Recently I’ve been stressing to my students the importance of believing their senses. Maybe it’s because each autumn I re-read the Apostolic Fathers (and other patristic writers) and walk the students through the threats posed by Basilides, Valentinus, and Marcion (pre-Gnostic, Gnostic, and Dualist) and perhaps it’s also because it seems that people seem to be having a hard time believing what they are seeing around them—how often do you find yourself asking, “Is this really happening?”—and responding accordingly. For whatever reason I am impressed anew recently with the need for Christians to believe their senses and to understand that God made the world to be known and he made us to know it. This much is evident from Romans chapters 1 and 2. In Romans 1:20, Paul says, “For [God’s] invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.” That phrase “clearly perceived” (νοουμενα καθοραται) signals something about how Paul thought that we know things. He assumed the general reliability of our senses. Our older Reformed writers picked up on this and built on it. In our age, however, for a variety of reasons—some of the good, some of them not good—we have come increasingly not to trust our senses. I suspect that the rise of electronic technology is also making us less confident about our sense experience and cutting us off from the world that is and sequestering us in artificial e-worlds.
Historically, when we have refused to believe our eyes, however, things have not gone well. There was rumors and more than rumors about what the Germans and others were doing with the Jews and other groups. Many didn’t want to hear or didn’t want to believe what was happening. Even today there are those who deny what really did happen. Don’t bother posting wacky comments on the HB denying the Holocaust. I’ll delete them and ban you from commenting. Those who study public safety will tell you that people frequently refuse to believe that something bad is happening even though they can see and hear it. People have to be taught not to deny what they are hearing and seeing, for their own safety and that of others.
Denial of what is happening right before us happens in religious and ecclesiastical contexts too. When I first started writing about what we then called ‘The Shepehrdite Movement” (later the self-described Federal Vision movement), that we are justified with God by faith and works (as Norman Shepherd said in the mid-70s), people were disbelieving. This skepticism about what was happening right in front people is part of why it took seven years for WTS/Philadelphia to deal with “The Shepherd Case.” The same thing was true when the self-described Federal Vision (really the Shepherd Vision Movement) picked up on his covenant theology (in by grace, stay in by cooperation with grace) and elaborated on it (baptismal union with Christ etc). People were disbelieving. “Reformed folk can’t possibly be saying such things!” But they were. It took time for us all to believe our senses, that yes, what we were seeing in print and hearing in sermons really was what it seemed: a flat contradiction of the Scriptures as understood by the Reformed churches.
A similar struggle is occurring for those conservatives who remain in the CRC. The question is whether they will believe what they are seeing and hearing or how long it will take them to believe what is happening before them. In May I responded to a an article in the The Banner, the magazine of the Christian Reformed Church, by the Rev. Mr. Edwin Walhout, a retired CRC minister. If you haven’t read that post from May it would be helpful if you did in order to understand what follows. Walhout’s essay was provocative, to say the least. It was also contrary to the most catholic Christian teaching as summarized by the Apostles’ and Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creeds. That such a manifestly incoherent and theologically corrupt essay appeared in The Banner was remarkable. Since, that time, however, other equally provocative and telling articles have appeared in The Banner including an a piece by Chelsey Harmon and Harry Van Belle, “Sex, Intimacy, and the Single Person” (HT: Aaron Vriesman) that argues for a radical revision of Reformed understanding of the seventh commandment. The second section of this article, by Van Belle, is the most problematic for those of us who still believe the historic confession of the seventh commandment.
Even more interesting than the latest article, however, is the way The Banner chose to handle both essays. The Board of Trustees received a considerable number of letters of complaint that may fairly be interpreted to represent the opinions of a larger number of people. Two classical (regional ecclesiastical) overtures have also been adopted demanding the editor’s immediate dismissal. In response, according to Vriesman, the board affirmed the gifts of the editor of The Banner and noted that his church council had not found him guilty of doctrinal error. The board accepted his apology but has established an editorial review committee, presumably to prevent future publication of similar articles.
Vriesman notes that the former Back to God Radio minister, the Rev. Mr David Feddes, has obtained and published the minutes of The Banner‘s editorial council meeting, which reveal that, as Vriesman writes,
the council gave unanimous “wholehearted support” to publishing the first article by Walhout. Why De Moor apologized and was called before the Board and not the Editorial Council is unclear. Except that, in the Board’s view, there was no problem with publishing the articles but only the manner of their presentation.
In other words, as the editorial council sees things, the problem is not with what Walhout said but with the way that he said them. In that case, as Vriesman suggests, the purpose of the apology seems to deal with a public relations problem rather than the substantial theological and ecclesiastical problem of the denominational magazine publishing heresy against the catholic faith and suggestions that premarital sex should not be regarded as sin.
This is part of a pattern of rapid decline in the CRC where the Reformed faith is now regarded as just one “accent” rather than the teaching of Scripture, where the Reformed theology, piety, and practice is being literally kicked to the curb, where influential laity are more or less demanding union with the RCA, where the teaching of HC 96 has been publicly ignored, and where the death knell has already been sounded for the RCA and CRC by one of their own.
Once more, this is not just a lament for the evident slide of the CRC toward the American mainline (liberalism) but to note how that happened. The CRC didn’t become liberal overnight. Most of the CRC still probably isn’t classically liberal as much as it is broadly evangelical, which is the bridge between confessionalism and liberalism. Conservatives, even staunch conservatives such as R. B. Kuiper in the 1920s, warned of the dangers of “confessionalism” and thought they could steer a conservative course between liberalism and confessionalism. By the 1950s, however, Kuiper essentially admitted (without saying so) that move had failed. The engagement with and appropriation of American evangelicalism, which Foppe Ten Hoor and others called “Methodism” (subjectivist revivalism) was already taking its toll. Experience supplanted objective truth. Latitudinarianism was already so deeply rooted in the CRC by the Harry Boer defied the Canons of Dort (1965) that there was no will to discipline him. Though it was not evident then, the CRC was already gone in principle but it would take time for that principle to work itself out, as it is doing right before our eyes in the pages of The Banner.