Kicked To The Curb: Reformed Theology, Piety

Dad had been a staunch defender of a somewhat cramped version of Calvinism formed by his upbringing in the Gereformeerde Kerk in the Netherlands. Early on, his parents had put the kibosh on his aspirations to ministry; unless he had a distinct call from the Lord, he had a duty to help his father run the farm. But disappointment did not snuff out his enthusiasm for the cause of John Calvin. He read commentaries and wrote essays that he read at men’s society meetings. Dad eloquently argued points of doctrine, articulating and defending each letter of TULIP. He collected cassette tapes of sermons by Dutch dominees and those Christian Reformed ministers who shared his passion. In retirement he pored over black-bound tomes and cobbled together sermons, reading them to the captive audience in a nearby retirement home. He had become a preacher after all.

Now, 10 years after a preacher committed him to the earth from which he came, my sister opens the lid of the cardboard ark. Inside are books, bulky manila envelopes, and, on top, a cigar box veneered with wood and dust in nearly equal proportions. Inside the box are two rows of cassette tapes labeled in Dad’s inimitable handwriting. The labels reflect predictable themes: “The means of grace.” “The broad and narrow ways.” “Predestination: delight or despair.”

…The brief coffee klatch gets us talking about the new “normal” in church life: praise teams, women clergy, seeker-friendly services, interfaith dialogue, acceptance of divorced and gay members. We put down our coffee cups and get down to business. The ark has become a beer box with relics of a bygone era. Emboldened, we transfer its contents into a black plastic garbage bag. The cigar box with cassette tapes goes in last.

Tomorrow a smelly truck will rumble to our curb. A man in a yellow coverall will jump out, grab the bag, and toss it among the garbage. The truck will roar away to the city landfill and consign outdated orthodoxy a place among the broken bedsprings, naked dolls, and used paperbacks of our throw-away society. Read more»

Hank Ottens | “Relics of A Bygone Era.” HT: Wes Bredenhof.


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  1. Excellent. For some additional thoughtful lines of Reformed piety, recommend a read of Marilynne Robinson’s “Gilead.” The word pictures Robinson paints through her Calvinist pastor are powerful enough to make you weep.

  2. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.

    What I wouldn’t give to have had a father like that! What an honor it would be to inherit all those books and tapes and pass them on to future generations. As I read the original article I kept wanting to inject myself into the narrative, rush into the room, rescue the box, and rebuke everyone for even thinking of trashing it.

  3. I look forward to retirement in a few months, hunched over in my cramped quarters, poring over old cassette tapes to see which ones I can replace with mp3 downloads.

  4. Be sure to follow the link to the original post and read the comments. What a sad, melancholy collection, ranging from confused to clueless.

  5. Frank is right. Click through and read the full article, with its comments.

    Then remember this is not a blog by some unaccountable individual church member, but rather is the online version of the Banner, the official denominational magazine of the Christian Reformed Church.

    This is made worse because I know some of the people involved. I haven’t seen any of them for at least a dozen years and while I didn’t know they had gone this far, I can’t say that I am surprised.

    The worst liberals of the Christian Reformed Church of three decades ago would have been horrified to see an article like this appear in print in the Banner — even if they privately detested orthodoxy, they would have regarded an article like this as a hand grenade foolishly thrown in their own camp because of the explosion that would once have resulted from conservatives if the Banner had published something like this. On the other hand, if the conservatives of three decades ago had written something like this as a satire, they would have been accused of bearing false witness and slandering the denominational leaders.

    Today, however, this article likely will result only in some tepid moans by the graying and dying conservative wing of the CRC, who recognize the accuracy of this article. In all too many cases, they know the truth the article contains: their own children will likely throw their own remnants of orthodoxy into the trash after their death.

    I do not believe “Ichabod” is too strong of a statement to make when reading such things in the official denominational magazine of a once-great denomination.

  6. This is just another sad commentary on the state of my former denomination. My grandfather was a CRC pastor and Christian school Bible teacher who spent his life quietly and faithfully serving that denomination, well into his “retirement.” One of my favorite possessions is a well-worn, dog-eared, taped-up, marked-up copy of Louis Berkhof’s Systematic Theology that’s probably about 70 years old from my grandfather’s library, which he gave to me a couple years before he passed away. I’ll take my grandfather’s “outdated orthodoxy” any day of the week and gladly wait for the trash man to pick up the latest copy of the Banner.

    • It’s a sad but compelling image of what is happening in the CRC. The Reformed confession is being packed up and put out on the curb.

      Notice with what it is being replaced. It is not immediately liberalism but rather it is being replaced with evangelicalism. The very thing about which Foppe Ten Hoor and others worried about in the 1920s has come to pass. The CRC has become a latitudinarian haven for neo-Pentecostalists and liberals. We should note, however, that it was broad evangelicalism, subjectivism, that was the turning point. Denominations don’t suddenly become liberal. Yes, there was the Janssen case in the 1920s and that was a warning sign of things to come but the reaction to Janssen was instructive. The turn, in my view, seems to have happened in the 1950s, when, as it were, no one was looking because everything seemed to be fine. Some folks might even think that the problem could be traced to 1934 and the introduction of the Psalter-Hymnal. Look at the introduction. Notice the rationale used for making the change. Already, by the early 30s, the church had adopted different categories. The question was not “what must we do?” but rather “what may we do?” (or we may do what is not forbidden). Apparently no one noticed. This is why conservatism is not enough.

      Broad evangelicalism is the starter drug. It’s the ecclesiastical equivalent of Rudy Giuliani’s “broken windows” theory of law enforcement. If the police ignore broken windows (on the grounds that it’s not important) criminal will move in because they detect that law enforcement is weak and they can operate there safely. If broken windows are repaired, because they’re a sign of decay, then criminals are less likely to infest a neighborhood.

      The ecclesiastical analogy would be praise teams and the like. When you see them then you know that some windows have been broken. They signify that something important is happening. No one paid attention until it was too late and now the dusty old theology, piety, and practice is on the curb. I

      Isn’t it interesting that the writer seemed to be troubled by the old stuff? Sadly, the next generation won’t even be troubled.

      One could find exactly the same stuff in the PCUSA in the 1930s and 40s.

  7. Very interesting and sad read.

    Are these reflections on the means of grace, the Heidelberg Catechism and pious living, no more important than a broken-down hobby horse or a six-pack of empties? Do those old sermon tapes at least deserve a respectful place in a preacher’s bookcase? I don’t know if it really matters. I keep to myself the gnawing ambivalence, twist the bag shut, and drag it to the curb.

    Except for writing about it on the web…

  8. There are some disturbing parallels here to the way the wind is blowing in the PCA. Actually, it’s more like a warm breeze at the moment, but unmistakably there. The summer heat seems to raise the temperature a few more degrees each year at General Assembly. I’d rather not think about it. But I just did.

    • I’ve been thinking about Machen’s service on the Independent Board for Foreign Missions. He’s been criticized for deviating from strict Presbyterian polity and that, of course, was the ground of the charge against him. Look at the PCUSA now, however. Can you imagine someone being charged for violating Presbyterian polity now? Perhaps, in a selective prosecution—which is what happened to Machen anyway. It’s interesting that the Modernists used polity to get him. We should be orderly and decent but polity works for confession, doesn’t it? I worry about the hierarchy of values at work. If polity trumps confession then it’s difficult not to reason from premises to likely outcomes.

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