The Church and Heterodoxy

By permission of the Zondervan Publishing House, the following is reprinted from the late Professor R. B. Kuiper’s book, TO BE OR NOT TO BE REFORMED. Originally published in 1959, this material still retains as value because it is so forthright, discerning, and also remarkably contemporaneous.

Let no one say that the Christian Reformed Church came into being because of mere incompatibility. Beyond all doubt, its founders were motivated primarily by a zeal for sound doctrine. That is to say, they detected in the denomination from which they departed the beginnings of heterodoxy.

During the first hundred years of its existence the church has not entirely escaped the threat of heterodoxy, but it has consistently withstood that threat. Three instances will be named, all of which occurred during my ministry and in close succession.

In 1918 a minister was deposed, not, as has often been said, because of his pre-millennialism, but because of his dispensationalism. He denied the unity of the church of the old and new dispensations as well as the kingship of Christ over His church.

In the early twenties a seminary professor was charged by his colleagues with being influenced unduly by the higher criticism. Unfortunately that matter was never fully clarified. It certainly was not a case of the defendant’s being all wrong and his accusers’ being all right. Several of the ablest ministers in the church inclined to the opinion that the professor concerned should be upheld. However, when he refused to defend his position before the Synod of 1922 on the ground that certain members of that body, by their denial of the doctrine of common grace, were disqualified from passing judgment on his teaching, the defense was stymied and Synod dismissed him from office. However much one may regret certain aspects of the procedure in that case, the church must be credited with unwillingness to tolerate so much as the semblance of theological liberalism.

Hardly had that case been concluded when certain ministers who had actively opposed the professor just referred to were found guilty of departure from the Reformed faith by their denial of common grace. It was the Synod of 1924 which came to that conclusion and drew up the now famous “three points” on that doctrine.

Roughly speaking, the first hundred years of the Christian Reformed Church may be described as a period of isolation. Not completely, to be sure, yet largely, it lived apart from the American ecclesiastical and theological scene. That made it comparatively easy for the church to resist the various forms in which heterodoxy asserted itself on that scene. In fact, of many of those forms it was hardly aware. It gave little attention, by and large, to the errors found in other denominations and rather comfortably proceeded on its own safe way. Not even the instruction given in the seminary can be said to have excelled in contemporaneity. At least as much attention was wont to be paid to the heresies of bygone centuries as to current departures from the faith.

By now the Christian Reformed Church is rapidly coming out of its isolation. And that means that the danger of its being affected by the heresies of the day is not only greater than it was heretofore, but peculiarly imminent. Generally speaking, the church is neither forewarned nor forearmed against prevalent heterodoxy. Its position closely resembles that of a youngster who is starting school. It is almost sure to contract certain children’s diseases because it is now for the first time exposed to them and has not acquired any immunity to them. The Book of Judges tells of a time when the tribe of Dan wanted more Lebensraum. Spies wcre sent out to find a place suitable for occupation. They “came to Laish, and saw the people that were therein, how they dwelt careless, after the manner of the Zidonians, quiet and secure;. and they were far from the Zidonians, and had no business with any man” (18:7). On returning home, the spies advised the Danites to seize that city and predicted that it could be done with ease. Their advice was taken, and their prediction came true. Because of its one-time isolation the Christian Reformed Church, too, could become an easy prey to attack.

To describe the situation in different terms, what makes the Christian Reformed Church of today peculiarly vulnerable to heterodoxy is a sad dearth of doctrinal discernment. We are not nearly as alert to danger as we ought to be. Let me give a few bits of proof. One of our elderly ministers once told me he had repeatedly listened to Harry Emerson Fosdick’s radio preaching and had never detected any heresy in it. It seemed not to have occurred to him that a preacher’s liberalism often comes to clearer light in what he does not say than in what he says. I myself once heard Fosdick preach on an Easter afternoon. He made out a strong case for personal immortality but, of course, left Christ’s bodily resurrection severely alone for the simple reason that he was certain it had not occurred. Every once in a while a modernist is quoted with unqualified approval in our publications and from our pulpits. Now it goes without saying that there is no liberal under the sun who has not uttered many a quotable truth. Yet such procedure. especially if repeated, will leave our unsuspecting people with the impression that the person quoted is a trustworthy leader. Thus it has come to pass that there are those among us who esteem, for example, Henry P. Van Dusen and John C. Bennett, both of Union Theological Seminary of New York, as safe guides in the realm of theology. If we had a more thorough acquaintance with the dialectical theology, we would be less tolerant than we are of the teachings of Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, Reinhold Niebuhr, Rudolf Bultmann, and Paul Tillich. Tn the academic year 1952-53 I taught a course in Catechetics to both the middlers and the seniors of Calvin Seminary. One assignment was the writing of a critical review of Horace Bushnell’s Christian Nurture. I informed the students that my giving this assignment did not imply anything like unqualified approval of that work, but rather recognition of it as a classic that every minister should have read. Practically all the reviews showed a due appreciation of Bushnell’s objections to the revivalism of his day and of his insistence on Christian training for the children of believers, but not nearly every student had detected the naturalism that mars this famous book—a naturalism which came to expression also, although in a different way, in the same author’s moral influence theory of the atonement. In Christian Nurture it appears in the teaching that children inherit from their Christian parents a natural tendency to Christianity. It is generally known that the Christian Reformed Church, after some years of membership in the National Association of Evangelicals, severed its connection with that organization. I am not now concerned to pass judgment, either favorable or unfavorable. on that action. But the sad fact must be recorded that some of our people, when told that Arminianism, dispensationalism, and Pentecostalism are more or less prevalent in that association, express the opinion that such errors, if indeed they are errors, rate as inconsequential. Surely, it is high time for the Christian Reformed Church to wake up, to scan its ecclesiastical and theological surroundings, to take due note of the good in other denominations, to be sure, but also of the evil, and to be on the alert for contemporaneous heterodoxy.

A considerable number of the theological errors of our day arc truly alluring. The more does it behoove us to be vigilant.

One often hears it said that the old liberalism is thoroughly discredited and has been supplanted by the new orthodoxy. That many erstwhile liberals have turned to so-called neo-orthodoxy is a fact, but he who supposes that the old liberalism has had its day is gullible indeed. True, the recent world wars have convinced many a liberal that human nature is not as good as it was once thought to he, but it may not be assumed that he now subscribes to the doctrine of total depravity and the necessity of supernatural regeneration. The old liberalism was characterized by rejection of the supernatural, hence denial of the miracles of the Bible, particularly the virgin birth of Jesus and His bodily resurrection, in which the supernatural looms so very large. Today’s liberal is just as sure that belief in miracles is a relic of “the pre-scientific age,” and he blandly asserts that belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus is orthodoxism but the presence of the living spirit of Christ in one’s heart is the essence of Christianity. Sad to say, that sort of sanctimonious talk is being bandied about with increasing frequency also among evangelicals. Obviously, Christ dwells in the believer and that constitutes him a Christian, but Christ’s bodily resurrection remains one of several historical events which constitute the foundation of Christianity and without which the whole of Christianity would topple into ruins like a house of cards. Said Paul: “If Chris’ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain . . . . And if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins. Then they also which are fallen asleep in Christ are perished” (I Cor. 15:14, 17, 18). Another characteristic of the old liberalism was its substitution of subjective religious experience for the objective revelation of God in Holy Writ. In fact, the Bible itself was said to be nothing but a fallible record of the religious experience of certain God-fearing men. That error is riding about as high today as ever it has been.

The dialectical theology, popularly known as Barthianism, presents a most attractive front. It claims to be based upon the Word of God contained in the Bible and thus to have returned to the foundation of the sixteenth-century Reformation, to have put liberalism to rout, and to be upholding the precious doctrine of salvation by grace. Thus it has come to pass that Barthianism has begun to make inroads even upon Dutch Calvinistic circles. Witness a publication bearing the name De Strijdende Kerk, at least a few Reformed ministers show signs of having fallen under its spell. What has happened in Holland can happen here. Yet basically Barthianism is modernism. Its evaluation of the Bible differs radically from that of the Protestant Reformers. For them the Bible was the very Word of God; according to Barthianism the Bible is the source of the Word of God and in some instances becomes the Word of Cod, but it also contains much human error. That such a view of the Bible would cast a dark pall over the whole of the dialectical theology is inevitable. And so, to name a few examples, much of Bible history is relegated to the limbo of the “suprahistorical” and the “mythological,” and Barth’s doctrine of election, which, he himself insists, is basic to the whole of his theology, is far removed from Holy Scripture.

One of the most ancient heresies in Christendom is that of universal salvation. It was carried into Christianity from paganism in the third century by Clement of Alexandria and his pupil Origen. It has never died out. And today we are witnessing a mighty resurgence of it. Influential theologians of both the liberal and the dialectical school are advocating it. One of its foremost American exponents is Nels F. S. Ferre. It is being proclaimed boldly even in churches with Reformed doctrinal standards. Recently a Presbyterian minister wrote an article on the subject, “What’s Happened to Hell?” and in that article he said: “If love is love and God is God, heaven can’t be heaven until nobody remains in hell. Love cannot be smug in the presence of another’s misfortune; and the love of heaven cannot rejoice except as all are saved from their follies and their hurts.” That statement reveals how universalists arrive at their conclusion. They stress the love of God at the expense of such of His attributes us holiness and justice. It need not be denied that here we are face to face with mystery. God is love indeed. He is infinite love. His love is incomparably greater and stronger than we mortals can imagine. Far be it from us to permit any other divine attribute to detract aught from His love. Why a God of such love does not save all men we cannot say. But that He does not save all men we know, for He has told us so in His Word. And in that Word He has related that fact to His perfect holiness and His righteous wrath against sin. We also dare to say that, precisely because the love of God which unbelievers spurn is infinite, the justice of God demands that they suffer everlasting punishment. God is infinite in all His attributes. To say that God is primarily love and only secondarily holy and just, is to analyze the Infinite and savors of sacrilege. Let us be as little children and humbly rest content with God’s revelation of Himself in Holy Writ. And in His presence may our words be few. Let us be done with speculative theology . . . .

Are there signs that we of the Christian Reformed Church are weakening doctrinally? In answer to that question a few facts will he briefly stated.

Attention was called to a dearth of doctrinal discernment among us. It may be, and likely is, one consequence of our isolation and hence is not a new development. We have not kept ourselves well informed concerning errors prevalent round about us. But it may also betray a current dearth of interest in doctrine and a lack of zeal for the truth.

That our people manifest Jess interest in doctrine than they did three or four decades ago is evident. At that time not only our ministers, but many of our ciders as well, were wont to study the works of Abraham Kuyper, Herman Bavinck, and other Calvinistic theologians. I knew an elder who spoke of Bavinck’s Philosophy of Revelation—which, by the way, is not light reading—as his favorite book. Many even of our laity feasted on Kuyper’s practical works. In my early teens I read to my mother, not only Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but also parts of Brakel’s Redeliike Godsdienst. Some of us can recall the days of the infra-supra controversy. My brothers and I, seated behind the base-burner in the living room of the Second Roseland parsonage, attended eagerly to many a ministerial debate on that theme. Almost every church member was interested. Today the mention of that issue elicits only quizzical smiles. It is becoming increasingly difficult to get our men out for an evening of Bible study. One of us disputes the belief, held by Calvinists generally, that God’s eternal counsel of foreordination determined with unalterable certainty all that was to occur in time, and few of us take notice.

From certain viewpoints our centennial celebration (1957) was a success. The centennial committee worked hard to make it that. And yet, it cannot be said that our people generally waxed truly enthusiastic. What may have been the reason? One reason undoubtedly was that the doctrinal issues which gave rise to the founding of the Christian Reformed Church in 1857 received too little emphasis and that, when they were brought to the fore, that was usually done somewhat apologetically. To be sure, the founding fathers were given credit for having the courage of their convictions, but whether their convictions were sound—that, it was intimated, was something else again. Our leaders generally left us with the impression that the question is debatable whether the Christian Reformed Church came into existence primarily because of weighty doctrinal considerations or because of factors of minor importance. In brief, the church was left with the uneasy feeling that maybe it would have been better if it had not been born or, to say the least, that its birth may have been illegitimate.

With notable exceptions, the book reviews appearing in our periodicals are, from a doctrinal viewpoint, shallow, It is not unusual for the reviewer to say in effect that the volume concerned contains much that is commendable, although exception must he taken to a few details, Obviously, that can be said of any reasonably good book. To be worth anything at all, a book review must take into account the basic philosophy or theology of the author and must point out that this philosophy or theology makes his book essentially good or bad. Let me add that, if we wish to keep our people Reformed, as presumably we do, it is important that our book reviews be written by Calvinists, not by Arminians, and most certainly not by modernists.

It is rather generally assumed that practically all our communicant members are confirmed Calvinists. Did they not receive catechetical instruction in our churches? Have they not for years listened to catechismal preaching? Are not most of them products of our Christian schools? Let us face the actual situation squarely. In spite of the instruction they have received, many of our people are sadly ignorant of the Reformed faith. Not only that. Personal observation has taught me that some incline a bit to become Baptists; some are no longer sure of double predestination; the dispensationalism of the Scofield Bible, in use at numerous Bible conferences, is attracting some; so is thc Victorious Life Movement with its Keswick conventions; some are beginning to question whether a God whose nature is love will condemn any to eternal suffering in hell. I would not be misunderstood, We all are plagued by occasional doubts. When parishioners struggle with such problems as those noted above, their pastors should instruct them sympathetically. But the point I wish to make is that the doctrinal knowledge of our people is not so great, nor are their Calvinistic convictions so strong, that the continuance of the Christian Reformed Church as a truly Reformed church may be taken for granted. That is by no means a foregone conclusion.

The saying that Christianity is not a doctrine but a life is by now so exceedingly trite that one would expect it to be discarded. And yet, strikingly similar sentiments are sometimes expressed in Christian Reformed circles, and, of all places, in the chapels of Calvin College and Seminary. The students are told in effect by their fellow students and others that doctrine is of little account, that what really counts is the Christian life. And since love is the fulfillment of the law, love is extolled at the expense of truth. Now the Christian life is most certainly a life of love, and its necessity can hardly be overemphasized; but to belittle truth in the interest of love is folly. To stress life to the detriment of doctrine is no less foolish than to stress doctrine to the detriment of life. The latter spells orthodoxism; the former, moralism. Both corrupt Christianity. And never to be forgotten, he who disparages doctrine undermines not only truth, but goodness also, for one’s beliefs determine one’s conduct. Does not Scripture tell us that God gave the heathen up unto “vile affections” because they “changed the truth of God into a lie” (Rom. 1:25, 26)? And did not Jesus say: “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32)? He had in mind freedom from sin. We shall do well to remember, too, that depreciation of truth leads inevitably to rejection of truth. There is but a step between indifference to doctrine and theological liberalism.