(Note: the following is approximately the speech delivered at the Convocation of the Protestant Reformed Theological School on September 6, 1972.)
It is with a deep sense of gratitude to God that we begin a new year of school work in our Seminary. God has made another year of school work possible. He has given us a large number of new students who, this year, begin their pre-seminary training in our school. And there is evidence of concern for and interest in our Seminary on the part of our people both by the large crowd which is gathered here tonight and by the excellent response to our recent drive for a new Seminary building. All these things are evidences and tokens of God’s favor towards us and reason for gratitude.
The thought arises at a time like this that we do not begin a new year of school, so to speak, in a vacuum. Other Seminaries throughout this land and abroad also begin at this time of the year a new year of school work. Especially in the light of the fact that we are, relatively speaking, rather small and, by any standards of measurement, insignificant, what justification do we have for opening a Seminary of our own?
There are various answers to this question which could be given. But there is one aspect to which I wish especially to call your attention this evening.
Perhaps what characterizes our times more than anything else is an incessant and sometimes even raucous clamor for change filling the ecclesiastical air. The password of those advocating change is “relevance.” The church, it is said, must be relevant to the times, for only in this way will the Church be able to speak intelligently and effectively to our modern age. And so, the call for change touches upon every aspect of ecclesiastical life. Changes are introduced in the theology of the Church and are sought in the Confessions of the Church. Changes are made in the liturgy of the Church—both in the manner of the worship of God and in the liturgical forms. Changes are suggested for the calling of the Church as she goes about seeking to be effective in today’s world. And, to meet these changes, changes are also made in the work of the Seminaries—in the curriculum and in the instruction which is given.
I find particularly appropriate the Word of God as it appears in Jeremiah 6:16: “Thus saith the Lord, Stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls. But they said, We will not walk therein.”
Jeremiah was called to prophesy in Judah during evil days. Judah had departed from the ways of Jehovah. The text suggests very strongly that also among the people of Judah the cry for change was in the air. Judah had wearied of the old ways and the nation was looking for something new. The old ceremonies of the law had be come an obnoxious burden and the complaint was made that the worship of God according to the old ways was no longer meaningful. These ways of worship were conducive to formal lip service and stifling of any genuine worship of the heart. These ways were unattractive to the youth of the nation and no longer attracted them to the temple. New ways of worship and new methods of expressing the faith of the Church had to be discovered if the nation was to be relevant to the youth and to the heathen surrounding Canaan. And so the nation had struck out into new paths, experimenting and blazing new trails through uncharted lands, attempting to find different paths to walk in their worship and faith.
To them the Word of God came with force and power: “Stop! Stop walking in the way you are going. Pause for a moment and consider what you are doing. Take inventory and examine the course you have chosen to follow. Inquire concerning the ancient paths. Learn anew of them. And, having learned of them, walk in them.”
Obviously, the text uses a figure of speech. It is a figure of speech which is quite common to Scripture. The text describes the life of the people of Judah in terms of a “way” and a “path.” The former word is more or less a general word which is often used to describe either the whole of man’s life or one particular aspect of it. It defines man’s life or an aspect of it in terms of a journey which begins at a certain time and continues on until death. Here this general word “way” is used to describe that aspect of man’s life which is particularly characterized by his worship of God.
The latter word, “path,” denotes rather a well-trodden and deeply worn path clearly marked because many people have walked that same way in times past.
The latter word is of particular concern to us. This “path” is defined in the text by the word “ancient.” It is called “ancient” for various reasons. In the first place, the word “ancient” literally means “eternal.” And the word suggests that this path is above all marked by God. It is the path prescribed by God from all eternity which God defines that His people may walk in it. Secondly, it is called “ancient” because it is not a new path, recently discovered or made, but it is, as a matter of fact, very, very old. And, thirdly, it is called “ancient” because many people have walked that way before. This is why it is so well-worn and so deeply beaten.
No doubt, this is also why the text calls this path “good.” It is good because it has been defined by God Himself; and many, having walked this path, have found it good.
There is no doubt about the reference as far as the nation of Judah was concerned. These paths were the ways prescribed by the Law of God which was given to Israel through Moses, God’s servant. The body of Mosaic legislation prescribed precisely for the nation of Israel how Israel was to walk as God’s people in a way pleasing to Him. It described particularly the whole way of the worship of God in the temple with the ceremonies and types which set Israel apart from all the nations under heaven.
Nevertheless, these paths were essentially defined by the promise of the coming of Christ. That promise shone through all the prescriptions of the law; and in the hope of that promise Israel and Judah were called to walk.
In these paths Israel had walked in ancient times.
There is a comparison here to our own life which we ought not to overlook. The ancient paths for us are still the paths prescribed by God Himself and expressive of His will for us. These paths are clearly and unmistakably defined in God’s infallible Word. They define the fundamental principle; which govern all our life and conduct. They define the truth which is the content of our confession. They define the manner of our worship of God both as individuals and as Church. They define all our life and walk in the world as we are called to be children of our Father in heaven.
But these paths are also ancient because we have spiritual fathers who have walked in these ways before us. Today, too, the path is well-defined because it has been trodden down by the feet of countless thousands who have come this way before. They are therefore the paths of our Confessions and liturgical forms drawn up in ancient times, defining the ways in which our fathers have walked.
The command which came to Judah is very sharp and contains even an awful indictment. Judah had begun to walk in new paths—uncharted and unmarked—experimenting with new forms of worship and new theologies. But, the text suggests, Judah had forgottenthe ancient ways. This is quite obviously the implication of the command: “Ask for the old paths.” Such asking presupposes that there was a need to know. And this could only be because the ancient paths had been forgotten.
This is usually the way it goes. It is true, of course, that the longer one pursues new paths, the more he forgets the ancient paths. But the fact remains that the clamor for change, the incessant appeal for something new most often arises out of appalling ignorance of the ancient ways. There is something ironical about this. Those who shout the loudest for changes in theology and worship scarcely know what the ancient paths are. The, plea for change arises out of ignorance of both Scripture and the Confessions of the Church.
Judah had forgotten the old paths. This was reminiscent of the days of the judges when a generation arose which knew not the Lord nor the wonderful works He had performed for Israel. It was an echo of Hosea’s bitter complaint: “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.” These were the days when Josiah and his workers found the book of the law in the temple, and no one in the whole of Judah even recognized what it was.
To this Judah comes the command: “Stop in the ways you are going! Look about you. Take inventory. Examine the matter of your way. And inquire concerning the ancient paths. And once you have learned of these paths, walk in them!”
No less does this command come to the church world of today—and, to us tonight.
We may be thankful that the clamor for change has not yet found a ready ear among us. But the danger is always there. And we must be on our guard. There are always those advocating change, and their arguments can sound very persuasive. Besides, who will deny that the new and untried always has its own unique appeal?
Nevertheless, the calling comes to all of us here tonight to inquire concerning the ancient ways. That implies, first of all, a constant searching of the Scriptures to learn the will of Jehovah God: for the ancient ways are His prescription for us. But it implies also a thorough acquaintance with our Confessions and Liturgical Forms. These are the ways that are of old. They are hallowed by the feet of countless thousands who have gone this way before. They are not ways different from the ways described by the Scriptures. They are the ways of Scripture itself, marked by our fathers as the way the church is called to walk. Over the centuries, since the time of the apostles, the saints of Jehovah have trodden these paths until they are hard-packed, well-trodden paths, clearly visible for all who want to see. And they are paths even upon which much blood has fallen: for those who have walked this way heretofore have done so at the price of their lives.
We who are called to engage in the work of instruction solemnly pledge to you all that we shall heed this admonition and command. We shall, in humble dependence upon God and by the power of His grace, inquire into the ancient ways and walk in them.
But I take this opportunity also to press home upon you who are studying in our school this same truth. Some of you will be studying part of the time in local colleges. You may be sure that you will meet with this clamor for change. You may be sure, too, that the arguments will sound sometimes persuasive and convincing. You may be sure that the temptation will be strong to change your theology, your Confession, your way of worship in the name of relevance. I urge upon you this truth of God’s Word. It is Jehovah God Who commands it. “Thus saith Jehovah. . . . Inquire concerning the ancient ways, where is the good way, and walk therein.” Let the Word of God be your rule and guide always. Honor the paths which your fathers have trod. For the paths they have marked out are paths given to them by the Spirit of Christ always present in the Church.
But no less does this command come to all of us. It is said sometimes, and correctly, that when heresy comes into the Church it usually comes from the top down. I.e., it comes from the Seminaries and schools. And from there it filters down into all levels of Church life. I do not mean to dispute this. But we must not forget that the opposite also is true. No Seminary can be any stronger than the Church which cherishes it, loves it, supports it, and prays for it. That is true of our Seminary too.
What was Judah’s response to this command? Coldly they said: “We will not walk therein.” They would not even stop in the way they were going. They would not even pause to consider their way. They would not inquire concerning the ancient paths. They were indifferent and profane. How characteristic of our own times!
But in these “new ways” there is no rest.
There is something terrible about this. But it is also paradoxical. New ways are never satisfying. They never bring peace. They never have an end. Always the one who sets his feet upon these ways is driven on by the restless desire for something else, something new again. The new, once tried, becomes old and stale. Its attractiveness is soon gone and its allurement soon turned to ashes. And so, to tickle the fancy, to satiate the craven lust for that which was new, yet other new bays must be devised and new paths explored. And to this there is no end. There can be no end, for the wrath of God abides on those who depart from his Word. The new is always old.
But, the opposite is also true: the old is always new. The ancient paths are always new paths, and they remain such. They are new because they are the paths of God. To the hungry and thirsty heart of the child of God, they are never old. To the guilt-burdened soul they can be nothing but new—every time he walks in them. For they are the paths of God and His Christ. They are the paths of the age-old and yet ever-new truths of the Scriptures. And they never cease to thrill anew the hearts and souls of God’s people though he should walk in them all his life.
In these ways God’s people find rest for their souls. “Our souls can find no rest,” Augustine said, “till they rest in thee.”