Prof. Engelsma is professor of Dogmatics and Old Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
*Originally the text of Prof. Engelsma’s speech at the annual meeting of the RFPA on September 23, 2004 in Grandville PR Church.
Previous article in this two-part series: February 15, 2005, p. 226.
The content of the Standard Bearer is theological, but the theology of the magazine is not simply Reformed doctrine. It is Reformed doctrine as confessed and developed by the Protestant Reformed Churches. The Standard Bearer is a Protestant Reformed magazine. This, too, belongs to its nature and purpose, its personality. In fact, as probably everybody here knows, the Standard Bearer is not the official church paper of the Protestant Reformed Churches, under the control of synod and paid for through the synodical assessments. This is unusual for a religious paper. Deliberately the founders of the magazine set it up to be free of ecclesiastical control. This is what “Free” in the name of the publisher refers to.
That the magazine is not the official paper of the Protestant Reformed Churches has two implications as regards editorials. First, the Standard Bearer has freedom to speak out against the thinking and practices that may be found within the Protestant Reformed Churches themselves. The Standard Bearer is not a tame house organ, parroting the party line. At the time of the recent secession of some from the Christian Reformed Church and their formation of still another Reformed denomination over women in church office, there was some sentiment in the Protestant Reformed Churches that that secession was genuine reformation and that the Protestant Reformed Churches might well have close ecumenical relations with that new church. Editorials in the Standard Bearer such as “The Date Is 1924,” “Jelle in Wonderland,” and others contended that whatever the secession of the United Reformed Churches may have been, it was not reformation of the Christian Reformed Church regarding that church’s departure from the Reformed faith of sovereign, particular grace, and that the Protestant Reformed Churches have the very same controversy with the United Reformed Churches that they have always had and continue to have with the Christian Reformed Church. I regard those editorials as the most significant of my editorship.
A second implication of the fact that the Standard Bearer is free of church control is that the Standard Bearer publishes letters and articles that sharply oppose the truths set forth in the magazine—indeed, letters and articles that sharply oppose what the Protestant Reformed Churches stand for. No religious magazine I know of regularly runs letters, long letters, often exceeding the stated limit of letters, and even full articles attacking propositions and positions expressed in the Standard Bearer. No other magazine publishes letters contradicting what is found in those magazines, as does the Standard Bearer in its columns. Now this makes for an interesting magazine. Some of my own children, unwarily, have let drop that the first thing they turn to when the Standard Bearer comes is the letters column. I assure you I did not train them that way—editorials first! Nevertheless, the letters column is an interesting column and makes for an interesting magazine. What is more important, these letters opposing what the Standard Bearer proposes and teaches serve to clarify and establish the truth. Publishing these letters, and even articles, is possible because the Standard Bearer is not the church paper of the Protestant Reformed Churches.
Nevertheless, all the articles, particularly the editorials, declare, defend, and develop the Reformed faith as held in the Protestant Reformed Churches. The magazine chiefly instructs the members of the Protestant Reformed Churches. And the magazine warns the members of the Protestant Reformed Churches first of all against the dangers that threaten them. For this reason the Standard Bearer is widely known as the voice and witness of the Protestant Reformed Churches.
This is cause for the new editors and every writer to take up their pen or sit before their keyboards with fear and trembling. What you write will represent the faith of the Protestant Reformed Churches worldwide.
The Standard Bearer must give distinctive witness to the truth that is held by the Protestant Reformed Churches. This is the purpose of the magazine in its constitution. I remind you, “the maintenance, development, and promulgation of our distinctively Reformed principles.” These principles, mainly, are sovereign particular grace and the unconditional covenant of God with His elect in Christ, or the sovereignty of God in His gracious salvation in Jesus Christ.
The magazine is not, and the magazine may not be, loosely Christian or generically Reformed.
The editor of the Standard Bearer, therefore, must not only be a Protestant Reformed minister, wholeheartedly committed to and convinced of the distinctive doctrines of the Protestant Reformed Churches, he must also in his writing promote, defend, and develop these doctrines. As he does, he must demonstrate that these truths are not some oddities of the Protestant Reformed Churches but the genuine Reformed faith in its historical development, indeed, pure Christianity. For doing this, he will uncharitably and unjustly be criticized as bigoted and narrow-minded.
But recent developments in the church-world are proving that the alternative to sovereign particular grace as held in the Protestant Reformed Churches is sheer Arminianism, if not universalism. The alternative to the unconditional covenant as held by the Protestant Reformed Churches is the Roman Catholic heresy of justification by faith and works. Never before in the history of the church of Christ has it become so clear that the great doctrines for which the Protestant Reformed Churches, and the Protestant Reformed Churches virtually alone, contend are essential to the Reformed faith and life.
Likewise, it becomes increasingly plain that the stand, I would say, the heroic stand, of the Protestant Reformed Churches, that marriage is an unbreakable bond for life is both right and necessary. Our doctrine of marriage is the implication of our doctrine of the covenant. Individuals and concerned groups outside the Protestant Reformed Churches today all over the world are seeing the necessity of the position of the Protestant Reformed Churches regarding marriage, divorce, and remarriage. In the recent past, in fact in the past year, a group of deeply concerned Reformed people in the Netherlands have been reading, translating into Dutch, and distributing in the Netherlands articles by Protestant Reformed men on marriage. At present, a major Dutch publishing house is translating into Dutch and publishing a Protestant Reformed book on marriage. The reason, of course, is the dreadful destruction of marriage in virtually all of the churches, which destruction of marriage now includes approval of homosexual unions. The witness of the Standard Bearer has been one of the main means, if not the main means, by which the Protestant Reformed doctrine of marriage has spread to these people and groups—in part, I might note, through the internet. Now is no time for the Standard Bearer to pull in its horns regarding the distinctive Protestant Reformed witness. Never has the time been more opportune for our witness.
In defending the doctrines confessed by the Protestant Reformed Churches, the editor must be a polemical man. It belongs to the nature and purpose of the Standard Bearer that it is polemical. Polemical means “fighting.” The Standard Bearer is a fighting magazine. It was a fighting magazine at its birth. Like old Jacob, the Standard Bearer came out of the womb wrestling for the covenant of God and declaring the sovereignty of God in election and reprobation. The Standard Bearer fought a fierce warfare in middle age against the false doctrine of a conditional covenant and salvation dependent upon man. In its older age it is fighting still against the old errors in new dress and against all attack on and departures from the Reformed faith.
The Standard Bearer fights fairly. The Standard Bearer fights honorably. It fights with the Word of God and with the confessions. But it fights vigorously. The sword of the Standard Bearer is sharp. In its controversy with doctrinal and ethical evil, it is uncompromising. The Standard Bearer is not a slick, friendly, positive, harmless magazine. It is not a magazine that tries to please everybody and tries equally hard to offend nobody. There are many such religious periodicals. There are many such Reformed religious periodicals. But the Standard Bearer is not one of them.
The editor of the Standard Bearer must be polemical. He must be a fighter, regardless whether that is naturally his character. For this he is most severely criticized, even hated. Nor is the criticism limited to those outside the Protestant Reformed Churches. He must bear reproach—”negative,” “unloving,” “harsh,” even “hateful.” And some will assure him that he is standing in the way of Christian ecumenicity.
A few years after I became editor, I received an anonymous postcard from the city of Kalamazoo, which I read before I realized that the signature at the end of the postcard was not the writer’s real name but a pseudonym. The writer, whoever he is—God knows—is a coward. But this is what he said on his postcard: “Your rhetoric in recent Standard Bearers demonstrates at least one thing: you are a true-blue successor to your editorial predecessors—a bad spirit. All your nit picking doesn’t change one thing. You and your clan are still dead wrong, especially on common grace and related matters. And to discuss it with you guys in any way shape or form is an exercise in futility.” I confess that that wounded me. A bad spirit? Almost immediately after receiving that postcard, feeling wounded, I was talking with one of my brothers. I was looking for some sympathy, although I did not tell him that. I read him this postcard. His response, rather unfeeling I thought at the time, was, “What did you expect when you took the job?” Upon reflection, to be called a “true-blue successor to your predecessors” is not all bad.
One of the most powerful influences on my ministry, including my writing in the Standard Bearer, has been Martin Luther, a vehement, even violent fighter against all attacks on the gospel of grace. It is now in vogue in our evil day, when the love of God and the truth has mainly cooled, to be critical of Luther for his vehement condemnation of false doctrine and false teachers. But Luther was right, and our tolerant age is wrong. In the strength of his faith, Luther rejected the lie. And in his love for God, he hated idolatry. Our age tolerates the lie because it believes nothing with conviction and passion. It is friendly toward heretics and heresies because there is no fervent love of God in the heart of our age. When Luther was criticized for the vehemence of his condemnation of error, he often responded by quoting Jeremiah 48:10 according to another possible translation than that in the King James Bible. The King James translation is “cursed be he that doeth the work of the Lord deceitfully, and cursed be he that keepeth back his sword from blood.” Another possible translation is “cursed be he that doeth the work of the Lord negligently, lackadaisically, and cursed be he that keepeth back his sword from blood.”
God called His servants in the Old Testament to fight against God’s enemies—Moab, in that particular case. And God called His servants to fight against God’s enemies vigorously, not negligently or lackadaisically. The work was the work of battle, and in that battle to destroy the enemies of God. So urgent a call was that call by God to His servants to engage in warfare against God’s enemies vigorously, that God pronounces a curse upon anyone who fights in the battle against God’s enemies halfheartedly or negligently.
This Word of God applies today. It applies to the editor of the Standard Bearer among many others. Cursed be the editor of a Reformed publication, particularly the Standard Bearer, that does the fighting work of the Lord negligently. And cursed be the editor that keeps back his pen, which is mightier than the sword, from blood.
Because of the personality of the magazine, the editor is polemical. Nevertheless, his warfare is on behalf of the church—and not only the Protestant Reformed Churches, but the catholic church of Jesus Christ. The Standard Bearer has a heart for the welfare of the church in all of the world and an interest in developments in all the world as they affect the church.
The magazine is not parochial. Neither does it live in the past, as some religious magazines do. Some religious magazines live in the past. Much of their content is dusty old sermons of long dead preachers. The editorials are mostly résumés of the lives and teachings of saintly men in past eras. Those magazines are lifeless magazines. The Standard Bearer must never degenerate into such a musty magazine. It is all right, even useful, to have an article now and then by a theologian of the past. But for the most part, the magazine must contain fresh writings by contemporary authors. This makes for a lively, interesting paper. This is a renewed exhortation to all the ministers in the Protestant Reformed Churches, especially those who are on the staff of the magazine, to write regularly.
The editor of the magazine must read widely, must keep abreast of developments in churches all over the world, and must stay on top of political and social events in light of Scripture’s evaluation of these events, so that he as editor can instruct and warn and, to whatever extent God wills, give direction to the church as far and wide as the witness of the Standard Bearer extends.
All of this makes the editorship of the Standard Bearer a responsible position. It makes editorship of the Standard Bearer an exciting position. It makes the editorship in the end a rewarding position, with the reward of a sharper, clearer, fuller knowledge of the truth of God.
The editor of the Standard Bearer is a peculiar creature because the magazine itself is a unique instrument of God on behalf of His truth and covenant. Thank God that the men who now take over the editorship are such peculiar creatures. Let us pray God that they ever be such peculiar creatures.