This article touches a matter of vital importance with a view to the coming centennial. In the month of April 1957, the Christian Reformed denomination will have reached the age of 100. What have we done with these 100 years? Do we cling as closely to the Bible today as we did yesterday?
Let us face the facts. On the one hand, let us not be overly pessimistic. Let us, by the grace of God, see the good wherever it can be found. And let us thank God for it. When we think of our people’s love for the Word, there is surely much reason for gratitude.
On the other hand, let us not deceive ourselves into thinking that in the Christian Reformed denomination everything is rosy as far as the attitude to Scripture is concerned. Unless we see our faults we shall never make real progress. When facts which everyone can verify if he wishes to do so are brought into the open, we should be honest and courageous enough to face them. And this all the more when we realize that the issue is of major significance for the welfare of our churches.
Our discussion of the supremacy of the Word can well be distributed under the four headings suggested to me by the committee who asked me to write.
I. Just What Do We Mean by the Supremacy of the Word?
We mean that we regard Scripture as our infallible guide for thought, word, and deed. We believe that the mind of God is revealed in that Word, as far as it pleased God to reveal it to us; and that his will is disclosed in it. That revelation we accept, and before that will we have learned to bow. The ultimate authority and absolute infallibility of Scripture are nowhere more clearly expressed than in Scripture itself:
“But abide thou in the things which thou hast learned and hast been assured of, knowing of whom thou hast learned them; and that from a babe thou hast known the sacred writings which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for instruction which is in righteousness: that the man of God may be complete, furnished completely unto every good work” (Il Tim. 3:14–17).
“For no prophecy ever came by the will of man: but men spake from God, being moved by the Holy Spirit” (II Peter 1:21).
This dignity and authority of the Holy Scriptures is interpreted as follows by our Confession of Faith (Belgic Confession), Article V:
“We receive all these books, and these only, as holy and canonical, for the regulation, foundation, and conformation of our faith; believing without any doubt all things contained in them, not so much because the church receives and approves them as such, but more especially because the Holy Spirit witnesses in our hearts that they are from God, and because they carry the evidence thereof in themselves. For the very blind are able to perceive that the things foretold in them are being fulfilled.”
Hence, according to the stand of the Christian Reformed denomination, we not only believe everything that is taught in Scripture, but in our discussions and argumentations we constantly refer to and defer to God’s special revelation as deposited in written form and organically in the Bible.
II. How We Remained Faithful to the Word in Our Put History
In the matter of faithfulness we are not claiming perfection for ow or any other denomination. Nevertheless, speaking by and large, we may affirm that during the past century the Christian Reformed denomination has again and again made an honest attempt, with God’s help, to remain true to the principle of the supremacy of the Word.
Now, in this connection we should never permit ourselves to forget that between De Afscheiding (Secession) of 1834 and the birth of our denomination there was an interval of only twenty-two and one-half years. In fact, some of the men who took the lead in the establishment of ow own denomination knew all about that other bitter struggle in The Netherlands, Hence, it is only fair to judge the action of 1857 in the light of that of 1834 (at least in part).
How well I remember that as a boy I was permitted to read the Acte Van Afscheiding (Act of Secession) of the church of Ulrum (Oct. 13, 1834). My minister, Dr. G. Keizer, was an eminent historian who, having obtained access to many of the original Afscheiding documents, which my father and I were permitted to see at his home, subsequently wrote a large book, a copy of which I have, which is now lying on my desk. It bears the title De Afscheiding Van 1834, Now, what I found especially striking was the frequency with which return to the Word of God is mentioned as the reason for the secession. The very opening lines show this:
We, the undersigned, elders and members of the Reformed Church of Jesus Christ at Ulrum, having for a long time observed the corruption in the Netherlands Reformed Church with respect to both the mutilation and repudiation of the doctrine of our fathers, based on God’s Word, and the degeneration of the administration of the holy sacraments according to the ordinance of Christ as revealed in his Word...; and having by God’s grace received a pastor and teacher who presented to us the true doctrine of our fathers according to the Word of God, have come to see more and more clearly that with respect to both doctrine and conduct we should order our lives according to the rule of faith and of God’s Holy Word (Gal. 6:16; Phil. 3:16), and that we should cease from striving to serve God according to the commandments of men, because God’s Word tells us that this is in vain (Matt. 15:9).
Please note the repeated emphasis on God’s holy Word!
The great leader of the emigration of 18·16 and following years, namely, Dr. A. C. Van Raalte, gave the following touching testimony, when he was in conversation with a none too friendly liberal professor:
“Not from man did I receive my instruction, but it was my sense of guilt which impelled me to make a prayerful study of the Scriptures. And it was thus that through his Spirit I arrived at the truth of my justification before God through faith in Jesus.”
In 1857 a group of believers, haVing been briefly united with the Reformed Church in America, decided to secede and to establish what is now known as the Christian Reformed denomination. What was their fundamental reason for taking this step?
This was not always clearly expressed, Moreover, is it not possible that in this secession—as in most movements of this character—certain sinful factors were involved? Must we, indeed, believe that everybody’s reason for bidding farewell to the Reformed Church was a laudable reason? When you read with an open mind the various arguments on both sides of the controversy, are you not led to the conclusion that pettifogging was not entirely absent from our side?
Though this must probably be admitted, it can also be exaggerated. It is not true that the leaders of the secession of 1857 were always making mountains out of molehills. Certain authors who have written about this question make it appear that the real reasons why we separated from the Reformed Church were the following: opposition to hymn singing; opposition to funeral services, particularly to having dead bodies in the church; opposition to having flowers on caskets, to church organs, to fire insurance, to the insurance, to vaccination, to lightning rods, to flowers on bonnets, to Sunday Schools, to picnics, to the English language, to white dresses!
Matters such as these did not constitute the basic cause, however. That basic cause was “dissatisfaction with the doctrine and discipline of the Reformed Church.” The quotation is from Dr. Henry Beets (Gedenkboek 1857–1907, p. 24).
The real reasons for the secession of 1857 and the birth of our denomination were probably the following:
1. The omission (in many Reformed churches) of catechism preaching. This and many other evils were particularly evident in the East.
2. The admission of Freemasons to communicant church membership.
3. Open communion.
4. Laxness in the exercise of church discipline.
5. The downgrading of the doctrine of divine predestination.
6. In several Reformed churches, the ignoring of (or even implied rejection of) the doctrine of the limited atonement.
7. The frequent omission of baptism, so that one elder admitted that he had not presented any of his children for baptism.
8. Over-emphasis on hymn singing to the neglect, in many cases, of psalm singing.
9. The distribution of un-Reformed religious literature.
10. The “persecution” of those leaders who tried to lead the church back to the true doctrine of Scripture. I refer here to what was then still called the “persecution” of leaders, an event which had led to the secession of 1822, a secession which exerted some influence upon the men of 1857; and to the far from mild opposition which the men of 1857 had to endure when they tried to change the stand of the denomination with respect to the admission of Freemasons to church membership.
Now, it is certainly evident at once that these several reasons point back to one great, basic issue, namely, that of the supremacy of the Word of God. It was the dignity and majesty of that Word which the leaders of the secession wanted to uphold at all costs.
Has the Christian Reformed Church remained true to that great principle?
Well, let us look first of all to the controversy which was raging in the year 1922. At that time a certain professor, popular with many students, was teaching at Calvin Seminary, a man well versed in Hebrew and related languages, as all the reports have it. But about him a controversy arose which has definite bearing on conditions today. Otherwise I would not mention it. In fact, I would be more than pleased to let this episode rest entirely were it not for the fact that others have brought it to the fore once more, as you will see if you continue to read this article to the very end.
Now as to the controversy with respect to him, I wish that everybody would read for himself what is found on pages 125–138 of the Acts of OllI Synod of 1922. I say this so that no one will be able to claim that I am misrepresenting history. If these minutes are read, it will become abundantly evident that the issue touching this professor was whether in all his teaching he adhered to the Reformed conception of inspiration. The committee which investigated the matter gave a detailed report, and defended the view that the professor did not in every respect cling to the Reformed position anent the inspiration of Scripture. Synod adopted the Report and took action accordingly.
Was it not also the denomination’s sense of loyalty to the principle of the supremacy of the Word which led to the deposition of a minister who, as Synod saw it, rejected two important scriptural doctrines, namely, that with reference to the unity of the church and that with reference to the kingship of Christ?
And what about the general membership of the church? Has it remained loyal to this great principle?
It is only fair, it would seem to me, to express thanks to God for the following facts:
a. Today, more than ever before, a large percentage of our children attend the Christian schools, institutions in which the Bible is basic to all the instruction that is given. I know of a congregation where within a generation the percentage of pupils who attend the Christian School rose from about twenty-five per cent to perhaps about seventy per cent.
b. The custom of family worship about the Word of God is held in honor by many. And for this purpose some excellent aids have been supplied.
c. By means of the Reformed Bible Institute, Bible Conferences, religious broadcasts, etc., the attention of our own people and of others is focused upon the Word of God as interpreted by our Reformed confessions.
d. The work of such a man as Dr. Volbeda (and in a measure that of others before him), who in his own characteristic way gave us instruction in constructing exegetical, practical, logical, and interesting sermons, in which the Word of God is central, has been exerting its beneficent influence, to the spiritual upbuilding from Sabbath to Sabbath of congregations large and small throughout the denomination.
e. The value and importance of the labors of Professor L. Berkhof, in greatly strengthening the foundation for the interpretation of Scripture and for the doctrines based upon it, can hardly be over-estimated. That is my personal testimony. And I am convinced that many will join me in this. And here, too, it is the so-called “layman” and not only the minister who reaps the benefit.
f. The splendid work done in our midst by the staff of The Banner—particularly the definite defence of The Reformed position on fundamental issues in the editorials of the last few decades—has served to strengthen greatly the loyalty of our people to the Word of God.
It is therefore with true joy and gratitude in our hearts that we can testify:
“Thy love divine has led us in the past; In this free land by Thee our lot is cast, Be thou our Ruler, Guardian, Guide, and Stay; Thy Word our law, Thy paths our chosen way.”
Ill. Are There Signs of Decay?
To picture only the bright side would ill serve the true interests of our denomination. Let us all humbly admit before God that we have not always placed the emphasis where we should have placed it. It is not at all my purpose to brand anyone as a heretic; nevertheless, I believe it is high time that certain dangers be pointed out.
Doing this involves risk. I know that very well. Those who prize external unity above all else will immediately call one “a spreader of suspicions,” and “an alarmist.” They will say that it just “is not nice” to call attention to any flaw when admiring a masterpiece.
But as we approach this centennial, you and I must ask that we may receive from the Lord love, wisdom, and courage. Also courage! Let us not be so deeply concerned about personal popularity and “security” that we no longer dare to fight the battle of the Lord. Remember:
“If I have longed for shelter in the fold, When thou has given me some fort to hold, Dear Lord, forgive.”
If there had been more men like Machen in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., it would surely have been good for that church. Though you and I may never reach the lofty pinnacle of a Luther, a Calvin, an Abraham Kuyper, or a Machen, we can at least pray for grace to manifest a little of that same spirit in our own small way.
Now suppose that you—instead of myself—were the man who had to place your finger on certain present-day tendencies in the Christian Reformed Church, tendencies which may be regarded as hardly in keeping with the principle of the supremacy of the Word, where would you place that finger?
I can imagine that you might say something like this:
“Of late from a certain quarter I have been hearing a lot about biblicists. I used to think that the term referred to people who rejected the creeds and quoted Scripture out of its context. But today whenever I want my children to commit to memory a Bible passage, or when I defend my policy regarding their conduct by referring to a Bible text, or when I in any other way quote Scripture in order to prove my stand on this or that, I am immediately called a biblicist. My neighbor calls me that.
“Also, today I am being told that men who devote much earnest study to Scripture are not scholarly. It would seem that only those who delve into Plato are scholars. And I always thought that Warfield, Hodge, Bavinck, and Machen were also scholars!
“Again, I have heard it said that not the Bible but Christ is really the only Word of God. Also, that our people should be warned not to ‘worship a book’.”
And here my informant stops, to wait for my reply to all this. I answer: Your account is interesting, but can you prove that all these ideas are present among us? Do not forget that many of the things which you have told me have never been committed to writing. So, let us forget about them until they can be proved, black on white.
But there are, nevertheless, some facts which can be proved. Whether these facts show that we are in danger of moving in a wrong direction. I shall leave to the judgment of the reader.
FACT NUMBER 1:
Some time ago I was reading a thesis written by a minister of our denomination. The title of the thesis is The Christian Reformed Church and Her Schools. The dissertation gives evidence of much work, and contains much interesting, worthwhile material But one fact caused me to wonder in which direction we are heading. And before I tell you what it was, I should like to stress that I am not at all interested in misrepresentation. I am interested in objective facts. Hence, if anyone has any fear of misrepresentation, he should by all means investigate for himself.
You will recall that earlier in this article I reluctantly referred to the happenings of the year 1922. Please re-read that paragraph if you have forgotten it. Otherwise you will not understand what I am about to say. Now, the very man who according to the report of the 1922 committee was held to have taught matters which were not entirely in conformity with the Reformed view of inspiration, is lauded in this thesis. In effect, the thesis says that his deposition was the beginning of the end of a process of life that was initiated with some good hope in the year 1902.
Well, does the author of the thesis intend to tell us that the Synod of 1922 was wrong when it applied its doctrine of Scripture’s inspiration as it did to the matter in question? If so, is it not high time that we confess this wrong? The issue is a basic one, as the Acts of 1922 clearly indicate. Just where are we going?
FACT NUMBER 2:
Somewhere I recently read that the Bible is “a mine of religious insight.” This expression, too, came from our own circle. It is but fair to add, however, that, as I see it, the context in which the expression occurs makes it somewhat less alarming. The author points out that he clings to “the historic Christian faith.” It is his aim “to give expression to that faith in the idiom of today.” He believes in “the old faith for the modern man.” Certainly, nobody can object to that. As I see it, it is commendable that we strive to be up-to-date in our preaching, instead of stuffy. The expression of our beliefs should not be geared to the ways and habits of the sixteenth or seventeenth century. Therefore, with emphasis I would say that taken in its context—and it is never fair to remove a statement from its context—the statement must be viewed as having issued from the pen (or typewriter) of a man who fully accepts the Reformed position on the inspiration of the Bible. Otherwise, why talk about “the old faith” at all? And yet, would it not have been wiser if the brother, instead of using language which even a liberal can use—namely, “a mine of religious insight”—had spoken of Scripture as God’s infallible revelation? Is it not true that the Bible is always first of all and most of all God’s Word to man before it ever can be a mine of religious insight? Please take note that the author of this statement speaks of the Bible, not as a mine of Christian insight. but as a mine of merely religious insight. It seems to me that the mildest way we can characterize such terminology is to call it inadequate and perhaps even dangerous.
FACT NUMBER 3:
No so long ago a book was published which aims to show The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth. The author of that book (a Reformed theologian in The Netherlands) has written other books, books which I personally regard as excellent, and from which we can learn a great deal. And fairness compels me to add that even from the present volume we can cull many interesting facts. That the man who wrote it is a scholar is evident from beginning to end.
But how “grace” can ever be said to be triumphant in the theology of a man (Karl Barth) who teaches that sin is “an ontological impossibility” is more than I can see. How we can praise so highly the doctrinal views of a man (again Karl Barth) who holds that all men were elected in Christ, is again more than I can understand. But above all, what I cannot fathom is this, that when a man regards the Bible as “a human document like any other,” which “can lay no a priori claim to special attention or consideration” (Karl Barth, Das Wort Gottes und die Theologie. tr. The Word of God and the Word of Man, Boston, 1928, p. 60), he can be trusted to erect on such a weak foundation a beautiful and well-constructed edifice of grace! I, too, would ask with Dr. C. Van Til:
“Does Barth now believe in the historicity of the Genesis account? Or has that become a matter of small importance? Does he now believe in the incarnation in the way the historic confessions, notably that of Chalcedon, speak of it? Does he now believe in the virgin birth or resurrection of Christ in the ordinary, historical sense of the term? Does he now believe in the second coming of Christ, a final judgment, and an eternal separation of the just and the unjust in the way the historic creeds, on the basis of Scripture, speak of these things?”
Exactly! Dr. Van Til’s logic here is simply irrefutable. Lauding Karl Bath’s doctrine of grace when you know that you are dealing with a man who rejects completely the Reformed view of the doctrine of Scripture’s infallibility is, to say the least, inconsistent. And since no one will deny that such lauding takes place in our own circles also, I believe that what I am saying is definitely to the point. You cannot have an infallible Bible and also Karl Barth! They do not fit into one system. Moreover, those who today are talking about “the new Barth” are warned by Barth to desist (Kirchliche Dogmatik, Vol. IX/2, Die Lehre Von Der Versomung, p. viii).
FACT NUMBER 4:
Of late there has been much talk about the question: Does the Bible contain inaccuracies? In this connection the question being discussed is not, Did any scribe ever commit an error in copying? Nor is it, Did any translator ever offer a wrong rendering of the text? I suppose it may be taken for granted that on such matters as these all informed persons think alike.
No, the real question is, Did the evangelists themselves commit inaccuracies when they wrote their books? I am happy to say that I know of no Christian Reformed person who would answer that question in the affirmative. With all respect for those elsewhere who differ with me, and for the excellent books which they have written, books which deserve all the praise which has been showered upon them, I still hope that the position referred to—namely, that the evangelists may have committed historical inaccuracies—will never be accepted by anyone in our circles.
Be sure about this, that once you admit the possibility of error in historical detail, you will be hard pressed to defend the impossibility of error in doctrinal teaching.
IV. Positive Suggestions for Improvements
Error has a way of creeping in gradually, little by little. Hence, I humbly submit the following for the readers’ consideration:
1. In order that the supremacy of the Word of God may stand out more clearly than ever before, let us first of all continue to insist that in all our schools all the teach· ing be definitely based on (and integrated with) the Word of God, viewed as his infallible special revelation to man. Teaching must never become a matter of merely asking questions. Questions are all right provided that answers are also given, answers on the basis of Scripture.
In our homes and in private devotions let us strive more than ever before to give the central place to the Word of God. Let its themes be the subjects for discussion “with our beloved ones.” Let its teachings be taken to heart.
Let us, in imparting instruction to our children regarding Scripture, continue to insist on effecting a proper balance between memorization, interpretation, and personal appropriation.
Let us not despise any of these. To a certain extent the commUting to memory of Scripture passages should be encouraged, not discouraged. What one learns when he is young does not easily fade from the memory. The ability, in later years, to recall pertinent Bible passages has had the effect in hundreds of cases of:
a. helping people in their struggle against temptation (a Bible passage would suddenly occur to the mind);
b. assisting them in giving a good ac· count of their faith when confronted with error in doctrine: they had their weapon when they needed it, not five minutes later; and
c. filling their hearts and minds with glory and comfort in their declining years and especially upon their deathbeds.
But memorization can be emphasized too strongly. Texts must always be read and studied in the light of their contexts. Children and grownups should learn to interpret and understand the meaning of Scripture in the light of our confessions.
I hardly need to emphasize—for it is obvious—that most important of all is personal appropriation.
4. Let us never forget that our Confessions teach:
“We know him by two means, first, by the creation, preservation, and government of the universe; which is before our eyes as a most elegant book, wherein all creatures, great and small, are as so many characters leading us to see clearly the invisible things of God, even his everlasting power and divinity, as the apostle Paul says (Rom.1:20). All which things are sufficient to convince men and leave them without excuse. Second, he makes him self more clearly and fully known to us by his holy and divine Word, that is to say, as far as is necessary for us to know him in this life, to his glory and our salvation.”
5. If during the centennial any praise or honor must be bestowed upon human leaders, then let us bestow it upon those men whose staunchness with respect to Scripture has never been a subject of justifiable doubt or criticism.
6. Let us not neglect our calling to give this “book of books” to the nations. The Bible is the book of missions!
Let us remember that without God’s favor we can accomplish nothing. Hence, let us continue to invoke the blessing of our covenant God upon our efforts, in order that we may both love and live the Bible, Thus will be answered that glorious prayer which forms the conclusion of number 462 of the Psalter Hymnal:
“Refresh thy people on their toilsome way;
Lead us from night to never-ending day;
Fill all our lives with love and grace divine;
And glory, laud, and praise be ever thine.”