What are rather popularly known as liberal-versus-conservative tensions are present almost everywhere today among churches of the Reformed and Presbyterian family. The Reformed Church in America has known such tensions for a long time already, and more recently they have apparently become stronger. The Christian Reformed Church especially in recent years has felt these tensions: in general, Torch and Trumpet has been recognized as a mildly conservative voice in the CRC for several years, while The Reformed Journal has gotten the reputation of being the voice of the ultra-liberals; and among the laymen, the Association of Christian Reformed Laymen has more recently come to the fore as a group of critical conservatives. The Southern Presbyterian Church has experienced the same tensions. In that denomination The Presbyterian Journal is a recognized conservative voice; and besides, also the laymen who are concerned about liberal trends have organized to express their concern. The same is true in the Netherlands. In the Gereformeerde Kerken, where a radical form of liberalism has come into power, there is the Society of the Alarmed Ones (Verontrusten), and there is the increasingly outspoken and critical paper, Waarheid en Eenheid (Truth and Unity). Also in the churches in New Zealand and Australia (both Reformed and Presbyterian) these same tensions are present. There are those who are concerned about the rise of the so-called “new theology” in their midst. A Reformed and Presbyterian Fellowship of Australasia has been organized, and they have also begun to publish a little paper called Reformed Guardian, in order to sound the alarm among their brethren. Sometimes these conservative groups in various denominations have some contact with one another and seek fellowship and support in one another. Recently, for example, there seems to be a tendency of some conservatives in the Christian Reformed Church to seek the fellowship of conservatives in the Southern Presbyterian Church.
I would not venture to predict what might be the outcome of the various struggles which are going on in these denominations. All of these groups, I suppose, have, in general, the aim of “saving” their denominations, or at least of salvaging out of them whatever there is to be salvaged. In a way, they all have reformation as their aim, though to what extent they aim at reformation—whether, for example, they aim at reformation even if this involves separation—is, to say the least, not clear. But it is not my purpose to prophesy concerning these movements and their ultimate success or failure, though, for various reasons, I am not optimistic about them, and certainly not optimistic as to the possibility of a large and strongly! Reformed group emerging from any one of the denominations involved or from several of them together. I can conceive of it that things might so develop that those who wish to be truly Reformed would be thrown together by force of circumstances some day; and I would both recommend this and welcome it. But I am not optimistic about the size of the genuinely Reformed remnant today. I see no reason to be optimistic. But this is not of great importance; and I, for one, am not interested in counting noses.
What is necessary, however, for reformation? This is an important question for all those movements which aim at reformation. And while this question may be asked from various points of view, and accordingly have various answers, I intend the question now from the point of view of any reforming movement. What is necessary on the part of such a reforming movement in order to bring about a reformation?
One of the first requirements is that those who aim at reformation be committed to reformation. I mean, first of all, that they must be actively committed to reformation. Not infrequently there are those who are dissatisfied with the status quo in their denomination and who are alarmed at the growth of liberalism and the increase in the influence of the liberals, but who are not actively committed to reformation. They hope that someone will do something, but they do nothing themselves. They complain about various events, and may even complain publicly to an extent, but their commitment goes no farther than voicing dissatisfaction. Frequently, some disturbing event may take place in the life of their church, some conservative leader may be maltreated-by the liberal machine, or some liberal leader may express himself in an especially heterodox manner; and these crypto-conservatives voice the hope that “now at last something might happen” or that “this just might be the last straw, the straw that breaks the camel’s back.” Well, reformations don’t just “happen,” but they are brought about through active commitment. And to expect reformation to take place without such active commitment is indeed to grasp for straws. Secondly, by commitment to reformation I mean a wholehearted commitment to reformation as such, to reformation no matter what it may involve, to reformation without looking at the consequences, without looking at the cost, without looking at numbers, to reformation whether it can be accomplished within the church or whether it can only be accomplished by separation. Study any genuine reform movement in the history of the church, and you will discover that those involved were characterized by such a commitment. They insisted upon and sought reformation, and they did so without fearful questionings as to the cost and the consequences. They went “right on”! They were devoted to principle, and they acted always in a manner consistent with the principle to which they were devoted. This was characteristic of a Luther and of a Calvin, for example, in the great reformation of the sixteenth century. And it has always been one of the requisites of reformation.
A second requirement is that those who aim at reformation must be more than “anti-” in their aim. It is characteristic, of course, of all reformation that it is occasioned by the presence of various ills in the church; and those who aim at reformation desire to correct those evils, to remove them. And from this point of view, there is always an “anti-” side to any reformation movement. No one will deny that in the churches today there are many disturbing factors and decisions and trends about which to be “anti-” and against which the various reform-movements warn, in some instances rather vociferously. And this is necessary! It is necessary to sound the trumpet and to blow the alarm in Zion.
But to be “anti-” is not sufficient. For one thing, it is purely negative, reactionary; and no movement can exist on negations and live by reaction only. It has sometimes been said that our Protestant Reformed Churches were purely reactionary, that they were a denomination which was only “anti-common-grace.” That we are, indeed, anti-common-grace is correct. But we are much more than that; and the failure to see the latter, the failure to see that we are not only an “anti-” denomination, accounts for the mistaken predictions of those who always prophesied an early death for the Protestant Reformed Churches. Besides, a movement which is solely “Bnti-” will eventually wake up to the fact that it is not all unified at to what it positively stands for. It is very well possible for a reform movement to be an admixture of various elements which are anti-this or anti-that. And in a way, these various elements are in agreement on what they are against. They have, it seems, a common enemy. And in the face of that common enemy and common danger, they unite. But when the common danger has been faced and overcome and there is no more enemy to fight, they discover that they are in disagreement among themselves as to those things for which they stand positively.
Thus, for example, there may be many today who in the various denominations suffering from liberal conservative tensions are against evolutionism, against the social gospel, against neo-orthodox theology, etc. But if you inquire into the other question, the question of what they are for, you discover that such a movement is after all a grand mixture, that it is greatly divided internally as to important aspects of the truth, and that it can only be considered a united movement on the basis of some broad common denominator such as evangelicalism or fundamentalism, that as a movement it is like a large umbrella.
Now what is wrong with such a situation?
Not only is it, as a movement, purely negative. But it is not really committed to reformation. One will soon discover that there are those within the movement who are in favor of reformation—up to a point. But there is really no such thing as reformation-up-to-a-point. Principally, reformation is an all-or-nothing activity. The reason is that the truth of the gospel is one. It is not a mere composite of many truths, but an organic whole: For this reason, when reformatory action takes place which is largely negative and reactionary, those involved will soon discover—if they have only been united against certain common enemies and errors—that in their new and supposedly purified movement they are not only not positively united, but also that they have in their midst the seeds of new departures .and divisions. In a sense, for example, it would be conceivable that Reformed and Arminians would be united in their opposition to evolutionism and in their opposition to those who attack the infallibility and authority of Holy Scripture. But this unity is not a positive unity on the basis of the truth as a whole. It will in due time become manifest again that Arminianism is incipiently the same modernism to which evolutionism is devoted; or it will become plain that while Arminianism supposedly wants to insist on the authority of the Word of God, it does not want to bow before that authority with respect to its own Arminian tenets.
This is important, it is something to watch with respect to various reform movements today. On the surface of things, it may seem as though these movements, judging from their attacks on liberalism, are valiant for the truth. And sometimes, indeed, it is difficult to make a judgment for the simple reason that their attention is so much devoted to polemics, to attacks upon and exposes of various heresies in the churches, that it is difficult to gain any full picture of where such a movement stands from a positive point of view. But once in a while writings of a more positive nature will appear, or there will be indications of a lack of opposition to or even of positive support for various causes, which give rise to doubts as to the sound and thorough and positive commitment of that very reform movement which might be vociferous in its opposition to the heresies of liberalism and the new theology. It will become manifest, for example, that conservative Presbyterians are after all only broadly evangelical, not truly Presbyterian. Or it will become plain that those who are much opposed to some of the practical fruits of the common grace theory nevertheless will not cease to embrace common grace itself. Or it will become plain that those Reformed people who strongly oppose the so-called new theology can nevertheless recommend and support the Billy Graham crusade movement. To my consternation, I recently noticed that this was the case with Waarheid en Eenheid, for example, in the Netherlands. How it is possible for Reformed men, men who claim to be concerned about the denial of the Reformed truth in the Gereformeerde Kerken, to turn right around and support and recommend the Billy Graham movement, which is, at very best, thoroughly Arminian,—that is a conundrum to me. But it also raises grave doubts in, my soul as to the strength of such a reform movement and its willingness to go in the direction of genuine reformation.
All of which brings me to mention a third requisite for reformation, namely, a wholehearted and positive commitment to the truth of Scripture and the Reformed creeds. This, after all, is the crux of the matter. Where there is a genuine faith-commitment to our Reformed heritage, so that what is expressed in the creeds is the faith of our hearts and our lives, and so that what the creeds express is the object of our love,—there, and there only, is there any real hope of reformation.