The Protestant Reformed Churches have been my ecclesiastical home from my birth. These churches have nurtured, fed, guided, and instructed me, and subsequently, my children and grandchildren. I love these churches and pray for them continually. It is out of love for these churches that I take up the pen and address a growing concern in my soul, namely, a spirit of radicalism in these churches.
Radicalism is difficult to define. It does not identify itself, nor even admit to being radical when so accused. Radicalism is not heresy as such, for it maintains the truth of Scripture and the confessions, even emphatically so. However, it goes beyond what Scripture allows. Radicalism demands what Scripture does not. In this way radicalism distorts God’s truth and weakens the church’s ability to stand for truth.
The point of this editorial is to examine the Protestant Reformed Churches with respect to radicalism. From the vantage point of many years of membership, and having had the privilege of teaching the history of the PRC many times in these churches’ seminary, I think I may legitimately reflect a bit on the PRC. Reading articles in the Standard Bearer going back to its beginning, I have noted often that radicalism was present in the PRC from the start. Significantly, the radicalism was most often evident in letters to the editor, not in the editorials. Herman Hoeksema did not mince words or pull punches. He was sharp and precise in evaluating doctrinal error and condemning it. More than any other, the Christian Reformed Church, which had adopted common grace and deposed him, was the object of his editorial critiques. In no uncertain terms he both explained the truth and condemned and rejected the error in those churches. He did not, however, treat the CRC as false church. He did not imply that the CRC men were not Christians.
Similarly, in the conflict with Klaas Schilder and the Liberated Churches over the doctrine of the covenant, Herman Hoeksema was clear and precise in his critique of their position, uncompromisingly rejecting conditions in the covenant. But he did not condemn the Liberated as false church. At Schilder’s death, Hoeksema testified that he “esteemed him…above all, as a brother in Christ.”
Reading the SB through the years, you will discover, I believe, the same spirit in the subsequent editors to the present day. A desire to set forth the truth, reject the error as clearly as possible, without a personal condemnation of all who are not Protestant Reformed, and without setting up the PRC as the only true church.
Nonetheless, the radicals have been in the PRC from the beginning. This is not surprising. The history of the church is a history of dealing with radicalism.
Martin Luther dealt with radicalism in Wittenberg. One of Luther’s close associates early in the Reformation, a man named Andreas Bodenstein von Carlstadt, had stood boldly with Luther against the errors of Rome. But Carlstadt became radical. And when Luther was absent for some eleven months, Carlstadt led a radical movement that took over, and nearly destroyed, the Reformation in Wittenberg.
These radicals supported all that Luther had maintained but were dissatisfied with the progress of the Reformation under Luther, and they pressed for immediate changes. They rejected the manner in which the people had partaken of the Lord’s Supper (all their lives) and pressured the people into new practices. The radicals closed the monasteries and nunneries, forcing out the residents who had taken vows to remain in their orders. On their own authority they entered the city’s churches, destroying pictures of saints and smashing images of Jesus. Based on the principle of the office of believer, and that all believers have the Spirit, they began closing the schools. What need was there of an education when the Spirit would give the proper understanding of God’s will? Hearing of all this, Luther rushed back to Wittenberg to oppose and eventually to drive out the radicals.
Another form of radicalism subsequently reared its head in the Reformed churches in the Netherlands. Beholding with legitimate dismay the lack of godly living and the laxity in Reformed doctrine, some members formed conventicles in which they could meet with other ‘truly saved, truly Reformed’ believers. They felt quite capable of identifying those church members who were truly converted and those who were not. The Synod of Dordt (1618-19) rejected this radical spirit in the Canons III/IV, Article 15: “With respect to those who make an external profession of faith and live regular lives, we are bound, after the example of the apostle, to judge in the most favorable manner. For the secret recesses of the heart are unknown to us.”
The period of the Reformation was not the first time that radicalism made an appearance in the church. It manifest itself in the first disciples of the Lord. When the residents of a certain village in Samaria did not receive Jesus, His disciples James and John, filled with righteous indignation, cried, “Lord, wilt thou that we command fire to come down from heaven, and consume them, even as Elias did?” But Jesus “turned, and rebuked them, and said, Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of” (Luke 9:54-55). Or, what of Peter’s exalted opinion of his faithfulness to the Lord, above anyone else—“Though all men shall be offended because of thee, yet will I never be offended” (Matt. 26:33). Yes, even true disciples of Jesus can manifest a radical spirit, earning His disapproval and rebuke.
This radical spirit manifests itself today in the opinion that “our church” is the only true church, or virtually so. This reprehensible spirit is found in the Protestant Reformed Churches. Even though few would ever admit that they believe the PRC is the only true church, their actions and attitudes indicate that they consider all churches (other than the PRC and her sisters) to be false. They will associate only with Protestant Reformed members. Their children are not allowed to play with non-PRs. They will have no company with a family member who has left the PRC for another—even a Reformed—denomination. And perhaps even, they will cut off fellowship with members of the PRC who do have fellowship with non-PRs.
It is only a matter of time before radicals begin to look with suspicion about the Protestant Reformed Churches. Perhaps they judge their congregation to be orthodox, but more and more they wonder about other PR congregations. Eventually they start viewing other members of their own congregation with suspicion. Radicals have no doubt about themselves—they are pure. But they express doubt as to the faithfulness and commitment of other members.
At the same time, they are suspicious of the orthodoxy of certain ministers, perhaps their own. This is not because they have heard heresy preached. Yet they wonder whether he is truly and fully committed to the doctrine maintained by the PRC. Perhaps his condemnation of error is not harsh enough in their judgment. Perhaps he is too charitable to those who are “outside” the PRC.
Allow me to illustrate that my concerns are not hypothetical. One current member of the PRC, who for a time was under the influence of radicals, admitted, “I became convinced that our minister was not preaching the Reformed gospel,” a conviction that he now repudiates. Again, years ago after I preached a sermon that proclaimed the truth of an unconditional covenant of grace, a radical confidently affirmed to me that “not all your colleagues in the seminary agree with that.” (At that time, my colleagues were professors Decker, Engelsma, and Hanko, and I categorically rejected the insinuation, and still do today.)
Protestant Reformed ministers can contribute to a spirit of radical suspicion with extremely harsh language in preaching and writing. Now, let this be clear. Every Protestant Reformed minister must be antithetical—setting forth the truth over against the lie, which is to be condemned. Every Protestant Reformed minister must engage in polemics—demonstrating how a particular teaching is contrary to Scripture and the Reformed confessions. The Formula of Subscription requires it. Ministers, elders, deacons, and professors vow that they “are disposed to refute and contradict” errors, particularly those condemned in the Canons. The Protestant Reformed Seminary requires this of students in their exegesis and sermons. Elders must demand it of their minsters.
Nonetheless, ministers can contribute to the radical spirit in the congregation with a harsh, uncharitable attitude towards other Christians who hold to error. In addition, there is a line of argumentation that can contribute to radicalism. It runs something like this: “Teaching ‘A’ is an error. ‘A’ is essentially a teaching of doctrine ‘B,’ which is clearly heretical.” The impression is left that a church which teaches ‘A’ is a heretical church, which is to say, a false church.
I say again, the problem is not polemics. Refutation and condemnation of error is necessary in order to teach and warn Protestant Reformed members. It is the proper way that the ministers “exert [themselves] in keeping the church free from such errors” (Formula of Subscription).
Rather, the problem is first the “broad brush,” so to speak, used to paint heretics. Second, it is the unspoken implication that since the PRC is the only church that condemns ‘A,’ the PRC is the only true church. That contributes powerfully to radicalism.
Another way that a Protestant Reformed minister can contribute to radicalism is by not saying enough. Take, for example, a sermon on Psalm 139:21-22, “Do not I hate them, O Lord, that hate thee? and am not I grieved with those that rise up against thee? I hate them with perfect hatred: I count them mine enemies.” This text gives important instruction in this age of “tolerance” and “love.” Believers need to know and appropriate the instruction of this text. However, a sermon on this text must also explain the relationship between this text and Jesus’ command, “Love your neighbor.” Failure to do so will leave many members confused, wondering how to love their neighbor and hate those who hate God. The radicals, however, will solve the problem easily with simple “logic.”
I must hate all those who hate God.
All unbelievers hate God.
Therefore, I may love only my believing neighbor.
Sermons that lack clarity or fail to explain such relationships feed the spirit of radicalism.
A Protestant Reformed minister may not take refuge in his being misunderstood. As churches, we strongly condemn preaching that sets forth many truths but fails to state the whole truth. For instance, we condemn preaching that proclaims the powerful love of God but fails to state that God’s love is particular, not for all, but only for God’s elect people. We condemn preaching of the cross that states many beautiful truths but fails to affirm clearly that Christ died only for those given Him by the Father, not for all. Such preaching is rightly to be condemned, for it fails to preach the whole truth. Similarly, a Protestant Reformed minister can be guilty of feeding radicalism by failing to preach the whole truth and failing to warn against a radical application of the text.
Probably every preacher is guilty of this at one time or another. Which preacher has not been accused of condemning to eternal perdition anyone who leaves the PRC, simply because he condemns such a departure? Which preacher has not been accused of teaching that only PRs go to heaven, though he rejects such a teaching with all his heart? It happens. At the same time, we preachers must be crystal clear that sharp condemnation of an error is not the same as condemning all members of a church that holds to the error. It must be affirmed repeatedly that the condemnation of an error is not affirming that the PRC is the only true church.
Another warning about preaching and radicalism must be sounded, though from a different perspective. Preachers can contribute to radicalism by failing to be antithetical and polemical. If the Reformed truth is not set forth clearly and precisely, and the lie explicitly condemned, that feeds the suspicions of radicals. Thus, while a harsh and un-Christian polemic feeds radicalism, a lack of polemics also provides fodder for radicalism.
Again, the thrust and concern of this editorial must not be misunderstood. Just as this editorial is not advocating a muting of sharp antithetical preaching and writing, so it is not advocating that Protestant Reformed members no longer condemn and reject sin and error as they face it in their lives. As members, we must live consistent with our doctrine. Such consistency demands, for example, that we refuse to attend a wedding where the bride has been divorced (and her husband still lives). That is not radical; it is rather the required refusal to condone sin. It is a different matter, however, to refuse to attend a wedding of a PR and a good, non- PR Christian, simply because the bride is not Protestant Reformed.
Radicals are found in virtually all churches throughout the world. There are Baptists who will not speak to Reformed people, and Lutherans who will not talk to Calvinists. Sad to say, there are Protestant Reformed members who will not talk to Christian Reformed members, except to admonish them. It seems to me that the PRC have had more than their share of radicals. Calvinistic radicals seem drawn to the strong stands that the PRC rightly take for the truth and against the lie. Sadly, many such, after they have done severe damage to the reputation of the PRC, leave for yet another denomination. The PRC were not pure enough either.
Radicalism is rooted in pride, a “We are the people” attitude. There is a legitimate, good, and proper rejoicing in God for His goodness in giving to the PRC the glorious doctrines of sovereign, particular grace, of the unconditional covenant, of biblical insights into the antithesis, marriage, education, and so much more. We had better give God the glory and thank Him for preserving these beautiful doctrines and practices. But the radical goes beyond that and, like the Pharisee, prays, “God, I thank thee that we are not like other churches—Arminian, teaching common grace, tolerating divorce and remarriage….” That, we all recognize, is nothing but pride.
That indicates the seriousness of this radical spirit. But there is more. The radical spirit that condemns (by word or deed) all but a select group of people is guilty in many instances of condemning those loved eternally by God and purchased by His Son’s blood.
And that brings us again to the matter of pride. Radicalism is fostered in the sphere of pride. Pride is found in every believer’s heart, and therefore, really none can point the finger at another. But make no mistake, the
Lord will not tolerate pride—not in individuals, not in families, not in churches. My fear is that if the PRC allow radicalism to thrive, God’s judgment will weaken the churches, making them unqualified for defending the truth and ineffective in witnessing to the truth Let us turn from our pride and pray for forgiveness. Let us pray for wisdom and strength to maintain the truth of God without distortion. May God give us grace to reject and condemn the radical spirit—from the pulpit and in our personal lives. Then, with a pure motive—God’s glory alone, not ours—we may stand for God’s truth in these evil days.