The Best of The Reformed Journalby James Bratt
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For four decades, from 1951 to 1990, The Reformed Journal set the standard for top-notch, venturesome theological reflection on a broad range of issues. With a lively mix of editorial comment, articles, and reviews, it addressed topics as diverse as the civil rights movement, feminism, the Vietnam War, South African apartheid, the plight of Palestinian Christians, and the rise of the Christian Right, all from a Reformed perspective. In this anthology James Bratt and Ronald Wells have assembled select pieces that exemplify the Journal's position at the cutting edge of thoughtful Christian engagement with culture.
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The Best of THE REFORMED JOURNAL
William B. Eerdmans Publishing CompanyCopyright © 2011 William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company
All right reserved.
Chapter OneOpening Bell
Harry R. Boer July 1953
We who stand in the spiritual tradition of John Calvin think of him as a reformer and a theologian, as a writer of the Institutes and of the Commentaries. Only infrequently do we think of him as a preacher, and hardly at all as one who addressed the world of his day from the pulpit of a massive cathedral. That Calvin during the space of thirty years preached his eloquent sermons in the impressive setting of marble and stone structured in Gothic beauty is worthy of note.... His timeless witness was spoken in the symbolic setting of enduring stone hewn into the form of a heaven-pointing cross. When Calvin preached in St. Peter's it was already rich with three hundred fifty years of history. He who ascended the pulpit and they who worshipped in the pew were already then conscious of the weight of a tradition and of a cloud of witnesses who had gone on before....
Dutch American Calvinists have quite left this tradition. We build houses of worship to last some generations and expect that then our great-grandchildren will erect new ones. But we will not be in those new buildings. Our spirits will be absent, lost in the ruins of the old. And because we will not be there, those who lived before us will not be there. Our posterity will stand alone, much as we now so largely stand alone. They will be conscious of a physical relationship to those who gave them birth but somehow strangely distant from their spirit and ideals, just as we now stand strangely distant from the spirit and ideals that lie at the fountainhead of our tradition.
Have we not become quite poor? Theology is the queen of the sciences in the Reformed tradition, but we have not produced a new thought, have not found a new vision in half a century. But there has been endless casuistry about the movies and divorce. Apparently isolated from all that went before or came after stands concern with the large problem of Common Grace in 1924. Why was no more heard about it for twenty-five years and more? Was it really theological and religious concern that lifted the problem to prominence a quarter-century ago?
I think that all this is the way it is because we have not the inner strength to build cathedrals. Like the rest of America, we have the money to build them, but not the inner strength. We have money to build a million-dollar science building. We have more millions for a commons building and dormitories and other such soulless structures. But there is on Calvin College's campus no cathedral, no small effort at one in the form of a solid, spacious, worship-inviting chapel. This the often emptily boastful descendants of the preacher of St. Peter's in Geneva do not have at the center of their denominational life.
Now I do not mean to say that we cannot build a cathedral-like chapel on our school grounds. Of course we can ... for we are a determined people when we get going. But it would not, I fear, be a cathedral. A cathedral, to me, represents a profound human appreciation for history in its religious significance and development. It says that God is the Lord of History. Therefore it cuts the never-aging rock out of the eternal hills and fashions it into an enduring structure, a testimony to man's witnessing, consecrated, royal service to the God of time, past and present and future. That is a cathedral. That is a true cathedral. In such a cathedral one never stands alone. One stands in the consciousness of communion with and indebtedness to the past, and of a stewardship to discharge in the present and transmit to the future. It is this sense of history, the sense that builds cathedrals of stone or stately mansions of the soul, that we have lost in the Christian Reformed Communion....
Can we again become [a cathedral-building people]? Assuredly we can. Did not Israel become a temple-building people after the long captivity? So we can again become a cathedral-building community. But first we will have to unlearn and leave our idolatries as Israel had to unlearn and leave its idolatries. The chilling and killing touch of a dead traditionalism, satisfaction with what great men said in living context to their day many years ago, living on them but not extending them, the substitution of legalism for the safeguards of the liberty wherewith Christ has made us free—these, all these, must go, and unfettered men must be free to preach the unfettered Word to a world that needs unfettering from a bondage that only free men can effect. This only people who live in the tradition of Calvin can do, people who live in the cathedral tradition.
The significance of Calvin is not so much that he said new things, but that he spoke old truths in a new way in living context with his day. He absorbed into himself all that was best in the long history out of which he had come and he knew how to use it in making the Scriptures speak their message for his generation. The Bible is timeless, theologies are its exposition in the concrete situation in which the Church finds itself. We must get away from the notion that has so long dominated our thinking that theology or dogmatics is simply a compendium of propositions. It must serve the Church in its existing need. Christ saves us not alone from the world but also in the world as sin expresses itself in any given era of the world's history. Kuyper spoke against the easy-going Christ-denying Modernism of his time. Calvin took issue with the traditionalism of Rome and with its denial of the liberty that Christ has given us. Against these evils he made the Bible speak. He passionately demanded the right to say what the Bible says and for more than thirty years he wrote its meaning in his study and preached its message in the cathedral, sending throughout Europe a wave of energy-unleashing life that has permanently affected Western civilization.
I knew it from reading the Institutes and now after visiting the cathedral I know more than ever that Calvin could not possibly have spent his days on the movie question; in defending the proposition that card-playing is sin but that the Church must not do anything about it because everybody is doing it; in holding that an illegally divorced person can never, never be a member of the Christian Church so long as the partner is living and then, after forty years, undertake to see if there is scriptural ground for such a position. We are called to more serious and responsible theological stewardship. Our preoccupation with trivialities and with improperly formulated problems has cost us the riches of our tradition and given nothing in its place....
Can the Reformed tradition among us still be preserved, guarded and extended — above all extended — for only so can a tradition be preserved? Clearly the days of the Prophets are gone and we are fallen upon the evil days of Scribes and Lawyers with their precept upon precept, line upon line, here a little, there a little. Let us stand in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, that we may find rest for our souls. Let us remember the free spirit, the prophetic voice, the fearless witness of the man who preached in St. Peter's. Mayhap the Master Builder will yet make of our Communion a spacious Cathedral in which we may serve him. For His promise remains: I will raise up the Tabernacle of David that is fallen, and close up the breaches thereof, and I will raise up his ruins, and I will build it as in the days of old.
Church and Theology
Common Grace Versus Individualism
James Daane April 1951
The history of religious thought shows that the doctrine of common grace has arisen only in the area of Reformed Theology. It did not, and could not, arise in Liberal or Fundamentalistic Christianity, for the simple reason that neither Liberalism nor Fundamentalism believes in the Covenant. Both these versions of Christianity believe that God deals with men exclusively as individuals. Where God's dealing with men is regarded as a strictly individual affair, there is no question as to what the elect and the reprobate have in common. There is here no question of common grace.
Reformed theology, however, takes the idea of the Covenant seriously. It believes that God, as Triune, is covenantal in His very nature; that man, created in God's image, is also covenantal in his very nature; and that God, in harmony with His and man's nature, always deals with mankind in terms of a covenant. Thus, God deals with the whole mass of mankind through the Covenant of Works, and with a large group of people through the Covenant of Grace. From this it is plain that God deals with mankind not first of all as so many individuals, but as a group.
But Reformed theology believes also in election and reprobation. This means that within the large group there are both elect and reprobate — individuals whom God intends to save and individuals whom He does not intend to save. At this point the question of common grace arises. God deals with mankind in terms of a group and has a general attitude toward the whole group. Yet the group contains elect and reprobate, toward each of which He has a special attitude. What, then, do the elect and reprobate, as members of a common group, have in common? This is the question of common grace — a question that can arise only within a theology that takes seriously both the doctrine of the Covenant and the doctrine of election and reprobation.
Rev. Herman Hoeksema claims to believe in the Covenant of Grace. Nevertheless, in common with the Fundamentalist and the Liberal, he believes essentially that God deals with mankind as individuals. For, in Hoeksema's thought, God does not first of all deal with elect and reprobate together, in their covenanted historical relatedness. God has no common attitude toward both elect and reprobate. Consequently, Hoeksema denies both common grace and a common wrath. God only loves the elect, and He only hates the reprobate....
Against this religious individualism — which Hoeksema shares with both Liberalism and Fundamentalism — Reformed theology maintains that God deals with mankind first as a group and only secondly with the individual as an individual. And even then He deals with the individual as a member of the group. This, Reformed theology maintains, is taking the covenant seriously. To think of the individual apart from the group, and to think of the elect and the reprobate out of the relationship to the covenant, spells an unbiblical individualism.
Man — Both One and Many
The mistake of defining the individual's situation apart from the group becomes clear from a consideration of man's nature. The nature of man is determined by his creation in the divine image. Man's nature is a reflection of God's nature. Now God is both One and Three; He is both One and Many. God's nature, therefore, cannot be defined in terms of One or Three, but only in terms of One and Three. Separation of the One from the Three is theological sacrilege. And since man is a reflection of God, man is also in his very nature both one and many. Hence, every definition of man which fails to keep the balance between the one and the many distorts human nature.
In the light of this Biblical definition of human nature, it seems plainly contrary to Biblical teaching to say that the individual is first, and that the community follows after and is founded upon the individual. To define human nature in terms of the number "one," and to get to the community by adding up the many "ones," is to go contrary to the Bible. Definitions of Church and of Society based on an alleged priority of the individual do not square with the Biblical view of the nature of both God and man.
The Fundamentalist subscribes to this priority of the individual. Consequently, for the Fundamentalist the Church is nothing more than the sum total of saved individuals. To regard the Church as no more than the sum of its parts gives a weak and inadequate conception of the Church. Political Liberalism also subscribes to the priority of the individual. For this reason its conception of democracy is not Christian.
The Bible shows man, by nature and in the covenant, to be both one and many. The "many" does not result from the totaling of "ones." Christian thinking begins with both — the many as well as the one. They are both given, by God, in the nature of man and in the fact of the covenant. For that reason the question whether the individual or the community is first is out of place in Reformed thinking. Priority belongs to both, because they are essentially simultaneous.
To avoid misunderstanding, it must be said that the individual is, indeed, superior to the State. The political state is an instrument of justice and order; it is a thing. A person is always superior to a thing. But to say that the individual is superior to the social community—which is not a thing, but a community of persons — is surely a mistake. To think that because the individual is superior to the State, he is therefore superior to the social community, is confused thinking. The Bible teaches that man is both one and many. And to claim that the one is superior to the many—the individual superior to the group—is as mistaken as to claim that in God the One is superior to the Three.
From "The Beginning"
The equal primacy of the many and the one in human nature is apparent, first, from Adam's sexuality. Because Adam is the many as well as the one, Eve is made from Adam's rib. Eve is an individual, yet she must proceed from Adam. Moreover, in the conjunction of their sexuality, children are born. Here too the "many" aspect of Adam's human nature finds expression. The whole human race, including Eve, proceeds from him. He is therefore the Head of the Family, and its Father. According to Biblical definition, the Father is the source or author, and the Head is that in which the many members find their unity — not vice versa.
The equal primacy of the many with the one is apparent, secondly, from Adam's creation in the image of God. Regarded as a "single individual," Adam is not the image of God. The position that the individual aspect of the image of God is superior would demand the position that the "One" in God is superior to the Three — a thought which the Bible will not allow. Adam is the image of God precisely because he is also the many; because in his nature community is just as much first, and just as superior, as his individuality. Adam is the image of God because he is the many as well as the one. Because Eve can be taken from him, because together they can have children, because of this racial aspect of Adam's nature, he is the image of God. Hence, Reformed thinkers have pointed out that the image of God finds its full expression not in the single individual but in the race.
This same truth of equal primacy is apparent, thirdly, from Adam's function as representative of the race. This representative office is not worn by Adam as Saul's armor — as something that does not "fit" him. Adam can covenantally represent the race because he is the many as well as the one. God can deal with Adam and the whole human race as a group because Adam, in his nature, is the many, the race which proceeds from him. Just as God's nature and his covenantal method are in perfect harmony, so Adam's sociality and his representative office fit each other. If one asserts the priority of the one over the many in human nature, and the priority of the individual over the group in the social sphere, the very basis for the possibility of a divine covenantal method of dealing with mankind is lost.... [So too] the historical realm has been forsaken — the only realm in which common grace can exist.
The Sacrament of Community
Lewis B. Smedes October 1952
There is perhaps no moment in the Christian life more intensely promising of spiritual reward than the celebration of communion. The Lord's Supper is a holy drama acted out in perpetual memorial to His passion. More than that, it is a sacred mystery through which God imparts to us the body and blood of His Incarnate Son. We probably never come more intimately close to the Divine-human Savior than when we receive bread and wine from His sacred table. Nor do we ever come closer to each other. It is the sacrament of communion in His death and is by that token the sacrament of Life, for, in His instance, death means Life. It is thus the sacrament of communion in His Life, or, we may say, it is the sacrament of Community Life—community in Him and in one another. My purpose now is to underscore one point about our sacrament, that it is a real and objective medium of grace of Community Life, and to make one application, that the Lord's sacrament may be the Divine response to one of our great needs.
The Lord's Supper is a memorial to the death of the Savior. The statement that the bread and wine are signs may be taken partly in this sense: "this do in remembrance of Me." The bread broken and the wine poured out are a kind of reminder that as the bread is broken so was His body, and as the wine is poured, so was His blood. They are, thus, a unique sort of Passion Play, a drama in symbolism, which we identify with the real drama of His suffering. It is this aspect of the sacrament which makes appropriate the singing of such hymns as "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross." As we participate in the celebration, we are reminded of Calvary, and are, or feel that we should be, stirred to pious sorrow and tearful gratitude for His incomparable sufferings for us. The sacrament is this, surely; but it is more too. It is indeed a memorial symbol of the Cross; but it is not enough that it be, to our minds, this alone. Apart from the fact of Christ's institution of bread and wine, the Oberammergau Passion Play or Rubens's painting "The Descent from the Cross" might conceivably accomplish this more adequately. If it were only a memorial, it would hardly be a sacrament in any real sense, nor a means of grace. The pious imagination stimulated by it might perhaps aid in our sanctification, but the sacrament itself would be an empty sign.
Excerpted from The Best of THE REFORMED JOURNAL Copyright © 2011 by William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. Excerpted by permission of William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
James D. Bratt is professor of history at Calvin College and coeditor of Perspectives: A Journal of Reformed Thought. His other books include Dutch Calvinism in Modern America and Antirevivalism in Antebellum America.
Ronald A. Wells is professor emeritus of history at Calvin College, was an editor of both Fides et Historia and The Reformed Journal, and now directs the Symposium on Faith and the Liberal Arts at Maryville College in Tennessee. Among hi
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