New Theology and Old

[The following is a transcript of an address delivered at the commencement program of the Theological School of the Protestant Reformed Churches. Those present at the-time of the program will notice that some parts of this address which were abbreviated, for lack of time, when the address was delivered are here represented in considerably expanded form.] 

Mr. Chairman, Fathers and Brethren of the Synod, Class of 1972, and Friends gathered with us: 

That we live in times described by the chapter which our chairman read this evening, II Timothy 3, is becoming increasingly and more emphatically clear today. There are the times in which men have “a form of godliness, but (are) denying the power thereof’ (vs. 5). They are the times described in verse 13, in which “evil men and seducers shall wax worse and worse, deceiving and being deceived.” It is in this connection that I wish to speak to you—particularly to you of the graduating class of 1972 at this last opportunity for me to instruct you—about the so-called “new theology.” I have not chosen this subject because we, as Protest ant Reformed Churches, are internally concerned with this new theology. Thankfully, we are not: none of us is a disciple of it. We are one of the very few today who have no internal denominational concern and problems with that new theology. But this new theology has made rapid inroads into the Reformed community. And we are called to take position and to testify and warn against it. Moreover, it is my conviction that we must take position and testify against the new theology not merely on generally orthodox grounds, but from the viewpoint of and on the specific ground of our Protestant Reformed theology, that which, according to my sincere conviction, is the “old theology” in its pure form. 

In order to take position over against the new theology and in order to testify and warn against it, we must understand that theology. There is much vague and general discussion about it and its evils, And in a general way, I suppose, many of us are acquainted somewhat with its errors. But there is need of specific definition. We must understand clearly what this new theology in the Reformed community stands for; and we must understand its works. We must know the enemy and his position in order to do battle against him. 

I wish to limit myself and this address to what belongs to the very essence of the world-and-life view of that so-called new theology. As I suggested, we are all more or less acquainted with various aspects of that new theology, such as its critical doctrine of Scripture, its so-called “new hermeneutics,” its emphasis on de-confessionalization, its denial of sovereign predestination, its support of revolutionary activities in society and in the state, its emphasis on the new morality. Undoubtedly, too, there is at the basis of the new theology an entirely radical approach to all that belongs to the six loci of dogmatics—though I am not aware of any complete “dogmatics” of the new theology having been written as yet. But at this occasion I want to call attention to two specific aspects of that new theology which are at present receiving attention in the Netherlands in theGereformeerde Kerken. In our own country, too, there are adherents of the new theology in Reformed circles; but there is not much original development of theology here; most of what is taught is borrowed and imported. But in the Netherlands, especially in connection with the views of Dr. H.M. Kuitert (and others like him), attention is being paid (also synodically) to especially two items. The first is “a consistent horizontalization of faith.” And the second is “the latent kingdom as fruit of the anonymous word of promise.” (I may insert here that the question has been raised synodically concerning the viewpoints “whether this conception does not need correction and deepening because it does not bring to sufficient expression the incomparably greater work of God’s salvation in Jesus Christ our Lord.”) In these two items, as I hope to explain, there is embodied a very definite world-and-life view of the new theology. It is in this connection that I address you on the subject “New Theology and Old.” 

The New Theology 

The World-Wide Significance of Salvation 

It is strongly emphasized by the new theology, first of all, that God’s salvation which has appeared in Jesus Christ is of universal significance. Believers are concerned in this salvation in a particular way. But God’s salvation embraces much more than personal salvation. It concerns no less than the liberation of the whole world from the strangling grasp of sin. The atonement and reconciliation of Jesus Christ also has to do with the whole world. 

Now the above could be understood in a good sense. There certainly is a proper sense in which it may be said that salvation is universal. But this is not the idea of the new theology. The new theology emphasizes that this salvation which is of universal significance has reference to this present world and this present earth. God in Jesus Christ through His Spirit is busy renewing society on this earth and causing this world to correspond to the purpose which He has with it. Salvation, therefore, must not be sought “above.” It comes, indeed, from above, from God; but the New Jerusalem comes down upon the earth. When the Bible speaks of a “new earth,” then this earth is meant, which is renewed and becomes new under God’s hand. God’s salvation, therefore, is earthly salvation. His promises have reference to this world, and here below those promises will be realized. On the horizontal plane of our earthly reality God is busy making His salvation-history. 

In close connection with this notion of a universal salvation is the idea of on-going history. Indeed, all salvation that is realized here and now is still imperfect because of the remaining power of evil. But God’s liberation-work—the reconciliation-ministry of Jesus Christ—progresses. Jesus Christ is busy coming again. In world history sin shall be conquered. God’s continuing saving concern with this world will eventually triumph over all opposing forces. Finally, we will have in our midst the triumphant Savior, plainly visible here on earth; and that will be cause for great joy. In short, not in a world above this world, and not in a world after this world, but out there in our own world lies the full salvation for the taking. History is not characterized by a level course of development; but the history of God’s saving activities moves in the direction of the liberation, the reconciliation, the renewal of our world. 


Horizontalism emphasizes that the expectation of our faith properly concentrates entirely upon this earth and its future. As God’s allies, we are called in faith to devote ourselves unconditionally to the livability and inhabitability of this world. As administrators of the gospel of reconciliation, we will be active in social and industrial and political activities in which the rights of the poor and the oppressed are asserted and whereby liberty and brotherhood in the world are served. In such healing conduct on the horizontal plane of earthly reality the reconciliation-act of Jesus Christ should be worked out and verified by us. 

This is what is meant by a “consistent horizontalization of faith.” God’s work of salvation is directed horizontally toward the future of this earth. In this we with our human responsibility of faith are wholly concerned and involved. It comes down to this, that we go along with our God and Savior in the exciting adventure of faith, together on the road to heaven on earth. Too often the church defaults when it comes to this horizontal action. This is especially true with respect to political and industrial and social relationships, It can hardly be seen that the church goes along with our God and Savior in the ministry of His healing grace for human society. It is asserted that many of the younger generation see this clearly, and that their attitude is that “whoever is married to the church experiences the disappointment of his life.” And this same younger generation maintains that the non-Christian world is after all not so bad. 

The Anonymous Word of Promise 

The third element in this world-and-life view of the new theology is the very strange idea of what is called God’s anonymous word of promise. 

It is claimed that at the same time that the church preaches this gospel of this worldly salvation, she comes into contact with fragments of human reality which, in greater or smaller measure, already correspond to this salvation in the world outside of her influence. This, it is claimed, is the present day discovery: a kind of reality of salvation such as the church preaches is apparently called into being outside of and apart from the church. In this connection it should be stated that the new theologians proceed from the oneness of God’s grace and salvation. (In other words, there is no distinction between a saving and a non-saving, a special and a common grace of God.) They claim that they do not want to weaken the absoluteness of God’s revelation of salvation in Jesus Christ. On the contrary, they exactly want to point out how from out of the revelation of Christ the window is opened toward salvation for the whole world. In Jesus Christ have appeared the goodness and the love of humanity of our gracious God, bringing salvation for all men. And in that one salvation for the world is involved at the same time the phenomenon of true humanity outside of the church. 

It is in this connection that these new theologians refer to the ‘operation of what is called “the anonymous word of promise.” They claim not to deny the unique value of the preached gospel; but they point to the fact that the value of the preached gospel depends on the promising God. “I Am That I Am” is itself the promise for man and the world. And in the appearance of Jesus Christ God has once and for all proved Himself as such, II Corinthians 1:20. From thence also God’s created word of promise proceeds, born forth by His Spirit going out into the world for good, bringing salvation. In the church this powerful word of promise asserts itself with the name and surname of our promising God, who stands behind it. But also in the world which does not know His name this word of promise is operative, but it is anonymously operative. And also in this namelessness—with the sender unknown!—this mighty word of promise makes use of men, men in whom it arouses faith and expectation. It is through this that it comes about that men in the Spirit of Christ whom they do not consciously know offer a cup of cold water, devote themselves to the needs of others, go through the fire in behalf of the miserable and the oppressed, declare their solidarity with those who are deprived and discriminated against (Matthew 25:31-40). It is by this anonymous word of promise that these men of the world are also inspired to help in building the future world of righteousness and peace in which God’s salvation receives shape. 

Thus it is that the new theologians explain the true humanity, the beneficial, wholesome activities, and the active expectation which, they claim, can also be discovered in the world. With emphasis it is claimed that this active expectation that can be discovered in the world outside of the church must be understood as a response to the powerful, saving word of promise of God which goes forth into the world anonymously, that is, without God’s name attached to it. Not only in the preached gospel, but also in God’s anonymous promise Christ is presently operative with His Spirit and with the power of His resurrection. And thus it comes about that also men outside of the church are captivated by a new expectation of life and are also included in the advance of God’s salvation for mankind and the world. 

The Idea of a “Latent Kingdom” 

It follows, therefore, that all salvation that is realized through the service of men who are outside of the church here in this world must be recognized as the proper work of the same God Who through the gospel and under a plain name calls the world to His salvation. The same triune God and Savior Who through the means of the call and the action of the church is busy establishing the kingdom of His grace also asserts His gracious dominion without the church and outside of the church; and in the latter instance He does so incognito. The men concerned in this do not acknowledge Him. They miss the believing self-consciousness which makes the church church. Nevertheless they stand in a hidden relation to the salvation-bringing God. Without knowing it, they participate in His saving dominion. 

To denote this idea the term “latent kingdom” has been used by Dr. Kuitert. The term “latent” means “hidden,” in contrast with that which is manifest, or revealed. Hence, this expression of a “latent kingdom” means that the God of all salvation is also operative outside of the church in order to bring the world under the domination and rule of His message and mission of salvation. The emphasis in this connection is said to be not so much on the idea of individual and personal salvation. The idea is not so much to say that everyone, as a fruit of this anonymous promise, is involved in this latent kingdom is saved. It is true that everlasting salvation may not be excluded here. It is also true that in the order which we have, the order of the preaching, conscious personal union with Christ is necessary. Nevertheless, outside of the reach of the preached gospel, the anonymous can also take hold of men for good and cause them to participate in Christ’s reconciliation. But the emphasis is on the salvation which the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ brings into being in the world along the hidden ways of His anonymously operative promise of salvation and through the employment of non-church men. And the emphasis is upon seeing this salvation in unbreakable unity with the salvation that is worked out through the means of our preaching and our faith. And the new theology stresses that we must have an eye and a heart for this. Thus it is, too, that the new theology emphasizes that as church we must not live for the great future of the completed kingdom of God without the world, but in and with the world. 

Such, briefly, is the world-and-life view of the new theology. [I am indebted for the above description to Dr. F.L. Bos, of Vlaardingen as reported by Friesch Dagblad, April 20, 1972.

II. The New Theology and Old Error 

That all of the above is error I hardly have to argue. One cannot recognize the truth of our Reformed confessions in the above presentation. It is universalism of the rankest sort. It is post millennialism of the crassest kind. It embodies a denial of all of the precious truths of the gospel which Reformed believers have always held dear. One can only stand amazed at the fact that views such as those described can be promulgated in theGereformeerde Kerken, and that then those churches allow themselves to become involved in long and dilatory discussions with those who advance them. 

And that the presentation described above is olderror is also hardly in need of demonstration. There may, indeed, be some new facets. But anyone who is at all acquainted with the Social Christianity which came into vogue about the beginning of this century will recognize in the above presentation a close facsimile, if not an absolute identity. 

One may, of course, mention several influences which are factors in the development and rise of such a theology—if, indeed, it may be called a theology—in Reformed churches, particularly in what used to be the citadel of the Reformed faith, and specifically in what was supposed to be the bastion of Reformed learning, the Free University of Amsterdam. One may mention the influence of Barthianism, which has undoubtedly played a part. One may make mention of the influence of the entire critical school with respect to Holy Scripture, particularly of Rudolph Bultmann. One may mention the influence of the God-is-dead Theology, along with its new morality and its horizontalism. It would seem to me that anyone who is acquainted with the history of the Gereformeerde Kerken must needs see the development today in connection with the long term influence of the movement of “de jongeren” in Reformed churches. This movement arose shortly after World War I. Its emphasis was upon the need of something new and broader. It sought a broadening of the confessions. It clamored for escape from what they called the isolationist shell of Reformed churches. 

But the question is: how is the rise of this new theology fundamentally possible in the very citadel of the Reformed faith? How could these views ever arise? How could even the aforementioned influencesbe influential? How was this possible in the light of the fact that the new theology is so completely foreign, so diametrically opposite to the Reformed faith? 

To phrase the question differently, was there somewhere some fertile soil, doctrinally speaking, which could give rise to this new theology in Reformed circles and which could bring forth such corrupt fruit? 

My answer to this question is Yes. The fertile soil in which the seeds of the new theology could germinate, take root, spring forth, and blossom out is the Kuyperian theory of common grace. The so-called “new theology,” I am saying, is the logical development and outgrowth of the old error introduced into Reformed theology by Dr. Abraham Kuyper, Sr. I am not saying that this development took place necessarily in a conscious way. I am not asserting that men have consciously built upon and appealed to Dr. Kuyper’s common grace theory in rearing the structure of the new theology as described above. I have found no evidence, thus far, to make this claim. Twice in recent months I have seen journalistic references to common grace in connection with the views of the new theology. In fact, the very article by Dr. F.L. Bos to which I referred above speaks at length of Kuyper’s views in connection with the new theology. Besides, it is rather commonly recognized that a so-called neo-Kuyperian party m the Gereformeerde Kerken is responsible for and largely influential in the development of the new theology. Nevertheless, I have no specific grounds on which to base a claim that this development- is a conscious development from the philosophy of common grace. But if not consciously, then at least in a subconscious way the new theology has sprung forth out of the soil of the old error of common grace. That is, over a period of years, especially since the rise of the “de jongeren,” the tendency has been in the direction of the broad, modernistic, universalistic, post-millennialistic world-and-life view of the new theology, due to the fact that the common grace theory furnished the fertile soil for the growth of today’s complete denial of the antithesis. 

Parenthetically, let me explain—for those who think of the Three Points of 1924 in connection with common grace—that I am not now referring to the theory of a general, well-meant offer of salvation in the preaching of the gospel. This also is an error, and a serious one. Perhaps, because of the tide of Arminian evangelism that sweeps the churches in our day and because of the emphasis which the well-meant offer has received in connection with the controversy about the Three Points, we are inclined to think first of this when we hear the expression “common grace.” But this is not what I have in mind; neither did Dr. Kuyper teach the error of a well-meant offer of salvation. In fact, he rather strongly emphasized particular grace as far as salvation is concerned. But by the Kuyperian theory of common grace is meant a non-saving favor of God toward men in common, elect and reprobate alike, which is temporal and which pertains to the things of this present life. We shall come back to this later; but I want to emphasize that it is with this Kuyperian theory of common grace that the so-called new theology is connected. At the same time, I want to emphasize that I am increasingly of the conviction that this theory of common grace has proved to be a very dangerous and insidious and devastating error. I fear that we tend sometimes to forget this and to ignore this aspect of the whole subject of common grace, or at least to under-estimate its importance. Arminianism and the Arminian theory of general grace and the Arminian notion of a general, well-meant offer of salvation embodied in the First Point of 1924 is also a very serious error. There is no question about that; today one looks almost in vain for a Reformed view of the preaching of the gospel even in the Reformed community. But the common grace theory is also a very serious error, though its influence is felt in a different area than the influence of the general grace theory of a well-meant offer. The common grace theory makes its influence felt in the area of the world-and-life view of the Christian, and therefore in the area of sanctification and of our antithetical calling to be a separate people. The common grace theory serves as a bridge between the church and the world, with the result that the world and its evil influences is brought right into the church. The common grace theory serves to blur, and eventually to eradicate, the lines of demarcation between church and world, between light and darkness, between Christ and Belial. For this reason I want to emphasize—or re-emphasize, if you will—the importance of opposing the error of common grace and of holding to the truth that God’s grace is always particular. But this only in parentheses. 

Permit me briefly to point out the doctrinal connection and similarity between the common grace theory and the new theology. 

Dr. Kuyper’s theory, in brief, is as follows. In the fast place, Dr. Kuyper taught that with a view to eternity and the eternal blessedness of the kingdom of heaven, God is gracious only to the elect. But, in the second place, he taught that there is a restraining influence of common grace, operative ever since the fall of man, upon the physical and the ethical corruption of the world and upon the heart of man, so that the principle of total depravity cannot work through. In the third place, Dr. Kuyper taught that there is a positive influence of God’s common grace upon the mind and will of fallen man whereby he is so improved that he can still live a positively good world-life. By this positive influence of common grace, it is alleged, the development of the human race is made possible; but also a positively good world-life on the part of the fallen human race and in connection with all created things is guaranteed. In all the progress and civilization of mankind, in science, art, industry, commerce, as carried on by the world—in a word, in all the mighty works of the natural man, there is good. By virtue of common grace fallen man accomplishes many good things and performs many good works. Through the alleged covenant of common grace, fallen mankind even becomes the ally of God over against the devil. Thus, finally, the common grace theory holds that to an extent and for a time God’s original creation ordinance is carried out. 

It is very plain that the new theology, as described above, goes farther than the common grace theory. But it is also very plain that the new theology is simply a further development of the common grace theory of Dr. Kuyper. In a way, though it is totally wrong, certainly even more wrong than the theory of common grace, it is more consistent. 

Let us make a comparison, and thereby see the relation and the development. The new theology also denies that God’s grace is only particular, in the first place. It teaches that God’s grace is common, universal. The difference, however, between the new theology and the common grace theory lies in the fact that the former teaches that God’s grace is ONE. It no longer posits any difference between special grace and common grace, but holds that God’s grace is always saving, bringing salvation to the whole world. Parenthetically, I may remark that it is no wonder, then, that the new theology is also characterized by a denial of reprobation. In the second place, common grace is said to furnish only temporary relief and enlightenment for fallen mankind. It restrains sin temporarily; but ultimately common grace comes to an end and fails. The new theology goes farther, and is at least consistent in this respect also: for it holds that God’s grace brings, or is at least capable of bringing, salvation to the whole world, to all mankind, both within the church and outside of the church. This is plain in the description which I gave in the first part of this address. In the third place, common grace is said to make it possible to develop the potential given with creation to a certain degree, and that, too, only temporarily. Also the positive influence of common grace is limited, and ultimately fails. But the new theology stresses that through God’s one, universal grace, salvation is worked out in this world, also among those who are beyond the church and her preaching. At least in a certain measure that universal salvation is made a tangible reality here and now. The dream of a heaven and earth—not in the hereafter, but in the here-and-now—is the mirage of the new theology. 

What has been the motive power of this development? 

Via the bridge of common grace and in response, over a period of years, to the clamor of “de jongeren,” the church has more and more come out of her isolation. She has come into contact with the world. And today on a far greater scale than ever before she has come into contact with the non-Christian world. The result has not been that the church has influenced that world. On the contrary, as is always the case, the result has been that the world has influenced the church. That world, viewed through the spectacles of the common grace theory, has made a favorable impression on the church. That world and its evil influences has been brought into the church. More and more the church has discovered that she can cooperate with the world. And today the church—also in large measure the Reformed church—has “discovered” that she can cooperate with the non-Christian world toward the realization of salutary ideals for human society. And the new theology with its world-and-life view simply spells out this possibility for the church, and thereby gives it added impetus. 

The Old Theology Versus New Error 

The old theology stands fundamentally and diametrically opposed to this new error, even as it stands opposed to the error of the common grace theory. 

What do I mean by the “old theology?” 

It is not my purpose to outline for you the old theology in all its ramifications and details. That would be a complete course in Reformed dogmatics. 

But permit me briefly to emphasize the cardinal points of that old theology in this particular context. And then I would call attention to the following: 

1) God is God, and always He performs all His good pleasure. He proceeds directly to His goal, according to His counsel; and all things—also Satan and sin and the ungodly world—serve Him in the achievement of this goal. All things are moving toward their final consummation in the parousia of our Lord Jesus Christ, when the wicked world shall be destroyed, and when the new and everlasting kingdom of glory shall be ushered in—not post-millennially and in this present time, but through the wonder of grace and in the new creation. 

2) God’s grace, which is indeed one and always saving, is directed toward the organic whole of the church, in Christ as its Head, and in connection with the organic whole of all creatures of the entire cosmos. The ungodly reprobate are never the objects of this grace. 

3) Besides the operation of God’s drawing, saving, glorifying grace toward the elect kernel of created things, there is an operation of God’s rejecting, repelling wrath on the reprobate shell. 

4) All things of this present life are means which God uses—either in grace or in wrath—as means to fulfill His counsel. In so far as man uses those things of this present life, they constitute so many obligations whereby man is placed before the demand to thank and serve God with all his heart and mind and soul and strength. 

5) Sin develops in this world and in the course of history as rapidly as possible through an operation of God’s wrath upon the lusts of the flesh; there is no restraining and improving operation of the Holy Spirit on natural man apart from regeneration. 

6) The Christian does not separate himself physically and locally from the world. Neither is it the calling of the Christian to improve this world, which is impossible. It is his calling to be in the world, but not of the world. Positively, it is his calling to live from the principle of regeneration and according to the Word of God, and thus to represent the cause of the Son of God here in the world as being of the party of the living God. 

It is on this basis of the old theology—and I insist that Protestant Reformed theology is not something new, but is indeed the old, Reformed theology—I say that it is only on this basis of the old theology that you can successfully resist and oppose the new error. He who would reject the new theology, but fall back only to the position of the old error of common grace will fail. The theory of common grace brings the church right into the world; or rather, it brings the world into the church. Common grace has produced the new theology, and the latter is a development of and an improvement upon the former. It is only on the basis of the strict line of sovereign predestination and sovereign, particular grace and the absolute antithesis that the new theology can successfully be resisted. 

If I may apply all this personally for a moment to our three graduates at this, my last opportunity to instruct them and to warn them, then I would emphasize their calling to stand in the truth, and from that stance in the truth to do battle in all their preaching and teaching and exhortation against the increasing error and the growing apostasy of our day. 

Does that mean that as future Protestant Reformed ministers of the gospel you must fight the battle of 1924? By all means! Should you fail to do that, you would be unfaithful! 

But does that mean that you must fight that battle as though you live in 1924, or in the immediate post-1924 era? That is neither possible, nor necessary! We do not live in 1924. You graduates stand two generations removed from 1924. You have not experienced it. Even I myself belong to the post-1924 generation, though in the nature of the case I stand much closer to that struggle than do you. But we live in 1972, and we must tight the battle as living in 1972. And remember, there has been development—both on the side of the truth and on the side of the lie. 

In order to fight that battle in 1972 you must have understanding of the times. You must understand the times theologically; and you must understand the times practically. And in order to understand the times, you must understand history, specifically our own history. You must understand the history of doctrine and the development of the truth. You must understand the history and the roots of the lie. You must understand new theology and new error in the light of and in connection with old error and old theology. 

And therefore, my concluding word to you at this occasion of your graduation is: Remember the rock whence you have been hewn y also the rock whence you have been hewn ecclesiastically and theologically. And exercise yourselves in the old theology, in order that you may be well-equipped to fight the new error and to lead the church in the old, but ever new and glorious, paths of the truth.