All Around Us

Rev. VanBaren is a minister emeritus in the Protestant Reformed Churches.

How’s That Again?

That apostasy abounds is beyond dispute. What was held precious after the great Reformation is no longer important to many. The infallibility of Scripture is increasingly denied by those even in main-line denominations and churches. Universal atonement and a universal salvation of all are being taught. Some insist that Christianity is not the only religion and Christ is not the only way of salvation. Others propose that all peoples of all religions will be saved through Christ. He saves those who believe in Him, but He also saves all others as well. It matters not whether one is Hindu, Muslim, or atheist—Christ ultimately will deliver them all. These views are increasingly being accepted within the church-world. Even we ourselves might begin to wonder: are we really correct in our confession—and all of these others wrong? Is God’s power and grace so weak that it can save only a “little flock”?

These thoughts came to mind as I read several articles recently in the Grand Rapids Press. In the Saturday, March 10, 2001 Press there was a featured article on Marcus Borg titled, “Theologian reads his Bible, but not literally.” The reporter was Kym Reinstadler. The article stated:

In Marcus Borg’s view, Jesus was a Jewish mystic who was crucified as a troublemaker.

For centuries Christians also have believed he was born of a virgin, performed miracles and physically rose from the dead.

Their Bible tells them so.

But Borg, a controversial theologian, was at Christ Community Church in Spring Lake last weekend to caution believers about confusing the Jesus of history with the Jesus of faith.

Borg says it’s clear the Bible doesn’t have all the facts straight. The Gospels pronouncing Jesus as Messiah were written decades after his death, probably to advance the personal agenda of the writers.

Scriptures, he says, should be interpreted as the Israelites’ and early Christians’ literary response to the experience of God.

“You don’t have to have an infallible word of God to have faith in God,” said Borg, the Hundere Distinguished Professor of Religion and Culture at Oregon State University.

His newest book, “Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously but Not Literally,” released this week, sold out of 150 copies after Borg’s March 2 lecture, arranged by the Center for Religion and Life, an adjunct ministry of Christ Community Church.

About 350 people also paid for lecture last Saturday. Another 700 came to hear Borg preach last Sunday.

His visit coincided with the Rev. Richard Rhem’s 30-year anniversary at the church, which left the Reformed Church in America in 1997 after conflicts over theology and Scriptural interpretation.

…He says the historical and metaphorical lens through which he reads the Scriptures appeals to those who seek a relationship with God, but can’t ignore scientific knowledge to believe that the Earth was created in six days or that Jesus walked on water.

Borg believes the Gospels are rich with metaphors that probably never happened, but illustrate greater truths.

The empty tomb assures the spirit that was in Jesus is still present in the world. Jesus’ feeding of a multitude of people from the food in one basket shows his spirit can satisfy hunger in all souls. Jesus’ healing of the blind and the lame demonstrates how the spirit of God enlightens and heals.

Borg’s approach to Scripture is an abomination to Christians who believe the Bible is infallible and that Jesus’ miracles and resurrection prove he is divine and the hope for humankind….

…He says Protestants in particular are too hung up on doctrines, dogmas, creeds and catechism.

These only drive divisions between people, he said.

The historical Jesus’ message wasn’t cluttered, he said. It is: Love God. Love your neighbor. Love yourself.

One doesn’t have to be Christian to see the wisdom in following Jesus’ lead on this one, Borg said.

“This post-Reformation, post-Enlightenment notion that all God wants from us is correct beliefs is relatively impotent,” Borg said. “There are more transformative ways we can look at faith.”

One hardly needs to attempt a refutation of the above presentation. The reporter correctly assesses also our response in stating, “Borg’s approach to Scripture is an abomination to Christians who believe the Bible is infallible and that Jesus’ miracles and resurrection prove he is divine and the hope for humankind.”

But, one would claim, the man is not Reformed and was addressing a congregation that left the Reformed Church in America because of these erroneous views which they taught. But the same article presents the response of a retired Reformed Church minister (I assume he is in good standing) to Borg’s position:

“Marcus Borg is saying what a lot of us are saying, but he’s saying it best,” said the Rev. Bob Bedingfield, a minister retired from Central Reformed Church in Grand Rapids. Bedingfield took a study leave from his seasonal ministry in a Florida retirement community to hear Borg speak.

One can only hope and pray that Bedingfield does not speak on behalf of the Reformed Church in America nor of Reformed people generally. Yet increasingly the views of Borg are considered acceptable, or at least allowable, within Reformed circles. That became plain also in a “Public Pulse” letter which appeared in the Grand Rapids Press of March 13, 2001, written by the Rev. Sierd Woudstra. He too is a retired minister, but in the Christian Reformed Church—and, I understand, in good standing there. He writes:

I guess Western Michigan is one of the few places in the country where it could happen. I mean, having it stated in a Public Pulse letter that “the Bible says that far more people will end up in hell than in heaven” (“Christianity is open to all,” March 2).

Imagine, casting the devil in the victor’s role. I should like to point out that authentic Christianity is much more positive.

Among major religions, the Christian faith is a latecomer on the block; only Islam is of more recent origin. Also, along with other religions, including Islam, Christianity shares the distinction of having often been advanced by dubious means.

Already on the face of it, for such a religion to claim that only those who in some sense espouse it will make it to heaven must be deemed arrogance. Isn’t this the stuff of which religious wars are made?

One should be wary of any belief structure that absolutizes itself, whether it be a brand of Christianity, Muslim fundamentalism or the militant atheism of the late Madalyn Murray O’Hair.

Thankfully, authentic Christianity is not absolutist in that sense. A key Christian belief is that Jesus Christ is the world’s only true Savior. But that does not translate into a wholesale condemnation of all who hold different beliefs. The truth is otherwise.

A basic perspective of the Old Testament scriptures is that in some future time all nations of the world will share in the beneficent reign of Israel’s God, the God Jesus also believed in and prayed to.

The New Testament echoes the same encouraging hope. Jesus Christ gave his life for the whole world. St. Paul writes that “the living God is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe” (note the peculiar wording).

As I understand the Christian faith, it teaches that sin and evil, though terribly real and strong, will be no match for the power of God’s grace.

I was astounded!! Can it be that this Christian Reformed retired preacher believes in a universalism? Yet, how else can one understand his letter? Evidently he too would agree with much of what Borg teaches. It matters not of what religion they may be; it matters not whether they believed in Christ or not. Jesus is the “Savior of all people.” If most (or any) are cast into hell, Woudstra would conclude that the devil has the victory.

Woudstra could profitably read Calvin on I Tim. 4:10 (or Hen—driksen’s excellent commentary, for that matter). Did he not subscribe (presumably, without “tongue in cheek”) to the Reformed creeds, including (among others) Art. 16 and 37 of the Belgic Confession and Art. 15 of the First Head of Doctrine in the Canons of Dordt? One trusts that Woudstra’s views do not represent those commonly held in the Christian Reformed Church—but can one remain a minister or member in good standing within that denomination while publicly espousing views contrary to the creeds (and Scripture)?

1924 Revisited

The Christian Renewal, March 12, 2001, gives an interesting report of an overture which appeared on the floor of Classis Grand Rapids East of the Christian Reformed Church. The report states:

Three-quarters of a century after the Rev. Herman Hoeksema was deposed by Classis Grand Rapids East of the Christian Reformed church, that same Classis was asked to apologize to Hoeksema’s ecclesiastical descendants for the church’s handling of the matter.

But amid a hail of concerns and protests, the apologetic overture was replaced by a recommendation that a denominational committee seek to discuss the matter with the denomination Hoeksema helped to establish, the Protestant Reformed Churches.

The debate, held during Grand Rapids East’s Jan. 18 meeting, was rooted in a pair of Calvin Theological Journal articles penned by Dr. John Bolt, Calvin Seminary’s professor of systematic theology. (These articles appear on the Web Site: www.PRCA.org and under the “Recent Articles” section—GVB.)

In his articles, Bolt examined the circumstances, claims and actions that led to the CRC’s adoption of its Three Points of Common Grace and Hoeksema’s eventual deposition from office.

A pastor at the Eastern Avenue CRC in Grand Rapids, Hoeksema was instrumental in seeing Calvin Seminary professor Ralph Janssen dismissed for allegedly teaching a non-Reformed higher criticism method of Scriptural interpretation. Janssen’s defense appealed to the doctrine of Common Grace—a doctrine Hoeksema vehemently denied afterward in pamphlets, fueling a new controversy.

Reviewing how the CRC’s broader assemblies handled the matter in 1924-25, Bolt concluded that participants acted hastily and absent due charity. “There is considerable evidence that powerfully placed church leaders acted in concert to get Hoeksema,” Bolt wrote in the April 2000 issue of

the Calvin Theological Journal. “It looks for all the world … like an ecclesiastical blitzkrieg, a hurried and well-orchestrated attack on the person and ideas of Herman Hoeksema.”

Through his consistory at Plymouth Heights CRC, Bolt overtured Classis Grand Rapids East to ask synod 2001 to express “profound sorrow and regret to our brothers and sisters in the Protestant Reformed Churches for the actions of CRC assemblies in 1924 that led to the forced departure from the CRC of Revs. Herman Hoeksema, Henry Danhof, G.M. Ophoff and the majorities of their councils.” It also sought admission “that many of the actions were hasty, did not always follow due and just process, and forced objectors to submit to a synodical declaration on which synod itself had observed there was no common opinion and that it was not essential to Reformed doctrine.”

Bolt said the overture avoided the doctrinal issue and did not seek to heal all wounds with a single treatment. “I’m not anticipating that we’re going to become one big happy denomination,” he said. Instead, Bolt said he wanted to decrease the hostility fostered by 75 years of unhappy separation.

The overture was withdrawn over numerous concerns. Among them, delegates said, were that Bolt’s claims were speculative; that the issue was better left alone due to the deep personal pain involved; and that there were better procedures for accomplishing the same goals….

Prof. David Engelsma was also quoted, giving his evaluation of the decisions of Classis Grand Rapids East:

…Dr. David Engelsma, professor of dogmatics and Old Testament studies at Protestant Reformed seminary, said Grand Rapids East’s refusal to consider Bolt’s original overture seemed to rest more on animosity than procedure. Bolt’s overture included five pages of explanation that demonstrated the CRC’s injustices in 1924-25, Engelsma said, “but not one delegate so much as referred to the grounds,” and many delegates expressed open hostility toward the PRC.

Engelsma praised Bolt’s overture as having had potential to improve relations between members of the two denominations and, most importantly, as having sought righteousness before God. But Classis Grand Rapids East wanted none of it.

“It was Classis East, Grand Rapids, of the CRC that deposed Herman Hoeksema from the CRC ministry in January 1925. By this act, it killed one of the prophets,” Engelsma said. “Seventy-six years later to the month, delegates of the same Classis made no bones about it, that they are children of them who killed the prophet.”

That’s well stated!