In one of our recent Ministerial Conferences a paper was given on the “Biblical Conception of the Multiformity of the Church” and in the discussion of the paper that followed it became apparent that the greatest difficulty of the problem lay in factors of a naturally multiform race in a growing and developing dispensation, and the following is an attempt to enlarge somewhat on this phase of the problem.
The so-called multiformity question is not a question of merely academic interest but is a question of tremendous importance because it concerns the will and the command of Christ to His Church, that they shall be one as He and the Father are one.
This command of the Savior may undoubtedly be regarded as aiming at a twofold purpose, namely, first, the calling of Christians to seek the closest bond of fellowship for the purpose of mutual edification and submission to one another’s exhortation and discipline, and secondly, in order that the world may see in the midst of a race torn by hatred and strife in its various sphere of life, a people of every calling and social station bound together by the tremendous power of the invisible life of the Son in the flesh who is the mystery of godliness, and thus seeing, the world may acknowledge His mission from the Father.
Now as obstacles to that unity we saw in the paper above mentioned several other impediments, such as sinful self-will, ancestry and antecedents, geography, language and culture.
And yet more basic and apparently insurmountable than all these there appears to be that of racial multiformity and development.
The question arises whether we dare in the face of these stubborn factors persist and take the absolute standpoint that it is the will of God that the Church shall become externally, institutionally one in this sinful dispensation? And it would seem that unless we can adopt and maintain an absolute standpoint here we are given over to a hopeless relativism all along the line.
In answer to this we may begin with a rather parenthetical observation that even if we could not theoretically set an absolute standard that this would not at all deliver us to relativism along the line as our sinful hearts might secretly hope, for certainly the standards which the Christian Church as a whole has adopted is much more absolute than our ecclesiastically superficial age would suggest. Unquestionably we have hardly begun to approximate those standards, if indeed we have even begun them seriously. A serious confession of, for example, the Reformed and Presbyterian standards by all the subscribers would be a tremendous step toward the realization of that prayer of Christ.
But apart from this parenthetical observation, it must secondly be quite obvious that a certain variety of confessions; arising out of the psychological and intellectual multiformity of the race does not at all imply a contradiction or conflict between the various expressions. Let us note that all these races have one and the same word of revelation, which has one central message; that all have one and the same life of Christ in them through regeneration which seeks the same thing; that all are led by the same Spirit who guides into all the truth. Because of this oneness of prescription and oneness of impulse the truth that develops in the ages of the Church is one.
And let us notice that the Holy Spirit has a way of vindicating through the course of history this oneness. The various shades unite more and more into a harmony and the departures become more and more revealed as heresies by their gradual reduction to inconsistency and absurdity, and their practical fruitfulness, So, e.g., the Arian theory of Christ’s person is not a variation of the Athanasian formulation, but is a denial of the latter; the question of the single or double procession (filioque) of the Holy Spirit is not a matter of Oriental and Occidental emphasis, but a question of truth and error. And so further the Supper and the Mass, Arminianism and Calvinism, pre- and amillenialism, Common or Particular grace are all a matter not of emphasis but of truth and error.
But there is another, strong point that we must make, namely, that the confessions of the various peoples are not necessarily nearly as divergent as the champions of doctrinal independence would like to suppose. In the first place the thoughts and expressions of peoples are usually guided, molded and articulated by men of cosmopolitan, universal thought and vision which far transcend their day and their racial bounds . A great man belongs to every race and nation and his thoughts and expressions are those of every nation, especially when he thinks and speaks, as guided of course by the spirit of Christ, concerning the things of God’s revelation. This principle we see operating at the great Synods of the early Church and again at the Synod of Dordt where five or six different nationalities were engaged in the formulation of doctrines, and on the other hand the differences were those within the household of the Dutch churches.
But now with reference to the other main point we may also observe that a stable point of reference for a criterion need not at all be as absolutistic as it might at first appear necessary. There is indeed room for growth and for supplementation, and the growth that is characteristic of the age of imperfection does not at all imply that an earlier is imperfect in the sense that it is erroneous and condemnable. There is a great difference between an immatured and a faulty confession. The Abrahamic revelation and confession is not out-moded, relegated, and contradicted by the Mosaic, nor the Mosaic by the Prophetic, nor, again the Prophetic, by the incarnated, nor again the latter by the Apostolic, and yet there is throughout a constant growth and enrichment. Just as one person cannot alone express the fullness of the life of Christ, so can no one generation or race express the fullness of the divine revelation and grace.
But this principle of supplementation is also implicit in our own Reformed confessional standards. The three supplementing one another are of greatly differing emphasis and background. The one was written by a Frenchman in the solitude of imprisonment and facing death, the other by two German professors in the academic atmosphere of the university, the third by a variegated assembly of theologians in the tense atmosphere of heresy trial, where life and death, honor and disgrace hung in the balance. The Presbyterians have their great Westminster Confession built phrase by phrase by a great and learned assembly, but also a Catechism, the “Larger” form for the congregational preaching, and the “Shorter” for the children, each written by one man. Now no one would maintain that by discarding one of these we would gain in doctrinal richness and purity, but all readily see that the one supplements and enriches the whole confession of the Christian hope and rule of life. And even by using the standards, be it as secondary, of the Presbyterians, whose racial but cultural background is, other than ours, we do not thereby impoverish the beauty and purity of our faith but positively enrich and purify it.
A musical chorus does not impoverish itself by adding more voices of various quality, if only they are true to the music. And no individual will contend that all must perform as he himself does to make the rendition of the theme successful.
That same multiformity of race and age and talent and character will be found in the heavenly perfected Jerusalem and through it all the glorious life of the Son of God as the Mediator of the glory of the Triune shall be refracted into a manifold splendor. One revelation and one life yet a multitude of creaturely reflection.
And so also in this dispensation we may set as our God-appointed goal of one Church in the unity of faith and knowledge and manifestation, that is wholly in accord with and fully honors the glorious multiformity of nature also in the human race, in which God spreads forth and reveals His divine virtues and grace.
A beautiful idealism, you say. And yet, if it is God’s will then it continues to confront us as calling indeed, but also as a lasting rebuke.