Not so very long ago I had occasion to read four book reviews on the same book by four clergymen from three different denominations. The title of the book is The Cultural Concept of Christianity by Professor Arthur W. Calhoun, dean of Sterling College, who is known as “one of the foremost authorities in the United States in the field of sociology.”
Why Review Books?
These reviews set me to thinking, not so much about the book under discussion—although I was obliged to read it in order to form an independent judgment as to its contents—but about this business of reviewing books and its spiritual requirements.
It is not the narrow question of book reviewing that I have in mind just now, but rather the larger one of how we ought to judge a man, a movement or a book. The Rev. John Gritter strikes the right note when he says: “God intends us to be critical in the sense that we shall be constantly forming judgments. Scripture tells us that we must choose the good and eschew the evil; that we must prove the spirits whether they be of God; that we must know the true doctrine of God so we’ll not be carried away by every wind of doctrine” (The Banner, June 22, 1951).
My problem in trying to evaluate the book on the basis of the reviews—and these are samples merely of reviews that appear in our ecclesiastical journals and periodicals—is this: What standard of judgment did the reviewer use? What was his purpose in reviewing this particular book? And in trying to find an answer to that question I asked myself this: What ought to be the main purpose in reviewing books or movements or men?
“To Be Read With Pleasure”?
Concerning the book under discussion we are told, on the one hand, that it “is exceedingly stimulating, to be read with pleasure and profit by all who are possessed of sufficient discrimination. Orthodox Christians must not reject valid conclusions because they arc couched in terms to which they are not accustomed.”
Later some shortcomings “which make it impossible to lend wholehearted approval to the thesis and its development” are mentioned, for example, the suggestion that finite man will be able to comprehend God by mathematical formulae; that God is the integral wholeness of the universe; and the frankly Utopian character of the en tire outlook. But immediately the author reassures us that “there is much here that has genuine value.” And although “one searches in vain for a clear indication that Scripture is viewed as more than the product of man’s thought about God,” “there is an understanding of general revelation and its witness concerning God. which is refreshing and challenging” (The Banner, March 2, 1951, p. 271 ).
The second review begins by giving the publisher’s estimate of the book and a short resume of the contents, and then discusses the main thesis and its corollaries.
The reviewer takes exception to Dr. Calhoun’s definition of religion as “in essence a social attitude toward one’s universe” and “the implementation of sociology” (Calhoun, p. 73). Furthermore, Calhoun’s book is ” radically unsound in its idea of God…The author regards God as a part or an aspect of the universe. . Since the author’s idea of God is radically unsound, it is not surprising that almost everything else in the book is off-center and misleading. Dr. Calhoun’s ultimate category is the universe, of which God is regarded as a part. This is the assumption or major premise on which the entire book depends, and which vitiates and distorts practically everything that the author has to say on the subject” (Blue Banner Faith and Life, Vol. 6, No. 1, p. 41f.).
The reviewer points out that Calhoun tends to break down the most basic distinction of the entire Bible, namely, that between Creator and creature. This basic pantheistic mood comes to expression in the poetry quoted and in the author’s speaking of God and the universe as counterparts or correlatives of one whole.
He shows also that Dr. Calhoun has a basically unsound, heterodox view of human sinfulness. He does not believe, for example, that the basic problem of human society is regeneration of the individual. He believes rather that the pattern of society should be made as good. as the disposition of the ordinary person who means well. The reviewer, however, maintains that man is wholly depraved and that there is no better nature in man to which an appeal can be made. He believes that the author is using the language of the religious liberal and not that of orthodox Christianity when he thinks of sin in social terms and stresses the need of changing the system without indicating concern about changing the individual.
Many more extremely serious charges are brought against Dr. Calhoun by this reviewer, but I invite our readers to acquaint themselves with the periodical mentioned above and therefore merely give the conclusion of the argument. “Regretfully it must be said: this is an unsound and dangerous book (italics mine, V.T.). Its unsoundness consists not in minor details, or incidental matters, but in the main thrust of the author’s position concerning God, man, society, economics and religion. May God preserve students and young people especially from being led astray by its unbiblical teachings” (idem, p. 46).
This man speaks after my heart! This is no double talk! The sound proceeding from this trumpet is not uncertain, but gives us a clarion call to battle. This is truly judging the spirits (teachers) to see whether they arc of God. The answer is in the negative. It is not “yes and no.” It is not a hesitating, conditional condemnation, but it is unequivocal. It leaves no doubt in anyone’s mind as to where Dr. Calhoun. stands. And it is eminently fair! It is a good presentation of the facts. It is honest evaluation and Christian criticism!
In the beginning of this article mentioned four reviewers. For the sake of fairness permit me to quote briefly from the remaining two critics.
One calls this a “chilling tract on the social gospel” which has no “concern as to the message of Christianity,” but simply indicates “Calhoun’s zeal for sociology as the panacea for all ills.” “Calhoun follows the approved practice among social gospelers of pirating Christian terminology when it suits him. He calls pantheism theism and does not hesitate to apply the God-centered, eschatological language of Scripture to the co-operative commonwealth which the sociological sciencists can achieve.”
In the final evaluation of this review we read: “The book may serve as a reminder that even in these days of horror the illusion of the essential goodness and perfectibility of man has not been dispelled. The book is foolishness because it overlooks the basic fact about fallen human nature: its depravity. It is dangerous foolishness, for it puts society in the place of God” (Calvin Forum, May 1951, p. 222).
Enmeshed in Pantheism?
The last reviewer (Westminster Journal, May 1951, p. 227f.) seems more appreciative of Calhoun’s stress on organism and sets forth his meaning at some length. But he adds, “If this language is to be taken seriously, Dr. Calhoun is enmeshed in some sort of pantheism which is very far from Christianity. For the first essential of Christian thought is the absolute, self-existent God, distinct from the universe, the Creator and controller of it, but in no sense identical with it. Dr. Calhoun indeed acknowledges that this is not his view.”
This reviewer finds that it would be easy to criticize the book extensively, but expresses appreciation for “the attempt of the author to promote thinking and acting in terms of ultimate relationships.” However, “his ultimate, indeed, is not our ultimate, his God does not appear to be ours” (idem, p. 229). “Unfortunately, he appears to have an inadequate understanding of what the Christian faith is. His thinking is, in spite of the use of the term ‘organismic,’ really self-centered. For it centers in the universe, and he is himself a part of that universe. To him the universe can never be objective, he can never get outside of it. He has no real authority for what he says…
“In contrast, the Christian faith starts with the self-existent God who has actually spoken, authoritatively, in the Holy Scripture, which is thus not a record of human experience merely, but a revelation of the divine purpose and accomplishments in human history” (idem, p. 229).
Whose Judgment to Accept?
So much for the particular evaluations of Calhoun’s book. Now my problem really begins. Whose judgment am I to accept? What shall I do? Shall I warn against the book as dangerous and as a sample of the wisdom of this world which knows not God ( I Cor. 1:22f.)? Even so, the special problem is not to those who readily have access to the book and are qualified to judge for themselves. But my concern is for the thirty-four thousand readers of The Banner who are not so qualified, but who will read this book for “pleasure and profit.” My concern is for the college students of sociology who lack the necessary discrimination as well as the principles of judgment and critical apparatus to properly evaluate this very dangerous denial of orthodox, historical Christianity.
For this book does not merely have a few shortcomings that mayor may not be obviated in the discussion. It is basically a perversion of the gospel of Jesus Christ and therefore anathema to the people of God. It not only perverts the gospel, but is a total misunderstanding of the Kingdom of God. It identifies God the Creator with created reality, with his universe. In short, it is not Christian, much less is it Reformed, although published under Reformed auspices and warmly advocated on the jacket by a presumably Reformed editor.
What Is Our Criterion?
This is puzzling no end I What do we mean by the term “Reformed” today? Is a man Reformed simply because he teaches at a “Reformed” institution or because he writes under “Reformed” auspices? Are we willing to expose our church to the propaganda of modern liberalism and outspoken, enthusiastic Socialists who see no other way of redeeming society than by changing the entire system? For that is exactly what Calhoun is advocating. Calhoun, to my mind, would like to see Communism get rid of Stalinism. He would like to see traditional Christianity shed its doctrine of blood. atonement and individual salvation in order to achieve some kind of super-world community in which all of man’s efforts, including the economic, cultural and scientific, would be pooled for the common good. Thus we would have an organismic instead of a mechanistic, atomistic universe. In fact, he describes individual salvation as an expression of the selfishness of the capitalistic system and declares that all our education today is simply for the benefit of those who are in power.
But enough, I return to my vexing problem—what ought to be our criterion in writing a book review for our church papers and other semi-popular periodicals? How are we to instruct God’s people?
This question is directed to my fellow ministers and all those who give leadership. The reviewers to whom reference was made are all fellow ministers either: of my own or of other historically Calvinistic denominations. I bear them the highest regard. There is nothing personal in my remarks. But I do not sec how one can make the issue clear without being concrete. And the issue must at all costs be faced. Permit me to suggest a few scriptural principles that ought to guide us, principles which the Torch and Trumpet would apply more consistently throughout.
Sound the Alarm!
In the first place, a minister writing a book review is preeminently a watchman upon the walls of Zion. As such he is called of God to blow the trumpet when he sees evil threatening the people of God or when an enemy is approaching the spiritual Jerusalem. It is clear from the prophecy of Ezekiel that Jehovah will hold the watchmen accountable for the souls of men, for the blood of the citizens of the spiritual Jerusalem. The responsibility of the reviewer is not primarily to the author of a book or its publisher, but to the Lord of the Church, to his commanding officer, the Lord Jesus Christ.
Therefore, when an author who calls himself Christian and is a member of a historically Christian church, when such a person boldly and baldly denies the orthodox faith (I challenge anyone to disprove this contention), it is high time to sound the alarm, for then the enemy is not merely approaching, but like the Trojan horse, is already within the gates.
Notice the subtle strategy of Satan, our adversary. We ought not to be ignorant of his devices and stratagems. Simply because a man is a member of a Christian church and teaches at a Christian college we have a tendency not to take his false expressions on Christianity at face value, not to take seriously what he says or has written in denial of the faith. And all this because of his eminent position! It is like defending Alger Hiss, in spite of the damning evidence of his perjury and collusion, because he happens to have been a friend of the late President Roosevelt and because of me. Acheson’s attachment for him.
But that attitude is fatal. It gives the enemies of the gospel the advantage they are seeking and which they would use to insinuate themselves into the very citadel of the church. It is therefore imperative that we learn to recognize men by what they say and by their own confession. as the Scripture bids us do. We may not be deterred from the right conclusion by looking at the author’s position of influence or authority. It is time for us to be realistic in this respect. We must realize that we are engaged in a warfare, not of flesh and blood and carnal weapons, but of principalities and powers, against whom we war with spiritual weapons that are “mighty through God to the pulling down of strongholds…bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ” (II Cor. 10:4, 5).
Either For – or Against
Secondly, the watchman upon the walls of Zion who is responsible for the blood of the covenant members, may not give forth an uncertain sound upon the trumpet. That is confusing. If they blow both an alarm and then tell us to hob-nob with the enemy or reduce the seriousness of the call to arms by pointing to the beauty of the enemy’s equipment, confusion and inaction will be the result.
To me it is inconceivable that there can be profit and pleasure in reading a book which denies the fundamentals of the faith so outspokenly as does Calhoun in The Cultural Concept of Christianity, and which is so utterly false in its main position. Besides, the Christian must be so on his guard when entering the enemy’s camp (in this case the author’s universe of ideas because they arc so permeated with the leaven of Satan) that I cannot imagine how a Christian can receive pleasure from doing so.
In other words, it is a matter of being aware of the antithesis. If one believes that culture as such is neutral, or that all things may be enjoyed by reason of their common humanity, then we might pick and choose and find much good. But if we believe as Calvinists in the covenantal idea, the organic approach which is stressed by Calhoun, and which for the Calvinist offers nothing new and is not to be acclaimed as a great contribution, then we shall learn to judge a book by its central idea, by its main thrust for or against God. If we take this organic approach we shall have no difficulty in condemning Calhoun’s cultural concept of Christianity or Barth’s basic denial of it.
It is imperative that we who call ourselves soldiers of the cross stop compromising and halting between two opinions. A man is either for or against the Christ. His basic affirmation tells the tale! That there are some good points technically or aesthetically in a rook that is basically of the Antichrist ought not to close our eyes to the main issue. Our admiration for the German soldier as soldier, our wonderment at his superior equipment when we found it out to our destruction, did not close our eyes to the fact that he was an enemy and out to destroy us with his technique and equipment. Calhoun is an enemy of the cross of Christ, and that point should be made clear.
Expose the Lie!
Finally, the book reviewer also shares with every believer the prophetic office of Christ and therefore knows the truth. As such he must detect and expose the lie. John, the apostle of love, tells us that many false prophets have gone out into the world. Therefore we must try the spirits to see whether they are of God. He gives us a decisive standard by which we may test the teachers who speak to us. Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God, but every spirit that confesseth not Christ is not of God but of the antichrist.
There arc really only two spirits animating men, namely, the Spirit of God, which is the Spirit of Truth, and the spirit of antichrist, which is the spirit of the Evil One. Every newspaper, every editorial, every soap-box orator, every author is nnimated by one or the other of these spirits. We must test these would-be teachers of mankind. We ought to be on our guard against the fa lse prophets, and it is our business as watchmen to warn God’s people against them.
After the reviewer has tried a certain teacher and finds him a perverter of the gospel of Christ, the obligation rests upon him to designate this spirit as of the antich rist. There is no obligation of any kind resting upon a Christian scholar, who is a soldier of the cross, to minimize a denial of the Christ for the sake of a misconceived ideal of liberalism or in deference to publisher or author.
Let us apply the God-given standard unflinchingly! The holy Apostle warns us: “Believe not every spirit—but try the spirits!” And this trial is not a doubtful matter for Spirit-led people of God. Hereby know ye the spirit! Truth is not relative and we need not be in doubt about fundamental issues. Let us, without respect of persons, without fear of what men may do unto us, bear witness to the truth!