Crisis of Doctrine or Ethics—or Both?

With what one might interpret as a note of nostalgia, the Rev. J. D. Eppinga (The Banner, Sept. 13, 1982, p. 25) bemoans the lack of a distinctive and Reformed lifestyle in his denomination. At the conclusion of one of his usually interesting “Of Cabbages & Kings” articles he writes as follows:

. . .Speaking of “lifestyle,” I’m not sure we have one anymore, or at least one that is distinctive and Reformed in character. Instead, we are moving closer to a way of life that includes both church and circus. It seems, however, that others can manage this better than some of us. Drinking and dancing at our weddings seem to get out of hand sometimes. Our synods, whether in 1928 or 1982, handle such questions as “the dance” awkwardly. The film arts, some insist, need greater attention in our circles, while others disagree. There are those among us who say we face a crisis in the areas of doctrinal and biblical interpretation. I think we do. Meanwhile, we may forget that the crisis may be as great in the area of ethics. 

How, then, must we live? An old cleric once said that the enemy will destroy us, not by burning us at the stake, but by serving us champagne. He spoke these words, not as a teetotaler, but as one who sought to emphasize ethics (how to live) in a world where doctrine (what we believe) was considered the only thing that mattered. 

Jesus prayed that we be “in the world but not of it.”

John 17

In theory, we may have this straight. It is in practice that many of us still do not have the hang of it.

It would seem, therefore, that the Rev. Eppinga is among those who are disturbed by the 1982 decision of the Christian Reformed Synod concerning dancing and concerned about the loss of a distinctive (or antithetical) lifestyle among the constituency of the CRC. Others have openly wondered how they can instruct and admonish and warn their children and young people against the movie (1966 synodical decision) and the dance (1982 decision) when mother church officially condones these. 

I have no solution for the CRC. Once decisions of this kind have been taken, it become a practical spiritual impossibility for a denomination to stem the tide of worldliness and to turn the clock back. In general the membership of the church is not concerned about any principles (whether of doctrine or of ethics) which lie at the basis of such decisions, nor even about any guidelines which a synod may lay down (witness how little the guidelines about the film arts have been observed). They are interested only in the practical fact that the restrictions have been lifted and the doors (floodgates?) have been opened to worldly practices. On this score there should be no illusions. It is simply a fact of church history that once a certain course has been set, there is no turning back. 

But there is some instruction to be gained here. 

And I do foster the hope that some Christian Reformed brethren and sisters might at last begin to see (by way of bitter experience) the devastating effects of the doctrine of common grace which lies at the root of the movie and the dance decisions. 

In the first place, we should remember that doctrine and ethics, faith and practice (lifestyle) go hand in hand. They cannot be separated. And they affect one another. There is a reciprocal relation between them. Doctrine affects practice, and practice affects doctrine. Departure in doctrine bears fruit in departure in life; and sometimes the relation is reversed, so that departure in practice bears fruit in departure in doctrine. 

In the second place, the loss of a Reformed lifestyle, as connected with the dance and the movie, indeed involves a crisis of both ethics and doctrine, practice and faith. Only the doctrine involved in this instance is not that of doctrinal and biblical interpretation. It is the doctrine of common grace which the CRC adopted in 1924. More specifically, it is the doctrine of the restraint of sin and the good of the natural man set forth in the Second and Third Points of 1924. 

Do I hear someone say, “There you go again! Why do you always try to blame everything on 1924 and common grace?” 

My reply is: I am speaking of facts, not merely presenting my own conclusions. The Synod of the Christian Reformed Church itself, both in 1966 and in 1982, laid the foundation of the film arts decision and the dance decision in the doctrine of the restraint of sin. Here is the proof: 

1) In 1982 the Synod adopted this point, among others, “With Respect to the Relationship of the Christian to the World:” “2. Because sin entered the world, even the best works of man are defiled with sin (cf. Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 62), but sin is being restrained by God’s grace.” (italics added) (Acts of Synod, Art. 90) 

2) The point just quoted was first adopted in 1966 in the same context in connection with the film arts (movie) decision. (Acts of Synod, 1966, Art. 61) 

3) The 1966 Report on the Church and the Film Arts (Acts, 1966, Supplement 32, p. 332) makes specific reference to 1924 as follows: “The world has not returned to absolute chaos, however, for God restrains the power of sin and bestows many good gifts and talents upon man in general. These gifts are common to both the regenerate and unregenerate man. God ‘giveth to all life, and breath, and all things.’ (Acts 17:25) InActs 14:17 we are told that He fills our hearts with gladness. This is ‘a kind of favor or grace of God which He manifests toward His creatures in general.’ (Acts of Synod 1924, Article 132) It would be highly ungrateful to God to despise or reject these gifts and their results in human society. Sinful man, in his effort to be autonomous, may boast of his accomplishments and idolize his culture; but the Christian will accept whatever God has made possible with gratitude and will dedicate it to God’s glory.” 

4) The 1982 Report (33) on “Dance and the Christian Life” similarly finds elements of good in the sinful world: “We also need to recognize that even in a fallen and sin-ridden world God’s gifts are not I always or uniformly misused, and human motivations are not always completely corrupt. Even in a fallen and sinful world it may be possible to find some creational ingredients of healthy celebration and a wholesome use of the God-given capacity of the human body to relate to music and rhythm.” (p. 565) 

There is, of course, a history behind all of this. 

It took some fifty or sixty years, but finally the doctrine of common grace won out in what the Rev. Eppinga refers to as a crisis of “ethics,” and the doctrine of the antithesis was shunted aside. 

Principally, of course, that took place in 1924. The Three Points of Common Grace were adopted at that time. But a fact that few remember is that the same Synod of 1924 in a wholly contradictory action adopted a “Testimony” in which it insisted that the antithesis must be maintained ‘tooth and nail.” That “Testimony” was never sent to the churches, however; it was locked away in the Acts of Synod. 

Then, starting already in 1926, the “problem” of worldly amusements was brought to synod. 

At first the various synods who spoke on this issue tried to come down on the side of the antithesis, or, if you will, on the side of a distinctive and Reformed lifestyle. And, while even in the 1928 report on the amusement-question reference was made to common grace as a basis of fellowship between believers and unbelievers, nevertheless the 1928 decisions sought to maintain the antithesis. The method, of course, was wrong: the attempt was made to legislate worldly amusements out of the churches, and the result was what were often referred to as the “three no-no’s.” Over the years the same problem kept cropping up. I can remember from my own college days in the early 1940s that it was a problem in both student body and faculty at Calvin College. As late as 1951 the attempt was still made, though more weakly than in 1928, to come down on the side of the antithesis and to maintain the stand of 1928. 

But since then the tide has turned. 

And now the door is officially open to both movie and dance. 

The doctrine of common grace has borne its fruit in the area of ethics. The Rev. Eppinga speaks of having things straight in theory, but not in practice. He is mistaken. The CRC has things wrong both in theory and in practice; and the two go hand in hand. 

But here is a concluding question: how is YOUR practice with respect to worldly amusements, with respect specifically to the movie (whether at the theater or on the television screen in your family room)? Is your practice consistent with your denial of common grace and your insistence on the antithesis? Or do you deny in deeds what you confess in words?