To ward off the publication of heresies by means of civil or ecclesiastical censorship has proven ineffective and unsuccessful. The Roman Catholic Church put forth a very vigorous effort to accomplish this especially at the time of the Reformation in the sixteenth century. They considered the writings of the Reformers to be heretical and, therefore, forbade their publication. They threatened the authors of these works with excommunication and martyred and persecuted those who in any way helped to publish or to distribute this forbidden literature. They ordered these books to be burned wherever they might be found. A very intensive campaign was conducted to squelch the voice of the Reformers. All this, however, did not dampen the spirit or hamper the spread of the Reformation.
It was not very long before the Reformed Churches were confronted with the same problem of curbing the spread of undesirable and heretical literature. Would the church allow complete freedom of press or would it be more desirable that the church exercise some control in this regard? The Reformed Churches took the latter position so that in the original fifty-fifth article of the Church Order provision was made that, “no one, being of the Reformed religion, should undertake to publish a book or a pamphlet dealing with a religious matter unless he had first received permission and approval of the Ministers of his Classes, or of the Ministers of his Particular Synod, or of the theological professors. These professors could not give approval without the foreknowledge of the Classis in which they resided.” The Synod of 1571 even went further and ruled that “no one, regardless of the fact whether he belonged to one of the Reformed Churches or not, should be permitted to publish a book without proper authorization.” Following synods confirmed this position in the obvious hope that the government in the Netherlands would become wholly Reformed and support this stand. This, however, did not materialize and so in 1586 the ruling was restricted to those who professed to be Reformed and over whom therefore the church had immediate supervision and control. It was at the great Synod of Dordt in 1615-19 that the article was written as we have indicated above.
For more than one reason this attempt to prevent the publication of heretical books was destined to fail. First of all, the desired cooperation by the government to enforce this ban was not forthcoming. In fact, late in 161s the government in Holland made a law of its own which was much less drastic than that which the churches had desired. Then too, since the broader ecclesiastical bodies are not in session continuously, it was impossible to pass on all the writings that were submitted. The only way that this could be done was through committees and this tended toward hierarchism, that much dreaded evil. Besides, often the wrong men were in charge of this supervision so that in effect the result was that the writings of Reformed men were banned and non-Reformed men could publish their works without restrictions. In 1703 F. Van Leenhof published his Heaven on Earth with proper approval, while in 1705 the churches had to depose him because of heresies advocated in this book. The rule was ineffective and often did more damage then good. Beside, as Dr. Bouwman says, “Stolen waters are sweet, and bread eaten in secret is pleasant” (Prov. 9:17). Official disapproval of books usually arouses curiosity and whets the appetite of the public so that refusal of approval often made good advertisement and promoted the reading of such publications if they were published in spite of the opinion of those who reviewed the book. In other words, tell the child that he may not have something and he will want it all the more. Inform the public that a certain movie that has failed to pass censorship will be shown in a certain theatre and the place will be filled to capacity. The public will clamor for a repeat performance. Forbid a book and it will receive more attention than one that is favorably recommended. Such is the perversity of human nature.
Does all of this mean then that there should be no censorship at all? We think not. We believe that censorship of literature (and other things as well, such as, radio, television, music, amusements, etc.) should begin in the home. As parents we must saturate our homes with the Word of God and that which is in harmony with the Word and forbid entrance to those things that defile the mind and soul. Further, we should positively cultivate and develop in ourselves as well as in our children a desire for and interest in that which is pure and wholesome. It is impossible to so control the press that the world is prevented from publishing the type of worthless literary rot that satisfies the carnal mind but it is an indication that something is radically wrong with our own training and censorship when young people of the church are seen indulging more, in the reading of cheap paperback romance and mystery stories, picked up at the corner news-stand, than in the reading of The Standard Bearer. This is tragic and then they even have the audacity to express that for the reading of such things as The Standard Bearer and other good literature they have no time in their busy life. It is time that the home, in cooperation with the schools, puts forth a new emphasis upon literature-appreciation in the good sense of the word so that our children may learn to distinguish between the good and the bad, the edifying and the destructive in the field of reading. Though it is impossible to rid the world of its literary filth, it is possible, by the grace of God, to keep the stuff out of the lives of God’s children. This calls for thorough instruction, firm discipline and diligent training. This sort of censorship we believe is conducive to good results. It means that we will have to undo our materialistic emphasis and learn, to reappraise true moral and spiritual values.
The school and the church, too, must exercise a censorship of books although not in the sense that they would presume to control the printing presses or publication business. In selecting textbooks to be used, in building both school and church libraries and in other projects where literary works are involved, great care and discretion must be exercised. It is no easy task for even when the scope of our problem is limited to those works that are today published under the name of “Christian fiction, non-fiction and religious periodicals,” there is an overwhelming mass of material on the market that is saturated with subtle heresies designed to deceive the undiscerning reader. No matter how careful the censorship, some of it is bound to creep through. For this reason, too, the most potent and effective censorship is that which is effected through positive and sound instruction in the truth. The truth must be preached and taught and in the measure that it is applied by the Spirit of God unto the heart, the subject will not only develop a deep love for all that is good, pure and true but will repel every form of heresy he may encounter in his reading.
Our conclusion is that the solution to the problem of censorship of literature is not to be found in legislation, control or any other arbitrary, mechanical or man-made device but in grace alone. The problem is resolved for those who are consciously in Christ and who live out of His fullness. They love the truth and hate the lie. “They will not support, nor promote the sale of, nor recommend to others heretical and deceiving publications. To be sure, this does not put these dangerous books out of circulation nor does it prohibit or make impossible their publication but it does relegate them to a sphere where they can do no real damage. Let them then not be found once among us, in our homes, our schools and our churches.
It may not be out of place to make a few remarks yet about this problem of “censorship” as it exists even in the world today. A real problem it is. Of this the world itself is deeply conscious. It boasts of a “free-press” and yet, realizes very well that this freedom of press cannot be unlimited. One may not be permitted to publish anything they desire but must remain within the limitations of worldly “decency.” This restriction of the freedom of press the world tries to regulate by law. But this proves to be very difficult if not impossible because “decency” is a relative thing in the world that recognizes no objective standard such, as the Word of God to determine what is good or bad. Each would decide this for himself and then what one regards as vile is to another an exhibition of real “culture.” What one calls obscene is by another considered to be artistic. Laws are made but openly defied by those who publish and peddle morally corrupt literature because the laws fail to state clearly what constitutes a violation. The peddler of smut is certain that even if he is apprehended, a smart lawyer will circumvent the law so that he will escape any penalty for his maliciousness. Evidence of this is seen daily in a city like Chicago. One noted news columnist has exposed many times the fact that the law enforcing powers in the city are reluctant and in many cases even refuse to make arrests where arrests should be made because they know beforehand that the charges will not be upheld in the courts. The result is that the flow of obscene and pornographic literature increases. The market for it is no longer hidden. This lucrative business draws more and more into it. Already it has reached millions of dollars per annum and the end is not in sight. Evil abounds, waxing worse and worse until the measure of sin is full.
For it there is no solution to be found in the world. Man cannot curb his own passion for evil. Education, without the fear of God, only trends to produce a more subtle and bit more polished perpetrator of the same corruption. As long as there are corrupt people who demand corrupt literature, there will be producers and peddlers to supply this demand.
The answer is to be found in the Word of God. It is this: “Who knowing the judgment of God, that they which commit such things are worthy of death, not only do the same: but have pleasure in them that do them” (Romans 1:32). And again, “Indignation and wrath, (from God) tribulation and anguish, upon every soul of man that doeth evil” (Rom. 2:8, 9).
See then that your garments are kept clean. Watch and pray that you enter not into temptation. Have no fellowship with these unfruitful works of darkness and give all diligence through sound instruction to ward off every form of the lie that can only lead to destruction. Be assured that “to them who by patient continuance in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life . . . but glory, honor and peace to every man that worketh good” (Romans 2:7, 10).