About Theological Soundness and Practical Application

The editor of “Men and Missions” in Missionary Monthly (July-August, 1967) seems inevitably to think about the Protestant Reformed Churches whenever he writes about matters having to do with Calvinism versus Arminianism. In fact, I almost get the impression, — although Dr. De Jong does not quite state this or imply this, — that whenever he thinks about theological soundness (be it, to him, of an impractical sort), there looms up before his mind’s eye the specter of the Protestant Reformed Churches, apparently representing the quintessence of a theological soundness that is somehow rather abhorrent to him. 

Be that as it may, he mentions us as an example of something, — I do not quite understand of what or why. But I think I understand what the doctor has in mind in his article; and if my understanding is correct, then Dr. De Jong is seriously in error, —not only about the Protestant Reformed Churches (and they arechurches, not church~, but also as to the main thrust of his article. In fact, he draws a false contrast (perhaps more than one) which is very commonly, but very mistakenly, drawn. 

Let me, first of all, briefly summarize his article about “Theological Soundness and Practical Application” and make a few quotations. (By the way, Dr. Jerome De Jong, for those of our readers who do not know, is pastor of the Immanuel Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, and is generally considered, I think, to represent the conservative wing in the R.C.A.) 

By way of introduction, we are told that this article was occasioned by the writer’s reading about the “Dekker Case” in the Agenda of the Christian Reformed Synod. However, Dr. De Jong’s concern is not to enter into the issue of that case, but to address himself to an important implication involved in that case. His fear is “that in our concern for doctrinal and theological preciseness we have neglected the practical aspects of the presentation of the gospel.” At this point he quotes Matthew 23:23, which certainly is not pertinent, but speaks rather of pharisaic legalism in which, there was no love of God. 

In explaining his fear, Dr. De Jong professes to find himself in “a rather peculiar position.” On the one hand, he believes that “one of the great problems of our age has been doctrinal vagueness and heterodoxy.” He goes on to state:

. ..There is abroad in the world today the feeling that in the final analysis it does not matter much what you believe as long as you believe something. I am, of course, dead set against such attitudes within the circle of credal Christendom. We, as Reformed Churches, have a clear definition of our understanding of Christian truth. When we take the attitude that it makes little difference whether you believe creeds or not we have a chaotic condition. The Consultation on Church Union has expressed itself as aware of “the divisive danger of verbal confessions and intellectual formulations.”

The above sounds rather encouraging. But now comes a “however.” It begins as follows:

Having said all this, however, I think we ought to be aware that there are dangers on the other side of the coin too. We have tried to fit all our theological thinking into neat, theological patterns. When we approach the exegesis of the Bible it must fit the pattern we have set for it. We ought to remember that as long as we are in this world we are human and confined to a limited, fallible, yes, even at times, erroneous understanding of truth.

Here, therefore, we seem to have a first danger that Dr. De Jong fears. Just what the danger is, it is difficult to say. Nor does Dr. De Jong say who he means by “we” in this paragraph. For my part, I would say: 

1) There is no danger in fitting theological thinking into neat, theological patterns, provided those patterns are theological sound patterns, Reformed patterns. In fact, the ecclesiastical scene would be improved by a little more Reformed thinking. 

2) It is certainly wrong to let theological patterns rule exegesis. This, however, is not the fault of theological soundness, but of theological poverty. It is theologically sound to let exegesis rule dogmatics. And if we proceed exegetically, this will certainly lead to theological soundness also. 

3) The test of a potentially erroneous understanding of truth is perspicuous Scripture. In this era of relativism and pseudo-tolerance, however, the great danger is not that we forget that we are human, limited, and fallible; it is rather that the church forgets and despises its creeds, repudiates its heritage, forgets and despises the guidance of the Spirit in the church of the past. An example of this is the fact that our theologically sound Canons of Dordrecht are unknown, ignored, and sneered at.

The second danger, it seems, which the writer fears is that of categorizing people and condemning them. It is rather confusedly stated, as follows:

How neatly we categorize people! There are saved and lost. There are Calvinists and Arminians. There are strict Calvinists and impure Calvinists. The Arminians, of course, are all wrong. Granted! Now what? Are they lost? Are they condemned to hell? Isn’t it a good thing that God does not count success purely in terms of numbers? There can be no doubt but that historically such men as Dwight Moody, Charles Finney, Billy Sunday, and others (Billy Graham, perhaps? H.C.H.) were more Arminian than Calvinistic and yet God richly used them in the winning of souls.

Now I do not follow Dr. De Jong’s reasoning here completely, I must confess. And I utterly fail to see that what he states in this paragraph is “the other side of the coin” of theological soundness. But this much I know: 

1) There certainly is nothing wrong in recognizing people for what they are, —Calvinists or Arminians, especially when such people are preachers and teachers. 

2) It is well that Dr. De Jong grants that the Arminians are all wrong. It would be better yet if he would stick to this position consistently. This would be consistent with theological soundness. 

3) We may safely leave the judgment of the salvation or condemnation of men to God and to His Word. Certainly, His Word condemns false teachers; and His Word condemns those who believe the lie. But the question of the ultimate salvation of any soul is one for the Judge of heaven and earth. 

4) By the same token, Dr. De Jong is not in a position to judge how richly God used certain men in the winning of souls. Frankly, I am very skeptical both about mass evangelism and about its fruits. But that is not the question. This I do know, however: if God richly used these men, and if “Arminians are all wrong,” then it certainly could not have been the Arminianism in their preaching that God richly used. This is theologically sound too. God does not save His people by means of the lie, but by means of the truth of the gospel. 

5) It is indeed the calling of the church and of its members to pass judgment as to theological soundness. One, — in fact, the chief, — mark of the true church is the pure preaching of the Word. Where there is no theological soundness there can be no pure preaching of the Word. But where the Word is purely preached, there is the true church manifested. And there the children of God must join themselves. Where that Word is not preached, there the church is not. And where that Word is adulterated in the preaching, there the church must either repent or perish. The next little paragraph is a puzzler:

Let me make it abundantly clear that I am not in favor of doctrinal looseness but I am in favor of being careful in our condemnation lest we destroy that which basically builds’ up The kingdom of God.

This puzzles me, especially when I place it in the context of the “Dekker Case,” which is, after all, very plainly a case of the very Arminianism which De Jong concedes is all wrong. But again, certain things must be plain: 

1) Dr. De Jong cannot here be speaking of “the other side of the coin” of which theological soundness constitutes one side. For theological soundness does not condemn and destroy that which basically builds up the kingdom of God. 

2) Theological soundness belongs to that which basically builds up the church. It is precisely the doctrinal vagueness and heterodoxy which Dr. De Jong professes to abhor which does not build up, but breaks down, a church. 

Another danger is supposed to be that of becoming “heresy-hunters.” Writes Dr. De Jong:

We are also in danger, at this point, of becoming heresy-hunters. Many times in preaching men are given to emphasize one point rather than another. Suppose someone in the pew hears you say, “Come to Christ. Trust in Him. Accept Him. He loves you with an eternal love. He has promised salvation. Come, be saved!” Immediately someone may accuse you of Arminian tendencies. You have spoken of God’s love and have not properly defined it and you are subject to classical censure. Suppose, on the other hand, you preach for theological soundness. “Come to Christ, but of course, you will have to be moved by sovereign grace. Trust in Him, but you will need the sovereign spirit. He loves you, but you understand, of course, this is His redemptive love if you are of the elect and general love if you are reprobate.” By this time you say, “HOW ridiculous,” and you are right! In preaching we must first emphasize one truth and then another and, over a period of time, a full-orbed understanding will characterize the church.

Now Dr. De Jong does not define a heresy-hunter. This is one of those terms that is rather freely bandied about by those who are usually not interested in theological soundness and who are not themselves theologically sound. It is a term, too, that is frequently used of those who are theologically sound by those who are theologically less sound when the former insist on theological soundness, i.e., insist on the truth according to Scripture and the confessions. But certain things are obvious in the above paragraph: 

1) The first example of preaching which is mentioned is indeed Arminianism if by the love of God is meant every individual in that preacher’s audience, and if by the promise of salvation is meant a general promise. 

2) Dr. De Jong does not evince much interest in theological soundness by attempting a reductio ad absurdum in his example of preaching for theological soundness. This is not a true example, but a caricature; it betrays either an intense dislike of Reformed preaching or a total ignorance of what constitutes theologically sound preaching. Besides, of course, it is not theologically sound to speak of a redemptive love for the elect and a general love for the reprobate. 

3) Dr. De Jong certainly does not give an example here of first emphasizing one truth and then another. Surely, it is true that in one sermon one does not emphasize all truths; one must preach his text. But it is essential that whichever specific “truth” one emphasizes in a given sermon, that truth be in harmony with the whole of the truth, according to Scripture and the confessions. I get the distinct impression that Dr. De Jong has in mind something like being a little Arminian in one sermon and a little more Reformed in another sermon, or something like emphasizing “human responsibility” in one sermon and “divine sovereignty” in another, but in such a way that the two contradict each other. 

4) The “Dekker Case,” which is the occasion of Dr. De Jong’s article is not a case of heresy-hunting, but it is an obvious case of blatant Arminianism. At this point Dr. De Jong retreats from his position in favor of theological soundness into a position of broad and vague fundamentalism. It becomes obvious that the “T.U.L.I.P.” truths, (that is, the position of the Canons of Dordrecht,) are too narrow for him. To him the “distinctiveness of Reformed truth” consists in the inspiration of Scripture, the deity of our Lord, His blood-bought atonement, His physical resurrection, and His second return, — the well-known broad base of Fundamentalism, — “as well as distinctive truths.” The final impression is, in the first place, that of a false contrast between theological soundness and practical application of the Gospel; and, in the second place, a false contrast between the general body of the truth of the Gospel and the so-called distinctive truths. What he fails to see is that if the true gospel is to be proclaimed, then our theological soundness must be reflected in and must permeate the preaching, that is, the practical application of the gospel to a lost world. This he could profitably have told his readers. What he fails to emphasize, too, is that it is easy to talk in general terms about the deity of our Lord and about His blood-bought atonement, etc., but that it is precisely at the point of the “T.U.L.I.P. truths” that it becomes plain whether one really proclaims the truth, the Scriptural, the Reformed gospel of salvation. There are not two gospels, an Arminian and a Reformed, but only one gospel. And in an age of “doctrinal vagueness and heterodoxy”, which is also afflicting the Reformed community, Dr. De Jong would have done better to keep the following in his pen:

We need to be careful in making a practical application of the Gospel to a lost world. In all our discussion of “T.U.L.I.P.” truths we forget that the Gospel that we preach is far more extensive than that. What is the distinctiveness of Reformed truth? Is it not the inspiration of Scripture, the deity of our Lord, His blood-bought atonement, His physical resurrection and second return as well as distinctive truths?

The same is true of the next question that he raises and answers negatively: “Have our distinctive truths made us soul-winners? The pioneers in missions?” This is an old and worn-out hue and cry. In regard to it, it should again be remembered that proper mission endeavor must needs be characterized by theological soundness, and that our Reformed heritage, the faith once delivered to the saints, must not be left at home by missionaries who depart for foreign fields. It should also be remembered that a goodly measure of “doctrinal vagueness and heterodoxy” has originated on the mission field and from thence found its way into the home churches. And it may also be remembered that the modern ecumenical movement had its origin on the mission field. This is not stated to belittle true mission zeal, but to warn that also with respect to mission zeal all is not gold that glitters! 

But in his last paragraph Dr. De Jong reveals beyond a shadow of a doubt that he casts his vote in favor of what he calls “practicality” rather than in favor of genuine theological soundness. Writes he:

My hope for the Christian Reformed Church is that in its deliberations it will not bog down in logic and forget practicality. It is my conviction that the Protestant Reformed Church was born out of this kind of logic. This denomination continues to exist in a conviction of its absolute, pure, and unadulterated concept of Reformed truth. Yet that whole group numbers only 2,000. What of the billions still unreached? Maybe we will have to be willing to allow others to carry the torch with us even though their approach is not as Calvinistic as we might like it to be.

Notice that theological soundness has undergone a metamorphosis: it is now equated with logic. Moreover, it is a logic of a certain kind, though we are not told what kind. Well, let me assure Dr. De Jong: 

1) That, his conviction to the contrary notwithstanding, we were not born out of logic, but out of a very serious controversy which involved theological soundness. Just how serious that controversy was is clearly illustrated in the “Dekker Case” which today is plaguing the Christian Reformed Church. What was implicit in 1924 and its Three Points has now become explicit in Prof. Dekker’s teachings, — and it is rank Arminianism. 

2) That this “logic” bit is another old saw. What is wrong with logic, pray tell, provided that logic is Scripturally oriented? Is Scripture illogical perhaps? Is the truth of the gospel illogical? And is logic impractical? I say that the Christian Reformed Church could use a goodly measure of believing, sanctified, Scripturally-oriented logic. Then they would neither bog down nor forget practicality. 

3) That we do indeed continue to exist in a conviction of our absolute, pure, and unadulterated concept of Reformed truth. Is that wrong? If so, on what ground? Does not a church principally forfeit its very right of existence if it does not have the conviction that it holds the truth? 

4) That he has his statistics wrong, —by more than 33 per cent. But then, “Isn’t it a good thing that God does not count success purely in terms of numbers?” 

5) That he would do well to take a good hard look at his own denomination, the R.C.A., which shelters not only a Reformed man like the Rev. Gordon Girod but also rank liberals, — take a good hard look at it in terms of “theological soundness and practical application, ” as well as in terms of “doctrinal vagueness and heterodoxy.” Perhaps he will find that there is work to be done in the denomination for whose “theological soundness,” — or should I say: unsoundness, —he, especially as an officebearer, is co-responsible! 

6) That as far as carrying the torch is concerned, those who carry the torch (that is, the torch of the truth of the gospel) with us must not only be Calvinistic in their approach, but Calvinistic (I prefer to say: Reformed) in their theology. Otherwise we do not carry the same torch!