THE CHALLENGE OF OUR AGE, by Hendrik Hart; published by The Association for the Advancement of Christian Studies, Toronto, Ontario, Canada; 148 pp., $2.00 (paper).
This book, written by the assistant professor of philosophy at the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto, Canada, is part of the Christian Perspective Series and includes lectures given at the 1966 and 1967 Study Conferences of A.R.S.S. and F.C.U.C.
This is not an easy book to review. The difficulty in reviewing it lies not so much in any problems of determining the main thrust of the author in this series of lectures. This main thrust is rather clearly stated in the book. But the difficulty lies rather in the fact that the arguments marshaled in support of the chief thesis of the book are not at all clearly stated. From a theological point of view there are highly questionable positions taken. In support of the main theme there are arguments made which are difficult to follow and of highly questionable validity.
A closer look at various aspects of the book will make this clear.
The main thrust of the book is defined in the preface:
The book presents an attempt to come to grips with the broad cultural context in which we live and to indicate the general direction in which we must move. In other words, through all the confusion that characterizes the twentieth century, the book attempts to reach a Christian perspective.
What the author means by “Christian perspective” is more precisely defined in the last chapter. In fact, the last chapter is the important chapter in the book. It states in a positive way the author’s position. The rest of the book points to it and builds up to the climax found in it. For this reason, one becomes increasingly impatient to arrive at this last chapter. The question that continues to nag is: What does the author mean by “Christian perspective?” What is “The Challenge of Our Age?” Yet the last chapter is a disappointment. The big things promised never completely materialize. One feels cheated. Having traversed a long and difficult road, one comes at last to an almost empty cave. The author mentions in an Appendix to the lectures that the chief criticism offered by those who discussed the lectures was that the book was filled with too many generalities and not enough specifics. While admitting a certain validity to these criticisms, the author contends that generalities are necessary on the one hand because a foundation has to be laid and on the other hand because the answers to all the specific problems are not yet in. He attempts to fill this lack in a brief way in the Appendix. But the disappointment I felt had not so much, to do with the generalities of the book as with the fact that the author seemed to me to fail to make his case. The jump from the argumentation of the first chapters to the last chapter seemed to be too big a jump to be sustained by the logical argument.
It is better to turn to specifics.
The author is intent on demonstrating that the true Christian perspective is a perspective in which the Christian lives in every area of life from a biblical standpoint. This biblical standpoint is communal Christian social action in every sphere of life. This perspective calls upon the Christian to subdue every area of life to the rule of Christ and on behalf of Christ’s kingdom. To use the author’s words:
A full life in the Kingdom of God can mean nothing less than to be antithetically contending with every spirit which is not of Christ, to be rendering every aspect, every force of creation captive to the Word of God, the Will of the Creator, the Law of the Kingdom, the Ordinance of the King. In other words, sons of the Kingdom must make the entire world their concern with the powers and resources of their whole lives. This is biblical secularization. p. 123.
. . . learning to live biblically in our age is first of all learning to live in terms of organized Christian action. Those who have been confronted with this and still keep stressing in principle the primary need for individualistic witness within the secular structures, without assuming reformational responsibility toward the latter, grieve the Holy Spirit and deny the power of the Kingdom to this world. p. 127.
Thus the author’s plea is a plea being increasingly heard in our day not only by those organizations before which these lectures were given but by other groups throughout the country.
It is not my intention to quarrel in this review with the thesis that there is room for united Christian action in various spheres of life such as politics, economics, etc. This is entirely possible. But whether this is the real thrust of Scripture is quite another question. Whether this calling is really the essence of biblical living is something else. To do anything else but join in such united Christian action is, in the author’s words, to grieve the Holy Spirit and deny the power of the Kingdom. To this I cannot subscribe. In essence this means that the Church has grieved the Spirit for almost 2000 years. It is true that Hart speaks of this as our calling “in our age”; but the question remains: If this is our calling in our age, why has it not been the calling of the Church in every age? Does the calling of the people of God change with various circumstances in society? It is evidently Hart’s position that it does. We disagree. And here lies a major weakness in the book. If the true nature of biblical living is communal Christian social action, one would expect Scripture to show this clearly. And one would expect Hart to point this out in Scripture and bolster his argument with sound Scriptural proof. This he does not do. Various texts are from time to time referred to (mostly in: the footnotes), but there is no exegesis of these texts and no attempt made to show how they support his thesis.
However all this may be, it is more important to get at the argument behind Hart’s position. The key to this seems to lie in the expression at the very end of the quotation made above: “This is biblical secularization.” Hart calls for biblical secularization. What does he mean by that strange term? The answer lies imbedded in a footnote. (By the way, this is one formal criticism of the book which ought to be made. The footnotes are lengthy, copious and important. In fact they are so important that material found in them ought really to be included in the main body of the text. But they are always found at the end of the chapter. And this makes for difficult reading. One can scarcely follow the argument of the text without consulting the footnotes. But to page to the end of the chapter, sometimes four or five times in a short paragraph, makes reading exceedingly difficult.) This footnote (note 21 on page 112) defines this “secularization” as being a deliverance of “human life out of the bondage of institutionalized ecclesiastic dominion.” This is a very key point in the author’s argument.
I have long suspected that the proponents of separate Christian action take a very jaundiced view of the church institute. When I broached this possibility to various proponents of such views, I was always vehemently assured that this was not the case. The book speaks of this matter. The position of Hart is that the institute of the Church has, in our day, become wrongly identified with the body of Christ. This erroneous identification (whatever that may mean) has led to a life in which Christianity no longer speaks to all areas of Christian concern. In other words, the failure of the believer to permeate all of society with the leaven of Christianity is due to this erroneous identification. (precisely how this all comes about is not made clear.) The institute is therefore in need of deliverance. What the institute ought to be in distinction from what it now is, is made clear in the following quote:
Learning to live biblically in a secular world means learning to give full and active support to Christian education, Christian political action, Christian labor activity, Christian everything; and learning to understand the church-institute as the organization which is called upon to promote such support concretely and authoritatively in the name of Christ. p. 127.
In other words, the institute assumes its proper role only when it is a means to instruct the believer in his calling in society. All of this does not seem to give to the institute of the Church the place which Scripture gives it. This suspicion is strengthened by a statement such as:
The exercise of faith in the home is of extreme importance and perhaps the only means of recovering a life close to the Scriptures. p. 141.
The objection to the above statement is not that it stresses the importance of the exercise of faith in the home; it is the author’s use of the word “only” which causes trouble. This “only” seems to be a sigh of despair that the institute will ever take on its proper task. The author’s disillusionment with the institute (particularly of the Christian Reformed Church) is evident is various criticisms which he has of some classical and synodical decisions.
But this matter of the institute is directly related to the Holy Scriptures and the author’s view of them. The author speaks repeatedly of a “biblically related life”. His view of Scripture is of some importance therefore. But here again we are left in doubt as to precisely what the author has in mind. In the Appendix to this book (cf. p. 137) the author maintains “the unconditional authority of the infallibly inspired Scriptures”. But he discusses at length the relation between the Word of God and the Bible. In warning against the extremes of “Biblicism” and liberal views which deny the inspiration of Scripture, the author says:
But if the Scriptures provide us with an authoritatively inspired instance, a sufficient instance, of God’s Word-revelation, of his dealing with his people and of their obedient response, for our instruction: in that case the power of the Word cannot be limited to that instance, but comes to us in its universal authority. p. 120.
I confess that I do not understand what the author is saying in this quote. But the troubling word in it is the word “instance.” The Scriptures are an. authoritative instance of God’s Word-revelation; and for that reason, the power of the Word cannot be limited to that one authoritatively inspired instance of Word revelation. When therefore, I read the author’s criticism of “propositional revelation” and when in a footnote to the above quote the author says: “If one ties the Worddown to the verbality of the written Scriptures, as the Scribes and Pharisees had done (Biblicism and verbalism) the Word no longer comes to us in its full authority,” then I wonder if there is not some Barthianism in the author’s conception. It is difficult to say how much stress the author intends to place upon the underscored words “tie. . .down” and what effect this is intended to have on the quote, but the very strong impression is left that the author, in some form, maintains a certain continuous authoritative revelation apart from the Scriptures or at least in addition to the Scriptures. There is need for further clarification by the author at this key point.
It is precisely in this connection that the author leaves the strong impression that he does not want objective truth as part of the revelation of God. The statement is probably too strong. He deliberately disassociates himself from those who relativize and subjectivize all truth. But again, the author is not clear. He leaves the impression that objective truth is not important, at the very least. A few quotes will help to clarify the point.
(Many Christians) say that truth is objective and absolute and that it is independent of us. But this is a very dangerous thought. . . . pp. 55 & 56.
The author would probably object to the use of this quote in the short form in which I use it. He would insist that the quote is taken out of context. He would point out that in the context he asserts emphatically that he means that no single isolated “fact” can be truth taken by itself. Truth is only truth as it stands historically related to all the other “facts” and all the other circumstances to which it is connected. The author uses an illustration to clarify what he means.
During the last war many Christians in the Netherlands wondered what they ought to say in the event that they were hiding someone and an enemy came to the door asking if that person were there. Those people argued: If we say no, we surely lie, because the person is here. And we may not lie. But if we say yes, the person will be caught and probably shot. Then we have committed treason and that is not allowed either. The unfortunate mistake made by these people was that they had a conception of truth called correspondence-to-facts. They did not understand that to say yes in such a case, was, instead of speaking the truth, giving false witness. The truth in this case would have been to take a stand in the love of that brother for Christ’s sake. Further, the meaning of the entire situation was such that the man for whom the enemy was inquiring, viz, a person-whom-they-had-the-right-to-kill, was not there. That was indeed why he was hiding there. Now, in this case what could be verified? The only thing that would have stood up to the test of impartial observation would have been that the person was there. But he was not. What could be verified was 180-pounds-of-fearfully-breathing-fleshin- the-closet. But the truth could not be verified. Notwithstanding the fact that there was a man in the closet. (p. 55.)
This strikes me as the baldest kind of sophistry. Carried over into the field of theology however, this has very dangerous consequences and implications. The whole position of Hart sounds suspiciously like the position of those who deny that God can be known in Himself—or that the knowledge of God in Himself is not important. This is a relativizing of truth.
This suspicion is strengthened by the footnote appended to the quote on pp. 55 & 56 (made above):
Theories of truth that speak of absolute objectivity make truth to be a conceptual matter of doubtful origin. Intellectualistic doctrines of truth cannot possibly account for the biblical notion of truth as something to be done and lived. (These italics are mine, H.H.) Truth primarily concerns man’s relation to the Word of God and not his first of all having correct ideas or beliefs.
This footnote is particularly interesting. The author maintains that it is not primarily what we believe which is important. It is rather what we do and how we live. But what is forgotten is the fact that what we do and how we live is only something important when it is rooted firmly in what we believe. And what we believe is what God has objectively revealed concerning Himself. It is true that no single proposition can be understand by itself in isolation from the whole of Scripture. But the whole of Scripture is nevertheless. objective revelation of God as the God Who saves His elect people through Christ. And that central truth has meaning only because of all the individual truths which are incorporated in Holy Writ.
It is not difficult to see how all this fits in with the author’s view of Scripture and of the church institute. And this is the basis for communal Christian action in every sphere of life.
Two more quotes on this same subject will give some idea of the importance which the author gives to this.
And I would therefore venture to say that what has been said so far should not be taken to be merely someone’s view, but should be approached as an attempt to let the Scriptures be their own witness. The necessity in our lives is not that of being stated correctly in some sound theological doctrine of Scripture, nor even of being formulated in an orthodox manner in the confession of the church. Its place is to function as the canon of a new creation. (This expression “canon of a new creation” is one the author uses often in the last chapter. By it he means that the Bible is the authoritative rule of life in the kingdom as the author defines that life; i.e., as communal social action. H.H.) Views, doctrines and confessional statement of the Bible have their place, which is to serve as a formulation of obedient response; meaningful only when such a response is actually there. p. 121.
Preaching is not meant primarily to inform but to reform, not fast of all to unravel doctrines, but to build lives. Preaching should be a directive to the ordinary everyday lives of the congregation’s members. It should give a message which presents an immediately-understood challenge, a dynamic motivation to act in the Kingdom. p. 139.
All this is why the author can say:
What we have to avoid at all cost, if biblical living is to be meaningful living, is on the one hand to undermine the full authority of the Bible and on the other hand to reduce the Word of God to a set of truths, a collection of infallible propositions.
It is no wonder then that the author has quite a different conception of what constitutes a lie. Only the whole context of the circumstances of a “fact” can determine this. He approves therefore of the lie of Rahab for example—although he insists that Rahab told the truth when she denied the presence of the spies in her house. He errs when he maintains that Scripture approves of Rahab’s lie. The fact is that Scripture says nothing about it. Hart may not argue from Scripture’s silence that Scripture condones it.
Another interesting question which is also connected with all the foregoing is the question of the possible postmillennialism in Hart’s thesis. Does not the Christian communal and social action which Hart pleads for necessarily imply postmillennialism? Does, Hart give any indication of being postmillennial? The answer to this question is not easy. If placed before the question, I am sure Hart would emphatically deny any postmillennialism in his views. But there are quotes from the book which are troubling nonetheless. They are not definite and conclusive. But one wonders if they do not have some of the overtones of postmillennialism nonetheless.
On page 68 Hart writes:
To gain a real foothold in western culture which is completely overpowered by the secular grip of Humanism takes, I would think, more time than barely one hundred years and more men than a few thousands. To dethrone or compete with or even challenge successfully a power which has had its strongholds established and built up for some two thousand years is no mean thing. Yet, we may keep our hopes and our courage high. For when we are doing the Lord’s work there is no power ultimately strong enough to withstand him; as he made known to us in such men as Gideon.
Or again, on page 71 we read:
(The antithesis) means that we must take hold of this world and reform it to the Spirit of Christ, reconcile it to the recreative power of the Savior of this world, in an antithetical spirit of compassion.
In a footnote to this quote the author reveals his agreement with Kuyperian common grace:
The Holy Spirit does not only work in the Body of Christ. There are enough examples in the Old Testament which teach us that God often leads a pagan people to, carry out one of his missions. Thus when during the Enlightenment Humanists protested against the tyrannic forces of science loosened by some of their brethren, we may count that as a gracious blessing of God. And we should remember that such a turn for the better is not to be credited to those Humanists, who used the betterment in idolatry, to serve themselves. p. 83.
All this is not sufficient to prove the author’s possible postmillennialism. But these quotes certainly are of such a kind that they place upon the author the obligation to answer forthrightly and explicitly whether or not he believes that united Christian social action will result in success here upon earth in the sense that the various institutions of society are indeed to be subjected to the influences of Christianity. The author has not done this in the book.
For the rest, a large section of the book deals with the prevalent spirit of Humanism which has been the moving force of society for the past many centuries. The book shows the bankruptcy of Humanism and the inevitable anarchy of society if Humanism prevails. It shows the evil of the scientific method as a tool of Humanism. It speaks boldly and loudly for the antithesis. It criticizes at length Cox’s book: “The Secular City” and exposes the errors of Cox’s position. All these are worthwhile parts of the book.
But when the author jumps from the antithesis to Christ’s concern for the whole world and bases upon this cosmic concern of Christ the Christian calling to influence every social, economic and political sphere of life, the logic is not clear. Indeed, while we are prepared to grant that the child of God in the midst of the world must be an instrument in Christ’s hands to make known the truth of God and His Word as it touches every part of life, we find the basis for the absolute necessity of Christian communal social action extremely weak.
In the Appendix Hart admits that he may have said things which may sound as if they stand outside the tradition of Reformed thought. He justifies this by appealing to a lethargic church which has to be “alarmed” so that it will spring into action. He has succeeded in “alarming” me. The alarm is caused by a conviction that the basis for Christian communal social action is extra-Scriptural.