Mr. Rainey is a member of First Protestant Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
The Best of the Reformed Journal, editors James D. Bratt and Ronald A. Wells (William B. Eerdmans Publishing: Grand Rapids, MI, 2011), 343pp. [Reviewed by Philip Rainey.]
This volume is a representative collection of articles taken from the Reformed Journal, a magazine published from 1951 to 1990 by Eerdmans Publishing. The collection of ninety articles commemorates the centennial of the company. The value of the book lies not in the profound theological insights it contains, but rather in that the collection of articles represents the changing theology of the Christian Reformed Church and, secondarily, of Eerdmans Publishing through four decades.
The Reformed Journal was born out of the bitter struggle between the progressives (or liberals) and the conservatives in the CRC. The Reformed Journal was the organ of the liberals in the denomination; the Torch and Trumpet (which became the Outlook) was the organ of the conservatives. Although originating as the voice of the progressives within the CRC, the Reformed Journal also sought to address issues in the wider world. Accordingly, within this collection there are articles on the church’s role in politics, the Civil Rights movement, gender, apartheid, the arts, and even one on Babe Ruth, the baseball star of the 1920s.
An article entitled “Pitch Your Tents Toward Sodom” is instructive for much that follows. The author calls upon the graduates of Calvin College to “correct” and “reform the culture” (36). According to the author, Lot’s mistake was not his living in Sodom; it was rather that he “was not adequately prepared or wholly committed to advance the cause of truth” in Sodom. Besides the fact that this is a wrong interpretation of Lot’s sinful dwelling in Sodom, the article proceeds on the basis of common grace. Culture is capable of being transformed by Reformed Christians because the power of common grace improves the world and enables God’s people to cooperate with the wicked in the institutions of the world.
There is only one problem. God did not transform Sodom; He destroyed it! Our calling, like godly Abraham, is to live the life of the antithesis over against the wicked world.
That Harold Dekker’s article in which he argued that God loves all men and consequently that Christ died for all men is included in the volume is worthy of note. Though his position is heretical, it nevertheless shows the direction of progressivism in the CRC and the inability of CRC conservatives to defeat it. Dekker, in arguing for universal atonement, points out the inconsistency of the “free- offer men,” such as Louis Berkhof, with whom he was taking issue. Berkhof argues for limited atonement on the basis of the doctrine of election, but at the same time he believes in a love of God for all men expressed in the offer of the gospel. As Dekker points out, in order to be consistent Berkhof ought to let election control the preaching of the gospel as well as the extent of the atonement.
Dekker also points out how the well-meant offer of the gospel requires a universal availability of the atonement: “Otherwise the well-meant offer of the gospel is a farce, for it then offers sincerely to all men what cannot be sincerely said to be available to all” (57). The CRC conservatives’ opposition to the modernism represented by Dekker was enervated by the inconsistency of their own position and by their adoption, with the modernists, of the well-meant offer.
There is a very interesting section on “Church and Society.” These articles should be read by every Reformed Christian who has any affinity with the “cultural mandate” of common grace. They constitute an urgent warning of the deadly consequences of this approach. The idea underlying all of these articles is that the power of the state can be used to create the “good society,” as envisioned by Prof. Lewis Smedes (70ff.). Smedes argued that the church should have a “social ethic,” what he calls elsewhere a “God-willed structure for society,” and that this social ethic is to be enacted by legislation—state legislation. All of the writers (with the exception of Carl Henry) put their faith in the State to create a society reflecting a Christian ethic.
The articles on the policy of apartheid in South Africa bring to mind the affinity of Liberal Christianity with international Marxism. During the 1970s and 80s Christian leaders such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu of Capetown and Dr. Allan Boesak were part of a political movement that included the (Communist) African National Congress. The misguided activities of these men helped to foment social revolution in South Africa and thus brought upon them the condemnation of.
Reading Harry Boer’s and Dr. Boesak’s articles, one would think that apartheid was the greatest enemy of Christ’s church in South Africa. The Heidelberg Catechism, a creedal statement for both Boer and Boesak as Reformed ministers, teaches differently: “our mortal enemies (are) the devil, the world, and our own flesh” (Lord’s Day 52). These enemies are overcome not by social revolution, but by the preaching of the gospel; and not by the liberation struggle, but by the Christian struggle for sanctification.
There follow in the book collections of articles on Vietnam, gender, American politics, Evangelicalism, movies, the Palestinian issue, and ecology.
If someone says I have been entirely negative in reviewing this book, it is for the very simple reason that as a confessional Calvinist I could not find anything to be positive about. There is one thing, however, I find highly instructive in the book: principles work through. And specifically the doctrine of common grace has worked its way through the Reformed churches, engulfing them in worldliness. In the introduction to the book the editors allude to the adoption of the doctrine of common grace by the CRC Synod of 1924. Interestingly, they also point out that in adopting common grace, synod immediately issued a caution lest it lead to worldliness. This caution was in the form of a condemnation of three forms of worldliness, one of which was the movie. Ironically, the book records the first movie review to appear in the pages of the Reformed Journal in 1967, following the CRC Synod’s lifting the proscription of theater and movie attendance the year before. With the adoption of common grace the genie of worldliness was well and truly out of the bottle, and no amount of caution and warnings from synod could ever put it back in. In this there is a warning to us today as Protestant Reformed Churches and as Reformed Christians. And maybe in this warning is to be found the value of the book.