To say that we have hesitated to write this article would be an under-statement. There is so much good in the Church we love that an inward struggle preceded the resolution to publish the thoughts that are here expressed since they reveal the conviction that serious faults and dangerous trends are coming to the surface in the Church which has the love of our heart. We can give no other reason for following this course than that we cannot remain silent and feel persuaded that we have acted conscientiously. Let us add that the misgivings and anxious questions which we voice are agitating the minds and hearts of many of our people.
Something unusual is happening in the Christian Reformed Church. Doctrines and policies that have always been accepted by all of us are now being questioned or even contradicted. There appears to be a tendency among us not only to set aside important traditions which so far have been regarded as essential to our orthodoxy but also a certain hankering for “advanced” conceptions and a growing impulse to follow the methods of denominations round about us—methods which were generally regarded as basically unsound.
We can no longer hide the fact that the leadership of the Christian Reformed Church is divided. There is a widening and deepening rift between our ministers, professors, teachers, and well-informed laymen. We are not so narrow as to believe that there is no room for differences of opinion in our Church even on relatively important issues. But the differences we have in mind are rooted in attitudes t hat have far-reaching implications.
First of all, we point to the sympathy for theistic evolution—a theory which implies that the doctrine of creation can be harmonized with that of a gradual development, under divine guidance, of lower into higher forms of life, from plants to animals and from animals to man. There are men of prominence in the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands and in our own Church who advocate this theory and do not hesitate to assert that some day it may be demonstrated that man has descended from ape-like ancestors. And that in the face of the biblical teaching that the first man was a direct divine creation, a perfect human being made in the image of God, in righteousness, holiness, and knowledge of the truth!
To our amazement, the Ecumenical Synod of Potchefstroom, which met last summer, adopted a report on Creation and Evolution, signed by five Dutch professors (A. Lever, Polman, Jonker, Oostendorp, and Gispen), which leaves room for the theory of theistic evolution. It made light of the objections which our Synod of 1953 raised against certain statements in an earlier report on the subject and declares: “Seen in this light the Reformed Ecumenical Synod wisely did not pronounce an opinion on the idea of the so-called theistic evolution.” It a Iso stated bbndly that “the church should leave it to a Christian science (Christelijke wetenschap) to come to a well considered and fundamentally sound view in connection with this theory.” The Ecumenical Synod, adopting the report of the Dutch committee, did not even make the statement that even if it could be proved that many species of plants and animals were evolutions from lower forms of life, this should not be posited of man! It had nothing to say in explanation or defense of the teaching of Genesis 1 but simply left the decision to the sacred cow of an infallible science!
As far as we can judge, the Christian Reformed delegates all voted in favor of this report; at least nothing is said in the Acts about anyone registering his objections against the conclusions. And that is the same Synod which adopted such an eminently sound report on the inspiration and infallibility of the Scriptures!
Will our Synod approve the conclusions of the Ecumenical Synod on Creation and Evolution? We trust it will not only withhold approval but register a resounding protest against it.
All our readers know about the articles in Stromata, organ of the student body of Calvin Seminary, in which the infallibility of the Bible is questioned. \¥hen we wrote about this some time ago we expressed regret that the writer had not sought permission from the faculty to publish his article in Stromata . We learned later that the President of the Seminary had authorized its publication. This makes the situation far more serious than it first appeared lo be. Apparently neither the student concerned nor the Seminary President realized that our Belgic Confession teaches plainly and emphatically that the Bible is the inspired and infallible Word of God. We are told that the Holy Scriptures are canonical, that is, nothing can be alleged against them (Article IV). In explaining this statement, Dr. A. D. R. Polman, in his four-volume work on the Belgic Confession, quotes St. Augustine who says concerning “the holy Canonical Scripture” that “one may not doubt or dispute .anything contained in it, whether it is the or right whatever is written therein” (literal translation of Polman’s version).
We are told in Article V that we “receive all these books, and these only as canonical, for the regulation, foundation, and confirmation of our faith; believing without any doubt all things contained in them.” In Article VII the Church declares: “Therefore we reject with all our hearts whatsoever does not agree with this infallible rule, as the apostles have taught us…” And in the first part of that Article we rend that “it is unlawful for anyone, though an apostle, to teach otherwise than we are now taught in the Holy Scripture.”
Every office-bearer in the Church has promised, by signing the Form of Subscription, that if at any time different sentiments respectin g the teachings of our creed arise in his mind he will not publicly or privately propose, teach, or defend the same, either by preaching or writing, until he has first revealed such sentiments to the Consistory, Classis, or Synod (See Psalter Hymnal, Supplement, p. 70). And every member of the church declares, when he makes public profession of faith, that he “heartily believes the doctrine contained in the Bible and in the articles of the Christian faith.” For that reason any member or any minister or other office-bearer who pub l ie I y teaches things contrary to the Scripture or our doctrinal standards breaks a solemn promise. The student whose articles were published in Stromata broke—not intentionally, of course his promise which he made when he made public confession of faith and the President of our Seminary indirectly violated his oath of office again, not intentionally and wittingly—by approving the publication of those articles. This is a hard thing to say but it is true.
Something strange is happening to the Christian Reformed Church when one of its basic teachings can be publicly questioned and denied. The Board of Trustees of Calvin College and Seminary considered this matter at its February meeting. We shall wait for the official statements by the secretary of the Board in our church papers. But we do wish to say at the present time that the churches have the right to know exactly what action the Board has taken with reference to the Stromata articles concerned; also where the President, who approved the publication of the Hoogland article, stands on the important issues involved in the matter. The Seminary is the School of the entire church and every member has the right to know its stand and the stand of every teacher and every prospective minister on important fundamental issues.
CONDITIONS FOR CHURCH MEMBERSHIP
Recent events at the Seminary do not stand alone as circumstances that arouse misgivings. There are other happenings and situations which justify the question what is happening in the Christian Reformed Church. We have in mind the undermining of our denominational loyalty by the circumstance that some are openly challenging the right of the men and women who founded our Church to separate from the denomination with which they affiliated under the guidance of Dr. Van Raalte. It is not even admitted that the toleration of Masons as church members was a sufficient reason for withdrawal from the Reformed Church. In fact, the soundness of our present rule not to admit as members those who belong to a secret society has been publicly questioned. The view was propounded, and is still being defended by some, that mission converts who do not fully understand the incompatibility of lodge membership wit h membership in the church should be accepted by the church if they profess to believe in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, with the proviso that they will have to be removed from the rolls if afterwards they cannot be made to see their error.
That strange and, to us, inexplicable stand rests on a peculiar approach to the question what must be required of those who wish to join a Christian Reformed Church. Nothing more can be demanded, we are told, than a confession of personal faith in the Lord Jesus Christ—no knowledge of the distinctive teachings of the Reformed faith and no declaration of agreement with our doctrinal standards. We shall not at this time point to the assumptions which underlie that view of church membership. But one of its suppositions is an erroneous conception of the scope of the message which the church should preach to the unsaved. We have in mind the distinction that is made between the gospel and the Reformed faith. That distinction is defended in the pamphlet That My House May Be Filled and has found acceptance with some of our people. It is bound to influence our evangelistic endeavors for evil, not for good. If it gains a foothold among our evangelistic workers the churches which will be organized as the fruit of their work will be Reformed only in name. The preservation of our doctrinal distinctiveness will then be a lost cause.
THE THEOLOGICAL COLLEGE OF NORTHERN NIGERIA
We now come to the proposed union seminary on our Nigerian mission field. It is significant that one of the main arguments for the c0operation of our Church with that Seminary is the contention we have just discussed—that we should preach the simple gospel in Nigeria, not the Reformed faith. We wonder whether it is generally understood among us that the modern ecumenical movement, which seeks the external union of the churches at the expense of God’s revealed truth, lies at the base of the movement for a united seminary in Nigeria. Modern ecumenism was born in foreign mission fields and was then applied to the home fields. It is wholly inconsistent to stress unity at the expense of truth in the mission field and insist on denominational and creedal distinctiveness in the evangelizing churches.
No one has yet given a satisfactory answer to the proposition that the doctrines of the Reformed Churches are not additions to the Christian faith but that same faith in its purest form.
Ecumenism abroad means ecumenism at home. It is not at all accidental that there is among some of those who are in favor of the TCNN not a little sympathy for the World Council of Churches and for closer contact with that Council on the part of the Christian Reformed Church. The desire for affiliation with that ecclesiastical body is more general and outspoken in the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands than among us; but we are sure that if we consent to permanent support of the TCNN, the urge to seek affiliation with the World Council will be strengthened.
When Christians of various persuasions unite to operate a seminary, the unity and the cooperation that are achieved rest on a precarious foundation. Such unity is sometimes difficult to maintain even where all concerned subscribe to the same doctrinal tenets. How quickly it is likely to vanish where conflicting beliefs are held. A recent disagreement in Nigeria’s TCNN, which opened its doors only last month, as we were told, is a case in point. A member of the faculty who represents the Danish Lutherans held a low view of inspiration, comparable to the Barthian view. Our missionaries we r e disturbed when they learned about this but the head of the Danish branch defended Mr. and challenged the right of the men from our Mission to object to his appointment. The matter is supposed to be confidential but the Church has the right to know what is happening in its mission fields. Ordinarily no publicity is given to disagreements in these fields or in any of our institutions but there are times when issues arise which make it imperative that all the facts should be known. However, the trouble referred to is a minor thing compared to the confusion and the contention that are bound to arise among our future native missionaries in Nigeria if they study at a school where conflicting views are bound to be aired frequently.
REASONS FOR CONCERN
There are especially two reasons why we should be deeply concerned about the present situation in our Church. The first is the rather nonchalant attitude of some that the Christian Reformed Church is immune to heresy. It is said that we have nothing to worry about as long as we steer clear of controversy. Wrong views, if they are entertained, can easily be corrected. Radical teachings do not find a congenial soil in the Christian Reformed Church. We are sound in the faith and need no militancy in its defense. But that approach has no basis in the history of any Christian Church nor in what Scripture teaches about the susceptibility of Christ’s followers to error. The history of all other denominations which have drifted from their moorings is one eloquent testimony to the fact that the price of continued doctrinal soundness and permanent ecclesiastical health is eternal vigilance on the part of all the leaders.
The second reason for our concern is that one of the worst obstacles to theological and ecclesiastical progress is the propagation of unsound doctrine. Often the very persons who advocate “advanced” views do so in the name of progress. They do not understand that there can be no true progress if we do not build on our past heritage of truth. W hen a church must turn back on its course to defend truths which it has once embraced and embodied in its confessions and liturgical forms, it is confronted with roadblocks to progress. It is hard to realize how much time and mental and spiritual energy must be spent at times in the defense of truths which should not be questioned. The church then resembles a caravan of automobiles which is compelled to stop on the highway because one of the cars has broken down and needs repair.
No church may be satisfied with its past attainments. There are doctrines that need further clarification. There are kingdom projects which need the undivided attention of church leaders and church members. For example, what a vast amount of energy is required to debate and settle the issues that center around the TCNN, or to defend the Reformed doctrine of the inspiration and infallibility of the Bible. All this effort is not lost, to be sure. In the end, if the truth is maintained, the controversy will lead to the clarification and strengthening of the faith of some. But the articles concerned may also unsettle the faith of many among us, especially a man g our young people. Even now you n g Calvin students are saying to their parents and friends: “The Bible is fallible, you know.”
Besides, institutions are bound to suffer when they become involved in far-ranging disputes. Our mission work in Nigeria will suffer and our Seminary will suffer and many other causes dear to our hearts will suffer even though the right decisions are made eventually. And let no one say that the}’ are to blame for the unrest who take issue with the trends which they believe to be wrong—unless it can be proved that they are wrong. For that reason we plead with the leaders of our Church and with all who have influence among us to stand for the truth fearlessly and uncompromisingly. Unless we do this great damage will be done to the Christian Reformed Church and to the cause to which it is committed.
And may we all have grace to judge all issues on the basis of Scripture, not in the light of our prejudices for or against certain persons. As the Editor of The Banner has well said: The sole question is not who is right but what is right. We should have so much love for and loyalty to the Lord and his Word that we would be ready to disagree even with a father or a brother if the truth were at stake; for the truth is above all.