(I want to acknowledge and express public appreciation to Mr. Thomas Miersma for his thoughts and expertise on this subject. Tom, who is a senior in our seminary, has worked for Baker Book House and is currently serving on the Permanent Committee for the Publication of Protestant Reformed Literature.)
It is good that we set the proper perspective for such an article.
It is the Almighty and Holy God Who maintains and defends the truth. He gave the truth to His people in the Scriptures (“Thy Word is truth” John 17:17) and in Jesus Christ (“I am . . . the truth” John 14:6). It is God Who defends and preserves the truth in all of its purity from the beginning to the end of time. And it is our Lord Jesus Christ Who, as the King and Head of His Church, gathers, defends, and preserves unto Himself a Church.
Therefore, we must not think that our efforts, programs, committees, funds, and literature accomplish this work. The work is the Lord’s. He only can and will gather His Church and maintain His truth.
But God is pleased to use instruments. The Church is set up by God to maintain and defend the Truth (I Timothy 3:15). Also He has given to the Church officebearers in order to equip the saints for the work of the ministry, with a view to the edifying of the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:12). And God has commanded each of His children to know the truth and to give witness to that truth. We are called to be busy in this work, expending the very best of our efforts and using all the means available to us. One of these means is the printed page. In this article we have been asked to consider the relationship which exists between missions and the publications of our churches and of the R.F.P.A. To help us we will also consider what the function is of printed material on the mission field.
What is the function and purpose of literature in mission work?
In general, the purpose is either to introduce the reader to the knowledge of the truth of God’s Word or to encourage and assist in a growth and development of the knowledge of that truth. Besides this, our literature specifically serves the purpose of making contact with the reader and introduces him to our churches. This introduction and contact we desire because, with the bestowal of the truth, God gives the awesome responsibility of dispensing and upholding it.
In the first place, pamphlets and books serve as a means of making an initial contact. God opens the door for us to speak to someone of the truth when He puts them in our pathway. As an initial contact the opportunities to speak of spiritual things are limited, and so a piece of literature serves well. The person may not be looking for anything in particular, but here is an opportunity for contact on a spiritual level. Our concern at this point of the relationship is to get to know that person, to develop an interest in their spiritual well-being, and to develop in them an interest for the truth. We desire to lead this one to a fuller knowledge of the truth, as God has given that to us. In this initial contact we want to stimulate their interest in the truth and hopefully and prayerfully to develop the contact into an opportunity to meet again and to speak about things more fully and in depth. The purpose of a tract, pamphlet, or book is to extend the contact so the person goes home with something which will draw his attention to the truth and to the Scriptures, first of all, but secondly which will also draw his attention to us. Literature which deals with current issues or with matters which are always relevant (e.g., the home and family) is suitable for this.
Secondly, the function of literature is to instruct more fully on a specific aspect of the truth. Having a relationship established with someone on a spiritual level, you want to lead him to develop in a particular area of his knowledge of the truth. You have talked with him and have a good idea of what he believes and where the door seems open for help and instruction. This person may have shown some interest, and while he is firm in certain points and unwilling at the time to listen seriously and discuss those points, nevertheless he is willing to listen and receive instruction on another point. The purpose of the contact is to build on the truth that he holds and develop it. Because the truth of God is one organic whole, development in one area will undermine that which is erroneous in another area. In this contact, literature serves to supplement what you have said.
In light of the functions listed above, it is evident that literature is but the means to establish or to continue personal contact and spiritual conversation. Literature leads to and complements personal contact and witness. As individuals we must always be conscious of this opportunity and responsibility and not hesitate to give witness to the truth we love.
Let us now consider what function our magazine, books, and pamphlets are performing in the area of mission work.
We speak generally first of all. Our books and magazines have been instrumental in bringing a number of people to our churches, as well as opening some doors for mission labor. However, there is an effectiveness of our printed material which is equally important and much broader than bringing people into the Protestant Reformed Churches. Our literature has received positive blessing from the Lord in touching and enriching the spiritual lives of people of God all over the world. For one reason or another the majority of these do not contact or join our churches, but the truth is being furthered, advanced, and preserved without our being aware of it. We must become more conscious of this effect of literature. In other words, the effectiveness of our literature in particular and of religious literature in general cannot and MUST NOT be evaluated in terms of mere statistical results. (Insofar as that kind of thinking enters into any aspect of our literature publication and mission work, it is destructive! We have only the calling to preach and to give witness to the truth, and we must leave the increase to the Lord.) The God of all providences uses mysterious (to us only) ways to spread literature all over the world. The sovereign and electing God puts it into the hands of His people. The blessed God uses it to enrich souls and to develop them in the truth. The convicting God can use it to point out sins and lies. Pray to this God that He will continue to use and bless what we have feebly produced.
More specifically now, let us consider the books and pamphlets listed in the R.F.P.A. catalogue. One must say that, although these pieces of literature are all good as far as their content is concerned, and are useful in many ways, they are not designed to any great extent for mission work. There are some reasons for this.
Many of the books and pamphlets are directed to Protestant Reformed people. This is evident from the fact that many are but printed copies of lectures directed to Protestant Reformed people. These are very good and useful in instructing our people in the truth of God’s Word, but they are not intended for mission work and therefore have limited value.
This is equally true of the pamphlets which were written for our mission work of years ago. They were directed to people who were of the denomination out of which the Protestant Reformed denomination came. The nature of our mission work is changing as we find ourselves working more and more with non-Dutch people and with those who are not of the same Reformed background and heritage. Consider some of our current fields: Singapore; Jamaica; Lansing, Michigan; and Birmingham, Alabama.
Closely related are those pamphlets which are current, but are directed at issues which are alive among Reformed churches. Their value is great, but it diminishes when they are considered in light of most of our current mission work.
Another reason why it is said that our current list of literature is not designed to a great extent for present mission work is that today doctrinal knowledge is slim. The exceptions are trained officebearers and an occasional layman. A greater number may be acquainted with some theological terms and expressions, but they have little or no idea what they mean. Besides this, each group of churches tends to have its own peculiar theological expressions. The phrase “the counsel of God” conveys much significance to some, but to others little or nothing. Our pamphlets and books have many of these similar expressions. This makes them different to understand if these terms, phrases, and concepts are not simply and clearly explained, and their meaning and significance is assumed, the literature loses its value when used outside the sphere of our denomination.
Again, let me say, that this does not decrease the overall value of these publications. They are of great worth within our churches and with those already close theologically. All that is being said now is that this decreases their value on the mission field.
Considering the book publication of the R.F.P.A. we find that we can loosely categorize them into three groups: theological, expositional, and historical. The last group is of highest interest for the ‘Protestant Reformed Churches and for those interested in the history of the Protestant Reformed Churches. These have little value for mission work except for historical information. Those books of a theological nature are very useful in spreading the truth and have been means by which an initial mission contact is created. Initially they draw only the theologically- minded. On the mission field they can be used for the purpose of introduction. Those books of an expositional nature are of the most value in missions. Generally in the South there is good interest in preaching, and these works are welcomed. The value of expositional books is enhanced if the terminology is not prohibitive as mentioned above.
Generally speaking, the same holds true for theStandard Bearer. Many articles are written specifically to the people of our own denomination. The meditations, Biblical history, and issue-oriented rubrics are of value on the mission field. The value of this periodical increases as a relationship is established in the field.
Permit me to make some observations as to the make-up of a piece of literature which would be directly useful on a mission field.
The most useful pamphlet for any mission field would be the one that is directed to a general audience. We have a booklet on the Five Points of Calvinism that is the printed copy of lectures given to a Protestant Reformed audience. We need another publication on the same subject for a general audience which is without a Reformed background or even without a church background. This is true for a variety of subjects. We are not to assume that literature on a specific subject will cover all people. For example, reference from the Three Forms of Unity, our creeds, are good, necessary, and understandable to those who are of the Reformed heritage. However, such references have little meaning for those outside of that heritage.
Also, a good pamphlet must be clear and simple in its language and use of terms. It must be understandable to people who have but little doctrinal knowledge or whose terminology differs from ours. We need more publications which can communicate readily to those who are not theologically knowledgeable. Such pieces of literature will have to engage in educating the reader. That is one of the functions of literature on the mission field.
Also, a publication for a general audience should present itself in a proper tone. That tone must not be violent or vehement; nor must it be wishy-washy; it must be firm and clear. Preaching must be antithetical and so must our literature. However, there is a difference between treating the non-Calvinistic reader as a Baa1 prophet or as an erring sheep or as a possible elect who is yet unconverted. It is not a good idea to beat someone over the head with a theological club when you first meet him. There is a proper place for tact, especially when directed to a general audience. The average pewsitter, though wrong and sinning in his error, needs gentle leading and correction because he does not have either the knowledge or understanding. The presentation of the truth must be firm, but a firmness mixed with patience and compassion.
Closely related is the method of the presentation of the truth. I refer now to the presentation of the negative refutation of the error along with the setting forth of the truth positively. Most common in our publications is the refutation of the error before the presentation of the truth. This can be a good method where the audience already believes the truth. On the mission field it is much better to follow the method of the Canons of Dordt, i.e., first proclaim and develop the truth, and then bring in the error and refute it in light of the truth. Thus the emphasis is in the presentation and explanation of the truth rather than on the rejection of the lie. The rejection is absolutely necessary, but should not receive the emphasis in the presentation of the truth to a general audience.
A useful publication must be Scriptural. This is especially necessary with a general audience. The presentation of the truth must be well supported with Scripture quotations and references. When Scripture is used in the right manner it will speak loudly and clearly and with the authority of the Word of God. Then the reader will be driven to his Bible to study it. Then in the mind of the reader God is the One Who sets forth the truth and Who contradicts his error. In this connection, sometimes mere quotations are not sufficient and some exposition is required. The meaning of a particular passage may be clear to one group of believers because of previous interpretation, but may not be so understood by others.
Some observations of needs with regard to literature and missions.
Along with and besides pamphlets there is the need for tracts—a leaflet of four pages, which would present one aspect of the truth. Years ago the Mission Committee began a series of tracts entitled, “Do You Know.” A pamphlet has its place, but something which could be read in five or ten minutes would be a better tool for mission work. Their purpose is not to give a complete exposition of a truth, but to present it in such a way that it arouses further interest and contact.
As a missionary who is seeking to use the publications available, I have found the need for some organization of our literature, especially the pamphlets. The R.F.P.A. has attempted to do so with a list of pamphlets in their catalogue, but for the most part this list consists only of those pamphlets published by the Sunday School of First Church in Grand Rapids. However, many of our congregations have in the past and are continuing the printing of materials: Hope, Kalamazoo, Loveland, South Holland, and the Reformed Witness Committee in Northwest Iowa, to name only some. These varied sources of literature are good and as it should be. I am not asking for a denominational super-structure which does all the publication and distribution. Rather, there is the need for the gathering of all the materials produced so that a complete listing of all materials is made available. Then all could benefit from each other. On a regular basis someone or some organization should glean the work of each congregation and pastor for the benefit of the broader group.
In conclusion, literature can and should play a supportive role in mission work, but not in mission work alone. We all should be ready to use various pieces of literature as means to create interest in the truth of God’s Word.
The list of current publications by the R.F.P.A. is a substantial list. However, we should be ever conscious of the need to produce new materials. This is necessary as the object of our mission work changes and it is necessary in our ever-changing world. We are thankful to the Lord for the literature available. We thank Him for the positive blessings He has given to it in the area of missions. Pray that the Lord will continue to use them for the furtherance and defense of His Truth and Church.