In the February 15 issue I suggested that the Reformed Churches of New Zealand might soon be confronted by the same issues which they refused to face forthrightly at their last Synod. And I also promised to produce evidence of this.
The reader will probably recall that the Theological College at Geelong, Australia, while not an ecclesiastically controlled school, is nevertheless supported in part by the Reformed Churches of New Zealand as well as the Reformed Churches in Australia. It is also this Theological College which serves as the training school for future ministers in these denominations. It was at this College that Dr. K. Runia, whose doctrinal views came under attack in New Zealand, taught. Dr. Runia, as we informed you, has now gone to the Theological School of theGereformeerde Kerken in the Netherlands at Kampen. And he went, as we have seen, with a clean bill of health as far as the New Zealand churches were concerned. The Theological College at Geelong, however, also lost another professor, Dr. G. van Groningen, who has returned to the Christian Reformed Church in this country, and who is now, I understand, at Dordt College. The replacement for Dr. van Groningen as Old Testament professor is Dr. Sierd Woudstra, also of the Christian Reformed Church and most recently connected with Calvin Seminary.
It is in connection with some expressed views of Dr. Woudstra that I wrote in my February 15 editorial that the Reformed Churches of New Zealand would soon be confronted by the same issues on which they refused to exercise doctrinal discipline, as requested, at their 1971 Synod. In fact, this article will serve to call these matters to the attention of our New Zealand readers and to bring these items to the attention of at least some in the churches there. I do not know what the reaction may be. Judging in the light of past performance, I do not expect much. But this I do know, in the first place: the Reformed Churches of New Zealand will now be put to the test as far as the genuineness of some of their decisions of a positive nature is concerned. For I will show that Dr. Woudstra’s expressed views and those of the Synod are not in harmony. And this I know, too, in the second place: here we have an illustration of the fact that it simply will not do for a church to refuse to face issues and to maintain doctrinal discipline. Issues just do not go away when one refuses to face them. In fact, they have a way of returning to confront and to plague those who try to avoid them and who attempt to compromise and gloss things over. And this can, of course, prove to be embarrassing: for how can one condemn in one person what he refuses to condemn in another person? Or there is another possibility, which only too often proves to be reality: once a church has refused to exercise doctrinal discipline, it rapidly becomes easier to follow the path of least resistance, the path of temptation, and to let down the bars again and again.
The latter is a lesson for any communion of churches, including our Protestant Reformed Churches. It requires constant watchfulness to keep out the lie and teachers of heresy!
But what is the evidence in this case?
Through the courtesy of one of our readers who has been following our writings on the New Zealand matters and who also knew that Dr. S. Woudstra was scheduled to depart in February for Geelong, I received a complete cassette recording of a sermon on Ecclesiastes 7:16, 17 which was preached by Dr. Woudstra on December 26, 1971 at the Christian Reformed Church of Borculo, Michigan. This reader was immediately aware, upon having heard this sermon, that Dr. Woudstra had made various statements in the course of this sermon which ought to be of concern in New Zealand, and, I may add, in Australia also.
Now it is not my purpose to criticize the entire sermon, although, frankly, I am of the opinion there is much to be criticized. But I am interested only in the matters of direct concern in the case we have been discussing. Nevertheless, I took the trouble, for the sake of accuracy, to transcribe the entire sermon and then to have the typewritten copy compared by others with the recording and checked for accuracy.
The text referred to reads as follows in the King James Version: “Be not righteous over much; neither make thyself over wise: why shouldest thou destroy thyself? Be not over much wicked, neither be thou foolish: why shouldest thou die before thy time?”
The announced theme of the sermon was: “Don’t overdo your righteousness; don’t overdo your wickedness.” To this was added: “Perhaps I may also put it this way: don’t be too conservative; don’t be too liberal.”
How the latter is derived from this text is a puzzle to me. But perhaps it was this not-too-conservative, not-too-liberal thought which led the preacher to make the following amazing application:
And another example. It’s also a very practical example. And I think especially at the moment it’s very pertinent in the Christian Reformed Church, too. As a church, of course, we have to hold on to the truth of God’s Word. We have to be faithful to God’s Word, to what God’s Word says. But also in this respect one can be too righteous. One can make himself too wise. And you know when this happens? This happens when the church does not leave enough room for people who think just a little bit different than, let’s say, you and I or someone else does.
And you know, in the Christian Reformed Church too, we do face problems. Doctrinal questions, too. But in all candor, I would ask you this question: do you really know what the correct interpretation of the first eleven chapters of Genesis is? I don’t. Do you really know the greatness of the love of God? Oh, we may argue about this for years. But do we really know the answer? And again, we must admit we don’t. Do we really know precisely what it means that the Word of God is infallible? It is infallible. But do we really know precisely what it means? No, we don’t. Don’t let’s make ourselves too righteous, as if we know it all, and exclude everyone else.
There you have it!
The reference in the above quotation is, of course, to three issues in the Christian Reformed Church in recent years: the infallibility question, at issue some ten years ago and still at stake in “Report 36”; the interpretation of the first part of Genesis (also at stake in “Report 36”); and the question of the love of God and the atonement (at bottom, by the way, a question of election and reprobation), at issue in the now almost forgotten Dekker Case.
Now apart from anything else, one is compelled, it would seem, to face this question: what is Dr. Woudstra as a professor in Old Testament going to teach the students at Geelong? Is he going to teach them that the Bible is infallible, but that we don’t know what this means? Is he going to teach them that we really don’t know the correct interpretation of Genesis 1-11? Is he going to teach them that we really don’t know whether and how God loves all men, and whether Christ died also for the reprobate?
In the light of his own admission of ignorance on these subjects, it would seem to follow that this is what he will be compelled to teach his students also. In other words, he is going to teach themnothing. Or worse, he is going to teach them todoubt, to leave these matters an open question, to be doctrinal imprecise and vague! All this, I presume, though he will subscribe to the “system of doctrine” of the Reformed confessions, as required at Geelong!
Complicating the problem is the fact that although they refused to exercise doctrinal discipline in connection with the objections to Dr. Runia’s teachings, the Synod of the Reformed Churches of New Zealand passed a motion which, on the surface at least, appears to be rather precise. It reads as follows, Article 43:
It was moved, seconded and adopted that:
“The Reformed Churches of New Zealand hereby unanimously reaffirm, IN SPITE OF CERTAIN ALLEGATIONS, that they maintain the Doctrine of The Infallible Scripture as summarized in the Confessional Standards. This includes:
a. That we maintain the historicity of the details AS THEY ARE RECORDED IN
e.g. Creation, Adam and Eve as the first created man and woman, the Fall through disobedience, and the subsequent Promise of Divine Redemption in Christ.
b. Furthermore we maintain that the WHOLE TEACHING of the Canons of Dordt (including Divine Election and Reprobation) IS in complete agreement with the Infallible Word of God.
Consequently we require ANYONE who speaks or writes, teaches, preaches, or counsels on behalf of these Churches to do so in accordance with this statement.”
Now it must be remembered that the above statement is not entirely true. For the fact of the matter is that they did not require of Dr. Runia to teach in their behalf in accordance with this statement. In fact, they refused to require it of him.
Well, now they face the same issue with respect to Dr. Woudstra. Though he is not under the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the New Zealand churches, nevertheless at Geelong he will be teaching “on behalf of these Churches.” He says: I don’t know what it means that Scripture is infallible. They say: we “maintain the Doctrine of The Infallible Scripture as summarized in the Confessional Standards.” He says: I don’t know what Genesis 1-11means. They say: “That we maintain the historicity of the details AS THEY ARE RECORDED IN GENESIS 1-3. . . .” He says: I don’t know the greatness of the love of God; we may argue about this for years. They say: “. . . .we maintain that the WHOLE TEACHING of the Canons of Dordt (including Divine Election and Reprobation) IS in complete agreement with the Infallible Word of God.”
But there is more that bears investigating. For later in the same sermon Dr. Woudstra deals with the very same matter about which I first criticized Dr. Runia a couple years ago and before I had any contact with the brethren in New Zealand. I refer to Runia’s denial of the unchangeability of God. In the course of his sermon Dr. Woudstra said the following:
The very fact that God’s will must be done does not mean, therefore, that we may not wrestle in prayer as if, if it were possible, to change the mind of God. It has happened before that God. changed His mind. You read the Old Testament: God changing His mind. The Old Testament says, of course, that God repented; and then He did the other thing. Well, it simply means that God changed His mind. We may not dictate to God; but at the same time we must keep in holding on in prayer, trying to change the mind of God. And who knows what human beings may yet accomplish? (Here follows a personal example which I shall omit. And then the same line of thought is continued. HCH) We must not pray as if not expecting anything because God has decreed everything from eternity. Then you are working with a static concept of God. Perhaps it has been somewhat current in Reformed Theology, but I’m glad we’re drifting away from it. We’re not dealing with a static God. We’re dealing with a God Who is willing to listen if only we continue in prayer, in much prayer. That’s the kind of God we have. And who knows what this God may do if only we hold on long enough? So, don’t be too righteous; but don’t give up either. Keep on with God. And if you don’t, well, then, you are too wicked; and you must not be that either.
Shades of Dr. Runia’s big words about a “static ontological theology!” Shades of his denial of God’s unchangeability!
What will the Reformed Churches of New Zealand now do?
I sincerely wish—although I do not expect—that they would now face up to the issues, and that they would also re-open the case of last year’s Appeal, try to undo their failures of Synod-1971, and do justice to the brethren who tried to lead them in the right way.
And if the Reformed Churches fail in this, I hope nevertheless that the eyes of many among them will be opened!