Time for Decision

Rev. Peter De Jong is pastor of the Christian Reformed Church of Dutton, Mich. In this article he contends. “Refusal to take the stand the Bible demands that we take on its own authority as God’s Word must inevitably especially In our changing times, result in our standing for nothing at all. Trying to avoid taking such a stand by evasion or compromise can only result in further confusing and weakening our Christian life and testimony. That must not he permitted to continue.”

Even the casual observer of our denominational life can hardly fail to notice that our churches are increasingly troubled by diverging opinions regarding moral and religious issues that, until recently, gave us no problems. Some try to explain our present difficulties by claiming that the issues that trouble us are new. In most cases that is not true.

The issues we arc debating are usually not new; they have been troubling others for centuries. What is suddenly making them problems for us is the changing view of the Bible that has entered our churches. Our increasing denominational troubles are steadily driving us to face the fact that the issue underlying all the fest of our problems is the question of whether or not we are going to believe and obey the Bible as wholly the Word of God.

Women’s Lib in the Church – One of our latest controversies and one that most plainly brought to the surface this question of whether or not we are going to consider ourselves bound by the Bible was that of whether or not we are to join the current trend to ordain women to all church offices. In the prolonged discussions of the matter, also our last Synod, it has become plain that our real problem is not regarding the “rights of women” but regarding whether what the Bible says is to be accepted as decisive or not.


The Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians that the restrictions against women taking the lead in the church were “the commandments of the Lord” (I Cor. 14:37) traceable to His order in His creation (I Tim. 2:11–13). Until recently that settled the matter for us as it has for other Christian churches through the centuries. What is suddenly unsettling it now for many among us is the new determination not to be bound by such biblical “commandments of the Lord” but to dismiss them as “time-conditioned.”

It is highly significant that what brought the sharpest clash on this most hotly debated issue at our last Synod was the decision to maintain the practice of excluding women from church offices “unless compelling biblical grounds are advanced for changing that practice.” The late Rev. John D. De Jong in the September issue of this magazine expressed his shock when thirtytwo delegates arose to express their adamant refusal to accept such a statement by recording negative votes. Some may have been impressed by the argument that the Bible docs not prescribe all the details of church government, but the question of who are eligible for office in Christ’s church is hardly a trivial detail, and calling it a detail certainly gives no one a right to set aside what the Word of the Lord says about it as no longer valid, unless he is prepared to reject the Lord’s right to rule His church.

Preachers Who Doubt or Disbelieve – The hesitancy or the refusal to be bound by what the Bible says either in its history or its commandments is beginning to disturb our churches also in the examination of candidates for the gospel ministry.

The experience of our classis (Grand Rapids East) is likely not widely different from that of others in this respect. Two years ago when three candidates were examined, two were hesitant about accepting the details or the early chapters of Genesis as facts, while the third said that he couldnt see why wrought not to accept the tree in Genesis when we believe that there was a real mountain called Sinai as stated in Exodus.

This fall a candidate in a preliminary examination had repeatedly told us that he intended to teach people to read the Bible critically. Questioned about this matter he stated that he did not believe that the serpent spoke to Eve as reported in Genesis 3. Questioned further about the earthquake mentioned in Matthew 28:2, he explained that whether or not this happened was a wrong question and the earthquake in the account should be understood as an apocalyptic literary symbol of the end. Some of the results of such a view of the Bible also were apparent in views he expressed on some moral questions. His view of abortion differed from that officially expressed by the church. The command, “Servants obey your masters” was no longer to he repeated in 1850, but the Bible taught a principle of equality under Christ which brought an end to slavery. The same principle, in his opinion, applied to the place of women in the church. Although it was plain that he held many orthodox opinions, regarding the Bible he was convinced that we cannot identify the words of biblical authors with the words of God in other times. What became apparent in the examination was that such views were not held only by him. They rather reflected a trend of thought regarding the Bible which is becoming increasingly common among recent graduates—a view that shows what they have been taught.

Interpretation that Confuses – Shortly after the classical examination just mentioned the ministers of our area were invited to a conference on “Hermeneutics” or interpreting the Bible, at our Calvin Seminary lcd by three of the professors who were members of the committee that in 1972 produced Report 44 on “The Nature and Extent of Biblical Authority.” About sixty attended.

First Dr. Frcd Klooster of the Seminary gave a good general historical survey of the present views and problems of Biblical interpretation. Next Dr. Gordon Spykman of the College narrowed the field of interest somewhat pointing out the ways in which the Bible was interpreted in past controversies in our churches: (1) in the case of Bultema and his premillennial and dispensational views; (2) in the case of Janssen and his critical views of the Bible; and (3) in the case of Hoeksema and the denial of common grace. Spykman’s concluding suggestion that a proper method of interpretation might be called “confessional” aroused some discussion, and brought his explanation that he considered this a more attractive term than Dooyeweerd’s word “pistic” from the Greek word for “faith.” The terms were criticized, however for the emphasis they seem to place on the subjective or human side of interpretation.

The discussion was narrowed still further and brought down to the present with the last address by Dr. David Holwerda in which he took up some of the controversial reports in the 1973 Synod Agenda dealing with such matters as homosexuality and women in church office. He suggested that the fact that we are currently being troubled by such problems is the result of the radical changes especially in the ’60s, that although the Synod did not accept all of the material in the report it really did adopt the kind of interpretation of the Bible that they embodied, that dealing with these matters in this way was right and inevitable, and that we must just hope and pray that somehow we would be brought through these disturbing times. Much emphasis was placed on the fact that biblical writers were much more under the influence of their times than was often realized and that our interpretation also must he conditioned by the changing times in which we live, which make the problems of interpretation very difficult.

Questions from the audience about the problems appearing in candidates’ examinations received no clear-cut answers. In the course of the discussion it was pointed out that modern study has shown that even the gospels which used to be considered as straightforward history are indicated by the discrepancies between them to have been milch more conditioned by the peculiar interests of the writers than we used to realize. We do not know in many cases what Jesus actually said. And then it was suggested that Old Testament accounts which may appear to be straightforward history should perhaps be regarded in the same way as the gospels.

In the free discussion I observed that whereas Luke stated in the introduction of his gospel that he wrote it in order that Theophilus might know “the certainty of these things” in which he had been instructed, the kind of interpretation now being advocated and demonstrated stressed the uncertainty of them. It, in fact, interpreted the material for a purpose exactly opposite from that for which Luke said it was written!

Furthermore, much had been made of the great influence that the historical setting of the Bible on the one hand and the radically changing historical situation of our time on the other, had and must have in the confusing and difficult problems of interpretation. We were told that the multiplying problems of our churches were not the result of a new and different interpretation of the Bible but of the vast historical changes in the ’60s. In response to these claims. I pointed out that while rapid and superficial treatments of history may stress such changes, almost invariably when one begins to go from such secondary surveys to the sources, particularly to Christian writers, modern on ancient, he is startled time and again by the remarkable similarities between the problems of hundreds or thousands of years ago and those of our own time.

The problem of deciding about the ordination of women in church office is cited as such a new problem of the 1960s and the arguments being raised are supposed to be new discoveries revealed by our changing times. However, a dip into Robert Dabney’s second volume of Discussions: Evangelical and Theological (pp. 96 ff.), shows him facing and replying with the same kind of arguments ninety years ago!

These “new” discoveries of the discrepancies in the gospels and the ways they are supposed to modify our old views about the character of Bible history turn out also to have been discussed rather extensively by St. Augustine over 1600 years ago (Dr. A.D.R. Polman, The Word of God According to St. Augustine, pp. 47–50). Fully recognizing such problems Augustine observed:

It seems to me that most disastrous consequences must follow upon our believing that anything false is found in the sacred books: that is to say that men by whom the Scripture has been given to us and committed to writing, did put down in these hooks anything false. If you once admit into such a high sanctuary of authority one false statement, there will not he left a single sentence of those books, which, if appearing: to anyone difficult in practice or hard to believe, may not by the same fatal rule be explained away as . . . not true.

The authority of the divine Scriptures becomes unsettled (so that everyone may believe what he wishes, and reject what he does not wish), if it is once admitted, that the men by whom these things have been delivered unto us, could in their writings state some things which were not true (Polman, pp. 54, 55, from Augustine’s Epistula 28, 3, 5).

One is reminded of the words of Ecclesiastes 1:10, “Is there a thing whereof it may he said, See, this is new? it hath been long ago, in the ages which were before us.” Our basic problems in this respect are not really new nor the products of the new historical situations that arc al1eg:cd to he creating them. They are old. And the Bible has a different name for them. It calls them unbelief. They arc not now, as they were not in Bible times, the result of the new and deeper insights, as the Sadducees thought. The Lord said, “is it not for this cause that ye err, that ye know not the Scriptures, not the power of God?” (Mark 12:24). He also had to reprimand his disciples, “O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken!” (Luke 24:25),

Confusion from the Top Down – It is increasingly evident that the acids of unbelief are eating deeply into the faith and life of our churches. One of the striking things about those thirty-two recorded negative volt’s against changing the qualifications for office without compelling: biblical reasons was that about two thirds of them were east by Canadian delegates (11 out of the 19 ministers and 9 out of the 18 elders from Canada). What motivated their action may be hard to determine but it is plain that the streams of Reformed teaching and inspiration which used to come to us out of the Netherlands from which most or our Canadian members emigrated are no longer controlled by the Bible’s authority as they once were. The November 21 Christianity Today contains an important 5-column review of G.C. Berkouwer’s newly translated book on Holy Scripture. In the review, Professor Geoffrey Bromiley of Fuller Seminary, while admiring the books scholarship, expresses his uneasiness about the view of the Bible now held by this Dutch dean of Reformed theologians. He finds Berkouwer: (1) unfairly criticising Fundamentalism for emphasizing the divine authorship of Scripture while himself failing to do justice to it; (2) Berkouwer criticizes views of the inerrancy of the Bible, but himself gives no coherent defence of its trustworthiness; (3) Finally, Berkouwer by distinguishing the scope or intent of the Scripture from its time-bound character, hut giving no standard by which to determine what is intent and what is time-bound leaves the way open to uncontrolled relativism (so that anyone can make of it what he pleases). The confusion of Synods which cant decide what, if anything the Bible teaches about troublesome matters, of candidates who don’t know what in the Bible one must believe, of interpreters who can’t say what of biblical teaching is time-conditioned and what, if anything, is permanent these all find their parallel in the latest book of the leading Dutch Reformed theologian which in its teaching about Holy Scripture is weak and confusing exactly where it ought to be strongestThe “firm foundation” God has laid for your faith in His excellent Word seems to be anything but firm when Berkouwer finishes explaining it.

It is not as Bromiley observes, that Berkouwer “personally espouses a compromising view,” but “his presentation opens up unhappy possibilities that his many imprecise and ambivalent statements in no way exclude. His reactions to some forms of fundamentalism, his lack of coherence in treating inerrancy, and his misdirected approach to time-relatedness weaken the total impact of what is, for the most part, a strong and positive statement concerning Scripture. They do this, unfortunately, at a time when the normativity of Scripture seems to be dissolving in a sea of relativism and the distinctiveness of the Christian ‘transforming’ of life and thought is apparently being lost in the blur of secular ‘conforming.’”

Berkouwer, in other words, while not himself accepting the far-out liberal views of some who are attacking the Biblical message, unfairly criticizes the views of those who oppose them with a strong insistence on the Bible’s divine authority, and by his own confused and weak position leaves his followers no defenses against these attacks on the faith.

Wemay add that, in so insistently stressing the “human side of the Bible,” Berkouwer and his followers stress exactly what the Biblical writers insist must not be stressed because it never accounts for the nature of their message. To emphasize the “humanside” and the “cultural conditioning” of their-message therefore invariably misrepresents it! Just consider the way the Lord compelled a reluctant Jeremiah to bring His distasteful message (Jer. 1:4–10; 20:7), or the way Amos must set off his message against the tactics of a religious politician who would make the prophet’s work a mere human business (Amos 7: 14ff.). Recall the pains Paul took to make it clear that his gospel was not “after man” or received “from man” but that it came “through revelation of Jesus Christ” (Gal. 1:12), and how in writing to the Thessalonian he thanked God that when they received from him and his associates “the word of the message . . . of God, ye accepted it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God. which also worketh in you that believe.” The only prophets who brought a time—and culturally-determined message were the false prophets and the false apostles!

Bromiley observes also that, in stressing the time-bound and culture-bound character of Scripture Berkouwer does not take due account of “the fact that God has himself chosen the times and cultures . . . in which to speak His Word.” In fact, we may state that even more strongly, God Himself determined and controlled the temporal and cultural conditions in and through which His Word was given. B. B. Warfield in his Inspiration and Authority of the Bible (pp. 153, 155, 158) pointed this out especially clearly observing that God determined these various matters as an architect selects the colors he wants to use in the construction of a window in order to create exactly the effect He intends.

We must Take a Stand on the Bible’s Authority – Considering each of these present developmentsSynod debates, candidates’ exams, hermeneutic conferences, theological writings—compels us to recognize the same fact that the position at present being taken among us regarding the authority of the Scriptures is weak and ineffective. It offers no firm resistance to the prevailing, wide-ranging attack on the Scriptures we encounter everywhere. It is ineffective and weak because it is really no position at all—no one can clearly define it. Its guide-lines” lack clear lines and therefore give no effective guidance.

Our problem is not that many of our church members, officers, candidates or professors want to join the far-out liberal rejection of the Christian faith. lt is rather that, in geneml, they are not taking the firm stand the Bihle says that we Intlst take if we are, by Goers grace, to effectively resist and overcome it. You can never oppose a militant unbelief with a weak, uncertain statement of what you believe, or think, or “feel” or “don’t know”! We shall have to get back to the Scriptures with their “Thus saith the Lord!” and to our Lord’s “It is written!” We will have to take such a stand in fact as well as in talk.

A protest is being made against the passing of a candidate who in an examination denied that the serpent spoke to Eve, and who maintained that the earthquake at Jesus’ resurrection may be dismissed as a symbol and need not necessarily be regarded as a fact. The grounds for this protest are:

1. This view plainly contradicts what the Bible states as simple fads (Gen. 3:1–5, 13, 14; II Cor. 11:3; Matt. 28:2).

2. It is in conflict with Article V of the Belgic Confession in which we confess that we “receive all these books” [of the Holy Scripture] “believing without any doubt all things contained in them. . .” 3. It does exactly what the Synod of 1972 warned must not be done. It uses a “method of Biblical interpretation which excludes or calls into question the eventcharacter . . . of biblical history, thus compromising the full authority of Scripture as the Word of God” (Acts 1972, p. 69, art. 5:2, 3e, decision on Report 44). 4. If we admit to the ministry of our churches men who, however well qualified they may be in other respects, yet at some points hold and teach what contradicts the Scriptures, we in principle give up the biblical authority for our faith, and no longer have any valid ground on which to deny to others the right to hold and teach further departures from it.

5. The history of our mother churches in the Netherlands shows how the permission to question or deny the events of Genesis 3, explicitly rejected by them at the Synod of Assen in 1926 and conceded at the Synod of Lunteren in 1967, has opened the way to tolerate denials of all kinds of biblical doctrines, including those of the Creation, Fall and Atonement.

It is not pleasant to have to differ with the opinions of sincere Christian colleagues and invite possible controversy, but it must be done. Refusal to take the stand the Bible demands that we take on its own authority as God‘s Word must inevitably, especially in our changing times, result in our standing for nothing at all. Trying to avoid taking such a stand by evasion or compromise can only result in further confusing and weakening our Christian life and testimony. That must not be permitted to continue. The Church must without question believe and obey the Word of God if it is to be what our Lord calls and commands it to be, “the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth” (I Tim. 3:15).