Address given at the Ladies’ Day of the 16th Annual Cedar Lake Christian Reformed Conference, July 2, 1952.
It has been a long time since I last wrote you. But I have waited purposely because I have so many things that I want to say and I needed enough time to write them. Now I am settled very comfortably at my desk in the living room. A log is burning cheerfully in the fireplace. The children are tucked in for the night. My good husband has other pursuits for the evening and at last I find that delicious hour I can call my own. In what better way can I spend this peace and quiet than by writing you?
You asked me in your last letter to explain something of the background of our church, to tell you about our origin and our roots. You want to know what makes us as we are. You know, dear Susan, this is a big order and I can’t possibly hope to fulfill it, not in this one letter or even in many more. It would require volumes, I assure you. But I know you are extremely interested in this aspect of our life. Therefore I’d like to just give you a hasty survey, hoping that this information and these ideas may interest you and help you.
When you mention church, you not only think of the Christian Reformed Church, but also of that great body of believers that constitutes the body of Christ and the spiritual heritage which has been passed down through the ages by means of these believers. The emphasis in speaking about the church, whether one means the whole body of believers or a particular church, is always on the spiritual. Do not become confused, however, and think that the church has no interest in things of the body and the mind. But its first and greatest concern is with things of the spirit, things that concern the soul. And rightly so. Hasn’t Christ said, “For what is a man profited if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul?” Moreover, what we think about the soul influences what we think about the body and the mind. They are definitely interrelated. But since the soul is imperishable and never dies, the matters of the spirit should assume priority in our considerations. The things of the body and the mind will fall in their right places if we have the true perspective as concerns our soul.
I know, Susan, that you are interested in these things because you have asked me about them. But I have heard it said of American women that the only thing that they can discuss with a reasonable degree of intelligence is the latest method of waxing a floor, or the best recipe for a sauce, or the proper procedure in making a baby’s formula. Personally, I don’t think this is true. I certainly hope not! Of course, we are interested in these things. We must be since we work with them every day. But I hope that this doesn’t prevent American women, especially the women of our church, being interested in the things of the spirit.
After all, women have a soul and form an integral part of our church. Spiritual development concerns them as well as men. They have a spiritual life to lead and are also responsible for the church as a whole. The influence of women is necessary and can be very Important. Women cannot be complacent about things spiritual and lean solely on their husbands or the men in the church. Women should not under-estimate their importance. Let’s be a little “conceited” in a healthy sort of way and believe that the church needs us too.
My log needs a little encouragement. Let me help it along. Right now the blazing warmth feels good on this chilly evening. I imagine, however, that while you read this you will be sweltering in the heat.
But what was the matter at hand? O yes—the roots of our church.
We start with God. He is our beginning. All things come from him and concern him, and therefore all things should glorify him. This is our primary root. God -not any god, but the God of the Scriptures. We can’t understand all this by ourselves because sin prevents us. Thus God has revealed himself in a supernatural way and in a permanent way through the Bible. The Bible is a tangible expression of God’s will to us today. If you reject the Bible as a divine guide you must reject the whole history of Reformed thought. What proof, you may ask, do I submit for the truth of God’s will in the Bible? My only answer, Susan, will have to be the testimony of the Spirit. I simply believe it with all my heart. That comes through the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit.
Our Church is thus rooted in God as revealed in the Scriptures. The second root principle is that God became Man, the Word became flesh. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, fuII of grace and truth.” Who is the Word become flesh? Jesus Christ, our Savior. And there is no other Name given under heaven whereby men must be saved. This is the second fundamental. This fact permeates our spiritual history. We need to know this to understand our beginnings.
The third basic fact is that God demands our all our hearts, the core, (and all other details) of our existence. You see, Susan, man must respond to God and obey God’s commands. This is his only possibility for spiritual happiness and success.
Isn’t it wonderful how God has used these roots to nurture the true church in the past, how he has taken sinful hearts and regenerated them by his love and spirit and then used them in his kingdom, even on earth? It has always thrilled me to read in the Bible the part women have played in the great scheme of things. Eve certainly got things off to a bad start, but it was also to her that the promise of a Savior was given. God certainly did not ignore women. The Old Testament abounds with historic stories of dramatic women. Think of Sarah, Hagar; of Miriam watching the baby Moses; of Rahab and Ruth. The judge Deborah; of wicked women and their pernicious influence, such as Jezebel and Delilah. We also have ladies of splendor in the Bible, such as the Queen of Sheba who visited Solomon to see his riches and to hear his wisdom. And we have Queen Esther who saved her people, who “came to the kingdom [or such a time as this.”
The New Testament relates stories of great women too. We think of the women in Jesus’ life. His mother, the thoughtful, the worried Mary; of Mary Magdalene, who wept at Jesus’ feet and who was first to greet the risen Master; of Mary and Martha, sisters who loved to serve and hear the Teacher.
But I mustn’t get off on a history of the women of the Bible. Nevertheless, I am very eager for you to know that women can be of service in the Kingdom.
Let me tell you more about the development of the church, the true church based upon the three roots I have mentioned.
A bird’s eye view of subsequent church history may help to explain our particular church as we know it today. Can you take a little church history?
Pentecost is the birthday of the church—the day the Holy Spirit descended on the church of God, never to leave it again. Even so, the first church was not perfect. Sin was still very much in power. The church had hosts of problems. The apostles had to give leadership and guidance to the church and had to cope with the problems, at the same time having to preach the gospel and organize a tremendous mission program. Moreover, they were in physical danger. The early church was persecuted. Many of the apostles became martyrs. But the gospel continued to spread. The flame of the truth could not be put out. It grew in spite of opposition. After awhile the church itself became powerful. It assumed authority, not only over spiritual matters, but also over political life. And it, in turn, persecuted people who didn’t accept the faith.
Around 375 A.D. a great figure came into prominence. His name? St. Augustine. We call him a saint today. But in his early life he was far from deserving such a title. Augustine was an exceedingly wicked young man. He had mistresses by the dozen, and even a son born out of wedlock. His nightly prowlings earned him a questionable reputation. In spite of his early life, however, he was a brilliant scholar and a great thinker. Fortunately, God changed his life and used him in his Kingdom. An important factor in his conversion was his mother, Monica. Behind Augustine’s shameful behavior stood the patient Monica, with a prayer on her lips for her wayward but gifted son. Her prayers were answered. Augustine renounced his former life and dedicated his talents to God’s glory and the church. How close Augustine and Monica then became, praying to and serving their God together. How thankful Monica must have been to see such a miraculous transformation in her son! Augustine became a great church father who did much to advance church doctrine, formulating and clarifying ideas, writing and teaching the doctrines of the holy Scriptures. O that I might have such an influence on my boys as Monica had on Augustine!
After Augustine came the Middle Ages. Sometimes we call the Middle Ages the Dark Ages because it seemed that the light of learning and the light of the church burned very dimly. It was the time in history when great hordes of barbaric people attacked the then civilized world and demolished much of the culture of the day. The church, too, suffered. But all through this time the lights were still burning, although dimly. The great faith that God had given to his believers was kept alive. It was being shaped and molded for a great period when all learning burst forth into a glorious sunlight—the Renaissance and the Christian Reformation.
During these Middle Ages when only one Christian church predominated—the Roman Catholic church—the church degenerated and became unbelievably corrupt.
Fortunately, there were some great men, such as St. Bernard, Wyclif, Thomas a Kempis, and others who labored with some success, but on the whole the roots of our faith were badly damaged and began to decay.
Then the sunlight of the Reformation broke through. Luther revolted against the tyranny of the Pope and the corruption of the church. Other great men came to the foreground. The great reformer, John Calvin, is particularly significant for us. It is quite obvious why I should mention him. After all, our Reformed truth is based upon his interpretation of the Scriptures. We believe his general conception of the truth to be the purest interpretation of the Bible. You know, when the Reformers left the Roman Catholic church, that huge visible church split into many groups. Since then our church, too, has developed into one distinctive group of believers, and it is called variously the Calvinistic Reformed church, the Reformed Church, or specifically, the Christian Reformed Church.
You probably have heard some say, even in Reformed circles, “Why do you always mention John Calvin? Do you think he was on a par with Jesus Christ himself?” Of course this is absurd. John Calvin was a sinful man. He himself was well aware of this. We refer to Calvin, not as a perfect man or a god, but as a sinful man whom God in his wisdom endowed with unusual capabilities and understanding, who has helped others to grasp and comprehend the meaning and importance of the teachings found in the Bible, and one who has written and formulated these truths in a comprehensive system, allowing the generations to follow to be led and guided by them.
Did you know, my dear Susan, that John Calvin has influenced more people and countries than any other reformer of his day? There is hardly a country in the world today which has not felt in one way or another the import of these doctrines. Such doctrines as the sovereignty of God, the dignity of the individual and the testimony of the Holy Spirit shaped not only the spiritual life of the people but their economic and social life as well. Calvin was also a great organizer for missions. Did you know that a group of his followers settled in the New World already some seventy years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock? Much of the record of this history has been lost for generations and is just coming to light again by the rediscovery of lost and forgotten books and manuscripts. I have an interesting one at home right now. It is the diary of a French minister and missionary for John Calvin, a Huguenot named Jean de Lery, who settled as the pastor of a large flock of Frenchmen and Indians in Brazil in 1550. Unfortunately, the Portuguese wiped out the entire settlement a few years later. I wonder how different the history of South America would have been if the Calvinists had stayed and the Roman Catholics had not taken over almost exclusively.
In spite of such reversals, Calvinism did flourish far and wide. Think of its spread to the Netherlands, Scotland, England, France, Italy, Spain, Poland, Hungary, Australia, and to both South America and North America. Yes, and Calvinism played a dynamic role in the early history of the United States. One historian has gone so far as to say that our history books will have to be rewritten as we become more appreciative of the important part played by Calvinism and Calvinists in the settling of America.
Most familiar to us is the influence Calvinism had in the Netherlands. I always have a very warm place in my heart for that historic and brave little country of my ancestry. The year we spent there was exceedingly pleasant and profitable. You can’t help admiring the country for its plucky comeback after the heel of the tyrant had stamped on it so hard and so long during the last war.
Of course, we as Calvinists owe much to the Dutch for the preservation and development of Calvinistic thought as we know it today. In the Netherlands I feel at home in many ways. Particularly did I feel at home in the churches. O yes, there were some differences. The pulpits were high, and the collections were taken up with long poles with dangling velvet bags attached. And still, I had a strong feeling that my God was there, and that the spiritual setting was one which I knew and was familiar with. The roots of my religion and theirs were so obviously the same. The Word predominated. The catechism that I grew up with was also expounded here. Although the language was strange, and I had to strain my ears to catch the meaning of the sermon, yet I could follow along because I knew the background of the preaching. I, too, had memorized the questions and answers of the Heidelberg catechism as a child.
The glorious Psalms were sung and played at divine worship! Although I felt sad because I was not familiar with very many of the Psalms, yet I felt at home because of the few tunes I did know. I would try to sing along in Dutch with them. It was refreshing, too, to hear how the Dutch people sing their Psalms. They had picked up considerable speed since my grandfather’s day. They sang them with spirit, and they sang them in rhythm. I hope the time will come when we can also have a “Psalmreformatie” in our own country.
Not only on Sundays did we feel a kinship for our Dutch cousins. The family altar as I knew it was maintained in much the same way in Dutch homes. Bible reading and prayer by the father or a member of the family was still the order of the day. These things seem to be characteristic of sound Reformed upbringing and tradition. These practices have been handed down from one generation to the other. Our ancestors brought them across the sea.
When I talked about Catechism classes and Christian schools, people there knew what I meant. We should not take these things in our tradition too lightly. They are basic to a consistent-Reformed future for our children. If we let these things go, our spiritual future is jeopardized.
Much of the literature about our Reformed heritage is written in the Dutch language. Therefore it is important to keep abreast with the Dutch writers. Think of the great Dutch theologians and scholars to whom we are indebted—Kuyper, Bavinck, Grosheide, Greydanus—just to mention a few of the more familiar ones. The Dutch have kept vigorously alive the roots of Reformed thinking from the Middle Ages down to the present. We should be grateful to them for that.
I have noticed among us, Susan, that there are two attitudes toward the Dutch today. One attitude is eager· ness to learn and absorb things spiritual from the Dutch and apply these to our situation in the United States. This attitude is one of respect and admiration, as well as of critical analysis. The other attitude is one of resentment. Some folk oppose anything that has a Dutch label. I suppose this attitude springs from some unfavorable contacts with the Dutch people after the last war, and also from the desire to be independent and completely American. I think our criticisms of all things Dutch must be carefully searched. We must remember that spiritually we still owe much to our Dutch cousins.
God in his providence has transplanted a healthy branch of Calvinism in America. It started, as I already mentioned, in the Colonial days, and other immigrants are arriving to carryon this religious heritage in the United States of today. We think not only of the Van Raalte and the Scholte settlements but also of the great influx of immigrants since 1900. These immigrants are fast losing their ties to their mother country and are now Americans or Canadians. These groups with the same rich spiritual heritage should join hands and employ all the means at their disposal -to strengthen the ties that bind them.
And now we are in the year 1952. Economically we have been greatly blessed; spiritually we have been blessed. Our roots are deep. In the past we have had gifted men who were inspiring leaders and who excelled in their fields. Now comes the question: What are we going to do about our heritage in the future?—Where do we go from here?
There are three courses open to us. One is to let our roots become entwined and crossed with other roots. But here we are faced with the danger of a degeneration of our understanding of the faith as conceived by our ancestors. It can mean the virtual killing of our roots and the losing of our religious identity.
The second course is to take our living, our culture, our present American civilization and coat it with a thin Calvinistic veneer. This means ignoring our roots and trying to achieve a healthy plant with painted leaves. Its like frosting a chocolate cake with white icing and calling it white cake.
The third way is to grow healthy plants from sound roots. This means expanding our heritage on a firm basis and thereby strongly influencing our American civilization. This to me is the challenge of our day. Our country needs our principles to maintain a nation which can meet the great forces of Communism and other humanistic systems which will kill and are killing the true spirit of American freedom. We need God in every sphere, the Calvinistic interpretation of God, sovereign and mighty, interested and demanding. We need the Bible, a return to its fundamental teachings. We must begin again by asking “What does the Bible say?” The Word must assume its great importance in all our thinking and living. We need Jesus, a faith in his sacrifice and in his teachings. We need to study the writings of the great men who have studied the Scriptures. We must be convinced of the truth of our own position and be willing to defend it and carryon the spread of this truth to all lands, not forgetting our own.
American women can help! We can be interested in things spiritual. We can contribute something positive, because we too have the privilege of study and schooling. Our daughters as well as our sons can receive good education.
Moreover, even if we are busy mothers and cannot leave our homes too often, we can at least remember that behind many a successful man or woman is the smile and the prayer of a mother. Remember Monica and St. Augustine. Dr. Charles D. Meiver once said: “If you educate a man you educate an individual; if you educate a woman, you educate a family.”
We can also be discerning women, making and helping to make practical and wise decisions. To do this remember your Bible—a fundamental source. Read it much. It will keep you strong when you think you are weak. And don’t forget, prayer goes hand in hand with this.
Women must be active. Sitting back and wasting time accomplishes nothing. There is much to do here in America. Calvinism may seem like a small plant, but if it is hardy and healthy its roots can spread.
Now, dear Susan, this is a bit about us and what “makes us tick.” Sometimes these things I have written are difficult to understand, yet they are important if we are going to make Calvinism live today. These are serious matters. The days we are living in are serious. Yet we can face the future with a smile, confident that God will reward his faithful ones, and that he, even, today, reigns supreme. It is our responsibility to carryon the solid traditions of the past, to witness and to testify to the deep truths we have been taught and to apply these truths to new situations.
My log is a glowing ember. My hand is weary and my eyes are heavy. With love and best wishes to you, dear Susan, and hoping that we may see you again soon,
Grace Hekman Bruinsma