Modernism is not full-blown when it first appears in the church, but it is rather like the mustard seed of which Scripture speaks. From a small unnoticed beginning it has a phenomenal development until it comes suddenly to fruition in open apostasy and an indifferent, dead church. Modernism might properly be compared to a cancerous growth in the tissues of the human body, which, if not dealt with forthwith, will bring certain death. That is the reason why we are urged these days to learn to distinguish the common symptoms of cancer and to take heroic measures to eradicate this evil disease. Likewise, when the first symptoms of the anti-Christian, semi-pagan religion of Modernism appear in the church, men of God ought to be properly disturbed. Woe unto them that are at ease in Zion!
For Modernism, let us remind ourselves, is not principally an open denial of basic Christian doctrines (although many modernists ultimately come to such open denial), it is rather an attitude to the Word, an approach to the facts, a way of life.
One symptom of Modernism which is found almost everywhere in the American church world today is an abhorrence of all controversy on doctrinal issues, a desire to maintain the peace at any price.
Personality above Principle
Common in the church today is the symptom of false tolerance. False tolerance elevates personality above principle. Simply because a man is a fine Christian gentleman or a pious soul, his heretical tendencies are to be overlooked or minimized. In fact, there is a mentality abroad in the church today that is indifferent to the very words and beliefs of a man as long as he is a fine fellow.
We must, of course, admit that many modernists are worthy and pleasant people. So much so that many an unguarded soul is easily taken in by flowery phrases, the suave manner, and the kindly smile of the perverter of the Gospel. In fact, I have heard people with a Reformed background argue that such fine, brotherly individuals must be right—at least they must be men of God, for how otherwise could they have such outstanding Christian graces. And at the same time the conclusion is made that the defenders of the faith must be wrong because they so often appear contentious about things today considered to be minor matters.
However, the words of the Lord Jesus to the Sadducees ought to be a warning and are applicable here: “Ye do greatly err, not knowing the Scriptures, nor the power of God.” For the Bible tells us plainly that the Devil is able to transform himself into an angel of light. In addition, Paul had this to say: “Therefore, it is no great thing if his ministers also be transformed as the ministers of righteousness” (cf. II Cor. 11:14,15). The net result of thinking more highly of persons than of the principles of faith and the express revelation of God is always compromise on doctrinal issues.
This reminds us of the man who was so well-treated in a Catholic hospital during his illness that he vowed never to say anything against Catholicism again; or the brother who, when he heard his minister expounding the Roman Catholic mass as “an accursed idolatry” (cf. Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 30) came out of church protesting angrily that preachers were always running down some other religious group. As a matter of fact the irate brother had a Roman Catholic boss and his fine personality together with good employer-employee relations blinded the offended brother to the principles involved in our age-old opposition to Rome. Such people confuse earnest convictions and the earnest contending for the truth with personal animosity. For no matter how fine it may sound to hold that we ought only to talk about principles, alas, people are always attached to issues, and we cannot talk in a vacuum.
The assumption, then, is that one who debates or argues for the truth must have a personal prejudice against a brother who holds the opposite view. This is wrong and indicates something of that indifference to doctrine which is so prevalent today. For today we find people getting very excited about personalities involved in the debate, but the question of the truth as tested by the Word seems to be of no concern to many.
As a result we see a host of “neutrals” in the Church, who are merely amused by these “high and ghostly matters” to use a phrase from Mencken as applied to the Machen trial. Irreparable damage is done to the cause of Christ since the spiritual warfare to which we have been called in this world is either minimized or represented as a witch-hunt. Subtly the insinuation of fanaticism is introduced, thus discrediting those who are actually contending for the faith. Since the whole modern mind is one of appeasement and compromise, it becomes rather easy in ecclesiastical affairs to discredit those who still think of the Christian life as war fare for the truth.
Positive versus Negative Testimony
One of the favorite distinctions that one hears repeatedly from the middle-of-the-road, neutral churchmen is this: “Be positive in your Christian testimony and in your preaching. Do not criticize and do not become negative.” That was the favorite riding horse of the modernist Post-Chaplain, who was my superior for about two years in the service. He had himself emptied headquarters chapel by that type of lifeless preaching. The idea of these namby-pamby peddlers of man’s goodness is that if we say that we love the Lord all is well, and there is no need to condemn the world. We are told to accept the truth, but the condemnation of untruth and falsehood and heresy must simply be left to the imagination, since that attitude of condemnation is unChristian, and since one can never be really sure of having the truth anyway, one must never be censorious of others.
There is a Barthian dart here aimed at the doctrine of the “blessed possessors”—a certain imitation of Lessing who said the search was the thing, not the having. And if we are all searching we may not pretend that we have a monopoly on the truth. In short, this false tolerance for persons tends to keep one silent about error and heresy.
The Word of God is very clear on this matter. It is the duty of true prophets to signalize heresy and false prophets. Even the people themselves were commanded by the Lord in the Old Testament as well as in the New to learn to recognize those who came in sheeps clothing in the name of the Lord who were at the same time servants of Satan (cf. Deut, 13:18, 20; Is. 9:15; Jer. 29:21; 1 John 4:14; etc.)
Controversy versus Compromise
In the entire New Testament as well as in the preaching of Noah, Elijah, Isaiah, and Jeremiah we find this negative or controversial tone. John the Baptist and the Lord Jesus set the style when they condemned not only the sins of their day but also the people who held to these sins. Paul and Peter in their famous sermons and addresses take the same approach.
The Christian is called, then, not merely to take a negative position against sin in his own soul—as if the antithesis existed only on that level—but every Christian and especially every minister of the Gospel has the solemn duty to preach and speak controversially. And by controversial, I understand the setting of truth over against error and heresy in a concrete situation. What I have in mind is very aptly illustrated in the Heidelberg Catechism when the popish mass is called “an accursed idolatry” (cf. above) and when the articles against the Remonstrants (Canons of Dordt) not merely set forth the positive doctrine concerning the five points of Calvinism, but in no un certain terms the errors of the opposition are also condemned.
The Word itself calls us to this militancy. Paul says “our warfare is not against flesh and blood, but against spiritual forces,” and “the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the casting down of strongholds.” James urges us to strive earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints. War the good warfare and suffer hardness as a good soldier of Jesus Christ, thus Paul admonished Timothy. The term “militant” comes from the Latin word for soldier. So one who is militant is either training for or actively engaged in warfare, he is aggressively active in the service of the King.
Certainly we ought to be aggressive—as well as defensive—in the maintaining of the truth. We are not to merely react when under attack, or rally to the defense to vindicate the faith only when it is unjustly attacked. We must take the sword of the Spirit and wage war against the world in a spiritual manner.
Militancy does not mean pugnacious or belligerent in an offensive sense, neither need controversy degenerate into name-calling, quarreling and bickering. It all depends on the nature of the controversy and whether people can see issues rather than men. If our concern is only for men and not for the truth then, indeed, controversy is sure to degenerate in to contention in the Church. The sad fact is that in the history of the church men have not always been free from quibbling and quarrelling, but that in itself is no argument against controversy and polemics for the truth, or for the pacifism we see about us today.
Controversy and History
Historically we find that John Calvin was one of the greatest defenders of the faith. Of him B. B. Warfield claims that no greater controversialist ever wrote. Calvin was not content to sit in an ivory tower with his contemplations of the truth. He entered the arena of life and joined battle with those who opposed the truth of God as he understood it. But today the acid of Modernism has so corroded the thinking of God’s people in many quarters that it is often considered presumptuous for us to contend with Catholics, Lutherans or Arminians, since we do not actually know who has the truth, and there can certainly be no infallible interpretation of the truth, don’t you know! God, they say, will take care of the truth — a very plausible and pious thought, indeed! God will also save the elect, but he does it through the preaching of the Word.
It is in the fires of controversy that the dogmas of the church throughout the ages have been hammered out. Today, however, there is an attitude that seems to believe that we have arrived, that we can live by tradition and need not develop the doctrines of Scripture any further. There are those who are now saying that it is not the business of Christian ministers to controvert publicly. That ought to be done only in private This means, of course, that if one expresses himself first and delivers himself of an opinion which to the mind of others is contrary to the Word, those who disagree must refrain from speaking publicly. Otherwise they are guilty of the grave sin of schism —for, it is said, controversy leads to schism—but in the meanwhile anyone who speaks first has free play. What a travesty on the office of the minister and the prophetic office of the believer! If this suggestion were rigidly carried out no one would ever have the right to express his opinion lest someone would be found to have expressed a contrary opinion.
The opposition to controversy, then, in the history of the church, has usually led to compromise. For behind this unwillingness to defend the truth and to be militant in its proclamation there is a certain lackadaisical attitude, a worldly-wise sophistication, a spiritual hauteur, which looks down with disdain upon the quasi-comical antics of people who take themselves too seriously. Such people are out of place in the modern world of appeasement. They are quite ready for institutionalization for they think of themselves as Napoleon—or maybe Machen or Kuyper! That’s the verdict of the modern mind—and it can be backed with modern psychological analyses. It is the attitude of neutrality toward doctrinal issues which borders on a cynical indifference.
As members of the Church of Christ in these latter days we ought, then, to be on our guard and stand in the freedom with which Christ has set us free. For to succumb to the evil of modern religious liberalism is to be entangled again with the yoke of bondage. Especially we ought to be on guard lest this octopus strangle the orthodox remnant of the Church unawares. In warfare one of the standard procedures is to outflank the enemy—to get behind his position and attack from the rear. Today the same effect is achieved by the more subtle maneuver of infiltration—often under cover of darkness or inclement weather. Another effective weapon is psychological warfare in which the morale of the enemy is first destroyed by various suggestions and bits of news. All of these tactics are also being employed by the Devil, who is a deceiver from the beginning.
When a frontal attack is ineffective, Satan often shifts to the flank by suggesting that our defense of the faith is hopelessly provincial and narrow-minded; we take ourselves too seriously, and people can only laugh at us. Or again he suggests that we must overcome our intolerance, we must become more appreciative of the opinions of others—until we are finally so indifferent to the Truth that there is nothing worth contending for. Then we are ripe for the fall!
Rev. Henry R. Van Til [1906–1961] was serving as Associate Professor at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan when this article was published.