The church of our Lord Jesus Christ lives in an inseparable relation to the church of the past; and this relation is especially characterized by her doctrinalunity with the church of past ages. For this reason there is a great need for a book on the Reformed perspective of doctrinal development. It was therefore with eagerness that I picked up Osterhaven’s latest publication. And there is no doubt about it that the book provided many hours of enjoyable and instructive reading. It is surely to be recommended to God’s people who are interested in the question of how doctrine developed in the church over the ages. Especially his lengthy discussion of the Reformation (which takes up almost half I the book) is scholarly and worthwhile.
Yet the book left me troubled. It took a bit to understand why, but there are, I think, especially three reasons why the book is not really “a Reformedperspective.”
The first error is a failure to distinguish clearly between the Scriptures and the object of the church’s theological reflection and the source of her doctrine, and the development of doctrine itself. Osterhaven repeatedly characterizes the Scriptures themselves as being a part of the history of doctrine. While this is, in a certain sense, true—if one speaks of the progressive nature of revelation—it nevertheless remains a fact that there is the sharpest of distinctions between Scripture as the infallible record of God’s revelation to His church on the one hand, and the church’s study of that revelation under the guiding influence of the Spirit of Truth, by which study she learns and confesses the doctrine of Scripture on the other hand. Osterhaven blurs this distinction. He repeatedly speaks of the Scriptures as the confessionof the church in the same way in which we confess the truth throughout the ages. While Osterhaven would not, I think, deny that, at least in some sense, Scripture is the record of God’s revelation, he suggests the higher liberal view of Scripture, sometimes called, “Gemeinde Theologie” which makes Scripture nothing else than the church’s confession of God. This is serious. He writes, for example:
The doctrine of the Trinity as such is not found in the New Testament. But the conviction which gave rise to that doctrine lies behind the New Testament in the experience of the people; and the New Testament is the record of that experience, a record which enabled the early church in its struggles over the faith to work out, state and embrace the doctrine of the Trinity just as the New Testament record presupposes the belief (p. 37).
Secondly, although Osterhaven devotes nearly half of the book to a study of the Reformation and discusses many doctrines of the Reformers, he does not mention the truths of God’s absolute sovereignty, predestination, sovereign grace, and the doctrines which have become known as “Calvinism” as not only being taught by the Reformers but as being an essential (if not the essential) aspect of their teachings. Strangely he finds the chief contribution of Calvin to the development of doctrine in Calvin’s teaching concerning “order and the Holy Spirit” (p. 163). What a strange and unhistorical treatment of Calvin. One can hardly say that this is then a “Reformed” perspective on the history of doctrine.
In connection with this, and in the face of much evidence to the contrary, Osterhaven denies that Augustine taught double predestination (p. 79). Polman in his book, “The Doctrine of Predestination in Augustine, Aquinas, and Calvin” has clearly shown that this is not true.
Finally, in the last three chapters, dealing with the Post-Reformation period, Osterhaven characterizes this age as an age of the development of “Experiential Christianity,” and of the idea of the kingdom of heaven—which idea is taken mainly from men who laid the foundation for the social gospel (Pannenberg, e.g.); and finds the relevance of the doctrine of the church today in that kind of social emphasis. This all can hardly be characterized as Reformed, much less as a correct evaluation of the development of doctrine in the modern age.
In 1959 and 1960, Dr. Runner presented a series of lectures in Unionville, Ontario, sponsored by the Association for the Advancement of Christian Scholarship, which operates the Institute for Christian Studies. These lectures were printed in book form and this book is the fifth revised edition. The book has become the “Bible” of the entire A.A.C.S. movement, which has had such great influence in Canada, the United States, and even in some foreign countries.
It is not necessary in this book review to criticize the A.A.C.S. movement; the interested reader can find extensive criticism in various earlier articles in theStandard Bearer. But this book lays down the philosophical (the philosophy of Dooyeweerd and Vollenhoven) foundation of the movement. The book is therefore necessary reading for all who wish to understand the philosophy which undergirds the “Toronto School.”
I use the word, “understand” reluctantly, because this book is not easy to understand. This is not due only to its philosophical emphasis, but also the fact that key concepts of the book are never clearly defined. The criticism has been leveled against the thinkers of the Toronto School by others (also in. the Christian Reformed Church) that precise definition of concepts is a great lack among these thinkers; this book bears out the legitimacy of that criticism.
While this is true of many different concepts in the book, it is strikingly true of the concept, “the Word of God.” I doubt whether there is any one more important concept than this one—the whole “system” of thought is based upon it. Yet one looks in vain in this book for a clear and precise definition of what Runner means by the Word of God.
Perhaps the main thought of the whole book is summed up by Runner himself when in his conclusion to his first series of lectures he says:
But when you have seen the nature of God’s THESIS and of the variety of human ANTITHESES there can be no hesitation as to the course we must pursue. No synthesis; not even in the form of the emasculated message: Jesus saves. But a “seeing” from out of the religious Center of how the lines of reformational activity are to be drawn throughout the length and breadth of God’s creation, to bring our subjective life integrally into conformity with the Law of creation, the creation-ordinances. That is the Message of God’s Kingdom of Righteousness! (p. 110)
It is, undoubtedly, with a view to Runner’s view of the Word of God that in this quotation Runner speaks of the “Law of creation” rather than the law of God and that he capitalizes the word “Law.” The Word of God in Dooyeweerdian thought is not only the Scriptures, but is especially the creation Word or Creation Law; and this “Word” is the basis for all Christian endeavor outside the church. Here is the fundamental flaw.
It is for this reason also that, while the title of the book speaks of the relation of the Bible to learning, there is almost no discussion of this idea at all. While certain Scriptural passages are mentioned from time to time, the teachings of Scripture are never related to learning. The title of the book is deceptive.
Along with this, it is striking that there is almost no mention in the whole book of sin and its effect upon man and upon the creation. One would almost think, from reading the book, that sin did not exist: that man is unaffected by sin and that the creation is really not under the curse. But this too, is understandable in the light of A.A.C.S. philosophy.
That does not mean that some of the emphases of Runner are not worthwhile. Runner repeatedly and forcibly warns against the rampant humanism of our day, stresses correctly the power of the antithesis in all intellectual endeavor and pleads for a truly “reformational” starting point in all our work in the kingdom of Christ. If only Runner had a truly biblical conception of what the kingdom of Christ really is according to Scripture. . . . “My kingdom,” Jesus says, “is not of this world.”