrine and to theology in general. And that confusion is bound to have a bad effect on their preaching and teaching. How can the members of our African sister-churches ever attain to a deeper comprehension of the Christian faith unless their pulpits are filled by men who know what they believe and who themselves have clear understanding of the fundamentals and the deeper truths of the Christian faith? And where do we find a clearer presentation of those truths than in the creeds of the Reformed churches? It will certainly not be for the ultimate good of the African churches if their future pastors are instructed in a seminary where three or four or more divergent views of the gospel are taught day after day.
We trust no one will think for a moment that we question Dr. Boer’s sincerity or his wholehearted adherence to the Reformed faith because of his enthusiasm for the kind of a seminary which we are asked to help erect and support in our Nigerian mission field. But we can understand why he does not feel the need of a hundred percent. Reformed witness to the future ministers and members of the African churches, considering his peculiar view of the relation of the gospel to the Reformed faith. That view is expressed in his recent booklet: “That My House May Be Filled.” We quote from page 39: “In proclaiming this message we must not, we repeat, regard it as our primary concern to make men Reformed. The message which we proclaim is not the message of a particular communion may proclaim it. We do not preach the gospel of the Reformed churches. We preach the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.” We agree fully with Prof. R.B. Kuiper’s objection to this view in this article: “Is Dr. Boer Right?” (TORCH AND TRUMPET, December, 1957, page 11). He says in part: “The Reformed faith is the Christian faith in its most comprehensive, most pure, and most nearly consistent expression…it may be asserted without hesitation that a church is truly Reformed in the measure in which it is truly Christian.” Dr. Boer’s statements imply that there is a distinction between the gospel of the Reformed churches and that of the Lord Jesus Christ. The fact is that the gospel of the Reformed churches is none other than the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.
This does not imply that those who are not Reformed in their theological convictions have no gospel. But they do not have the gospel in its purest conception, as taught by Jesus and the apostles. Take for example what Scripture teaches about divine election, total depravity, particular atonement, regeneration as the work solely of the Holy Spirit, and the preservation and perseverance of the saints. These are not certain advanced doctrines which the Bible adds to the gospel as a sort of speciality for the initiated. They are essential to the pure gospel of sovereign grace—the cutting edge of the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God. Was Christ no longer preaching the simple gospel when he said: “No man can come unto me, expect it be given him of the Father”? Did Paul cease to preach the gospel in order to teach doctrine when he is his epistle to the Romans and to the Ephesians taught unconditional election? There is no pure gospel but that of sovereign grace by which God saves those who are dead in trespasses and in sins. To be sure, there are first principles, rudiments of the gospel, as well as more advanced teachings, but the latter are not added to the gospel. Rather, they are the basic truths which underlie the gospel, penetrate it, constitute it, and make it mighty to save.
In view of his conception of the relation of the gospel and Reformed doctrine, Dr. Boer could state, in defending his position at the Board, that he intended to teach theology from the biblical point of view but that there would be trouble if any one insisted in bringing in the Canons of Dort. Those who do not hold to his course, that no one, especially not a Reformed theologian, can teach theology in truly biblical fashion, proclaiming the whole counsel of God, without teaching what is taught in the Canons of Dort.
IS CALVINISM THE PRODUCT OF HISTORY OR OF SCRIPTURE?
Dr. Boer defends his position by stating our Calvinistic heritage is largely a matter of history and tradition (Reformed Journal, November 1957). In reading what he has to say on the subject the question came to us at once: Has our being Calvinists nothing to do with the study of the Scriptures? To be sure, the official formulations of our Reformed faith are colored by the historical circumstances under which they came into existence; nevertheless, the faith which finds expression in those creeds is not the product of history or of human thinking but of earnest, profound, and persistent study of the Word of God. Any church, whether European or African, whose leaders study that Word are bound in time to come face to face with the same questions that confronted the men who made our creeds, and to formulate the answers to those questions which they find in the Word of God.
MEANINGLESS THEOLOGICAL DISTINCTIONS?
It is contended in the article mentioned above that the theological distinctions which we make are meaningless to the African Christian and that even if they were presented to him they would still be meaningless. It may be that at the present stage of his spiritual development those distinctions are meaningless. But they should not remain meaningless, nor will they remain such if such Christians are properly tutored. For example, the distinction we make between the Reformed and the Lutheran doctrine on the presence of Christ in Communion (an example which Dr. Boer himself uses) or that between the divine and the human nature of Christ, to mention no more, should not remain meaningless to any church or church members regardless of their history and environment, and will not remain meaningless provided they receive the right kind of instruction. That surely applies to seminary students, Africans as well as others.
We do not contend that the Church of Christ in the Sudan should be urged to take over our creeds; but the doctrines our missionaries teach there are the revealed truths of the gospel and should be taught to all whom we as a Church of Reformed persuasion can reach. They are taught to the converts in our city missions and are understood, believed, and appreciated. It is our conviction, based on common sense and as well on personal observation of missionary work, that unchurched men and women who are taught along Reformed lines learn to think along Reformed lines; and we hold that this applies to converts in heathen lands as well as our own.
One of the arguments used in favor of a united seminary in Africa is that our sister-churches there desire such a school for their future pastors. This argument carries very little weight with us not because we are no solicitous about their welfare and their wishes but because we believe that they have naturally been influenced in the matter by the stand and the contentions of our missionaries on the field. As the teacher, so the pupil. As the missionary, so the convert.
IS THIS OUR BUSINESS?
Much emphasis is placed by those who favor our participation in the proposed interdenominational school that we should not oppose the wishes of the African churches in this matter. In fact, it is charged that those who are opposed to the project do not recognize the independence and right of judgment of the African Church. That Church, we read, has her own considered opinion as to what is best for her; and it is her desire to do, together with her sister churches in Nigeria, what can be done together, also with respect to theological education (R.J., March, p.19). As we see it, this whole argument is beside the point. The issue before us concerns not what the sister churches in Nigeria want to do but what we are asked to do! If those churches want to provide an interdenominational theological training for their future ministers there is nothing we can do to prevent it. But Dr. Boer himself admits frankly that the African churches are not able to establish and support such a seminary. Therefore we are asked to do this for them.
We shall therefore have to be the judge whether it is right for us to do what we have been requested to do in the matter. If we feel that we cannot in good conscience help to finance and staff a seminary built on ecumenical compromise we fail to see how we could be in any way to blame if this should result in “driving wedges,” as it is put, between those who should stand and work together. We do not by any stretch of the imagination owe it to any church or mission to help establish an interdenominational seminary.
It is our business to decide what kind of a message we should bring to those in Nigeria who need the gospel; also whether we believe that it is right for us to give support to any witness which is not definitely Reformed. To this we may add that it is also the business of our Church to determine whether the missionary directly concerned has the right to teach only a theology which he deems biblical instead of that which is taught in our creeds. For though he is a missionary to the Africans he remains a minister of our Church and as such is expected to be true to his pledge when he signed the Formula Subscription. He as well as all other ministers and missionaries, elder and deacons of our Church have solemnly promised “diligently to teach and faithfully to defend” the doctrines contained in the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort. He has also declared that he not only “rejects all errors that militate against this doctrine, particularly those which were condemned by the above mentioned Synod,” but also that is “disposed to contradict and refute these and to exert himself in keeping the Church free from such errors.” Can any one of our ministers do all this at the proposed united seminary?
REVERSAL OF OUR STAND IN NECESSARY
There are those who with Dr. Boer plead or will plead with the Church not to reverse its stand taken at the Synod of 1957. But if that stand appears to have been wrong, or if we now see that the full scope of the plan for a united seminary, to be established and supported in part by our own Church, was no understood by the Synod, it is our duty to reverse that stand.
What then should we do for the training ministers in Nigeria? We agree with the Minority Report that the only consistent policy to follow is to expand the work of ministerial training which we have already begun in that field. According to the Report “we now have our own courses, training men for the ministry in both the Tiv and Hausa languages.” In reply to the argument that this training is inadequate and that a better training should be provided in an inter-faith school, the Report says: “Instead of venturing into such a big new project, is it not simpler and better to enlarge and improve the present training arrangement while keeping them theologically sound?”
It seems to us that Synod should be able to support such a program wholeheartedly. Our entire Church would support it enthusiastically. On the other hand, any plea for donations to a united seminary would meet with a cold shoulder in many of our churches. And it should! Our churches are not ready to give support to any brand of ecumenity which puts unity ahead of truth.
To grant the request of the Nigerian General Conference would surely drive a wedge between at least some of our churches and some of our people and the Church of Christ, Benur Province. So far our people have supported our African field with unanimity and enthusiasm. Let us not jeopardize their love and loyalty to this field.