The Standard Bearer and Polemics

The Standard Bearer is in its 57th year of publication. This is a span of time greater than that of most religious publications. For this we have to be thankful to God who has preserved our “paper” through all these years. 

Characteristic of the Standard Bearer throughout all these years is its “polemical” writings. The Standard Bearer has engaged in more controversies over the years than I would care to count. It has attacked anti-Scriptural views which appeared in this country and abroad. It has exposed heresy in other denominations and in our own. It has set forth the truth of Scripture over against false doctrine whenever that false doctrine appeared. 

This is not to say that the Standard Bearer has been exclusively polemical. Countless pages of the volumes which stand on my shelf have been devoted to a positive development of the faith; innumerable articles were written to guide the people of God in their calling in the world; times without number the Standard Bearer has commented upon current events in the history of the nations. Think of all the writing in these volumes concerning Christian education. Call to mind the fact that all of Triple Knowledge and Behold, He Cometh first appeared in the Standard Bearer

Yet without any doubt the Standard Bearer is polemical. 

This was the original intent of the Standard Bearer, in fact. 

In an editorial which appeared in the very first number in which Rev. Henry Danhof explained the reason for the publication of this new periodical, we find these words:

The members (of the R.F.P.A.) feel that there must be a striving for the cause of the Lord not only against the enemies who stand outside their own church fellowship, but, under the present circumstances, no less against the enemy within the gates. Therefore, they want men to raise the “standard” and instruct and lead the people of God in the strife which is inevitable and which must be fought. A need is felt for leadership in ecclesiastical questions, points of doctrine, prevalent speculations, and the practical application in life of the principles out of which people live. And although they do not plan to limit themselves in this struggle to the publication of this periodical, nevertheless they want “The Standard Bearer” to lead the way in this difficult strife.

These words were written in the heat of the “common grace” controversy, indeed, before the Protestant Reformed Churches came into existence. 

The controversy over common grace arose in the Christian Reformed Church in connection with the “Jansen Controversy.” Dr. Jansen, professor of Old Testament in Calvin Theological Seminary, had introduced into his teaching certain higher critical views of Scripture. For this he was condemned by the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church. Because Dr. Jansen had appealed to the idea of common grace in support of his position, that idea became a center of debate, discussion, and controversy. 

From the early minutes of the R.F.P.A. we learn that Revs. Hoeksema and Danhof were co-editors with several other ministers of a paper called, The Witness. Revs. Hoeksema and Danhof wanted to write in this paper on the issues of common grace to show how the views, then being widely taught in the church, were contrary to the teaching of Scripture. The editorial staff of The Witness could not agree on editorial policy in this matter. Further, The Banner and De Wachter would not open their pages to the writings of Revs. Hoeksema and Danhof. The result was a new publication, The Standard Bearer

And so the paper was born out of the need for polemics. It is not surprising that this has continued to characterize the paper until the present. 

Strange to say, there is some difference of opinion about whether the Standard Bearer should be doing this. There are those who think it should not. That such objections arise outside of our Churches is not surprising. We live in an age when “tolerance” is the watchword. Denominations are increasingly “broad-minded” enough to include within their fellowship almost any deviation of thought and doctrine. Tolerance of every conceivable religious viewpoint is all but made a mark of true Christian love. A polemical magazine strikes a discordant note, is an anomaly among current publications. It bucks the tide, does things which are no longer polite and acceptable in contemporary ecclesiastical circles. It is a freak which attracts curious people, but which finally becomes the object of scorn and ridicule. 

Sometimes objections against a polemical magazine arise within our own Churches. This is strange. It ought not to be so. It arises out of a misconception of the purpose of the Standard Bearer; or, worse, a misunderstanding of the calling of God to us to contend earnestly for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints. 

It might be well, briefly, to explain once again why polemics is necessary. We must understand these things. 

There are Scriptural reasons why polemics is necessary. Polemics is implied in the text of Jude which I quoted above. If one is to “contend” for the faith, one must fight for the faith. But if the defense of the faith involves a fight, there has to be an enemy. The enemy is false doctrine. False doctrine must be exposed, must be shown to be wrong, must be condemned. This is part of contending for the faith. 

Scripture reminds all officebearers that this is their calling. Ezekiel 33:1-7 describes officebearers in terms of watchmen on a city wall. They are posted there to watch for the enemy and to warn the people of God down below of the coming of the enemy. If they do not do this faithfully, the blood of the people will be required by God at the watchmen’s hands. They must do this even when the people shout from down below: “Please don’t disturb our sleep by blowing all the time on your trumpets.” 

Jesus also did this when He ruthlessly exposed the false teachings of the Pharisees and Sadducees. We must do no less. 

The apostles repeatedly did this in their writings which are all incorporated in the Scriptures. Their writings are our example. 

This is also part of the antithetical life of the Christian. God always calls His people to live antithetically in the world. That means that the calling of God’s people always has a “No” and a “Yes.” God’s people must say “No” to sin and must say “Yes” to righteousness. They must turn away from the devil and turn towards God. They must, in disgust and horror, turn their backs upon all that is contrary to God’s will and, with love and adoration, turn their faces towards Christ and His Word. It is impossible to say, “Yes” without first saying “No.” 

This is also true of doctrine. To speak the truth requires that the Christian denounce the lie. To defend the truth involves shooting at the lie. To contend for the faith implies destroying the lie. It can be no different. One will not say “Yes” to the truth without first saying “No” to the lie. 

There are also confessional reasons for polemics. 

Our confessions are, themselves, polemical treatises. Think of how the Canons have a negative part to each chapter. Think of how the Belgic Confession warns against the heresies of the Anabaptists. Even our sweet Heidelberg Catechism calls the popish mass, “an accursed idolatry.” 

Our Church Order and Formula of Subscription require of all officebearers that they engage in polemics: “To ward off false doctrines and errors that multiply exceedingly through heretical writings, the ministers and elders shall use the means of teaching, of refutation, or warning, and of admonition. . .” (Art. 55). “We declare, moreover, that we not only reject all errors that militate against this doctrine. . . , but that we are disposed to refute and contradict these, and to exert ourselves in keeping the Church free from such errors” (Formula of Subscription). 

There are also spiritual reasons why polemics is necessary. 

False doctrine is not just a matter of intellectual error. It is not like the error 2 x 2 = 5. If you make an error like that, you might get a “B” in your math assignment instead of an “A.” And, if you really do not know any better you might be cheated in the grocery store. But that is about the worst that can happen. False doctrine is a corruption of the truth concerning God. It is a violation of His holiness. It is a slap in His face. It is mud thrown at Him Who makes the heavens His throne and the earth His footstool. 

The child of God cannot tolerate that. Love impels him to come fiercely to the defense of God’s honor. More than his defense of the good name of his wife whom he loves and whose name is being slandered by lecherous enemies, does he rush to the defense of the Name of His God whose truth is so carelessly bantered. 

This is his salvation, for the Name of his God is a high tower, a refuge, a defense. To stand idly by while that Name is denied is to deny his own salvation. 

What is true of the individual Christian is true of the Church as a whole. Faithfulness in this present world requires polemics. If the Standard Bearer is to be faithful, the Standard Bearer must be polemical. 

This does not mean that the Standard Bearer must be exclusively polemical. It has not been in the past; it is not now. It must never be that. It must defend the faith. It must also develop it. 

The Standard Bearer must not always be hanging out the dirty wash of the neighbors if there is evil within our own Churches. We must defend the truth within and without. Both are dangers, the former even more than the latter. This is not an invitation to “heresy-hunters” to poke in every corner of the denomination hoping to uncover some slightly off-color remark. But Paul warned the Ephesian elders of grievous wolves which would enter the sheepfold. They still do that today. 

The Standard Bearer must not attack persons. It must attack false doctrines. Our battle is not with individual men or their persons; our battle is on behalf of the truth of God and against every lie. 

The Standard Bearer must be ready always to give an answer to those who ask a reason for our hope. This is true polemics and apologetics. But Peter reminds us to do this “with meekness and with fear.” Meekness and fear do not mean hesitancy, shamefacedness, compromise, wishy-washy thinking and writing, and sentimental slop. Meekness and fear do not mean, either, anger, bitterness, sarcasm, “low blows,” and innuendo. Meekness and fear mean that we wage our polemics in the consciousness that it is God’s grace and mercy which continually preserves us in His truth. Every part of us pulls mightily in the direction of error. God’s grace is a leash to hold us back. 

The Standard Bearer has not always done this. These are sins which we confess to God at the foot of the cross. Weakness is with us and against it we must be on our guard.

But the Standard Bearer must continue to contend for the faith. If God is gracious to us, it will continue to do this.