Editor’s Note: In 1957, the Torch and Trumpet celebrated the centennial of the Christian Reformed Church by presenting a series of articles concerning “The Pillars of Our Church.” Rev. Henry Van Til wrote an incredibly insightful article about Doctrinal Sensitivity. The original article was ten pages long. For your reading pleasure, we present the introduction and conclusion of that article.
Sensitivity is a characteristic of life. It is the path to life’s enlargement and enrichment. It also saves life. In the wonderful world of wild life sensitivity to foreign sounds and smells is the creature best defense. It constitutes a life-saving mechanism given by the Creator. Man has added many mechanical devices, both in peace and war, to aid his nervous system in detecting dangers.
In the spiritual world sensitivity is quite as imperative for preservation as in the physical. It is a kind of spiritual awareness by which one senses danger. It is made up of knowledge of the truth and a tender regard for the Word of the covenant God.
It is true that what I am about to say is my personal opinion and reflects merely my experience over the last twenty-five years, fifteen of which have been spent at Calvin College as student and instructor. I would speak plainly on this important matter; I may not do otherwise. So did Elijah and Amos. The latter was told to begone from the king’s private altar. However, the words of Amos we cannot escape even today: “Woe unto them that are at case in Zion, and to them that are secure in the mountain of Samaria, the notable men of the chief of the nations, to whom the house of Israel come” (Amos 8:1).
How pertinent this warning is today. There are far too many who are at ease in Zion. They show this in many ways. For many evidence of spiritual vigor is seen in great building programs - fine churches, palatial parsonages, modern school buildings. Then there are these who seem to think that all is well just so the quotas for Calvin College and Seminary are paid to the full. These things are not wrong in themselves, but they certainly are not measuring sticks of true spirituality.
These things do not measure the all-important matter of doctrinal purity and devotion. These things do not prove that there is greater joy in the service of God and in laboring for his kingdom. Such things may only prove that there is pride and efficient ecclesiastical machinery.
I am fully persuaded that our people are losing their doctrinal sensitivity. So many no longer judge a sermon on the score of its doctrinal soundness first of all, whether it maintains the purity of the faith. But depending on one’s education and predilection, the sermon is good when it gives practical advice on everyday living, when it stirs us emotionally, when it has persuasive logic or beautifully turned sentences, and other equally superficial criteria.
This same attitude of doctrinal laxity is to be observed in the songs that are sung. Just try to point out to an average audience that “He Lives,” one of the choruses that is most popular at our hymn sings, is both modernistic and fundamentalistic and not Reformed in its main emphasis. You’ll be amazed at the reaction. It is one of utter impatience and even rebuke. When one goes to many programs in our churches, whether a men’s rally or a Sunday School affair, he finds that many of the songs reflect subjectivism and experientialism if not maudlin sentimentalism about the cross of Christ.
Furthermore, we lack sensitivity on the doctrine of the covenant, which is being broken with impunity in many mixed marriages appearing in our circles.
Another distressing phenomenon is lack of personal piety among many of our members. Yes, many are “respectable people” and are counted as leaders in the church, some of them are elders and deacons, others are captains of drives or Centennial chairmen. But it is easy for them to stay home together at the cottage of a Sunday evening, or to drive most of the Lord’s Day to or from a weekend of personal pleasure; they have the Sunday papers scattered all over the living room floor, or even listen to the ball game on Sunday afternoon. All these things and many more indicate a lack of sensitivity as to the Lord’s Day, sanctification, the offices in the church and the keeping of the covenant. Where is the new obedience to which we are called? Can anyone deny that to be strict about observing the Lord’s Day and to be exacting in the observance of religious duties is decried as narrowmindedness? Here too Americanization has taken its heavy toll! We want to be like the other churches, as of old the Israelites wanted to be like the other nations, seeking a king other than Jehovah.
Our loss of doctrinal sensitivity is also illustrated in the ease with which many change their church affiliation today (witness the statistics in the Yearbook) and the ease with which we receive members from another church. Whether such new members know our distinctive doctrines or not does not seem to matter much in many instances, just so they are nice folk and the preacher gets a good impression when he calls on them.
And how many elders today are chosen on the ground that they with the preacher are able to maintain purity of doctrine, or apart from the minister are able to determine whether his preaching is sound doctrinally? In my experience of the last twenty-five years I have observed, and heard others complain about it, that the most distinguished and most successful men of the church community are often chosen as elders. Many ministers want the type of elders that will agree with them rather than an individual with sharp sensitivities spiritually. This is another result of Americanization, namely, the great evil that the man of worldly success is equal to all things. But the Scriptures demand another standard: ability to exhort, being filled with the Spirit, knowledge of the truth, sobriety.
And finally, as church we no longer appreciate controversial preaching. We no longer can bear doctrinal debate (ever since the common grace issue we have more and more closed our official papers to debate for fear it would lead to schisms) while militancy in the church militant is often seen as belligerency. The watchmen upon the walls of Zion are shamed into silence by a fine scorn or snide remarks concerning heresy hunters. In classical meetings one’s motives are impugned if he stands up to question anything our boards may have decided, while on the floor of synod men are openly proclaiming themselves to be middle-of-theroaders on important issues and they prefer not to use the term “militant” in defining the task of Seminary professors.
I now come to particular cases. First, I cite the notorious Wezeman case, in which a minister in good standing in the church was found guilty of teaching the evolutionary naturalism of the higher allies in his Bible notes prepared for the pupils at Chicago Christian High school When faced with the evidence Dr. Wezeman pleaded ignorance. He was willing to retract his work; and synod accepted his confession almost unanimously. Then he went back to his work as teacher of Bible and as head of the school besides. Here is a case of dual insensitivity. First of all, Dr. Wezeman had no sense of the orthodox, let alone Reformed tradition; but nevertheless had a place of honor and great influence in our circles. Secondly, the people of influence in Chicago said in effect, when they permitted him a free hand to run the whole school, “We do not care whether a man knows and loves the truth, he is a fine gentleman and a scholar, and that is enough for us.” Thus for many years one of our biggest Christian High Schools, which was one of the main feeders of Calvin College, was headed by a man who forfeited every right to our confidence in his leadership. And what of the Synod? When an ordained man commits a sin against the moral law he is forthwith defrocked, although his repentance is accepted and he continues thereafter a member in good standing in the church. Is not the sin of heresy according to both the Old and the New Testament just as heinous and detestable as the sin of fornication or theft?
Case number two. In a doctoral dissertation published a few years ago on Kierkegaard’s time-eternity concept, the author maintains that he is going to criticize, not from an objective, foreign viewpoint namely, in this case, from the presupposition of our Reformed faith, but from a subjective, internal point of view. The result is some piecemeal, fragmentary criticism, but the basic anti-Christian character of Kierkegaard’s thought is not signalized. Furthermore, the author agrees with Kierkegaard, thereby taking his stand squarely against J. Cresham Machen, by saying that Christianity is not a doctrine and Faith is not knowledge, because Christianity is not a doctrine, and again, one cannot be offended at a doctrine. Although this is not the place to refute these errors. I wish to say that the catechism says very emphatically that the first part of faith is knowledge. It is also a well-known fact that Jesus’ opponents were offended at his doctrine (John 6:10, 11), and it is exactly the doctrines of Calvinism on election and reprobation that constitute the real offense to many church people.
This same minister now wants the church to accept Masons into its membership before they have denied the blasphemies of their Masonic faith. Surely the kindest words we can use for this sort of approach is that it reveals a serious lack of doctrinal sensitivity.
There are also many among us who do not appreciate the doctrine of the antithesis, or perhaps one ought to say, they do not understand it Some time ago, one of our ministers claimed on the basis of Ephesians 2:14-18 that Christ had abolished the antithesis. Paul, however, speaks of the middle wall of partition being broken down, Christ having slain the enmity by his cross. Now what is he talking about? He is simply telling the people at Ephesus that they once were Gentiles, called Uncircumcision by the seed of Abraham; that they were aliens from God and his covenant blessings. But now they too have been brought nigh, and thus there is no longer a wall between Jew and Gentile. However, Paul says nothing about the basic spiritual warfare between the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman being abolished. In fact, he exhorts these same new recruits for Jesus Christ to put on the whole armor of God, in order to carry forward this holy war. Just because a number of the enemy come over into our camp does not mean that peace has been established. This will not take place until our Commander destroys all his enemies and turns over the kingdom to God the Father.
Case number three. Another man writes a dissertation and tells the world that the Christian Reformed Church in the deposition of Janssen has snuffed out the progressive spirit and has become reactionary as a result. This indicates lack of doctrinal sensitivity with respect to the purity of the Word.
Case number four. Somewhere in our Church a man is trying to reach out and touch the modern mind in the student world. He calls the Bible “a mine of religious insight” Now with all due respect to the Pauline program of becoming all things to all men, I insist that this statement is perilous. For this statement perfectly reflects, though unintentionally, the modern evolutionary naturalism against which we have to fight all our lives. It fits the thinking that makes religion a product of the human spirit, and so may constitute a denial of the supernatural element in revelation. Besides, pedagogically we don’t gain any advantage, for the pagan will give you his religious insight, or that of Buddha. And then what norm does one have to hold that the religious insight of the prophets or of Christ was higher? As soon as we are ashamed of the Gospel of Jesus Christ (Paul made no apologies either in Athens or in Rome) we shall do despite to the cause of Christ. His Word ought to be proclaimed; it will not return empty.
Case number five. I wish to cite the editorials in Chimes, a student weekly that is sent throughout the land and reflects the training received in the church, in the home and especially in onze school. In a recent editorial, “God or Baal,” the author advocates the idea that the struggle against Baal should be conceived of as our common opposition to Anti-Christ, which is to be sought outside of nominal Christianity. Therefore, we have no right to judge those who confess Christ, no matter how faulty their confession may be. However, the Bible does not give us the impression that all men are equally close to the heart of Jesus, no matter what they think of Jesus. Here again we have lack of appreciation for doctrinal purity in the name of ecumenicity and brotherhood.
Finally, case number six. I have now finished a decade of teaching at our denominational college and have heard literally scores of chapel talks on the primacy of love on the basis of I Corinthians 13.
This is fine. But the speakers usually leave the impression that the faith, that is the creed and its defense, are secondary to the exercise of love. This is a grievous misinterpretation of the text, in which Paul is speaking of the subjective function of the heart in believing. But when Paul speaks of the faith, which he has kept and for which he fought, and for which we ought to contend (Cf. Jude) then it is an egregious error to say that love is more important than the purity of the faith or the truth of God. Yet that is the impression one gets from such chapel talks. And we do not hear militant language exhorting the soldiers of Christ to do battle valiantly for their Lord and King.
These are all straws in the wind. One could multiply such instances, but my allotted space forbids further amplification.
The question finally is, how can we stem the tide of doctrinal indifference that is overtaking us? I would suggest that this phenomenon which I have sketched is a symptom of spiritual decadence; we are neglecting salvation because the tents of many are pitched toward Sodom. It is the great peril of secularism and materialism from which we must repent. To the law and to the testimony! We must be recalled to the Word! We are in need of reformation and revival! Woe unto us if we are at ease in Zion! Woe unto us if we congratulate ourselves in snug complacency, citing our offerings and sacrifices and forgetting that the sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken heart and a contrite spirit! For to obey is better than sacrifices and to hearken than the fat of rams! We are become worldly minded. We scoff at childlike piety. We are proud of our program, of our achievements. We say, religion is not doctrine but the good life! And we are becoming an influence in the world. We are improving society, so why worry about the fine points of doctrine?
Let us not forget that Israel in the time of Amos was very religious and Micah tells us that the people asked God what more they could do to please God. But the prophet said, “Return unto me, and I will return unto you seek the Lord and ye shall live” (Amos). Does any one imagine that we are better than Israel of old? That the prophetic message does not apply to us in this age of apostasy? Are we still saying, “It cannot happen to us.” Then we are wilfully blind. The Hebrews also in the times of Amos, Jeremiah and of Malachi said: “The temple, the temple! God will save his covenant people from such an overthrow.” But Jehovah says that because he has given them his covenant he will bring them into captivity for their iniquities. Does anyone imagine that the Hungarians are more wicked than we are, that they suffer so? We ought to see in the rape of Hungary the shape of things to come, unless we repent.
In short, doctrinal sensitivity will not be achieved unless we tremble at the Word of God, unless we again offer ourselves to him who brought us with his precious blood, Christ our Lord and King!
For the time will come when they will not endure the sound doctrine; but, having itching ears will heap to themselves teachers after their own lusts; and will turn away their ears from the truth, and turn aside unto fables.” St. Paul to Timothy
Rev. Henry R. Van Til [1906–1961] was an Associate Professor at Calvin College when this article was written. He was also on the Editorial Committee of the Torch and Trumpet.