Dancing—Full Circle! (2)

The Christian Reformed Church has come full circle, we saw last time, from a dancing ban in 1928, shortly after the common grace controversy, to promoting dancing by its young people on the campus of its denominational college in 1977. 

Rev. John Vander Ploeg bemoans this fact in The Outlook, without, however, proposing any kind of realistic solution. 

I also bemoan the fact that dancing is thus promoted. But I also bemoan the stand of 1928 and attribute it to principles which I bemoan even more, the principles of the Three Points of Common Grace of 1924. As I pointed out last time, the 1977 stand of the CRC on dancing (even as that on movies) was predictable, and was, in fact, predicted by the late Herman Hoeksema in 1928, four short years after he was cast out by the CRC because of his opposition to common grace. But let me emphasize that I wrote this and write the present lines not in a spirit of “I told you so.” I have no interest in this; then the whole discussion becomes a matter of the pot calling the kettle black. But I am interested in the principles involved in this highly practical matter. For if we do not proceed from right principles, Reformed principles, none of us—whether Christian Reformed or Protestant Reformed—can maintain a right stand on the matter of worldly amusements. 

By the way, in a recent issue of The Banner Dr. Harry Boer, in what impressed me as a rather snide and sarcastic article, also does some bemoaning of his own. As I read him, however, he bemoans not the introduction of dancing in his denomination, but apparently the hypocrisy of his church in so radically changing its policy over a span of fifty years without so much as a “by your leave” and without so much as a note of repentance for this complete about-face on a matter which has surely affected thousands of young people’s lives. He has a point, from his CRC viewpoint. But Boer, of course, is a thorough-going common grace man: he does not even do lip service to the Reformed doctrine of reprobation, as is plain from his recent gravamen. Hence, he has no real solution to the problem, except, perhaps, “Let ’em dance!” 

The editorial in The Outlook (Sept., 1977) seems to suggest that maintaining the position of 1928/1951 is simply a matter of being a “conservative,” and for some unexplained reason it takes pains to repudiate a possible charge of legalism against those who want to maintain that old 1928/l 951 position on worldly amusements. Editor Vander Ploeg writes as follows:

Although I am thankful and even proud to profess to be and also to be classed by others as a conservative (if only the term be rightly understood!) I do refuse to be branded as a legalist. 

There is a difference. A conservative is one who clings tenaciously to and seeks to conserve whatever he believes to be valuable and good in his heritage or tradition, whether it be religious or otherwise. For the bona fide conservative there are basics that are simply not negotiable. A legalist is one who would lay down, for himself and also for others, laws for conduct that are not clearly prescribed as such in Scripture.

For example. In 1951 the CRC Synod wanted a clarification of the thrust or import of the stand the CRC Synod of 1928 had taken on “Worldly amusements.” It was my position as a member of the 1951 committee then and still is that 1928 was not to be read and employed as a piece of legalism. In certain matters room must be left for Christian liberty while, at the same time, this may never be abused to tolerate sinful license.

Now it is not my intention to enter into this discussion about legalism versus conservatism. I only touch on it to lead up to the real issue. In this connection, I wish to point out, in the first place, that for many years the popular notion of the 1928 decision was indeed legalistic. For years the three worldly amusements specified in the 1928 decision were rather mockingly referred to as “the three no-no’s.” Students and some faculty-members alike used this language already in my college days in the early 1940’s. Accordingly, in the second place, the attitude of not a few was also legalistic. The law was there, so to speak, to be broken—if you could get by without being caught and, possibly, disciplined for the mere act of breaking the rules. One had to “sneak it,” of course—lest he be hailed before the college authorities and lest his parents and/or his pastor and consistory be informed of the violation. For students this was not too difficult; and already in my youth the young man or young woman who never indulged in movie attendance was a rarity. For faculty members this was somehow more difficult: it was common knowledge among the students, however, that there were certain faculty members who “sneaked it” when they were out of town. I could still mention names if necessary, though now this would serve no purpose, since the men are deceased. In the third place, this whole atmosphere of legalism, as I recall it, played a considerable part in the amusements question as it was revived in 1951. I do not have the record of the 195 1 history before me at the moment. But as I recall it, there was no little element of pressure at that time to repeal the 1928 decision and to relax what were considered to be stringent rules. Some wanted to give the church a more liberal appearance. Others were tired of the strict laws. Still others felt the hypocrisy of rules which were widely disobeyed and which were impossible of enforcement; they wanted to legitimize the widespread indulgence in the three “no-no’s.” 

Nevertheless, to speak of “legalism” is not to touch directly on the real problem of the CRC “Worldly Amusements” stand of 1928. Yet if we understand legalism correctly, we will eventually also get at the basic problem involved in the 1928 decision, a problem which constituted a guaranteed and built-in failure of that decision—a failure which became manifest in 1966 and 1977. For legalism is not merely the laying down of laws for conduct that are not clearly prescribed as such in Scripture. This ought to be clear as the sun in the heavens. It is entirely possible, in fact, to lay down rules for conduct which are literally spelled out in Scripture and yet to be a legalist in the full-blown sense of the word. It is entirely possible to lay down as laws for conduct the Ten Commandments—literally prescribed in Scripture—but to be a legalist. In the objective sense of the word, when you promulgate a set of rules which have to stand by themselves as mere rules, as a code of regulations, without any foundation in the principles of the love of God, of light versus darkness, of grace versus sin—then you have legalism. It is precisely in this area that the 1928 stand on-amusements failed: the recommendations (which were at least better than the body of the report) did not follow from and were not based on the principles of the report. They were not based on the principle of the antithesis. And in the subjective sense of the word (as far as actual life and conduct are concerned), you have legalism when you have the observance of a mere code of precepts without the heartbeat of the love of God and the hatred of sin in it, the observance of precepts under constraint. Ultimately such observance will always fail, exactly because it is under constraint and without any principal basis and without any inward, spiritual motivation. It is observance of the letter, not of the spirit. Sooner or later, such observance begins to constitute a heavy, unbearable burden; and when that comes to pass, it will not be long before people begin to violate the precepts more and more, to clamor for their removal, and ultimately to make from legalism to libertinism, from strict law to no law, from nomism to anti-nomism. Thus it has come to pass that the CRC of today has repudiated the recommendations of such once revered and respected stalwarts as E.J. Tuuk, H.J. Kuiper, R.B. Kuiper, H. Schultze, and H. Hekman, the Study Committee of 1928. 

Hence, the important question is not whether there was any degree of legalism in the now repudiated decisions, but rather: where did those legalistic decisions go astray as far as Reformed and Scriptural principles were concerned? 

It is in this connection that I promised to demonstrate that the false principles of common grace are the root of the problem. 

To keep this promise I will go back, first, to the Report of 1928. In discussing that Report, I will rely heavily on the article by the late Herman Hoeksema to which I referred already last time. It is found in Volume 4, pp. 393, ff. It is a pity that this article was in the Dutch language: for there is a wealth of instruction in the article not only with respect to the specific question at hand, but with respect to the entire amusements question and also for both grownups and youth of today. I shall therefore either paraphrase or quote pertinent sections of this article in translation. 

First of all, let me briefly sketch the Report of 1928. After an introductory section about the mandate, the Report proper is as follows: I. General Principles which lie at the basis of the amusements-question: 

A. Also our amusements must be of such a nature that they can serve the glory of God. From this main principle it follows: 

1. That our amusements at the very least should not conflict with any commandment of God. 

2. That the Christian shall deem it a matter of loyalty to his God and Savior not to further the interests of an institution which in its general influence is an unmitigated evil. 

B. Our amusements must not be in conflict with the interests of human well-being. 

1. There is indeed a legitimate place in life for such which are recreative for body and mind. 

2. No physical recreation or mental diversion should be tolerated which is in any way or degree subversive of our spiritual and moral well-being. 

3. Even when our amusements are not spiritually and morally harmful, they should not be allowed to occupy more than a secondary, subordinate place in our life. 

C. Our amusements may not conflict with the Christian’s proper relation to the world. 

1. The Christian need not form separate communities or shun all association with ungodly men. Proper fellowship with unbelievers (page 19) is based on common grace. “This principle can be applied to the sphere of amusements. In his general grace God has (1) given certain joys, diversions, pleasures to men. There are no amusements in hell! By that same general grace He (2) restrains sin in the hearts of the ungodly so that the diversions and amusements which they devise are not always and necessarily tainted with sin. Even their manner of participating in them may not be so manifestly sinful that a Christian cannot join in with them. Is it not possible for Christians to play a game of ball with non-Christians without denying their Christian principles? We do not advise Christians to seek their amusements in mixed company. This is often dangerous. But the mere fact that they meet on acommon ground is no proof that the Christian is onforbidden ground.” 

In this connection Rev. Hoeksema inserts the following comment in his article: “We cannot pass this by without remarking that the common grace men have indeed a ‘silly’ presentation of God. Not in hell, but on the way to hell God takes care that the ungodly can still amuse themselves a little. What a cruel grace which lets men go playing to hell!” 

And we remark that the reader should note carefully how at this crucial point in the report common grace has wormed its way into the picture. 

2. But separation from the world forbids and excludes friendship with evil men. 

Rev. Hoeksema inserts this comment under point 2: “What a Judas-like relation the Christian then assumes. He can in a very friendly manner play ball with worldly people, but nevertheless not be friends with them.”

3. Separation from the world consists in shunning all the evil which is in the world. 

At this point Rev. Hoeksema says: “Wrong, committee! The true antithetical relation of the Christian consists in this, that he as a child of the light not merely shuns the evil, but that he testifies against all wickedness in the world’s manifestation of life. Let the Christian do that once, and then let him still ask the world to play ball with him!” 

4. Separation from the world includes the weaning away of the heart from the transient things of this present earthly sphere. 

C. Also our amusements must remain within the bounds of Christian liberty. The Christian cannot simply do everything, even though it be in itself good. Thus, he may have to refrain from something because it may offend the brother and cause him to stumble. 

(to be continued)