Prof. Engelsma is professor of Dogmatics and Old Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary, and recently retired editor of the SB.
From the Reformed Free Publishing Association, publisher of the Standard Bearer, I received an invitation a few months ago to speak at the annual meeting of the association, “reflecting on your years as editor of the Standard Bearer.” My first inclination was to reject this topic because it requires me to talk about myself. This is a subject that is unappealing to me and that would be unedifying to you.
On second thought, however, I decided that the topic could very well serve to remind members of the RFPA and others who might be present tonight of the nature and purpose of the Standard Bearer. At the same time, the topic allows me to comment on certain features of my editorship and to inform you concerning some of the interesting correspondence I have received as editor over the past sixteen years. This, plainly, was the desire of the board of the RFPA.
I mentioned correspondence that I have received over the past sixteen years. I have received hundreds, perhaps thousands, of pieces of correspondence, to say nothing of telephone calls and personal visits in response to the editorials and the other articles that I wrote. Relatively few of the letters were published in the Standard Bearer. Many were not suitable for publication. But virtually all of these pieces of correspondence I have dutifully answered. In preparation for this speech, I scanned the correspondence. I have chosen a few excerpts to illustrate what I have to say about the Standard Bearer and its editor.
My topic is “Reflections on that Peculiar Creature: the Editor of the Standard Bearer.” An editor of the Standard Bearer is a peculiar creature. He is a peculiar creature in his role as editor. In other respects, he may very well be pretty nearly a normal Christian human being. But as editor of the Standard Bearer, he is peculiar.
Early on in my editorship, a critic, a prominent Reformed minister in one of the Reformed denominations, was struck unfavorably by this peculiarity of the editor of the Standard Bearer and what seemed to him to be the difference between the editor of the Standard Bearer and the person who was editor of the Standard Bearer. In a harsh letter he wrote this to me, “I wish everyone could know you as I do—the family man, the friendly colleague, the able conversationalist. And I wish that the old man who writes these editorials (he was not talking about my age) would be put to death by the power of the Spirit. Your real day as a leader in the Reformed churches tarries until that old man dies.”
The peculiarity of the editor of the Standard Bearer is stamped upon him by the magazine itself. The Standard Bearer, now eighty years old, has its own nature and purpose. It has its own distinctive personality, one might say. This personality of the Standard Bearer is peculiar among all the religious periodicals in the world. This personality of the Standard Bearer is a forceful one. No doubt the staff of the Standard Bearer appoint the editor in view of his being suited to do justice to the nature and purpose of the magazine. But the magazine itself makes the editor the peculiar creature he soon becomes.
The peculiarity of the editor of the Standard Bearer is due to the uniqueness of the Standard Bearer.
Nature and Purpose of the SB
The Standard Bearer has its own nature and purpose as determined by the origin of the magazine. The Standard Bearer first saw the light of day in October 1924 in connection with the controversy over common grace in the Christian Reformed Church. The first editor, Herman Hoeksema, and others, both ministers and laymen, founded the magazine to defend and develop the gospel of sovereign particular grace in close connection with the truth of the unconditional covenant of grace with the elect in Jesus Christ. From the very beginning the magazine fought for the truth against false teachings—especially the false teaching of common grace.
So forceful a personality was the Standard Bearer at its origin that there is a sense in which it is true that the Standard Bearer founded the Protestant Reformed Churches rather than that the Protestant Reformed Churches established the Standard Bearer. Herman Hoeksema and others created the Standard Bearer before there ever was a Protestant Reformed denomination. They founded the magazine when they were still members in fairly good standing in the Christian Reformed Church. Their writings in the Standard Bearer led directly to the formation of the Protestant Reformed Churches in 1925 and 1926.
In addition, the three ministers involved in founding and writing in the Standard Bearer were deposed from office in the Christian Reformed Church in large part because they had established the Standard Bearer and because they had written in the Standard Bearer against the doctrine of common grace. In February of 1925 one of the founding editors, Henry Danhof, wrote an article entitled “Ha, Ha, Toch ‘the Standard Bearer,’ He!” That Dutch title, roughly translated, is something like this: “Oh, Oh, It Was Really the Standard Bearer, Then!” The thrust of that article was that it was the founding of the Standard Bearer that really provoked the wrath of the Christian Reformed Church so that they deposed these three ministers.
The nature and purpose of the Standard Bearer are stated in its constitutions. The constitution of the editorial staff of the Standard Bearer states as the purpose of the organization, “The maintenance, development, and propagation of our distinctively Protestant Reformed principles by means of the printed page.” The constitution of the Reformed Free Publishing Association, publisher of the Standard Bearer, gives this as the purpose of the organization: “1. To witness to the truth contained in the Word of God and expressed in the Three Forms of Unity. 2. To reveal false and deceptive views repugnant thereto.” The very next article in the constitution of the RFPA adds that to “effectuate the purpose contained in Article 2, this association shall publish and distribute a magazine to be known as the Standard Bearer.”
The nature and purpose of the Standard Bearer, determined by its origin and officially set down in its constitutions, have been confirmed by the Standard Bearer’s long history and powerful tradition. The Standard Bearer is now, this very year, and within a few days of this very meeting, eighty years old. I am not yet entirely out of the position of being editor of the Standard Bearer. Legally I am editor until the last day of September. With the limited powers that remain to me as a lame duck editor, may I request that all of you join with me in making tonight the birthday celebration of the Standard Bearer. Let us agree that, among the other purposes of our coming together tonight, we are celebrating with gratitude to God the eightieth birthday of the Standard Bearer.
That is not an insignificant matter. In His providence, God has honored the Standard Bearer as being now the oldest continuously published subscription based Reformed magazine in North America. It would hardly be an exaggeration to say, the oldest Reformed magazine continuously-published in North America. That is a blessing of God. God has also blessed the magazine in that for eighty years, to the present hour, the magazine has been true to its purpose. It has witnessed to the Reformed faith as expressed in the creeds and as distinctively maintained in the Protestant Reformed Churches, while exposing false and deceptive doctrines repugnant thereto. This is the personality of the Standard Bearer, as even its critics recognize. And this personality it stamps on its editors. It makes them peculiar creatures.
A Theological Magazine
According to its nature and purpose, its personality, the Standard Bearer is a theological magazine. The content of the Standard Bearer is doctrinal. All the doctrines of the Reformed faith, as expressed in the Three Forms of Unity, are the content of the magazine. The Standard Bearer explains these doctrines, defends these doctrines, and develops these doctrines. An editor, and the writers in the magazine, must not overlook this aspect of the work of the Standard Bearer: It develops doctrine. It also applies these doctrines to the lives of the people of God.
The doctrines of the Reformed faith are a system, a harmonious body of interrelated truths. The grand truth that unifies all the doctrines is the godhead, goodness, and grace of the triune God in Jesus Christ. This grand truth of the godhead, goodness, and grace of Jehovah God in Jesus Christ is theology. Inasmuch as the content of the Standard Bearer in various ways treats of this truth of God, the Standard Bearer is theological.
The very first article of the very first issue of the Standard Bearer was a meditation by Herman Hoeksema entitled “Jehovah’s Goodness.” When I became editor in 1988, someone sent me a framed copy of this very first page of the Standard Bearer. This framed copy of the very first page of the Standard Bearer has hung over the desk where I did much of the work as editor, reminding me that the Standard Bearer is a theological magazine.
This is not to say that the magazine does not or should not contain articles on the Reformed life and experience—as we say, practical articles. Surely it does have such articles and ought to have such articles. To say nothing of the other writers and rubrics, without which, I remind you, there can be no Standard Bearer, I recall off the top of my head editorials on pornography, marriage, Sabbath observance, catechism instruction, Christian schools, home schooling, and attending the movie “The Passion of the Christ.” As for articles on Reformed experience, I may point to my last, unfinished series on assurance of salvation, which is as experiential, I dare say, as any Puritan writer. But also these practical editorials are grounded in Reformed doctrine, that is, the truth about God. They apply that doctrine to the life and experience of believers and their children. They aim at the glory of God in the holy life of God’s covenant people.
The Standard Bearer is a theological magazine. This is its personality. It is not a religious news service with glossy pictures that entertain but do not instruct (although it contains a news column that is probably one of the most popular columns in the entire magazine). The Standard Bearer is not a family magazine with short, simple articles of human interest for everybody in the family, including a child’s page with some puzzles and some quizzes.
Neither is the Standard Bearer a missionary magazine. It certainly witnesses to many people outside the Protestant Reformed Churches. Probably, eight or nine hundred subscription issues are mailed twice a month to people who are not members of the Protestant Reformed Churches. They go to people, schools, and seminaries all over the world. If the correspondence is any indication, a goodly number of copies go to prisoners in jails all over the United States, many of whom speak highly of the Standard Bearer, and all of whom are personally answered. But the Standard Bearer does not intend to be a simple presentation of the gospel to unconverted people, much less unconverted people who are well nigh illiterate.
Apparently there is misunderstanding even in the Protestant Reformed Churches about the nature and purpose of the Standard Bearer as regards its not being a missionary magazine. Some time ago we asked all the evangelism societies in the Protestant Reformed Churches to help us distribute copies of the magazine by placing them regularly in Christian bookstores in their vicinity. From one of these evangelism societies I received a response that said this: “As an evangelism committee we are interested in reaching the lost. Most articles written in the Standard Bearer are for those who already have a sound Reformed, theologically intellectual mentality. Since we have a zealous heartfelt desire for the salvation of our neighbors, we humbly ask that writers of the Standard Bearer consider a writing style that is understandable and attractive to those whom the Lord has not yet revealed Himself to as their personal Savior.” Zeal for the salvation of the lost is commendable. But it is not commendable that this evangelism society does not understand that the Standard Bearer is not and has never been a missionary magazine. Besides, such is the witness of the Standard Bearer for the Protestant Reformed truth that, as it seems to me, the magazine has a moral claim on every evangelism society in the denomination to help the Standard Bearer in its witness.
There has always been criticism of the theological personality of the Standard Bearer. People have complained that the Standard Bearer is too heavy, too deep, too doctrinal.
The editor of the Standard Bearer may not yield to the pressure to change the theological nature of the magazine. He himself must be a theologian; his own writings must be theological. He must see to it that the magazine remains a theological magazine. With the other writers, he must keep a high theological standard. He may not “dumb down” the content of the magazine.
…to be concluded.