The Cultic Character of the Toronto Movement

The Toronto Movement (AACS) is described in this lucid and informative article as cultic in character. The writer, Rev. Johannes G. Vos, is a minister in the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America; Professor Emeritus, Geneva College, Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania; and editor of Blue Banner Faith and Life. It will be of interest to our readers ‘to know that Rev. Vos is the son of the late Dr. Geerhardus Vas who served for a time on the faculty at Calvin Seminary and for many years on the faculty of Princeton Seminary when that school was a stronghold of the Reformed faith. Also well-known to Our readers is the name of his mother, the late Catherine F. Vos, author of The Child’s Story Bible, a long-time favorite with a host of Christian parents and their children.

It is characteristic of pseudo-Christian and sub-Christian cults that they profess to be presenting and promoting simply true Christianity, when as a matter of fact they are promoting special views which are—to say the least—highly debatable in nature, and held by relatively small groups of very zealous promoters.

The well-known Scofield and Pilgrim Bibles have been widely advertised by their publisher, the Oxford University Press, as being simply the text of the Bible with cross-references and other helps. The advertising never states that these two editions of the Bible are saturated with a highly debatable system of interpretation known as Darby-Scofield Dispensationalism, with its false antitheses between law and grace, between Israel and the Church, and between the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Heaven. The unwary purchaser thinks he is getting a Bible with excellent helps, but may learn later that it is essentially propaganda for a viewpoint held by a minority of a minority of a minority of Christians.

When a representative of the Jehovah’s Witnesses calls at your door offering you literature, if you look at the title page you will not find any mention of the Jehovah’s Witnesses cult; instead, it is stated that it is published by the “International Bible Students’ Association” or the “Watchtower Bible and Tract Society.” In the case of the Seventh Day Adventists, the title page will only reveal that it is issued by the “Review and Herald Publishing Association.” In the case of Armstrongism, it will be labelled “The Plain Truth” or “The World Tomorrow.”

Label and Names – With the Toronto movement, we first meet the label “Reformational.” This might lead us to expect something about the great Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century. The two great principles of the Protestant Reformation were Sola Scriptum (the Bible alone as authority for faith and life) and Sola Fide (justification by faith alone). Anyone who believes in these two great principles is truly Reformational. Millions of Christians who have never even heard of the Toronto movement believe these twin truths, and are truly Reformational. How, then, is the Toronto movement entitled to claim to be specially or distinctively Reformational?

If by the term “Reformational” they mean a reformation of Christianity in terms of the supposed implications of the sphere-sovereignty philosophy of Professors Vollenhoven and Dooyeweerd, there is no way for the public to know this from the “Reformational” label. It would seem that this label is intended to obscure the real nature and purpose of the movement.

Then consider the corporate name “Association for the Advancement of Christian Scholarship.” Taking words in their ordinary and proper meaning, this corporate name would seem to imply that this association exists to promote Christian scholarship as stich. But as a matter of fact the association quite evidently exists to promote a particular and highly controversial brand of Christian scholarship, derived from the sphere-sovereignty principles of Dooyeweerd and Vollenhoven. Why did they not name the organization “Association for the Promotion of Dooyeweerdianism” or “Association for the Advancement of the Concept of Sphere Sovereignty”?

The same considerations apply to the Institute for Christian Studies. When this institution was founded, the present writer naively supposed it was for Christian studies as such. Only after some time did he become aware that a very limited and specific and controversial segment of Christian studies was meant.

It is difficult to avoid the feeling that there is something not quite honest and aboveboard in the use of such general and inclusive terminology to denominate the organs of promotion of a highly specific and controversial ideology. Why not come right out and call things by their right names? Strict and scrupulous honesty of speech and writing should be the aim and effort of every Christian. To hide behind a misleadingly general and inclusive label is a definitely cultic characteristic.

Another Authority above Scripture – Another characteristic of cults is the placing of some other authority above the Bible. The Christian Scientists have Mrs. Eddy’s Science and Health with the Key to the Scriptures. The Mormons have The Book of Mormon and The Pearl of Great Price. The Jehovah’s Witnesses have the writings of Russell and Rutherford. The Friends or Quakers have their mystical “inner light.” Modern Judaism has the Talmud, and invariably interprets the Old Testament in the light of the Talmud, not vice versa. The so-called “New Church” has the writings and visions of Swedenborg. In none of these movements is the Bible the sole and supreme authority for faith and life -for knowledge of ultimate truth and value.

The so-called “Reformational” movement has its multiple forms of the Word of God. The Bible is the written Word, Christ is the Incarnate Word, the structures of the universe arc the Creation Word, and preaching is the Proclaimed Word.

No person who knows his Bible will deny that the term “Word of God” is used in connection with all of these in the Bible itself. But only one of them is the infallible authority for faith and life. The Bible alone is authority for faith and life -it alone is the Word of God in the epistemological sense. What we are to believe and how we ought to live, we learn from the Bible alone. We know nothing of Christ except from the Bible; the old Liberal antithesis which said, “Not the Bible but Jesus Christ; not a dead book but a living Person” was a false antithesis. Christ and the Bible are not opposites, or even alternative sources of knowledge for faith and life. We are to search the Scriptures precisely because it is the Scriptures which testify of Christ.

No one who believes in the God of the Bible will question the fact that the Word of Cod, as wisdom and power, made the structures of the created universe what they are, and upholds them constantly by Cod’s immanent power. But this is a metaphysical concept, not an epistemological one; it pertains to the sphere of being, not to the sphere of knowing. And for a valid knowledge of this metaphysical concept we must go back to the written Word, the Holy Bible. The structures of creation have no voice of their own to give us infallible knowledge for faith and life. As for preaching, it is not an alternative form of the Word of Cod, but the proper proclamation of the message revealed in the Bible. Preaching is truly the Word of God just so far as, and no farther than, it is true to the written words of Holy Scripture.

Thus there is in the “Reformational” movement, to say the least, an ambiguity concerning the principle of Sola Scriptura – the Bible alone as the infallible rule of faith and life.

Claim to Newly-discovered Truth – All pseudo-Christian and sub-Christian cults claim to have newly-discovered truth, previously unknown or almost unknown, which has finally brought Christianity into focus and relevance. This began with the Gnostic sects in the time of the apostles and the centuries which followed. The Gnostic claimed to have an esoteric or secret knowledge, unknown to or unaccepted by the catholic church and its members, which, they claimed, gave them real insight into the mysteries of existence.

In more modern times Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Science, Unity, Armstrongism, and various other cults all claim to have new insights into truth which have finally made Christianity meaningful and relevant. This involves affirming that there has been a radical break in the continuity of the Christian Church’s increasing understanding and confession of the truth revealed in the Scriptures. Joseph Smith held that until the Book of Mormon was discovered, Christianity was confused and erroneous.

Cult after cult has made the same kind of claim. The “Reformational” movement is no exception. The movement’s men do not all say the same thing; some go further than others in affirming the reality of a break in the continuity of knowledge and confession of Christian truth. But they all hold that for centuries the truth of Christianity was obscured and com promised by the “nature-grace” dualism involved in the synthesis of Aristotle’s philosophy with Christian truth, associated especially with the name of Thomas Aquinas. Indeed, “nature-grace” has become a pejorative term in the Toronto vocabulary.

We admit the evil of the attempted “nature-grace” synthesis of Thomas Aquinas and the schoolmen of the Middle Ages. But we must protest that this erroneous tendency did not extinguish the light of Christianity until the cosmonomic or sphere-sovereignty philosophy was born.

Our Lord promised that the Holy Spirit would lead His church and people into all truth. It is a certainty that this promise has been kept, and therefore that there has been a continuous and cumulative grasp of revealed truth in the church through the centuries since the time of the apostles. The early ecumenical councils cleared one truth after another—the Trinity, the Deity of Christ, His person and His two natures and their relationship. At the height of the Middle Ages Anselm of Canterbury (died AD. 1109) defined with new theological precision the Biblical doctrine of the substitutionary atonement, in his famous book Cur Deus Homo (“Why God Became Man”).

There has been a continuity of increasing Christian knowledge from Christ and the apostles, through Augustine, Anselm, John Hus, Wycliffe, the Protestant Reformers, the great Puritan divines and scholars down to the eminent Biblically sound theologians of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries Abraham Kuyper, Herman Bavinck, Benjamin Warfield, Charles Hodge, and numerous others including many living today. Any school of thought which regards this continuity as fractured and lapsed for ages of time fails to take seriously our Lord’s promise that the Holy Spirit would lead His people into all truth. But this is just what the Toronto movement, in effect, seems to do.

Emphasis on Special Features – Another cultic characteristic, found in all cults, is to place much greater emphasis on the special or distinctive features of the movement than on that which is common to Christianity as such.

Thus the Mormons emphasize their peculiar doctrine of the Melchizedek priesthood out of all proportion to any ideas they may hold in common with the Christian world. With the Jehovah’s Witnesses it is “Millions now living will never die.” They all hold their distinctive specialties worthy of more attention and emphasis than whatever they may hold of the common faith of Christianity.

This results in movements which are eccentric—off the true center of Christianity. In the case of the Toronto movement, the center of attention is overwhelmingly the Cultural Mandate (Genesis 1:28), not the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ (I Corinthians 2:2).

Downgrading of Theology – Another cultic feature is the downgrading of theology. A visiting lecturer at Geneva College said that theologism (explained as thinking that existing theology, creeds and confessions of faith are all we need ) is a wrong tendency. The same polemic against “theologism” or “theo-logicism” is found with strong emphasis in Dr. Evan Runner’s book, The Relation of the Bible to Learning (new Wedge edition, pages 115–118). This is really setting up a straw man and then knocking him down.

Similarly, Liberals for years have told us that we do not need any “theory” or doctrine of the atonement. No Christian who understands Christian theology at all supposes it is all we need. We need much more, but we certainly do not need less. Theology is the systematically formulated knowledge of God. It is impossible to have too much true theology, just as it is impossible to have too much good health.

Thomas Aquinas (not in favor with the men of Toronto, but he said some true things all the same) said, Theologia a Deo docetur, Deum docet, ad Deum ducit (“Theology is taught by God, teaches about God, and leads to God”). If there is anything that American Christianity needs desperately it is not less emphasis on theology but much more. Scarcely one Christian in fifty can give a passably clear and correct statement of the theology of his own church and what distinguishes it from others. Many ordained officers have never even seen—let alone read—the official standards they profess to believe. Shall we go to Africa and warn the starving people of Biafra against the danger of overeating? Shall we tell Christians, many of whom are spiritually anemic because of lack of a grasp of true theology, to avoid the danger of “theologism” or “theo-logicism”?

The lack of a valid knowledge of theology manifests a desperate need in American Protestant Christianity today. Note Hebrews 5:12. “Dead orthodoxy” is a hollow charge when aimed at people who are almost totally ignorant of such basic Christian truths as original sin, vicarious atonement, regeneration, justification by faith, imputed righteousness—people who hear from their churches only a message of brotherhood, ecumenism, popular applied psychology, social activism, and self-salvation by character and human goodness.

It is difficult to avoid feeling that when we arc thus warned against “theologism,” it is the recognized orthodox theology of the great historic confessions and theologians that is being shunted aside, in favor of novel and debatable ideas from Toronto and Amsterdam. Incidentally, in view of Toronto’s steady polemic against propositional truth or propositional revelation, it must be noted that the basic tenets of the Toronto movement, and of Dooyeweerd’s philosophy, are themselves formulated and expressed in propositional statements.

“You do not understand” – Finally, all cults and all cultists meet serious criticism with the reply, “You do not understand.” This is often accompanied by offers to “explain everything.” Of course people who use a jargon peculiar to themselves, with words and meanings peculiar to themselves, arc going to be misunderstood.

But we are sure that opposition to the Toronto teachings is often the result, not of misunderstanding, but of clear understanding of what these teachings really are and where they will inevitably lead. I do not admit that I have misunderstood Toronto. I maintain that I am against it precisely because I do understand it. The assertion “You do not understand” is a well-worn alibi claimed by heretics and cultists in all ages, from the ancient Gnostics and Pelagius to the present day. It is also an insult when directed to serious, competent and well-intentioned scholars. It is equivalent to saying: “You are talking about something you have not taken the trouble to find out about, or else you are too stupid to understand the profound truths we are holding.”