In my last editorial on the Dekker Case Decision, you will recall, I traced the charge of abstractness back toThe Reformed Journal, and, specifically, to Dr. Henry Stob. It would appear that the miracle of which Dr. Stob spoke at the August 30 session of the Christian Reformed Synod was accomplished not by the Holy Spirit, but by The Reformed Journal, the dangerous voice of a new theology which is sending spine-chilling “winds of change” blasting through the Christian Reformed Church. Somehow the Christian Reformed Synod was at long last prevailed upon to say the same thing that Dr. Stob said: “Abstract!”
Let me once again caution the reader, on the one hand, against thinking that I accuse the Christian Reformed Synod of believing and expressing all that Dr. Stob says when he writes about the abstractness of Prof. Dekker and of the Study Committee. This I do not claim. For the Synod simply used the term abstractwithout further defining it. To say the least, however, this is a highly dangerous practice: it allows everyone the freedom of understanding what he will concerning this charge. On the other hand, let me also warn that this charge did not simply fall out of a blue sky. It would be less than realistic to imagine this. As I pointed out last time, the circumstantial evidence points a convincing finger of accusation at The Reformed Journal and at that group of Christian Reformed theologians which is generally thought of as protecting and defending Prof. Dekker against charges of being anti-creedal. And since The Reformed Journaloriginated this notion of abstractness, and since no other source can be found for this charge, and since the Synod apparently echoed Dr. Henry Stob’s language, though it did not further define its use of the term, it is only logical to assume that the meaning attached to the term by The Reformed Journal is the meaning which will prevail in the mind of the church.
But this meaning is so very dangerous and destructive of all truly Reformed theology and is already creating such unspeakable theological chaos, both here and in the Netherlands, that I want to take the time to expose it and warn against it.
Lest I lose my readers, let me insert a word of explanation.
What we are talking about here is the deep, underlying question of theological method. This is an issue which is far greater than the Dekker Case as such. It lies at the root of this case. Professor Dekker himself has said little, if anything, about this subject. But others, such as Drs. Daane and Stob, have written about it. The question of method concerns not only the doctrines of the atonement and the love of God. It concerns all theology. Moreover, the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands are being troubled not only by some of the very same doctrinal issues as those of the Dekker Case; they are also being troubled by this allegedly “new” method. It is this so-called new method that is behind such basic issues as the doctrine of Scripture, the doctrine of creation (theistic evolution), the doctrine of reprobation, the doctrine of hell,—all of which are being challenged in the Netherlands as well as in the Reformed community in America. In fact, it is safe to say that the new theological method of which Dr. Henry Stob speaks is not new in the sense that it is original: it is an imported product, imported from the Netherlands, and especially from the Free University, and more especially still, from Dr. G.C. Berkouwer, And whether it is original with Dr. Berkouwer is at least questionable: the so-called neo-orthodox theologians, such as Dr. Karl Barth.
What, then, are some of the marks of this theological method?
The first that I want to mention is that it is, according to its own claim, a new method.
This is not my claim; it is the claim of this new theology itself. For my part, I am rather certain that what we have in this alleged new theology is not really new at all. It is something very old that is dressed up in the garb of a new terminology. But I will return to this aspect of the subject later. Just now I want to point to the claim of being a new method.
In the quotation from Dr. Stob’s editorial made in the last issue of the Standard Bearer, statements like the following are found:
. . . And what has become equally plain is that the scientific method which we have customarily employed in our address to theological issues is in need of patient review and revision. . . . but we an ill afford now, when we are just beginning to reach out for a new and more biblically oriented method of theological understanding and construction, to arrest our advance . . . . We are experiencing today a theological renaissance. . .But, on the other hand, the Holy Spirit is manifestly renewing the Church’s understanding of things divine. New and responsible biblical studies. . .We are beginning to understand. . .
It is very evident from statements like those above that this theology claims,—or shall we say: admits?—to benew. This, by the way, is also evident from many statements by James Daane, who, as usual, is right, but dead wrong. The “winds of change” of which he wrote in the July-August, 1966, issue of The Reformed Journal are the winds of this self-proclaimed new method of theologizing. In fact, James Daane seems to be so enamored of his own new theology that he cannot even be fair and truthful about the theology, method, and exegesis of others. That is why he never fails to misrepresent the theology of Herman Hoeksema, as he does, for example, in the same issue of The Reformed Journal in which Dr. Stob writes about the new theology. He forevermore accuses Herman Hoeksema of simply equating the “world” and the “all men” whom God loved and for whom Christ died with the elect by “an exegesis in which time and history were not allowed to interfere.” This is a plain and unvarnished misrepresentation on Daane’s part; and it is about as far from the truth as he could get. If Daane wants a new theology, that is one thing; but that he cannot even truthfully represent the “old theology” is quite another. Anyone who has ever read Herman Hoeksema’s exegesis of the “world” inJohn 3:16, for example, knows that he exactly does not equate “world” and “elect,” and above all not with an exegesis in which time and history have no place.
But what about this self-proclaimed newness?
In the first place, we must remember that all change is not improvement. That is especially true in theology, and more especially in Reformed theology. Change, especially in such an important area as theological method, should be viewed with extreme caution. It is rather fashionable, also in the area of theology, to picture those who oppose change or who view it with caution as stick-in-the-mud conservatives, as the “old guard,” who are standing in the way of progress. Moreover, it may sound up-to-date, progressive,—maybe I should use that naughty word “relevant”—to speak of a new and more biblically oriented method of theological understanding and construction, of a theological renaissance, of the Holy Spirit’s manifestly renewing the Church’s understanding of things divine, of descending from the cold heights of abstract truth; but these are in themselves only high-sounding phrases. And especially if we remember that this change involves the repudiation of the theological method which has stood the test of centuries and which has brought the Reformed heritage to its beautiful expression in our Three Forms of Unity,—then, I say, caution is in order. To say the very least, it remains to be seen whether this change is indeed an improvement, a rebirth, a renewal. Before we are swept off our theological feet by the cry of progress and by the warning against arresting advance, and before we are tempted to accept the products of this new method, we should examine the method itself carefully,
That brings me to my second observation. It is this: the very claim of being new implies the admission that it isdeparture. It is well to recognize this fact. These so-called new theologians are departing. They are departing in their method; and they are necessarily departing in their theology, the product of that method. Moreover, this means inevitably, as I will point out in detail in another connection and in a later editorial, that they are departing from our confessions. This has already proceeded so far in the Netherlands that there is discussion of changing the confessions, particularly Canons I, 6 and Canons I, 1.5. But such theologians should be open about this. They should tell the churches that they are departing, and then depart from the church also. It is corrupt first to change the theological method and thinking of the church and then to attempt to change the confessions. This is revolution. Honesty demands that he who disagrees with the confessions registers a gravamen, not that he propagandizes the church to undermine the confessions.
My third and final (for the present issue) observation is this: the burden of proof in favor of this new and departing method is on its proponents. Theirs is the new method. Theirs is also the burden of proof. Moreover, it seems to me that responsible theology would find this burden weighing heavily upon its shoulders. After all, such a thing as theological method is basic. It is at the root of all theology and theologizing. Are theologians,—and more seriously still, are the churches,—simply to accept this theology because it is new? Or are they, perhaps, to accept it on a trial-and-error basis? Or are they to accept it only because various scholarly and erudite theologians acclaim it? This could be devastating! Nor should responsible adherents of the (by contrast) “old” method of theology allow the burden of proof to be shifted to them. Too often this happens. For too long conservative Reformed theology has allowed itself to be put in the unhappy and uncomfortable position of being solely on the defensive. We should break loose from that position. We should go on the offensive, and we should do it with a sense of urgency. We have nothing to be ashamed of and everything to boast of in the Lord. Our attitude should be that we shun and teach men to shun these innovations in theology and in theological method like the plague,—unless and until they meet the solemn obligation of the burden of proof that is upon them, and meet it with Scripture and the confessions in hand.
Such is responsible theology, whether new or old.