(Editor’s Note. Because of an abundance of material for this issue, some of which should not be delayed, we give our editorial space to this transcript of Prof. Hanko’s address to the annual meeting of the Reformed Free Publishing Association. In this guest editorial my colleague states some things, I believe, which need saying and from which our readers may well benefit. HCH)
In the past two decades, there has been some shift in emphasis in our churches. Our calling has been, in some respects, significantly altered because the Lord is calling us to new fields of labor. For many years, as Protestant Reformed Churches, we spent a great deal of time consolidating our position, developing the truth which God had given to us, and combating heresy even as it arose in our own circles. Insofar as we paid attention to churches outside our own sphere, we paid special attention to the Christian Reformed Church, our mother denomination, and spent much of our time and energy in pointing that church to her errors and calling to the faithful to leave her and come with us.
This has been changing in recent years. The change came about, first of all, with the calling to work in Jamaica. Since that time we have had increased contacts with and increased callings to labor in other spheres: among Presbyterians in the South, where Rev. van Overloop is now working; among Chinese in Singapore; among people from Presbyterian background in New Zealand and Australia.
As we shift our emphasis in order to be obedient to these callings, certain problems have come up within our fellowship which have tended somewhat to stymie our labors and which have served as obstacles which we must overcome if we are to perform the work which God gives us to do. These problems have their origin in the fact that we have, perhaps somewhat unconsciously, the notion that the only people who can really be faithful to the Scriptures are Calvinists of the Reformed faith who have their roots in the Netherlands and are not too far removed from Dutch speaking forbears. The fear is that, should we extend our influence beyond these narrow confines, we will surely sacrifice our heritage and fall prey to false doctrine. Better it is, so the reasoning goes, to stay within .our own small circles, shout occasionally at the evils in our mother Church, and confine ourselves to the task of limiting our labors to Protestant Reformed congregations.
It is my contention tonight that we ought not be this way, and that we must bend every effort to avert this kind of narrow parochialism which will vitiate our labors.
In order to do this, we must, in a good sense of the word, broaden our outlook, gain an appreciation for traditions other than those of Dutch Calvinists, consider carefully the problems and struggles which others face in other lands so that we can be appreciative of them and recognize that they vary from our own, and (to use the words of Paul) become all things to all men if by any means we might save some.
To this matter I wish to address your attention. I am aware of the fact, of course, that this does not directly affect our Standard Bearer, and that, perhaps, this is not the ideal forum for saying these things; but in defense of my choice of topic I want to remind you, first of all, that the Standard Bearer is vitally a part of all this and ought to continue to be such; and, secondly, that neither our churches nor the Standard Bearer can get on with the task without the wholehearted support of all our people.
There are a few truths concerning the Church of our Lord Jesus Christ to which our attention must, first of all, be directed and which shall serve as a foundation for what we have to say. In a sense, these truths all come down to the one truth of the catholicity of the Church of Christ. It is not my intention tonight to deal at length with this remarkable and astonishing truth concerning the Church of our Lord; but a few points are worth our notice.
The catholicity of the Church fundamentally implies her unity. There cannot be, in the Church of Christ, true catholicity unless there is also a fundamental unity. This unity of the Church is the unity of Christ the Head of the Church. The whole body of Christ is one, only because the whole body has Christ as the Head. This unity comes to expression especially in the unity of one faith, for all the Church of Christ is united in this one, central, and fundamental point: all the Church believes the same truth, for all the truth of God is in Christ Himself, and union with Christ is possible only through the truth of which Christ is the full revelation.
But that very unity is the unity of the body of Christ. And so the catholicity of the Church implies, at the same time as unity, a very wide diversity. If you have a thousand identical pieces of board you never have a unity among those pieces even though you pile them all atop each other. If you have a thousand identical leaves, you never have a tree, because to have a tree you must have branches and trunk and roots. If you have a thousand identical Christians you can never have a unity which can be compared with a body. For that kind of unity you need Christians who are different from each other, even though (and just because) they are held together in a unity by their one confession of the truth as it is in Christ and as we have it in the Holy Scriptures.
God has ordained that that kind of catholicity of the Church comes about by means of a Church which, after Pentecost, is gathered from every nation and tribe and tongue. The Church is most surely a catholic Church, and its catholicity is due to its wide diversity within its principle unity.
That means that there has got to be more in the Church than white Dutch Calvinists of Reformed background. The Church has got to include Germans and Swedes and Italians and Jews and all the rest. And, even more strikingly, that Church has got to include blacks and yellows as well as whites. Others need us, for we too are part of the Church. But let it never be forgotten that we need them as well, for they too are part of the Church.
Now all of this is rather elementary. I doubt very much whether there is anyone here who disagrees with this. I do wonder sometimes whether, while we pay lip service to this truth, we really, in our hearts, would wish that it were not so. But be that as it may, on this we are, I think, agreed.
But there is another aspect to this question. That Church which has such a wide diversity must express itself also in such a way that that diversity comes to manifestation. As I was talking about the Church up to this point I was really talking about what we call the organism of the Church. I want now to say something about the institute of the Church. The body of Christ comes to manifestation in this world in institutional form. That is, it is always the calling of the believers in Christ to manifest themselves in the world by adopting the institute of the Church, the pattern for which we have in the Scriptures. The Church must get organized. It must be constituted into a congregation with officebearers, so that the Word of Christ can be proclaimed in that Church and go forth from that Church in an official way. That Church takes on the marks of the true Church only when that Church organizes herself into an institute. How can you have the pure preaching of the Word, the proper administration of the sacraments, and the exercise of Christian discipline unless you have a congregation with ministers, elders, and deacons and the gathering of believers and their seed?
It is the burden of what I have to say tonight that this institutional Church must also manifest herself so that her diversity remains intact.
There is something natural and inevitable about this. God sees to it that this is exactly what happens. It is our calling to recognize this, appreciate it, and strive earnestly to maintain it. Let me explain.
In the history of the Church prior to the Reformation there was an effort made to maintain the Church in some kind of institutional unity. For many centuries, from a certain point of view, these efforts were successful. That is, there was really only one single denomination which we now call the Roman Catholic Church. But even in those days of institutional unity, there was really no true unity. For, although the Church was one in a formal, institutional way, nevertheless, there were important differences of many kinds, especially between the Eastern Church and Western Church which really made two separate denominations. So clear-cut were these divisions, that they were, in fact, finally recognized and the Church went through what is now called the Great Schism of 1054. After that date, especially the Western Church did remain one institutionally as it was founded throughout all of Europe. But here too the differences between various national parts of the Church were so great that the unity was in some outward form only. And indeed, the efforts to preserve even this outward form of unity resulted in untold heresies with which the Romish Church was corrupted in the time before the Reformation. The Church of Germany, e.g., was quite different in many important respects from the church of Italy. And the Church in Italy was, in its own way, quite different from the Church in France or in England.
The Reformation brought about a change of thinking in this respect. The Reformers, while seeking sometimes closer institutional unity for purposes of combining their forces against the threat of Rome, nevertheless did not press for this institutional unity as the sine qua non of church fellowship. Calvin in Geneva recognized fully the churches of England, Scotland, the Palatinate, the Netherlands, Bohemia, etc. even though he had no formal institutional ties with them.
The point was that as the Reformation took root in every different land, the Church developed along different lines. These lines along which the Church developed were determined in large measure by the particular historical circumstances which brought about the Reformation in these lands, by the history of the people within these countries and by the customs, habits, and mores of those who were to constitute the membership of these churches. The result was that there was a remarkable and astonishing agreement between all these churches in matters of the truth of Scripture. One need only to read the creeds of the French, Scotch, English, Dutch, and German churches to find out how close was this unity of the truth. But while there was agreement on these questions of the truth, there were also many differences between them. There were differences in emphasis—even emphasis on doctrine. The Dutch churches, in the heat of the Arminian controversy, produced the Canons of Dordt with its so-called five points of Calvinism—something which no other church anywhere produced. There were differences in church order. The form of presbyterian church government produced and developed among presbyterians is somewhat different from that which arose out of the struggle for religious liberty in the Netherlands. There were differences of many kinds.
This is as it should be. As God plants His Church in different lands and countries, in different cultures and among different peoples, God puts His Church in these lands that that Church may be a witness to His truth to the people in that place; for it is His purpose to gather His Church from these people. To witness effectively to these people so that the elect may be gathered, the Church must be a truly indigenous Church, for else it will not be a successful witness or a means to gather God’s people in that place. As an indigenous Church it must take differences of expression, differences of form, differences of emphasis, differences which express fully the catholicity of the Church and which make it a fit tool in the hands of God to gather a catholic body of Christ.
Our Church Order recognizes this fact when it speaks of the truth that “Churches whose usages differ from ours merely in non-essentials shall not be rejected.” (Article 85) I .am aware of the fact that it is not always so easy for us to tell the difference between “essentials” and “non-essentials”; but I fear that, while it is true that much of the ecclesiastical world usually brushes aside true essentials as non-essentials, we have a tendency to do the opposite. However that may be, the point is that here lies our calling.
The goal of the Church of Christ is not the kind of ecumenicity which is expressed in outward institutional unity. We do not pursue such goals, nor ought we. It is better, healthier, more in keeping with the nature of the Church that the Church throughout the world remain separated in denomination and congregational institutions than that she come together under one broad and all-encompassing institutional roof. The latter is not only impossible; it is not desirable and ought not to be our goal.
Let Presbyterians remain Presbyterians and let Reformed remain Reformed. This fact cannot alter the unity which we have in Christ.
All of this places upon us a burden.
I can, I think, best get at this question by facing the negative. There is a lingering attitude among us, on the one hand, that we can really have fellowship and contact only with those who are like us in every respect, i.e., with those who are in every way Protestant Reformed. If these people. are not Protestant Reformed, they are, ipso facto, suspect. And until such a time as they become Protestant Reformed, they are beyond the pale of our notice and concern and outside the possibility of ecclesiastical fellowship. On the other hand, if we are successfully to do any work among others, this kind of work must be geared to making people Protestant Reformed in every respect. They must become—and to all this our labors ought to be geared—like us in confession, every aspect of walk, every expression of doctrine, and, indeed, even in matters of Christian liberty. If our work is not geared to that goal, we are remiss in our duty and suffer under the ever present threat that we will lose our heritage.
It is this danger which will, if it persists, threaten our calling in these times in which we live.
Insofar as we are called by God to witness throughout the world to the truth, we are called to do this in such a way that we recognize this wide diversity which does and must exist within the body of Christ also as it comes to institutional manifestation.
We labor in this country. Our labors are especially geared to calling out of apostatizing churches a faithful remnant. Up to this point in our history we have labored almost exclusively among those who are of Dutch Reformed background. There was little problem in all this, for those among whom we labored were much like us and the problem scarcely existed. But now this work has gradually been extended to Presbyterian denominations. This presents a problem, for the people with whom we shall have to work are not Dutchmen, Reformed, and Calvinists. We come up against a people with different ecclesiastical background, with a different heritage, with different ways of thinking and different ways of expressing themselves. Common grace does not mean the same thing down south as it means in Grand Rapids among Christian Reformed people. Here it is downright heresy. There it may be heresy too, but it may be nothing but an incorrect way of expressing a truth which we all believe. Here it means the destruction of the antithesis and a denial of total depravity. There it often means nothing more than providence. And, while it may be incorrect to call providence grace, the debate centers on the correctness of terminology, not the truth versus the lie.
It may be that within our own country God wills that’ we all become one institutionally, for we are now united in a common purpose within the confines of our country. God will bring about that unity; but only if we reckon with the fact that Presbyterians, if they are bound by the Scriptures have something to teach us just as well as we have something to teach them. And the unity achieved will be richer and more blessed because we have been enriched by each other.
The same is true as our outreach extends beyond the boundaries of the United States. As you all know, we have contact with churches in many different countries of the world. Each has its own peculiar calling of God.
It is precisely this fact which controls the work which God calls us to do also among people of other races. We have worked long in Jamaica and are about to begin work in Singapore. The people there are from an entirely different race and their background, character, and nationality are fundamentally different from our own. While indeed God calls us to labor so that these people in these areas are instructed in the truth, we must nevertheless, remember that we may not attempt to make them Protestant Reformed in the sense of a church in the Grand Rapids area. It is the burden of our calling to teach them to develop into congregations which will grow indigenously so that they can be effective witnesses in the area in which God has placed them.
This will require of us no little work. We shall have to learn all we possibly can about them: about their background, their character, their own unique life which they live in their culture. We shall have to appreciate these differences, recognize them for what they are, adapt ourselves to them, and labor with much wisdom to preserve their own identity.
This will take, on the part of those who labor there, much sanctified wisdom. They shall have to be able to distinguish clearly between what is essential and what is non-essential; between what belongs to the basic unity of the Church of Christ and what belongs to the diversity of manifestation. This is not an enviable task, for it will be difficult at best.
Yet the best way in which this can be accomplished is that we, here at home, do the same. If we are indeed to support these many labors unto which the Lord has called us, we shall have to do this by becoming ourselves acquainted as much as possible with the differences in background so that we too can appreciate what it means that God gathers into the one Church a diversity of members from every nation and tribe and tongue.
If we do not do this we shall be frightened to enter the work; we shall obstruct the work at every turn with our objections; we shall try to draw back into our shells; and we shall make ourselves unworthy of our calling. God forbid that this happens.
We live in exciting times and we have been singularly blessed by God. Let us move forward with faith that God will use us to accomplish His purpose.