Suggested by the title: Contending for the Faith.
In this particular department of our Standard Bearer it is our task to call the attention of our readers to the history of dogma, or doctrine. The Lord willing, we will trace the historical development of doctrine in the history of the Church. And although it is true that the history of the Church did not begin upon the day of Pentecost, the history of doctrine is mainly confined to the history of the Church after the decease of the apostles. The decease of the apostles marked the end of infallible and direct revelation; having received the Bible from the Lord through infallible revelation the Church was now called upon to defend that truth over against all the subtle and incessant attacks of the enemy.
The title: Contending for the Faith, indicates what is meant by “doctrine” in this series of articles. This title immediately suggests two thoughts. On the one hand, we expect to trace and discuss the historical development of those doctrines which are Reformed and according to our Confessions and the Scriptures. It lies in the very nature of the case that to contend for the faith certainly implies that we contend for the truth (incidentally, the word “faith” must be understood in this expression as the object of one’s faith, or believing). And the second thought implied in this title (and this is certainly emphasized in: “Only let your conversation be as it becometh the gospel of Christ: that whether I come and see you, or else be absent, I may hear of your affairs, that you stand fast in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel.”), is that we stand fast in one spirit and strive together for the faith of the gospel. To strive for the faith is an action which must occur collectively. We must be of one mind and stand fast in one spirit. The implication is that these doctrines do not represent various lines of individualistic thinking, but that they are the embodiment of the truth in the holy Scriptures as reflected in the consciousness of the Church. You cannot separate the history of doctrine from the Church of the living God. This, too, lies in the very nature of the case.
These doctrines are doctrines of the Church.
It is possible, of course, to understand the word “doctrine” in an elastic and flexible sense. Viewed in a wider sense, it can also refer to the views and teachings of individuals and even of heretics. In fact, it is well to bear in mind that everyone is “doctrinal” in a certain sense of the word. The slogan: no creed but Christ, is surely an absurdity. All men entertain their own individual conceptions of the truth of holy writ. This lies in the nature of the case. Equipped as we are with the faculty of reason we must be doctrinal. This, of course, must not be confused with Rationalism. The believer bows before the Word of the living God and permits himself to be led by the Scriptures. Rationalism exalts the human mind above the Word of God. According to the former the truth of God’s Word speaks and dictates to us; according to the latter the human mind dictates and determines what is truth.
However, we will understand this term in its narrower sense as denoting only those doctrines that have been accepted by the Church of God. Hence, in this series of articles we regard doctrines as definitely formulated truths, reflected in the believing consciousness of the Church, from the Word of God as their source, and officially approved and adopted by the Church in general or by a certain group of churches. This leads us to an important observation. We must be careful, when discussing the historical development of doctrine, that we do not make the mistake of viewing these doctrines as merely the products of men. It is true that they were discussed and formulated by men. This, of course, none can dispute. Men of like passions as we are and characterized by all the infirmities and imperfections of sin drew up these doctrines of the Church. However, there have always been those who ridicule these formulated truths and speak of them in a derogatory manner as the products of men. We do well to bear in mind that they have been formulated by the Church, and that these men who composed these doctrinal declarations were therefore led by the Spirit of God according to the promise of Christ that He would be with His own even unto the end of the world and lead them into all truth. Hence, doctrines are definitely formulated truths as reflected in the believing consciousness of the Church. This means that through the operation of the Holy Spirit the truths of the holy Scriptures assume definite form and shape in the believing consciousness of the Church of God, that the Word of God is therefore the source of these doctrines, and that they are officially approved and adopted by the Church.
Moreover, viewed as such an official declaration by the Church of God, a doctrine may be viewed either generally or particularly from the viewpoint of the church in general or from the aspect of a particular group of churches. It is possible, for example, that a doctrine may be the expression of the faith of the Church in general, as the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. On the other hand, it is also possible that a doctrine be the expression of a certain particular group of churches, as, for example, the doctrine of absolute predestination, of infant baptism, the Church as including Jew and Gentile, the Kingship of Christ as not merely limited to the Jews according to the conception of the premillenialists, etc. It is surely not difficult to understand that a doctrine such as Absolute and Sovereign Predestination should not have been formulated until the Church had advanced a considerable distance into the New Dispensation. We do not write this to leave the impression that this doctrine was not already under attack during the time of the apostles. Scripture certainly informs us differently. Passages such as Romans 6 and Romans 9 surely suggest that this conception of the truth already then met with violent opposition. But, it is the doctrine of the Holy Trinity which was formulated during the first four hundred years of the Church’s existence in the New Dispensation. The truth of the Deity of the Christ and of the Holy Spirit were expressed by the ecumenical church councils of Nicea and Constantinople in the years 325 and 381 respectively. It is simply a fact that the truth of the Holy Scriptures was not understood by the early Church Fathers as it is understood today. Their conception of the Scriptures, particularly with respect to the person of the Christ, was characterized by simplicity. It could hardly be expected that the knowledge of the full significance of the Christ should dawn upon the Church of God immediately after His appearance in our flesh and blood. Besides, there is no truth more fundamental than that which concerns the person of the Savior. That Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, is the rock upon which Christ builds His Church. And inasmuch as the conception of the early Church Fathers with a view to this cardinal truth was characterized by simplicity, we can easily understand that the devil, brilliant strategist that he is, should launch his attacks upon this fundamental doctrine of the Word of God. And it was not until the year, 381, that the doctrines of the Holy Trinity was established. This doctrine may be viewed as a general doctrine inasmuch as it is the expression of the faith of the Church of God today in general. All churches (Christian and so-called fundamentalist) subscribe to it. There are other doctrines, however, that are peculiar to a certain group of churches. Neither need this surprise us. When the devil’s attack upon the person of the Savior had failed, he, who is unrelenting in his attacks upon the Scriptures, continued them upon various truths of the Word of God. And, we may safely say that, as the years roll by, the Church of God will be confronted by the task of expressing itself more particularly and pertinently with respect to the truths of the Word of God. We do well, therefore, to maintain a constant vigilance and be ever on the alert in order that we may hold fast that which we have. And it is also well to bear in mind that the attacks upon the truths of the Word become more subtle as the Church of God is led into all the truth of holy writ.
In these articles, the Lord willing, we purpose to discuss the history of those doctrines that are peculiar to the Reformed Churches and embodied in their Confessions. When we speak of Reformed truth we refer to that truth that is expressed in and by our Reformed Confessions: the Heidelberg Catechism, the Netherlands Confession or thirty seven Articles, and the Canons of Dordrecht. We do not, of course, purpose to treat these Confessions. That belongs to another rubric. We do expect, however, to trace the historical development of these doctrines. We need not stress, I am sure, that a rich field lies before us. On the one hand, our Reformed Confessions are replete with fundamental truths or doctrines. Besides, the end of the ages is surely upon us. We need not doubt that we live in the concluding years of the New Dispensation. All things point to this fact. The preaching of the gospel to all creatures, the great apostasy of the Church, the world-wide character of wars and their increasingly rapid succession tell us but too plainly that we are rapidly approaching the end of the ages. In fact, a startling characteristic of our present time is the fact that even the world is speaking of the possibility of the end of the collapse of civilization so that the end of the world is no longer conceived of as impossible even by the world. Even the world is becoming increasingly alarmed because of its own inventions and discoveries and stands aghast because of their potential destructiveness. They say that a third war must, if at all possible, be averted because it could well result in the destruction of civilization. What does this imply for the Church of the living God? The end of the world, we believe, will also mark the greatest knowledge of the truth in the consciousness of the Church. The end of the world will certainly occur when the wicked world shall have filled its measure of iniquity, and this certainly implies that they will also have reached the pinnacle of their attacks upon the Church and the truth of the Holy Scriptures. And this means that the historical development of the truth in the consciousness of the Church shall then have reached its apex. One can hardly doubt that the end of the ages is upon us and that we live in the dying years of the New Dispensation and the history of the world. This is all the more reason why, in our study of the history of dogma, a rich field lies before us. And we need not repeat the observation that the truth of holy writ and its historical development in the consciousness of the Church is of vital importance. The struggle for the truth becomes increasingly bitter. May the struggle of the past constantly serve us and enable us to hold fast that which we have.