The Inroads of Subjectivism

W. A. Visser’t Hooft in his little book, Rembrandt and the Gospel, calls attention to the great “crisis of the European mind” of the seventeenth century, characterizing it as “a turning from the objective to the subjective, from theocentric to anthropocentric thought.” In this time of crisis he observes that we may say of the famous painter “what Conrad Ferdinand Meyer says of Luther: He feels the great upheaval of the age, And firmly clasps his Bible.”

Such a “turning from the objective to the subjective,” from God-centered to man-centered thinking has continued to characterize the movement of thought from the seventeenth century into our own time. It does so to an unusual degree today. Four years ago, in the April 1966 TORCH AND TRUMPET I pointed this out in an article entitled, “The Reformcd Faith and the Danger of Subjectivism.”

That article was occasioned by my having run across a remarkable little book on Anabaptism published in 1940, written by J. W. Tunderman and entitled, Marnix van St. Aldegornle en de Subjectivistische Stroomingen in de 16de Eeuw. The thrust of this little book is that one of the greatest threats to the Reformed faith has always been and continues to be Subjectivism. To be such a “subjectivist” means that one makes the starting point in his thought and life not the Word of God and its authority but, like the sixteenth century Anabaptists and like modern philosophers ever since Descartes, one’s self and his own experience.

Tunderman observed that this movement which began with the human self as the only thing that was certain was opposed by Reformed people in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but gradually gained the upper hand.

In the nineteenth century there arose a new Reformation which repudiated this subjectivism, but in our day this subjectivism threatens to destroy what is left of both the sixteenth and nineteenth century Reformations. I pointed out four years ago how aptly that analysis applied to a number of our church problems. Since that time it has become even more apparent that this subjectivistic preoccupation with man’s thought and experience is destroying the Reformed faith in the authority of the Word of God.

The “New Theology” is Subjectivistic

Does the above sound like too sweeping a judgment? Let’s look at some evidence:

In the Reformed Journal issue of December, 1969, John Timmer, a Christian Reformed missionary in Jap”n, published the concluding article of a survey of recent theological developments in the Reformed Church in The Netherlands. It was entitled, “G. C. Berkouwer: Theologian of Confrontation and Co-Relation.” To help us to understand Berkouwer’s theological method Timmer refers to an essay of Dr. Cornelis van Peursen, professor of philosophy at the Free University, entitled, “Man and Reality – the History of Human Thought” (in A Reader in Contemporary Theology, 1967).

In this essay Dr. van Peursen distinguishes three successive stages in the history of human thought which he characterizes as (1) “mythical,” (2) “ontological” and (3) “functional.” In the ontological stage he says man was concerned about definitions, about understanding what is. This stage, however, is past. We are now in the “functional” stage in which man is no longer concerned about what is but only what works. Now “Real is what directly relates to us. Real is what functions in our life.” “Reality is that which functions. What is the mind? Not a thing or a substance, but an action: the act of thinking.” “Functional man does not ask: who or what is God? but: what does God do?” Similarly, concerning man he observes: “Man’s time and context co-determine who and what he is.” The modern mind no longer thinks in terms of “being and substance,” but it “thinks in terms of event and action. Our thinking is dynamic rather than static.”

Now it is the contention of Dr. van Peursen that we share this transition with other men of our time. “We hear the Bible through the patterns that we share with our contemporaries.” “If we are to witness effectively to our generation we must do this in the language and thought patterns in which modem man feels at home.”

Timmer sees this analysis of van Peursen as very helpful in leading to an understanding of Berkouwer and the new theological trends in The Netherlands and he heartily recommends that we go along with this modern movement.

As an analysis of the thinking of the so-called “new theologians” in The Netherlands, the article is extremely illuminating, but just consider the view of the Bible which it endorses. Could anything be more rankly subjectivistic, more of a sellout of the Reformed faith in the Bible’s authority than this? When we no longer care or try to lead others to care about what is, but only care about what appeals to men as working, what is left of the authority of God or of His Word in our way of thinking? Timmer may claim that this new “way of thinking” is not a serious matter since it only “relates to how we think, not so much to what we think. It gives structure, rather than content, to what we think.”

It should be perfectly obvious to anyone who reflects on what is being said that indifference to what is, regardless of whether the Bible says that it is or not, is decidedly a matter not just of structure but of content. One who no longer cares about what Cod reveals concerning Who and what kind of God He is, but says he is concerned only about God’s “function” toward him plainly reveals that the only real authority he recognizes is his own. This is becoming man-centered with a vengeance! A witness that would adapt itself to this “functional” concern of modern man is no longer a gospel indictment of his sin of self-centeredness but a complete surrender to it. This is the movement that in the new theology in The Netherlands approaches the Bible with its own modern philosophical assumptions and increasingly declares that one after another of the events it records and the doctrines it teaches are untrue or irrelevant to “functional” modern man.

A “Reformational” Attack on the Bible

The Reformed faith in the authority of God’s Word is not only under attack from those in Europe and here who are advocating an increasingly frank sellout to modern unbelief. It is also undergoing an attack from the side of others from whom we had expected much better things, men who claim to be especially committed to the Word of God.

We find such an unexpected subjectivist attack in the little book of lectures by Arnold DeGraaff and Calvin Seerveld entitled, Understanding the Scriptures. In this little book, which has received high pr3ise, being hailed by one writer as “the rough equivalent of Luther’s 95 theses,” Dr. De Graaff begins the series of lectures by presenting the idea that the Word of God is a saving proclamation and a religious directive for the transformation of our lives, and he protests against ways of misusing it as though it were merely a collection of abstract teachings or moral lessons detached from the whole of life.

If De Graaff were content to make this point the lectures might well merit only the high appreciation and praise some are giving them. The trouble with these lectures (as I pointed out in some articles in Calvinist-Contact a year ago) “was that they did not just stress this important truth, but went much further, even to the point of making such overstatements as that the Scriptures ‘do not contain any rational, general theological statements about God and his creation…’ (p. 2), and that ‘the Bible does not contain any moral lessons’ (p. 29).

“Dr. De Graaff called a Bible manual’s moralizations about Joseph’s ‘industriousness and honesty’ not merely inadequate, but ‘plain falsehoods.’ In his treatment of a discussion of God’s Providence he seemed to be criticizing not merely a faulty, abstract manner of dealing with this doctrine, but he ridiculed such statements as: ‘God’s providence makes all things work together for good…,’ and ‘Nothing happens by chance,’ and ‘man proposes, but God disposes,’ even calling the latter ‘blasphemy!’”

How are we to understand this opposition not only to a wrongly abstract way of dealing with Christian doctrine or morals, but to the very idea that the Bible teaches any propositional truths or morals? Reflecting on this characteristic of the author’s point of view which seems to come out especially in some of these remarkable overstatements…we are carried back to the introduction.”

There Dr. De Graaff defines the Bible as “the book of the acts of God,” and, secondly, as containing “man’s response to God’s revelation” (p. 2). “Summarizing our findings,” he says “it is not the purpose of the Bible to inform us about the nature of God’s being or his attributes. To treat the Scriptures as if they did contain such general, theological statements and propositional truths, therefore, would be to distort the very nature and purpose of the Word of God.” “It is only in his actions that God’s being and his attributes are revealed to us” (pp. 9, 10).

Where does Dr. De Graaff get this intense antipathy to the idea that the Bible contains any propositional truths or moral commands and to the idea that it teaches us anything about God’s being and attributes other than as revealed in action? Even a casual reading of many parts of the Bible makes it perfectly obvious that he did not get this viewpoint from it.

The Bible includes not only a record of God’s works but also His words. It tells us not only what He has done, but also that and Who He is! His covenant Name is not “I DO” as De Graaff’s theory would demand, but “I AM” (Ex. 3:14).

The Psalms especially abound in the praise of God’s attributes as well as His works. The Bible is plainly concerned about both Who He is and what He has done; it knows and allows no such antithesis between God’s Being and acts as De Graaff insists upon trying to drive between them. Where does he get this idea? The answer is obvious. This is the same effort to replace “ontological” thinking (or thinking about what is) with “functional” thinking (or thinking about action) which van Peursen has described as the peculiar characteristic of our age. De Graaff at this point is not reflecting the Bible’s teaching at all but just the same subjectivism which dominates the liberal Reformed theological movement in The Netherlands!

When I raised these objections a year ago Dr. De Graaff to whom I presented them said that he was misunderstood, but he refused to make any effort to explain his position. If he does not really believe what he says, that is reason for gratitude, but it is what he says that is being read and accepted by his followers; and, in default of any extenuating explanations on his part, we must deal with the position that he maintains in his writings. I was urged by one familiar with his work to read his book, The Educational Ministry of the Church in order to reach a more favorable conclusion regarding his position, Having finally read this book with considerable appreciation of many of the observations it contains, I find its conclusion reinforcing the very criticisms prompted by the other book. What is De Graaff’s conclusion in this book?

In his Encyclopaedie…, Dr, A. Kuyper attempted to derive every theological discipline from the Scriptures, as the prinicipium divisions for theology. But if one takes one’s starting point exclusively in Scripture, it is impossible to account for man as the believing subject and the church as the community of believers. The Word of God reveals the norm for our faith, it proclaims to Whom we ought to direct ourselves in our believing, and it tells us how man has responded to this revelation, But the Scriptures relate these things in the language of faith. Nowhere does the Word of God give a theoretical account of these norms, nor does it present an analysis of the structural laws that govern our believing and the church with its offices. The Bible appeals to and is in harmony with these structural norms, but to discover and theoretically describe these norms we must turn to creational revelation. Dr. Kuyper’s attempt to derive theology solely from Scriptural revelation stood in the way of a further development of theology…

Dr. De Graaff goes on to pronounce Dr. Waterink just as mistaken as Kuyper in his attempt to place the psychology and sociology of religion within theology:

On the one hand he wanted to maintain Kuyper’s conception of Scripture as the principium for theology, while on the other hand he was forced to acknowledge the structural laws (which can. not be derived exclusively from Scripture). This dilemma was solved by making the psychology and sociology of religion also subdivisions of theology, which derive their main principles directly from Scripture. New biblical insight, however indicates that this conception of psychology (the soul) and sociology can no longer be maintained.

Without reference to the structural norms revealed in creation, theology cannot account for man’s faith, nor for the church as the fellowship of believers, nor for the nature of the church’s ministries. The basic concepts of which theology avails itself cannot be derived directly from Scripture, since the Bible does not contain scientific theological concepts. The Word of God is not a textbook for theology. Even dogmatic theology, therefore cannot do without an analysis of the structure of faith . If the theologian limits himself exclusively to Scripture, he is continually in danger of confusing the direction, the content, and the structure of faith, which invariably leads to a docetic conception of faith, giving room for a new dualism between grace and nature.

The writer continues:

How shall we account for the structure of the church’s ministry, its preaching, evangelism, pastoral care, diaconate, and education? Our answer is, by taking seriously the revelation of God’s will in the order of creation. How else could we account for the structural norms that govern these ministries of the church? Since scriptural revelation is in harmony with and appeals to creational revelation and since the meaning of Scripture cannot be grasped without considering the creational ordinances, we have felt free to make use of the ‘ground plan’ of these structural norms that has been provided by the Philosophy of Law. As a systematic discipline, theology cannot do without such a theoretical account of the order of creation ( pp. 156–158).

Notice the tremendously important statements that Dr. De Graaff has been making: Dr. Kuyper in theology and, following him, Dr. Waterink in psychology and sociology were mistaken in trying to derive their systems of thought from the Bible. When we do that the Bible “invariably” misleads us, giving us a false conception of faith! To understand the “church’s ministry, its preaching, evangelism pastoral care, diaconate and education” we must turn not to the Bible but to the “creational ordinances.” And those “creational ordinances” are not just self-evident. They must be discovered by Dooyeweerd’s Philosophy of Law. Notice how the Bible is being down-graded, set aside—we are even worried against being misled by it -and in its place there stands the sovereign Dooyeweerdian Philosophy, or rather the interpretations being given to it by some of its North American disciples! If this is not an attack on the Bible by a modern subjectivism, what is it? One is reminded of the warning of Christ, “Why do ye also transgress the commandment of God because of your tradition?” “But in vain do they worship me, Teaching as their doctrines the precepts of men” (Matt. 15:3, 9), and the pointed warning of the Apostle Paul to the Colossians whose faith was also threatened by men who claimed additional, superior light: “Take heed lest there shall be anyone that maketh spoil of you through his philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ” (Col. 2:8).

Destructive Results of Subjectivism

The mischievous consequences of setting aside the Bible as the only infallible rule of faith and life in favor of a certain brand of philosophy appear in many ways. When one sees this philosophy displacing the Bible he is no longer surprised as I at first was to find Dr. De Graaff after a critique of the novel Catcher in the Rye. making the remarkable assertion that “In general, Christians have been unable, just like non-Christians to integrate their sexual functioning in the whole of their lives and to give the feelings of love, tenderness, and affection their rightful place in normal, everyday human relationships” (Focus, Jan. 1959, p. 10). Although there have always been some Christian homes which have had sexual problems, does Dr. De Graaff mean to tell us that the Holy Spirit has for nineteen hundred years been failing to guide Christians into happy service of the Lord in this area of their lives? I can’t for a moment believe it! Only one who makes his guide not the Bible but a particular brand of modern philosophy could accept that.

And the pity of it is that this kind of teaching lends direct support to the idea already too prevalent among teen-agers that, “My dumb old folks can’t understand me; they don’t know anything about sex!” In the light of this downgrading of the Bible to substitute for it guidelines drawn from more modern sources one also begins to understand the otherwise amazing remarks of Dr. De Graaff’s colleague, Dr. Calvin Seerveld, at the June Christian Reformed ministers’ conference, to the same effect that most Christian families have never come to appreciate God’s purpose in their sex relationships and his suggestion that it might be a good thing if members of the family practiced nudity in their homes, Japanese style, in order to get rid of their unwholesome inhibitions.

From where do such ideas come in the teachings of these men who want to be “Reformational” philosophers of the Word of God? Obviously they do not derive from the Bible which promised the Holy Spirit would guide believers throughout the centuries in “all the truth” (John 16:13), which in its early chapters tells us how God provided clothing for man’s use, gives no commendation to Noah’s shameless nudity, and has some strict prohibitions about “uncovering nakedness.” Plainly these ideas did not come from and get no sanction from the Bible, which has been dismissed as not an adequate guide in sociological and psychological problems. They come directly out of modern subjectivistic and humanistic philosophy.

The same considerations help us to understand Dr. Seerveld’s peculiar presentation of “love” at that conference in almost completely physical terms, quite ignoring the fact that the Bible in dealing with love even between man and wife doesn’t even use the Greek word that stresses a physical relationship but uses the one that refers also to relationship with God, “agapao”! This Dooyeweerdian philosophy has been criticized as wanting to do away with a “body-soul” or “body-spirit” distinction in spite of the fact that the Bible teaches it, and where a clash comes between this philosophy and the Bible the latter just has to be ignored!

An article by another writer in the September 3 Calvinist-Contact on “The Moral Revolution and the Generation Gap” reflects the same kind of thinking. It contains such remarks as these: “We are inclined to take it (sexual promiscuity) much less seriously than our elders”; and “…materialism and greed are responsible for more evil than any other human failing”; “The students therefore reject the ethic of the older generation and with it, its right to rule.” It is plain in this article that the law of God which places “Thou shalt not commit adultery” on the same level as “Thou shalt not steal” takes little or no part in the writer’s evaluation. After all, have not teachers such as Dr. De Graaff told us that the Bible teaches no moral lessons and that its commandments are relative?

In the light of these expressed views of Dr. De Graaff we can begin to understand the problems that continue to arise around the AACS (Association for the Advancement of Christian Studies) movement, problems regarding which my colleague, Dr. Peter Y. De Jong, asked some questions in the July 1970 TORCH AND TRUMPET to which he has as yet received no answers.

That our students in universities need all the support they can get to be guided and strengthened in the faith of the gospel is obvious, and the AACS movement has invited wide support in its efforts to meet that need. But why the AACS movement should attempt to set up study conferences and “cells” throughout our churches even dealing with such subjects as the nature of the church, and why it should almost always stir up controversy within our Christian school movements is much less obvious. Dr. De Graaff’s illuminating remarks clear up whatever mystery there may have been about such questions. He has told us plainly that the Bible is not an adequate guide regarding such matters as the nature of man, of his faith, of the church and such matters as “the structure of the church’s ministry, its preaching, evangelism, pastoral care, diaconate and education.” In all such matters we must have the superior light shed by the philosophy which he and others in the AACS hold. As long as one accepts this assumption and shares the effort to shed this superior light throughout our churches and schools as well as in the world, all may seem to go smoothly, but if one, while appreciating many of the critical observations of this philosophy is less than convinced of the soundness of its own system and is unprepared to let it displace the Bible as final guide, how can trouble be avoided?

How serious that trouble can become, the problems of Second Toronto, as reported in the Agenda of the last Christian Reformed Church Synod, have revealed to the whole church. Will we never learn that letting men’s subjective opinions, even those of able philosophers, take precedence over the Word of God is not an innocent, academic thing but that it will destroy the doctrine and life of the Christian and the church?

One regrets to sec traces of the same erosion of the Bible’s authority by modern subjectivism appear in the writing of Dr. Paul Schruotenboer in the International Reformed Bulletins (Jan.-April, 1968; July, 1969) in which he in discussion with Professor Norman Shepherd of Westminster Seminary emphasizes as a key statement that “unless we see that Scripture is the only means to connect us with the revelation of God in Christ, it is only so many human words.” Notice the connection: Unless we see…it [the Bible] is. In other words what the Bible is, is made to depend on what we see in it! Isn’t this statement the rankest kind of subjectivism? We must begin with what God has said and recognize that that is not changed by what men attempt to make of it or even by their refusal to listen to it at all! They can’t change God’s Word. They attempt to twist it or reject it to their own destruction.

“But these are all fine Christian men!” someone may object. That may be true, but it does not justify what they are teaching. Peter was also a fine Christian: the Lord had just commended him. But when Peter, instead of proclaiming God’s truth, began contradicting the doctrine of his Lord, Jesus rebuked him with a sharp, “Get thee behind me, Satan…, for thou mindest not the things of God, but the things of men.” “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me{ (Matt. 16:23, 24). Even Peter must get rid of his “subjectivistic humanism” if he is to serve Christ. That has always been the enemy of the Christian faith in the church as well as in the world. May God help us to see that and deliver us from it.

Subjectivism in the form of Anabaptism with its inner light attacked the faith of the gospel, as Marnix, Tunderman, and many others have pointed out, and it does so to the present day. In the form of Arminianism which denies the sovereignty of God in order to stress the importance of man’s decision, subjectivism attacked the Christian faith and continues to do so. But it also attacks the faith in the form of the so-called “new theologies” in Reformed circles, when Drs. Kuitert, Baarda, Koole, and their colleagues reject large parts of the Bible, and when others permit their philosophy to become an idol which replaces it as the infallible rule of faith and life. May God help us to take the stance attributed to Luther and Rembrandt:

He feels the great upheaval of the age, And firmly clasps his Bible.

Peter De Jong is pastor of the Christian Reformed Church of Dutton, Michigan.