The Editor’s Page

Change is the order of our day.

In his introduction to some modem theologians William C. Fletcher aptly describes our situation. “Society seems to be running wild. Changes are taking place so rapidly that from one year to the next there seems to be almost no continuity. All is change, all is headlong, pell-mell rush, and there is a disturbing sense of disorientation….Theology, also, seems to be a new and confusing thing, a flood of doctrines and ideas and insights which are completely new, absolutely startling, without precedent in the experience of Christendom.”

It is in such a restless world that the church of Christ lives. Often this tends to inspire a measure of fear. Many ask whether the church is not too uncritically engaged in adapting to all the changes which take place, with the result that the long-confessed certainties are being exchanged not only for an “uncertain sound” but actually for an uncertain gospel.

This is the criticism leveled by many within the Roman Catholic Church against those who are introducing changes there even with the permission of Vatican H. This is the criticism urged by sizeable groups within the Lutheran ( Missouri Synod) Church which is presently undergOing a crisis imperilling its unity. This is the criticism offered by many, among them respected and influential leaders, in the Reformed (Gereformeerde) Churches in the Netherlands. And this is the criticism which like a rising groundswell is making itself felt in the Christian Reformed Church. No church communion, and especially none which has taken seriously its confessional orientation and commitment, is today escaping the influence of a changing climate.

Now it must be affirmed at the outset that a measure of change is not only inherent in being church in the world; it is to a degree also mandatory. Did not our Lord prophesy changes to come which would affect the life of his people? Even more, did he not assure his disciples that in that situation his people would enjoy the guidance of the Spirit who leads into all truth? Among other things this implies that the church at any given point in history never comprehensively and exhaustively understands all things which God has revealed. Spiritual growth includes a deepening and enriching insight into the full gospel of grace in Christ Jesus our Lord. And where such growth becomes manifest, even in small and vulnerable forms, true believers should rejoice with great joy.

But, and this needs emphasis fully as much, not all change may be uncritically identified with spiritual growth. It has its own unique norm. And that norm must function clearly ‘and consistently whenever we seek to assess what is happening in and to the church. Because this is true, we must desist from labeling believers and churches as either “conservative” or “progressive (liberal)” as if the former are solely interested in preserving the heritage of the past and the latter concerned only with speaking appropriately to their own time. The self-conscious, committed Christian always strives to be both at the same time.

We do well to focus some attention on this, because none of us measures up to this high standard as he should. Always we tend to stress one aspect of our life in and with Christ at the expense of some other which is equally Biblical and thus normative. Past training, psychological conditioning and situational experiences often play a far more significant role in our reactions than we realize. For both those who cling too tenaciously to past forms and patterns and those who experiment too eagerly and uncritically with anything supposedly new is this true. In both the authority of the life-giving and life-sustaining Word in the lives of individuals and churches is threatened. We are Reformed only in so far as we can truly acknowledge that by grace we and our churches “have been reformed” and “are being reformed” and “continually seek to reform” ourselves according to the Word. Such have taken a stand, a clear-cut stand. And acknowledging that their stand as confessionally formulated is not exhaustive in its insight into and proclamation of God’s revealed truth, they are “open” to the possibility of any and every change which is actually reformatory and reformational. This is precisely the difference between reformation and revolution in thought and life. For the former alone cherishes and champions the norm—God’s inscripturated revelation by which also every proposed change must be judged.

In the light of what has been penned above, we would ask concerning the situation in the Christian Reformed Church today.

To all who know and love and live within that ecclesiastical fellowship it is apparent that the “climate” of theological thought and spiritual practice (if we be permitted this phrase) is changing. This is evident not only in the sermons preached and articles written; it comes into sharp focus in many of the patterns of life which are being pursued.

The opinions are quite sharply divided on whether this change has been for the better or the worse. Some, and their number is not negligible, insist that now for the first time the church is actually confronting the world and beginning (likely with too little and even too late) to speak meaningfully to the issues which disturb modern man. They greet the change with gladness and urge that far more sweeping changes among us are long overdue.

To describe the change.. with any degree of accuracy and adequacy is most difficult. One of its symptoms, however, is undoubtedly an understanding of what it means to be confessionally Reformed which is quite different from that held a generation ago. Frequently some of the phrases and propositions of the creeds are called into question either directly or indirectly. Much more than previously stress is laid on the “historical conditioning” of these Forms of Unity. And if this is reaction to equating their authority with that of Holy Scripture, the change is for the better. Yet this emphasis on “historical conditioning” may easily lead to a serious misunderstanding of the nature and minimizing of the value of the creeds. The end result of a similar process in large numbers of Protestant churches around us has been a relativizing not only of the doctrines set forth in these writings but also of these very doctrines as clearly revealed in Holy Writ. If the creeds are unable to state clearly and normatively what a Christian ought to confess, then in practice it is usually but one short step to affirming that also Scripture, which comes to us from God in the historical situation wherein his servants wrote, does not state the truth with that unmistakeable perspicuity and authority and finality which in times past the church has always affirmed.

That some who still insist on being called Reformed seem dangerously close to taking this step concerns those who owe so much to and love the Reformed (Gereformeerde) Churches in the Netherlands. Here the “temporal” or “historical” conditioning of the Scriptures—often referred to as the “Sitz im leben”—is continually discussed. While insisting on their faithfulness to the Word, several openly urge a new interpretation of Genesis 1–3 (or even 1–11), of the origin of man, of some of the miracles recorded in the Bible, of the specific teachings of Paul relative to the position of women, etc., etc. No longer, so the argument runs, can the church be as certain as it was forty or fifty years ago concerning what God intends to teach us by means of his written revelation. Because of these pressing “hermeneutical” problems (problems of interpretation), the church is urged to he extremely cautious in making any official pronouncements and decisions regarding differences of conviction which exist within that fellowship. Recently one of the professors openly espoused the view that within a “reformational” church there should be latitude for various “orders” (of conviction, opinion, patterns of behavior?—the use of the term is not clearly defined), in order that ecclesiastical unity may remain unimpaired. Much of this writing sounds surprisingly like a defense of the Reformed (Hervormde) practice of allowing divergent “modalities” with respect to doctrine and practice in one and the same church. How deeply these changing emphases in that denomination have been influenced by the views of Barth and especially of Bultmann, Tillich and the neo-Bultmannians without espousing all their conclusions is difficult to determine. But that a radical change of climate is being effected is plain to all who keep their eyes and ears open. Nor should those who greet these changes be surprised when others ask them in all seriousness how with a theological methodology which allows for calling into question the historical figure of the first Adam they can still safeguard the true historicity of Jesus Christ and the gospel.

In a modified and less explicit form something of this seems to be contributing to a change of the theological, ethical and devotional “climate” within the Christian Reformed Church. Also here there is from time to time a pleading for “room” within a creedally committed church for divergent constructions and convictions which, we believe, would destroy the true confessional character of Christ’s church.

This manifested itself in some degree at the recent synod. Comment was made earlier in this magazine that said assembly did not address itself to the major issues presented to it in any clear and definitive way. Most of them were barely discussed. And now that action on them was postponed, voices are raised to argue that an indefinite postponement on at least one of these issues might be in order. Since the questions raised in connection with “Limited (or ‘definite’) Atonement” are so involved and intricate, synod—so the argument runs—would do well to leave the matter in status quo and give freedom to all in the denomination, including the theologians, to continue their work on this (and perhaps on other and related?) doctrines without being creedally bound on whether or not the atonement is definite and intrinsically efficacious.

We believe that this is bad advice, indeed. It assumes that the confessions and Scripture are not clear on this salient teaching. It suggests this solution without thoroughly addressing itself to the clear and detailed argumentation of the synodically-appointed committee, a deficiency on the part of those who make the suggestion which is hardly in keeping with Christian courtesy and brotherliness.

It urges that the issue raised is of such vast proportions and so beset with exegetical and doctrinal ambiguities, that only those who had a competent theological training are able to speak with any assurance on it.

What, when all is said and done, this advice actually implies is that on this doctrine, which all admit to be fundamental and central in the Christian gospel, widely divergent convictions be allowed within the Christian Reformed Church. To be sure, no one has argued that we should set aside the creeds simply as precious museum pieces produced by our forefathers. Nor would anyone, we believe, be ready to urge that the church ought also to make room for both those who affirm and those who deny, for example, the virgin birth of our Lord, the need of supernatural regeneration by the Spirit of God, or the eternal sonship of Jesus Christ. But in the light of the many other questions raised today—the historicity of what is stated in Genesis 1–3, the possible compatibility of theistic evolution with the Biblical teaching on man, the creedal statements on reprobation, to mention no more—we may legitimately ask where they who argue thus suppose the church should draw the line on confessional loyalty.

We trust that the churches are now facing the issue which Professor Dekker raised in his writings. This the synod of 1966 urged upon all. And inextricably interwoven with that issue is the whole matter of our confessional understanding and loyalty. The former will not be settled in any form without saying something, be it perhaps indirectly and implicitly, about the latter. This more than any other question facing the Christian Reformed Church today will make the synod of 1967 momentous. It will demonstrate how and to what extent the “climate” is changing. Is it too unrealistic to hope that in whatever changes are taking place there is produced a richer understanding of and stronger commitment to the clear teachings of the Scriptures?