* Rectoral Address at the graduation exercised of the Theological School of the Protestant Reformed Churches, June 11, 1963.
Mr. Chairman, Fathers and Brethren of the Synod, Graduate Engelsma, and Friends:
We of the seminary have often had occasion to remark that we live in interesting times from a theological and ecclesiastical point of view. Times they are in which there are many developments—if not much progress and positive development—on many fronts. And times they are, too, therefore, in which there is much food for thought, much material for study and discussion—so much, in fact, that it is virtually impossible to keep pace with all the various developments of the day on the ecclesiastical and theological front.
It is important to remember, however, that the times are more than merely interesting. When one considers the times and their manifold developments merely as interesting, then he assumes the attitude of an observer, of a mere bystander. Then he discusses and appraises and studies the various developments of the day in a rather academic way; and though one may find matters engaging in their interest, he studies and appraises and discusses rather disinterestedly nevertheless. We must at all times remember, therefore, that the various theological and ecclesiastical developments of our day are all part of a crucial and age-old conflict. We Protestant Reformed are not mere bystanders. We are active participants in that conflict. In fact, we stand at the center of that conflict and in the heat of the battle. To that conflict I wish to call your attention briefly at this occasion, as I speak on:
Our Theological Conflict Today
Let us note:
I. That There Is Such A Conflict
II. The Battle-lines Of That Conflict
III. The Victory In That Conflict
I. That There Is Such A Conflict
There would seem to be many indications today that there is no theological conflict, or at least that it is fast coming to an end. I refer, first of all, to what seems to be a vast movement toward ecclesiastical peace, the movement of ecumenicism. And let me emphasize in parentheses, that it is an “‘ism.” This movement is very active in our age. You find it in Protestantism generally. You find it in the Reformed community. You find indications of it even between Protestantism and Rome. The movement takes as its slogan the apparently commendable and scriptural goal, “that they all may be one.” And there are certain characteristic efforts and strivings of this movement which may be noted. One of these characteristics is the deliberate attempt to ignore fundamental issues. This is always closely allied with the attempt to find a basis of union between two or more ecclesiastical groups regardless of the truth and regardless of confessional basis. There is, if you will, the striving to find a low common denominator as far as doctrine and polity and liturgy are concerned. And apparently this movement is successful when we take into account the large number of denominational mergers being accomplished and the ambitious preparations being made for still more and larger mergers. One who speaks of war and of battle, rather than of ecclesiastical peace, would seem to be a warmonger today.
In the second place, and in close connection with the above, I refer to the subjective aspect of the same movement, to the attitude that afflicts the church and its membership and that sometimes has not left us unaffected. I refer to the attitude of an unwillingness to fight. Sometimes also we become unwilling and reluctant to fight. We become such, not because there is no conflict and not because we cannot truly see that there is a conflict and reasons for conflict, but because, perhaps, we do not want to recognize the facts. We assume that attitude partly, perhaps, because it is not popular to fight; it is much more popular to take part in the peace movement of modern ecumenicism. And partly, we sometimes grow battle-weary, become tired of fighting, discouraged, inclined to give up in what seems to be a never-ending battle.
Hence, I want to emphasize, positively, that it is simply a fact that the church throughout the ages has a battle to fight. The church of Jesus Christ in the midst of the world is always the church militant. It is a fighting church. Mark you well, I am not now saying merely that the church ought to fight. I am maintaining that it is a fact that the church is the church militant and that the church has a warfare to wage. This is an unavoidable and undeniable fact. This lies in the very nature of the church. There is a principal reason for this warfare. The deepest cause of this battle is that the church represents the cause of the Son of God in the midst of the world—also a religious and ecclesiastical world—that lies in darkness, that stands in spiritual alliance with the devil, in enmity against God, and in opposition to the cause of His Son. The church represents the cause of the Son of God in the midst of a world that is anti-Christ. In the deepest sense of the word, therefore, the church does not have a choice: to fight or not to fight. No, it lies in the very nature of the church of Jesus Christ in the midst of the world that it is the church militant.
There is a very practical observation to be made in this connection, namely, that if in last analysis one refuses to fight, refuses to face up to the fact that the church is the church militant, refuses to recognize the fact that there is a battle, refuses to bear arms in that conflict, it simply means that he has taken sides with the opposition, with the powers of darkness. That battle is there, whether you acknowledge it or not. Moreover, you cannot possibly be neutral in that conflict. You either stand with those who represent the cause of God’s Son, or you stand with those who are the enemies of His cause. And if you fly in the face of facts, of reality, and insist that there is no conflict and that there are no issues and no reasons for conflict, you are simply taking sides with the opposition!
Now I referred in my subject to a theological conflict. By this I mean, first of all, to emphasize that as a spiritual battle this conflict is always ultimately theological. In this respect we could better call it, perhaps, theocentric, God-centered. That is, it is a battle that concerns the cause of God, the name of God, the honor and glory of God, the Word of God, the Son of God. But I also intend, in the second place, to emphasize that this conflict is theological in a narrower sense, in the more restricted and more technical sense of the termtheology. By theology, then, I do not merely mean dogmatics, or the first locus of dogmatics, the doctrine of God. But I refer to the whole body of the truth as it is confessed by and maintained by and practiced by the church, as it is taught and studied in our Theological School, and as it is controlled by and always comes down to the truth concerning God, the doctrine of God.
Moreover, I would emphasize that theology is not a matter of various theological views and opinions, of which you can perhaps take your pick as to which appeals most to you. It is not something that is merely academic. You may perhaps view other studies in such a manner to an extent. Thus, for instance, you might view political science. But certainly you can never assume that attitude toward theology. Theology is always basically a matter ofthe truth, the truth of God, of His revelation, over against the lie. For that reason also theology is always a matter of personal involvement, a matter of the heart, from which are the issues of life.
It follows, too, and it can stand emphasis, that this battle is strictly spiritual in nature. It is not a battle that aims at natural and earthly ends. It does not aim at world-power and world-conquest. The battle is not one for self-aggrandizement or human glory. The courage required in this battle is not physical. And the victory does not depend on the numerical strength of the church’s armies, nor upon the mighty and superior equipment used, nor, in fact, upon carnal weapons whatsoever. The battle of the church is spiritual. It has a spiritual cause, a spiritual purpose and aim, the glory of God and the cause of the Son of God. It is fought by spiritual power and spiritual weapons. It is fought by the power of faith and by the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God. In that battle the church and its members are called to take to themselves the whole armor of God, of which armor the girdle of the truth is significantly the unifying element. Ephesians 6:10-18
II. The Battle-lines Of The Conflict
Now we may ask the question: where are the lines of battle? Where in the battle do we stand? Where are we called to stand? And what are the issues in the battle? For what, and about what, are we fighting?
In general, my answer is, first of all, that this battle concerns the whole of the truth, the truth of God’s revelation, and every aspect of that truth. And while we sometimes make distinctions between more important and less important phases of the truth, we should remember that the truth of God is never unimportant. Basically there are no unimportant truths. In the second place, in answer to the question concerning our place in the battle, I would say that as surely as we believe and are convinced that we as churches represent, by the grace of God, the purest manifestation of the church on earth—and we do, according to the well-known “marks of the true church”—so surely we also must believe and do believe that we stand at the front battle line and in the heat of the conflict. In the third place, I would answer that the battle is wherever and whenever in the ecclesiastical world God, the God of His church, brings about contact and creates an issue. At such a point and at such a time the church has the opportunity not only, but emphatically the divine calling to do battle! That may be within the confines of one’s own denomination. That may also be with others, with whom one stands ‘more or less related by history and by heritage. But wherever and whenever God brings about contact with the foe, there the battle is.
We may ask the further question: can we define these battle-lines more specifically?
My answer to this question is affirmative.
In the first place, we have a specific battle to fight as members of the Reformed community, and particularly, ever since 1924, over against our ecclesiastical mother. There lies our chief opposition; and there is our primary calling as churches. In the second place, the issue in that battle is specifically our peculiar Reformed heritage as embodied and expressed in our Reformed confessions, our Reformed liturgy, and our Reformed polity and order, and that too, in the light of our origin and history and in the light of the present historical situation.
Let me spell that out briefly.
The central issue is that of the truth concerning God Himself. It is the issue of God’s sovereign grace. But it is not only that. I do not believe that the truth of God’s sovereign grace is the sole issue, nor that that truth can be maintained all by itself, without that other characteristic truth of the Reformed faith, namely, the truth of God’s covenant. Hence, we may state the issue this way: it is the truth that our covenant God establishes and realizes His covenant of friendship with His people in Christ Jesus in absolute sovereignty, along the lines of election and reprobation, through the means of faith, unconditionally, and antithetically, leading His own infallibly to everlasting glory.
And always there are certain inevitable concomitant issues. In the first place, there is always the issue of the authority of the infallible Scriptures and of exegesis. The question of the truth is always in the deepest sense of bowing before the authority of Holy Scripture, the Word of God. There is never any conflict in which the Scriptures and the meaning of the Scriptures are not necessarily involved. The reason for that is very simple: those Scriptures are our only infallible rule of faith and life. In the second place, there is always the concomitant issue of the government and discipline of the church according to the ordinance of Christ. Or, if you will, there is the battle to reject every attempt to maintain hierarchy and the super-church, with their corruption of and misapplication of the key-power. In the third place, because the church of Jesus Christ is a confessing church, there is always the concomitant issue of the confessions of the church and of a healthy, living respect for and adherence to those confessions.
These have been the issues in our battle ever since 1924, when the Three Points were adopted.
And it is a striking phenomenon to me that even as all these issues were at stake in our mother church at the time of the origin of our Protestant Reformed Churches, so in very recent years all these issues emphatically arise again. In the few years of my own professorate at our seminary all these issues have been on the foreground. The fundamental truth of God’s sovereign and particular love is again in conflict, even at present, as we all know. It is noteworthy too that very recently the truth of the infallibility and authority of the. Scriptures—really the same fundamental issue as that of the Jansen case shortly before 1924—was in conflict, and admittedly still is in conflict. And do not forget that the issue of hierarchy and of the movement toward a sort of super-church is still very much an issue in all this history too.
I consider this to be a significant phenomenon. These are signs that we were indeed in the heat of the battle circa 1924. And they are signs that the battle is still the same, that it is not by any means over, and that the issues are fundamentally the same as they were in the beginning of our history.
III. The Victory In That Battle
The victory in that conflict is assured. No matter what appearances may seem to be, no matter how we may apparently go down to defeat, no matter how small and insignificant we may be and become, no matter how hopeless that conflict may sometimes seem to be, no matter how overwhelming and powerful and apparently successful the opposition may seem to be, the cause of the Son of God and those who. represent His cause are victorious. They not only shall be victorious and shall be vindicated; but they are victorious. We are more than conquerors!
This assurance is in our Lord Jesus Christ. He fought the battle and obtained the victory through His cross and resurrection and exaltation at the right hand of God. He obtained the victory for all His own, according to God’s decree. Principally and centrally, therefore, the victory is already attained in Christ Jesus our Lord. And by His grace and Spirit our victorious Lord rules in and over His church; and by His mighty power He lords it over the world, so that even the powers of darkness and opposition to His cause are made subservient unto His purpose in spite of themselves. Christ has the victory and has overcome the world! And by faith in Him we have the victory and are more than conquerors even in the midst of the conflict!
In conclusion, therefore, our calling is plain. Stand fast, and be of good courage. Stand fast, above all, in the truth. And take to yourselves the whole armor of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. That is the calling of our seminary—our “war college,” if you will—where men are trained and equipped for leadership in the conflict, and where the battle must first of all be fought. That is the calling of our ministers and of all our officebearers, who are appointed watchmen upon the walls of Jerusalem. They may never hold their peace day nor night. They must make mention of Jehovah, and keep not silence, and give him no rest, until he establish and until he make Jerusalem a praise in the earth. Isaiah 62:6, 7. And that is the calling of all our people.
And above all, pray! Pray that the Lord give us grace to be steadfast, unmovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord. And pray that the Lord may give us men, men who may be trained as watchmen on Zion’s walls! Amen.