Previous article in this series: April 15, 2010, p. 316.
As stated in last issue, we intend to reflect on an analysis Robert P. Swierenga gave of the apostasy that took hold of the CRC the last half of the twentieth century, an apostasy that has resulted in members leaving by the tens of thousands and the denomination itself moving in the direction of cutting herself loose from the moorings of the great creeds of the Reformed and Christian faith entirely.
What is presently afoot in the CRC, a move to free its officebearers from the Formula of Subscription by removing its binding power (which consists of a vow made before God and His church to promote the truths formulated in our confessions as being thoroughly scriptural and not to militate against the same), began already in the last part of the previous century. As Swierenga points out, already in the mid-70s clergymen in the CRC such as Clarence Boomsma were lamenting
…a “loss of vigor and devotion in the defense and appreciation of the distinctively Reformed tenets of our faith.” Direct rejections of the doctrines of election and reprobation went virtually unchallenged by church theologians. At best, the theologians felt confined by their vows of office not to engage in speculative work; at worst, theology and creedal standards no longer mattered. Secularism [!] had taken its toll on the church. Even the Form of Subscription that bound all officebearers was under attack. In 1975 [Banner] editor Kuyvenhoven called the Form “an ecclesiastical yoke [!] by which orthodoxy is to be maintained.”
Swierenga rightly discerns that Kuyvenhoven used the word “yoke” with a pejorative connotation, indicating that the creeds were not a matter of conviction with many a CRC preacher anymore, but were viewed as restricting preachers’ freedom to exegete the Scriptures according to their own wonderful unfettered insights.
And one of those insights by the late 1990s was, as pointed out in last issue, that a homosexual relationship, as long as it was a monogamous one (which amounts to living with only onepartner at a time), could also be considered to meet the biblical criteria of faithfulness in marriage, and hence should have the approval of the Lord and His church.
As we know, the broader assemblies of the CRC are presently in the process of validating that fine specimen of exegesis as being in harmony with the apostolic word.
And all this stated in utmost seriousness, with piety oozing from every pore.
And in the name of the great Bridegroom of the church, mind you.
We ask, when it comes to God’s Word, what honesty is there left?
So the question, where did this great apostasy all begin?
As noted in last issue, Swierenga is of the mind that its seeds were planted back in the mid-1940s, an aftermath of the Second World War—soldier boys and army chaplains coming home with a broader affinity for the world-out-there, and tens of thousands of immigrants arriving from the old country already infected with new theological ideas lifted from the apostatizing GKN (the denomination closely associated with the name of Dr. Abraham Kuyper).
We are convinced that Swierenga, for all his insights, does not go back far enough. The seeds of which he speaks were planted not in the 1940s, but in the 1920s, when the CRC went on record as adopting and approving of a certain theory of common grace. And once those seeds were planted, and those committed to opposing the error were expelled, the die was cast for the bitter harvest that has followed, that list of errors that Swierenga so accurately records.
Keep in mind that when it comes to apostasy (not only as affecting the CRC but all those Presbyterian and Reformed churches that succumbed to it in the twentieth century) the question is not simply this: What is it that has brought the winds of false doctrine that sweep through a particular denomination, bringing it to its ruin? But the question is, what is it that makes the membership itself so susceptible and open to this change and such fertile ground for the grievous and rotten harvest that follows?
After all, when it comes to apostasy, it is not simply that so many are busy teaching false things (as if that alone explains it), but that so many members prove willing to listen to and then adopt these unbiblical views as their own in the end. The pew, a church’s membership, also bears accountability. The pulpit may be used to scatter bad seed, but, let’s not forget, for there to be evil fruit that goes from bad to worse, the soil of the membership has to be receptive.
Swierenga’s account demonstrates that for the CRC those years of receptivity to fundamental errors and accommodation proved to be the years following WWII.
But what accounts for that susceptibility and receptivity?
We contend, decisions taken in 1924, namely, the three points of common grace adopted in Kalamazoo.
Common grace was a virus let loose in the body of the CRC that slowly destroyed her immunity to the even deadlier diseases that inevitably followed.
This is not so hard to demonstrate.
One can go down Swierenga’s list of the controversies and errors that troubled the CRC over the past half century and demonstrate that common grace has been the gate through which they have, one and all, passed.
From the outset we want to be clear about what notion it is we object to. Contrary to what is alleged, the PRC do not deny that the Lord is a generous distributor of good things and in so doing does good to all. We sing it in our Psalter (#394) and it is thoroughly biblical. The bounties and virile health Esau received in this life were good things. God did good to him. And so it is with every gifted reprobate who has ever lived, especially those raised in a believing family.
If by common grace all one had in mind, as many an old-time Reformed theologian did, was that earthly blessings common to all, namely, the good things of life, constitute proof that God is a God of goodness and abundance, that would be one thing—though even then to equate “good things” with “grace” always carries its own dangers. The impression is left that there is a species of grace for sinners to be found outside the cross and Christ, and that is not a true and biblical thing.
The phrase itself is suspect.
But the common grace set forth in the infamous Three Points, which version is espoused by nearly every denomination today, goes far beyond that.
The version adopted by the CRC of 1924 was nothing less than an expression of God’s favor to (and a love for) every living person. It posits a grace, mind you, that comes to expression in the Holy Spirit Himself operating within every human being, be it in a non-saving way. Yes, the Holy Spirit is posited as being graciously active in carnal man, that is, as working graciously apart from Christ and His cross.
That is quite a notion. It carries a freight of deadly implications. And once it has gathered momentum in a church, it is all but impossible to stop.
History, we say, has demonstrated that this is the doctrine that lies behind the susceptibility of the CRC to what occurred from the 1950s onward.
On the one hand, common grace was the lever used by virtually every CRC teacher of falsehood to introduce his anti-confessional doctrine into the church, and then to justify his doing so.
Why was this?
Because, though the ‘new’ doctrines being introduced might first have seemed to be contrary to the confessions (and in fact were), they were, one and all, compatible with the doctrine of common grace adopted in 1924.
And then who could deny, in the name of wonderful paradox (every false doctrine’s best friend), that these doctrines were also essentially Reformed!
As anyone knows who is at all familiar with the history of the infamous Dekker case that embroiled the CRC in the 1960s, one that revolved about preaching a Universal rather than Limited (and effectual) Atonement, Prof. Dekker’s ultimate appeal to justify his contention that “God So Loved All Men” was to common grace.
It was his Ace of Spades, if you will. “There, you critics, trump that!”
We use the figure purposely. Common grace, after all, was the doctrine the CRC used to justify dancing, attendance at movies, and card playing in years following 1924.
Say what you will about liberals, they know when to play their cards.
To his critics within the CRC who objected that to declare that God loved all men was contrary to the confessions and the doctrine of Limited Atonement, Dekker’s response was essentially—”So it mayappear. But it is in complete accord with what we as denomination adopted in 1924. There we went on record approving of a grace of God to all mankind.”
What especially was not lost to Dekker (nor to his colleagues) was that the First Point of Common Grace referred not only to God’s distribution of good things, but as well to the preaching of the gospel as an expression of God’s grace expressed to all men. And since the gospel is the declaration of God’s love for sinners, it is a small step in the name of common grace to insist that the cross itself must be an expression of a love God has in Christ for all men in common.
Dekker rightly insisted that what he was maintaining (and what was being taught in Calvin Seminary) was nothing else than the logical conclusion of what had been adopted in 1924. No less a defender of orthodoxy and critic of Dekker’s error than R.B. Kuiper had to acknowledge that there was some truth to what Dekker claimed.
In the May-June 1964 issue ofTorch and Trumpet Kuiper wrote:
Dekker has contended right along that God loves all men. A few of his critics to the contrary, Dekker is on solid Scriptural ground…. [T] he universal love of God is unmistakably taught in such a passage, among others, as
[which speaks of God making His sun to shine on the evil and the good—KK] (quoted in the SB, vol. 40, p. 412).
What is significant is that Matthew 5:43-45 is a text the Synod of 1924 quoted as proof for the First Point.
Kuiper went on to attempt to distinguish his view from Dekker’s by arguing the need to discern some qualitative difference between a particular love and a common love found in God. It was an exercise in futility. For all intents and purposes, he and the conservatives had lost the argument, routed from the field by the lance of common grace.
The same argument was consistently used by those in the CRC who over the years challenged Scripture’s historical accuracy in account after account, beginning with the opening chapters of Genesis.
It came to light in the pre-1924 years already, in the Janssen case. Dr. Janssen, trained in the Universities of Europe, home of Higher Criticism and shot through with Evolution, called into question (denied) the accuracy of various scriptural accounts, and in particular the miracles. He suggested ‘scientific’ (naturalistic) explanations for them one and all. By inference he called into question the biblical creation account itself.
How does a man like Janssen, who claimed to be a believer, justify adopting the theories of unbelieving scholars (and scientists) even when they contradict the scriptural accounts? On the basis of common grace, of course. Unbelieving scientists also have the Holy Spirit, and so may have deeper insights into things than those who originally recorded these very matters under the influence of the Spirit. The Spirit graciously gives deeper insight to unbelievers into sacred events and creation’s origins than to mere believers relying simply on God’s Word.
This was Jansen’s justification for his challenging various scriptural accounts, and it would become the appeal of others within the CRC as well who, on the basis of the findings of unbelieving scholars, would criticize various accounts of Scripture, and the historicity ofGenesis 1-11 in particular.
True, Dr. Jansen was condemned. His was the misfortune of being born on the wrong side of the decisions of 1924. By the time Howard VanTil arrived on the scene with his far bolder denial of everything found in Genesis 1-11, the recognition of the deep insights into nature and the origins of the world that the “Holy Spirit of common grace” gave to creation-denying scientists was well established in the new generation of the CRC.
VanTil’s position and credentials remained intact. Common grace had prepared the way for the acceptance of this skeptic of the Scriptures with his unbiblical teachings, something unthinkable fifty years prior.
But common grace does more than open the way for direct assault on biblical doctrines, it is also an assault upon the life of the antithesis. And this for the CRC proved to be their beloved doctrine’s deadliest side of all.
In the quotation found at the beginning of this article, Swierenga makes the astute observation that by the 1970ssecularism had taken its toll on the denomination. Secularism threatens every church and Christian today. But why by the 1970s had it made such deep inroads into the membership of the CRC?
The answer: the common grace perspective had been adopted by its membership. And that PERSPECTIVE (whichperspective even those of us who claim in theory to oppose common grace may have) destroys the antithesis, which is to say, spiritual separation from the worldï¿½a saying No! to the world’s lifestyle, entertainment, and goals.
Common grace, as has been said, is the bridge between Athens and Jerusalem, the world and the church. Common grace is what members of the CRC, and its youth in particular, used to justify as valid entertainment for Christians what the world is busy producing for its own carnal satisfaction.
The cat was out of the bag when not only the Chimes, the student newspaper of Calvin College, but the Banner itself began printing movie reviews, in time recommending even the most sordid and profane to its membership.
On what basis? On the contention that the Holy Spirit Himself is working graciously to some degree in all men.
Imply what? In even the most immoral of films (and culture) things of ‘redemptive value’ can be found. One just has to have the discerning eye to find it. (As if that’s why teenagers go to movies.)
Regardless, common grace provided the justification for being entertained by sin, things that the apostles themselves in Rome’s and Greece’s corrupt culture could not reprobate strongly enough.
An honest review of what has happened in and to the CRC over the last century leads to one conclusion: in the name of common grace, one can justify just about anything. And, sad to say, the intellectuals and spokesmen of the CRC for the last 60 years have done just that.
As the editors of this magazine have stated since its first installments back in 1924—Beginselen werken door!
For clarity’s sake, we add this in conclusion.
Let it be understood that by our remarks we are not alleging that no one in the CRC has been committed to living the antithesis for the past century. The good brother who pointed me to Swierenga’s article certainly did even prior to his leaving the CRC, requiring it of his family as well. He was not alone. BUT membership in a denomination means you and your spouse are not the only ones who instruct your children. What comes from the pulpit and is taught in catechism and in one’s schools also has a profound effect upon a child’s perspective. And where the evil of common grace permeates, the truth of the antithesis is sure to suffer.
What is at stake, as history has proved, is nothing less than holiness, the truly Christian life.
And what is a truer witness to the power of real grace than that?