We had intended to write a rather exhaustive critique of the Unanimous Testimony of Faith drafted by Dr. G. C. Berkouwer and Dr. Herman Ridderbos as a possible step toward a new confession for theGereformeerde Kerken. We may still do this at a later date if it should prove necessary and feasible. However, there have been some significant and rather surprising developments with respect to this document in the Netherlands. And in reporting these developments we can at the same time furnish our readers with a condensed critique of this Unanimous Testimony of Faith and point out some of the important flaws in it. Besides, as you will learn presently, these surprising developments serve to show that the criticisms which we have and which we share with some Dutch critics are correct and justified: for they have been confirmed by one of the authors of the document, although he, of course, does not agree with the criticisms, but considers the very points that are criticized to be the strong points of the document which he helped to prepare.
For our American readers who are not well acquainted with the church situation in the Netherlands a little background information is necessary in order that they may understand this tale.
You will recall that the Unanimous Testimony met with an enthusiastic reception at the Synod of the GKN. The vote on the lengthy decision of the Synod was unanimous. And while there is indeed criticism of the document from within the GKN, especially by the Concerned Ones (Verontrusten), apparently there was no criticism of it at the Synod. One can well imagine that the two authors were rather pleased about this, and that because they came away from their own synod so pleased, they were the more dismayed and irritated at the reception their Testimony received elsewhere, as reported below.
Berkouwer and Ridderbos were delegated by their Synod to present this same document to the Synod of the Hervormde Kerk and to request that Synod also to refer the Testimony to their churches for consideration. The Hervormde Kerk is the so-called State Church in the Netherlands, the denomination reformations of 1834 and 1886. And there is a movement toward eventual reunion of these two denominations afoot, a movement which is called Samen Op Weg (Together On The Way). In connection with this movement there has already been a joint meeting of the two synods, among other things. It was in the interest of this inter-denominational cooperation, of course, that the Testimony of Faith was also presented to the Synod of the Hervormde Kerk. In fact, it is fair to say that the document was composed at least partly with this budding ecclesiastical friendship in mind.
In the State Church there are three definite wings, or modalities. There are the Vrijzinnigen, or outright Modernists. There are the so-called Midden-Orthodoxen, probably best described as middle-of-the-roaders, or moderates. And there is a strong and well-organized orthodox wing, the men of theGereformeerde Bond. This is a group which is more orthodox even than many so-called conservatives in the GKN. They have their own official paper, De Waarheidsvriend (The Friend of the Truth), which we have lately been receiving on an exchange basis and which we have read with much appreciation. It is sometimes alleged that this is simply a stick-in-the-mud conservative group that is against any and all change as a matter of principle and that simply wants to keep that which is old for its own sake. And although we are always critical of the fact that this group continues under one ecclesiastical roof with out and out liberals, we do not agree with the above allegation. And the story we are about to relate shows plainly that there is a goodly amount of sound Reformed principle in the Gereformeerde Bond. In fact, they put the Synod of the Gereformeerde Kerken to shame by their stand; and those two leading lights of the GKN, Berkouwer and Ridderbos, ought to feel rather thoroughly chastised We emphasize these things concerning theGereformeerde Bonders because there are already reports circulated which belittle their criticism on the ground that this group always wants to stick to the old just because it is old. You see, there are some who want to neutralize criticism of this group because it is such telling criticism. But the facts of what happened will show that they indeed had some sound and very telling criticism of the very Testimony of Faith which was so enthusiastically received by the GKN. And the reaction of Berkouwer and Ridderbos to that criticism simply confirms its validity, that is, confirms it for any soundly Reformed man.
What happened when Berkouwer and Ridderbos appeared at the Hervormde Synod with their testimony?
They were met with a veritable storm of criticism, especially from the two opposite wings, the liberals and the orthodox. And the Synod rejected the proposal to refer this Testimony of Faith to their churches, with 32 votes against it.
We are not much interested in the criticism by the liberals. For them the proposed confession was not sufficiently liberal, especially because it was not “open” enough. The liberals want a confession which raises many questions but does not furnish many answers, a confession which embodies a questioning stance.
But the criticism by the orthodox element was very significant.
First of all, before the Synod met, a certain Rev. K. Exalto wrote a comparatively brief, but very pertinent article of criticism in De Waarheidsvriend of Feb. 21, 1974. This article voices many of the criticisms which were expressed on the floor of the Synod also. The Rev. Exalto makes several good points.
In the first place, he mentions some characteristics which a confession ought to have as far as its origin and nature are concerned. And while he grants the possibility that also today a new confession could be drawn up, he points out that a confession should meet these requirements, which we briefly summarize:
1) It should arise out of need. All Reformed confessions in the past were born out of the need for the church to react against error. The fathers were concerned to preserve their heritage, to maintain and defend what is sacred and precious to the church.
2) A confession serves to bind together what belongs together. The confessions draw boundaries; they exclude and they include.
3) A third characteristic of the classic Reformed confessions is their maintenance of continuity. They are lacking in all pride, as though the truth was only discovered recently. They reach back, first of all to the Word of God itself, the real source of the knowledge of the truth of God; and then they reach back to the ancient church. And Ds. Exalto illustrates how this is true of our Three Forms of Unity.
The writer pointedly asks whether the Draft of a new confession answers to these requirements.
Then he raises and answers the question whether this proposed new confession is Reformed? For he rightly claims that in a Reformed church none but Reformedconfessions have a right of existence.
The Rev. Exalto goes on to point out that Reformed confessions always have certain distinguishing marks, such as the doctrine of double predestination from eternity, the doctrine of total depravity, the doctrine that the Holy Spirit alone is able to bring the sinner to Christ and to salvation, the acknowledgement of the absolute, divine authority of Scripture, inspired by the Spirit. He mentions the doctrine of atonement through satisfaction: Christ has borne the wrath of God against sin, has atoned for the guilt of His own, a guilt which dates from paradise. No confession can call itself Reformed which does not set forth these truths clearly and unequivocally. If it fails to do so, then there is a different understanding of the Gospel at stake, even if it be only through silence about these matters.
And then Exalto makes a comparison of the Proposed New Confession with these criteria. At best, he says, there is here and there a vague reference in the direction just mentioned; for the most part there is a total silence.
Is there then an opposing of definite modern errors? No! The need of the church is completely absent in this document. The need of the world is on the foreground. Exalto can well conceive of it that the revolution-theologians are pleased with this confession because it creates room for them to continue on their chosen path within the church. Exalto calls the document a typical middle-orthodox piece of work — a passage-way to a more liberal confession. It does not as such represent the theology of Kuitert and Wiersinga, but it gives them room; and it creates the possibility that still more Kuiterts and Wiersingas will come into the church; it creates a breeding-ground for them.
Is there continuity in this confession, he asks. Yes, but not with the classic Reformed confessions (of which it was supposed to be only an up-to-date condensation! HCH); rather with the universalism of the Remonstrants. All that faintly smacks of the particularity of salvation is completely absent. Exalto can only call this confession completely un-Reformed!
The Rev. Exalto then goes on to detail his criticism of this Draft Confession with respect to the doctrine of Scripture: Scripture is nothing more than a word of men who therein interpret God’s Word. And besides, Scripture is time-bound, not only as to form but also as to content. Thereupon Exalto spells out his sharp criticism of Article 9, entitled “Church and World.” He claims that this article furnishes a basis and a stimulus for the horizontalism of modern theology. It gives salvation unmistakable humanistic traits. And Exalto claims that especially today a new confession might be expected to speak out clearly against the errors which threaten the church: horizontalism, the humanizing of Christendom and church, the secularization of faith and life. He concludes by stating that the acceptance of such a confession would be nothing less than a denial of what the church, on the basis of the Word of God entrusted to it, through His grace and Spirit, might confess in the past and should still confess today.
We are in complete agreement.
On the floor of the Synod many of the same criticisms were voiced, to the irritation of Ridderbos and the dismay of Berkouwer. What was the reaction of these two representatives of the GKN?
Ridderbos (De Waarheidsvriend, Feb. 28) is reported to have said that in reaction to Exalto’s article: “With such a man I am not together-on-the-way.” Enough said!
But Berkouwer’s remarks are more enlightening.
1. He freely admitted that there were three different ideas of confession in collision at the Hervormde Synod: the liberal idea, the idea of Ridderbos and Berkouwer — after all the tensions in the GKN, and the view of those who want to cling to the old confessions uncurtailed.
2. He pointed to the fact that the Genesis-question in the GKN has been caught up with, and that thereby the view of Scripture was also determined. At last the GKN had had the courage to revoke “Assen” (the reference is to the Synod of Assen, 1926, which insisted on the sense-perceptibility of the garden, the tree, the serpent, etc., in the Geelkerken case). This means that the historicity of paradise and the fall are no more accepted.
3. Berkouwer proposed that with respect to the last judgment (another issue touched on in the debate) there are all kinds of incisive problems. He suggested that the confession concerning the future could best be left open.
4. Finally, he pointed out that double predestination was consciously omitted from the New Confession. He said: “We say no over against double predestination, for God is merciful.”
Seldom has Berkouwer been more open about his stand and that of the GKN. But notice that this last remark of Berkouwer alone is sufficient to justify the criticism of Exalto and the Gereformeerde Bonders.
And what is more, it is sufficient to damn the proposed new confession for any Reformed man!
One last thread in the story of this new draft-confession.
According to a report by the Committee for Inter-church Relations of the Christian Reformed Church, their official representative in the Netherlands and others judge that this very same “Unanimous Testimony of Faith” is “a very pure document.” (De Wachter, April 23, p. 11)
And who is this representative who can judge that a document which consciously omits that characteristically Reformed doctrine of double predestination is “very pure?
None other than a seminary professor, Prof. John Stek!
The GKN are far down the trail of apostasy.
But how far (or: how close) behind them is the Christian Reformed Church?