This past July 26-28 there was held a regional conference of churches of reformed persuasion, called by the three North American members of the R.E.S. (Reformed Ecumenical Synod), which met in the beautiful Calvin Seminary building at their Knollcrest Campus.
This conference was held in harmony with decisions taken at the last R.E.S. meeting in Grand Rapids in 1963. The following decisions were taken:
1. That Synod encourage the constituent members of the R.E.S. in particular areas to hold regional conferences for the purpose of cultivating fellowship, of bearing a more united and effective witness to our common faith, of deliberating on questions of peculiar concern to the churches within those areas, and to devise ways and means of putting into effect decisions of the R.E.S.
2. That Synod encourage member churches within particular areas to invite those churches that have sent observers to the R.E.S. as well as congregations which are in agreement with the basis and objectives of the R.E.S. but whose denominations do not belong to the R.E.S., to participate in these regional conferences provided this is deemed practicable and proper by the member churches within the area concerned. (Art. 106).
Our last Synod decided to send the members of our “Committee for Foreign Correspondence” to this conference. In addition to them (Rev. M. Schipper and Prof. H.C. Hoeksema), the undersigned together with Prof. H. Hanko and Rev. G. Lubbers were present at some of’ these meetings. Besides, there were men from the following thirteen denominations present: Associate Presbyterian Church; Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church; Christian Reformed; Free Christian Reformed; Orthodox Presbyterian; Presbyterian Church of Canada; Presbyterian Church of Korea (Hapdong); Presbyterian Church in the U.S. (Southern); Reformed in America; Reformed Church in U.S. (Eureka Classis); Reformed Episcopal; Reformed Presbyterian—Evangelical Synod; Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (Covenanters). Of these, the Christian Reformed, Orthodox Presbyterian and Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America are members of the R.E.S. and sponsored the conference.
One almost hesitates making remarks about a conference as that recently held. First, such remarks might be construed as that which merely attempts to “throw cold water” on a different sort of venture. Secondly, it is probably easy (maybe too easy) to criticize any first attempt, for usually first attempts are marked also by certain failures which might not be so evident in subsequent meetings.
The recent regional conference was the first of its kind and scope in this country (of which I am aware). It was a gathering of men from denominations which hold to the major creeds of the Reformed faith. Such a united meeting could in many ways prove advantageous. As was also stated at the meeting, this is an opportunity for those of other denominations to become acquainted with, and hear discourses by, men who are highly esteemed in their own denominations—but are hardly known outside their own group of churches. Besides, churches of Reformed persuasion face many similar problems. There are the gross errors of our day which must be exposed and condemned. Then too, there are the old heresies which constantly arise in slightly different garb. Conferences such as was held can serve the purpose of discussing and encouraging one another to combat these errors. A third advantage of such conferences of those who claim to adhere to the Reformed faith is that face-to-face discussions can be held respecting differences between denominations. Why not discuss such differences on the basis of Scripture and the Confessions?
THE THEME: CHRIST OR CHAOS
The theme of the conference mentioned above was, “Christ or Chaos.” There is good reason to be very unhappy with such a theme. Where it came from or what suggested it, I would not know. I can not find any Scriptural passage which might have suggested it. Scripture speaks much of “chaos,” it is true; especially is such chaos evident in these last days. And, of course, Christ is the heart of the revelation of Scripture. But the alternative, Christ OY chaos, hardly seems Scriptural. To my mind this theme seems to imitate some of those used by the W.C.C. (for instance: “Christ the Hope of the World” was the theme of the W.C.C. meeting of 1954). The theme is striking, but very vague. One could detect this clearly at the meetings too. Both speakers and listeners appeared confused concerning the intent of “chaos” in the theme. Were we to be warned concerning the danger of chaos in the world about us? Some seemed to think so. Or was the danger of chaos in the church world of our day? Or was this threat of chaos that which confronted the Reformed community of our day?
The difficulty is that from an objective viewpoint there is not such an alternative as Christ or chaos. Scripture emphasizes repeatedly the “chaos” of the last times: a chaos in which the antichrist arises, in which apostasy abounds, etc. But such “chaos” is not an alternative to Christ; it does not push Christ from the “picture”—though admittedly such is the intent. Rather, it is Christ who gathers His people and realizes His kingdom in and through this chaos. All these things also work together for good to them that love God. To a large extent, I fear, that truth was ignored at the recent conference. It is true that from a subjective viewpoint, whether this be of an individual or of a denomination, the alternative for Christ and His cross can not be world peace or utopia—but only chaos as a result of rebellion against the Word of God.’ That chaos is measured not by the standards and “success” of men, but by the standard of the Word of God. But this last idea received very little (if any) emphasis. The approach was rather, “We as Reformed communities hold to the Christ of the Scripture. How, now, can we make use of this fact in order to prevent the development of chaos about us?”
The conference itself consisted of four major speeches and one panel discussion. Opportunity was given for those attending to discuss these speeches in smaller groups, and later the individual groups would present their questions to the speakers in a plenary or “full” session of the conference. The speeches (I can not judge the last one, since I was unable to be present) were quite scholarly, ranging in length from one hour to an hour and a half. The panel discussion was very disappointing. Its subject was “Christ the Critic of His Church: testing our differences by His Word.” We had probably expected too much of this panel—at least a comparison of differences between the various groups represented, and a study of these differences in the light of Scripture. But very little of this was done. Four speakers addressed themselves to four areas in which differences arise: doctrinal, political, involvement in society, and concern with education. One received the impression that the, speakers sought not to emphasize and point out differences (these were somewhat jokingly dismissed), they sought not to “test our differences by His Word,” but rather blandly presented very general statements concerning each area of “difference.” Probably one difficulty for the panel was that far too much area was supposed to be covered. Better it would have been if one question in one of the four divisions had been discussed (for instance, one doctrinal point could have been presented for discussion and “testing” by Scripture).
The first speaker on the conference program was Dr. J. Nederhood, Christian Reformed minister and speaker of the “Back to God Hour.” This man has a tremendous command of the English language. He had a delivery which was “spellbinding.” And he had a masterful way of evading the giving of direct answers to the questions submitted at the close of his speech. His speech was entitled: “Christ the Power of the Gospel: The Bible’s Message to a Lost World.” It had three parts. First he spoke on Christ as the “material power of the gospel.” He pointed out that Christ is the heart of Scripture and the sole weapon for the church. Secondly, he emphasized that Christ is the “legal power of the gospel.” The presentation of Scripture, said he, is not that man delivers himself. Salvation does not occur when men accept the Savior, but when the power of Christ explodes in them and His will becomes their will. He condemned modern-day evangelism as being Arminianism. Thirdly, Nederhood pointed out that Christ is the “efficient power of the gospel.” Rather nicely, I think, he emphasized that Christ always accomplishes His purpose. He, surely saves His people. Nederhood emphasized the fact of election, quoting the traditional texts, and pointed out that it was these elect, chosen from before the foundations of the world, that are surely saved. It did one’s heart good to hear such emphasis upon the power of Christ unto the salvation of His own.
But the speech suffered from three serious flaws. First, (and this was pointed out during the question period) there was no mention of the work of the Holy Spirit through whom the power of Christ is realized in the hearts of His elect. Secondly, there was no mention whatever of the power of Christ in its negative aspect: that His Word is a two-edged sword which also works to the condemnation and damnation of the reprobate. In fact the word “reprobate” (as far as I recall) and proof-texts for the same were not mentioned at all. This “negative” aspect of the power of Christ must never be ignored or denied. Thirdly, the speech suffered from a “practical” post-millennialism. Doctrinally Nederhood professes the truth of amillennialism. In its practical walk, such seemed to be the contention of Nederhood, the church must be post-millennial—that is, the church must live and work as though we will make of this earth finally the Kingdom of Christ. The church must labor with all its might to prevent the chaos of this present age. In this, Nederhood accurately reflected the present idea within his own denomination.
The second speaker was Dr. E. Clowney, Orthodox Presbyterian, and acting president of Westminster Theological Seminary. His speech is rather difficult to report in a few sentences. He crowded more words into one minute than any man I ever heard—and he used a full 90 minutes. He went into great detail concerning two points: the Headship of Christ over the church and the Church as the body of Christ. Very thoroughly he considered the various points under each division. Finally, he pointed out how this headship of Christ unites the Church. He ignored (and this was very good in my estimation) the general theme of the conference: Christ or Chaos. He emphasized rather the positive position of Christ within His Church. One basic criticism I have is that the speech presented far, far too much material for assimilation and discussion. The speaker could more profitably have concentrated on a few points which merit discussion within reformed circles.
The third speaker, Dr. J. Sanderson (Reformed Presbyterian, Evangelical Synod) addressed himself to the subject: “Christ the Key to our Unity.” He pointed out first on the basis of John 17, 11, 21-23, what true unity is. Secondly, on the basis of Eph. 1:22-23 he showed that the Church is the fulness of Christ. Finally, he showed the fruit of that fulness on the basis of Eph. 4:10ff. His conclusion was that the only basis for division in the Church is geographical. He emphasized that the church must unite not on the basis of ignoring differences but on the basis of resolved differences through discussion and study in the light of Scripture. He repeatedly stated that the “gifted men” which God gives to various denominations could more profitably be used interdenominationally. His was a strong plea for a unity based upon the truths of Scripture. I hope to continue next time.