The Belgic Confession, Introduction (concluded)

We must still say a few words concerning the present status and position of our Belgic Confession, particularly here in our own country. 

There are those who find reason for optimism in this regard, although at the same time this optimism seems to be tempered with a certain misgiving. One of these, apparently, is Dr. P.Y. De Jong, who touches on this subject in the first volume of his commentary on the Belgic Confession entitled, “The Church’s Witness To The World.” After remarking that at present the Reformed churches with their “dynamic and well defined Confession find themselves in an age of spiritual and theological ferment,” he goes on to state that “our situation differs radically from that which obtained a few decades ago, when the dominant mood in the churches of Canada and the United States was radically anti-intellectual.” And he makes the claim that the tide has shifted, evidently intending to emphasize that there is a greater receptivity and more of a point of contact for an orthodox, and particularly for a Reformed witness in American ecclesiastical circles today, and intending to stress that Reformed churches have a more serious responsibility and calling to make their voice heard. Then, having bemoaned the fact that Reformed churches have too long “lived on the fringes of American ecclesiastical life, content to be by ourselves and concerned almost exclusively with the task of delivering to the next generation our legacy untainted and unsullied,” he points with some degree of optimism—evidently referring to his own Christian Reformed denomination—to the fact that “we are finally disentangling ourselves from the comfortable cocoon of our cultural and spiritual isolation to challenge with the Reformed faith all who will hear.” And he goes on to note certain evidences of this emergence from isolation. It is plain, however, that Dr. De Jong’s optimism is not without misgiving. For, in the first place, he complains, again with special reference to his own denomination, that “we have come with so little and we seem to have come so late.” But, in the second place, he’ finds even more disturbing the fact that not all who profess the Reformed faith seem committed to a thorough program of action. And especially ominous to him is the discovery that many seem to know so little about the principles which undergird and alone can give vibrancy and strength to our Christian testimony. And he speaks of habitualism and doctrinal indifferentism in this connection. 

We share these misgivings, but not the optimism. In fact, we would say that the misgivings to which the afore-mentioned author has given expression constitute a more nearly accurate characterization of the true condition of Reformed churches generally in our day and of the true position of our Belgic Confession in the life and witness of the Reformed churches. 

In the first place, it may perhaps be true that our Reformed churches and Reformed people have been afflicted by a certain amount of cultural isolation. We would not deny it. We would not even deny that this so-called cultural isolation has to some degree been a hindrance, at least in the past, in the carrying on of a Reformed witness. However, first of all, it must not be forgotten that there is something quite natural about such a cultural isolation. It lies in the very nature of the fact that our forbears came from the Netherlands. The process of Americanization is one that naturally takes time. It took time in the years when our parents and grandparents came from the “old country.” And even today, when life in general is faster and when there is more communication and more intimate social contact, so that it is virtually impossible to live in this country and to remain culturally isolated, that process still takes a certain amount of time to reach completion. America is the melting-pot of nations; but it takes time for this melting-down process to be completed. Secondly, it is indeed open to question whether this so-called cultural isolation was deliberate on our part, that is, so to speak, whether we shut ourselves up in our shell, or whether after all that isolation was something which was to some extent forced upon us by others and woven about us because of our doctrinal distinctiveness and because of a healthy spiritual isolation. When one analyzes the history since the establishment of the Dutch and Reformed colonies in the mid-nineteenth century in Michigan and Iowa, and attempts to evaluate the process of Americanization which took place especially more rapidly after the first World War, it is not always easy to determine what is cause and what is effect in this respect. And the slow growth of the Reformed movement and the small degree of acceptance of our Reformed people and our Reformed witness and heritage need not necessarily be ascribed to the fact that we isolated ourselves culturally, but may well be due to the fact that in former years we maintained more consistently our doctrinal distinctiveness and our true spiritual isolation. 

In the second place, it is a rather striking fact in the history of the Reformed movement in this country that the process of doctrinal decline and of spiritual decay and of increasing world-conformity has gone hand in hand with this so-called emergence from cultural isolation. This was so striking, in fact, that even in respect to the one aspect of this cultural emergence, namely, the transition from the Holland to the English language, there were those in former years who resisted that transition simply because they feared the loss of doctrinal and spiritual distinctiveness that seemed to go hand in hand with the change from a Dutch to an American culture. Our ancestors may have been wrong in resisting the process of Americanization in its totality. But again, they evidently sensed a danger for their Reformed heritage and their Reformed way of life, and they sensed that somehowthere was a connection between the loss of these and the process of Americanization. Was their resistance to change merely due to their love of the old fatherland and its culture and language? Were they really so foolish as to think there was something inherently sinful and, evil in the American language? Did they imagine that you could not properly worship God and maintain and preach the Reformed faith except in the Holland language? Perhaps it would be more correct instead of speaking of our emergence from the cocoon of cultural isolation to speak rather of the breaking down of that isolation from without through the impact of the American culture upon ours. And there is undoubtedly reason to believe that along with, that so-called cultural impact there was also a doctrinal and spiritual impact that brought with it secularization and the beginnings of a modernizing trend of doctrinal and spiritual decline. Culture is not merely a natural and formal something, but also has its spiritual and ethical aspect. And while from that; natural and formal aspect one culture is no better or worse than another, and one language is no better than another, nevertheless we experience the spiritual impact of a certain culture along with the natural impact of it. 

In the third place, and in close connection with the above, I am afraid that while Reformed churches have emerged and have found themselves somewhat of a place in the scene of American ecclesiastical life and have expanded and broadened their witness and have met with a greater degree of receptivity and acceptance, they have done it too much at the expense of a distinctively Reformed doctrinal position. In that respect I believe it is true—sadly true—that they have come with “so little.” Our calling as Reformed people was indeed to take our place in American civilization and culture, but to do so as Reformedpeople. Our calling was to take our place in American ecclesiastical life, but to do so specifically asReformed churches. And the trouble has been that as we were swallowed up in the stream of American civilization and culture, we were too much swallowed up spiritually as well and forfeited our doctrinal and spiritual isolation. The result has been that according as we have lost our doctrinal distinctiveness and our spiritual isolation, so we have lost the ability to bear a distinctively Reformed witness. The clear notes of the gospel of sovereign grace and the clarion call to an antithetical way of life are heard so very little in the witness of Reformed churches. If not altogether silenced, they have been compromised and mingled with the foreign elements of Arminianism and the synthesizing tendencies of common grace. 

And therefore I would emphasize that there is little reason for optimism in this respect. Not only is it true that to a large degree the Reformed churches have lost and denied their distinctively Reformed heritage and character, as embodied most comprehensively in our Belgic Confession, but it is also true that if we would remain Reformed and would bear a distinctively Reformed witness to the world in the midst of which we live, we must not expect a large degree of acceptance. This has never been the case in the history of the true church, and it never will be. The Reformed faith, purely and distinctively maintained and proclaimed, is not popular. We may expect that it will be shunned and that we will be shunned if we maintain it. We may expect too that we will be charged with cultural isolationism if we maintain faithfully our spiritual isolation. And if we bear witness to the truth and to the faith of our fathers; we need not expect big results from a worldly and human standpoint. 

In the second place, I would emphasize that it is exactly our calling to give a Reformed witness. But for that reason it is also exactly our calling to maintain our doctrinal distinctiveness and our spiritual isolation. If we do not, our witness will not be Reformed. We are lights in a dark place. And it is our calling indeed to let our light shine. But it is not our calling to allow the light to be swallowed up by the darkness, nor to let the line of demarcation between the light and the darkness become blurred and indistinct. If we are to give a Reformed witness, we must maintain our doctrinal and spiritual isolation, unmarred and unsullied by the numerous doctrinal corruptions and evil spiritual influences which abound in the American ecclesiastical world. And from the strong position of our doctrinal and spiritual isolation we must send forth our witness, at every opportunity and with all our means and in every sphere and relationship of life. In isolation is strength! 

Hence, in the third place, we must indeed be concerned, seriously concerned, with the task of delivering to the next generation our legacy of’ the faith untainted and unsullied. We must combat with all our might the tendency to doctrinal indifferentism which plagues us. “We must educate ourselves and our children in the knowledge of the Reformed truth as purely set forth and maintained in the Confession. We must not become a prey to doctrinal ignorance. We must be experts in the truth and in the discernment of the lie. Only in this way will a Reformed witness among ourselves and to the generations to come and to the American ecclesiastical world at large be possible. We ourselves must know our confessions—and we think now especially of our Belgic Confession—much more thoroughly than we do on the average. Our children must be instructed in the knowledge of the confessions—again, especially of our Belgic Confession—much more thoroughly than they are, so that when they make profession of their faith, they indeed profess distinctively and articulately and with rejection of all errors repugnant thereto the doctrine that has from years past been maintained as the Reformed faith. 

May our study of the most comprehensive of our creeds, the Belgic Confession, under God’s grace serve as a means to this end! 

—H.C.H.