Faint-Hearted Calvinism

It should be apparent to the in­telligent observer that there exists in modern orthodox Christianity and in ourselves particularly, a growing lack of courage to speak out for principle’s sake. Our will­ingness and desire to walk as a living testimony to the truth and its power in our lives is, generally speaking, diminishing as the years roll by.

Sunday church attendance is not what it used to be; week night church going is not nearly what it ought to be. The Family Altar is fast disappearing. Denomina­tional Loyalty in our circles is weakening as time goes on. Our church leaders speak of luke-warmness and indifference to the “Faith of our Fathers”.

In his article in the Beacon Lights last month, the Rev. J. W. Van Weelden also voices the need of self-examination and spiritual rejuvenation within our circles. Among other things he says: “It is something which we as Protestant Reformed people, old and young alike, must take hold of, that we may strive to maintain and restore through the power of the life of Christ ‘the Christian home’.”

There is of course a very definite cause underlying our spiritual re­trogression and it centers in the development of sin in the world and in the fact that the line of separation between the true and false church is becoming increas­ingly difficult to discern. And just as the Church of Christ has con­tinued to develop in numbers and tradition for almost two thousand years, so also has the devil been active in creating divisions and misconceptions of the truth within the church.

Without a doubt there exists among us in some measure a false legalistic piety which may well be a root cause of much of the faint­hearted Calvinism our leaders are deploring.

But we are dealing here with an age-old problem, however contem­porary its inflections may be. Note the situation as it was in the time of Christ. The doctrines of the Pharisees and Sadducees had de­generated into little else than a legalistic emphasis upon the strict keeping of the law. There were long lists of prohibitions. The re­ligious leaders of the day were characterized by Christ as blind leaders of the blind. They were blind in their adherence to tradi­tionalism. The spark of true wor­ship and understanding remained in only a few of the members of the church of that day, as for example, Simeon and Anna and the parents of John the Baptist. And what, may we ask, can be said of us in this day of spiritual enlight­enment? Have we any leanings towards the dangers of tradition­alism?

From an editorial in the most recent issue of the Calvin College Chimes I quote the following “Legalism is worshipped with such intensity that Christianity has become an empty shell stripped of all significance for the pulsating life of modern mechanized society . . . Now it is not completely true that Christianity has become just an empty shell without signifi­cance for the life of modern so­ciety. Today, just as in every other age in history, there are many men and women, right think­ing and devout, who have the de­sire and the capability to success­fully resist the wicked influences in the world. The true church, of which we are an integral part, has a good deal of significance for those who live out of the principle and conviction that Christ is our all in all. However I believe the possibility exists, and is in fact a real probability, that just as in the days when Christ walked on earth, so today within our own church assembly, traditionalism is creep­ing in on us and is even now foster­ing a tendency to adhere to the defi­nitions of our doctrinal confessions primarily for the sake of convention rather than completely out of the principle of conviction. Just how much of our way of life is cul­tured solely on the basis of the say­ing, “it was good enough for father and it’s good enough for me”.

By definition the word ‘tradition’ means the handing down of infor­mation, doctrine and opinion thru successive generations. It means further that a tradition can be a code of doctrine and discipline which has continued to develop and grow as it is molded and absorbed by the generations of men who are influenced by it.

This latter meaning—in a large degree—defines our Compendium of the Christian Religion, our Hei­delberg Catechism, the Canons of Dort and all the Liturgy peculiar to us which for our convenient re­ference has been gathered together at the back of the Psalter.

In none of them do we find the hierarchy of rules and prohibitions which characterized the church tra­ditions just prior to the advent of Christ and which Jesus vigorously attacked and overthrew. This col­lection of dogmatic truth and order in worship is the embodiment of the right and true concepts of God and Christian living which have an end in us and are to be com­pletely assimilated by us, and thus revitalized, are to be handed down to the generation which will follow us.

But friends, isn’t it just possible that we have, without our being aware of it, permitted an element of traditionalism to surround these cardinal expressions of our doc­trinal position? Has the force of habit and the repetition of liturgies —rather than the thrust of faith and reason,—become the induce­ment to cause us to assume the re­sponsibilities of church member­ship?

A Fundamentalist is one who ap­proaches the teachings of Scripture and the consideration of church af­filiation, purely on the basis of its literal inspiration. He attempts to formulate his own convictions without any creed or doctrine to guide him. For us as Calvinists to do this would be to trample under foot the experience of all our fathers. In no other sphere of life would we consider doing this— we cannot do it in religion either.

Of course it is true and we can never doubt it, that only through the grace of God in our heart can we accept the Lord Jesus Christ and take our stand for Him among His people. And it is also true that the power of the Word and its preaching should ever be the overpowering influence in direct­ing us to join the body of believers as members of His Church here in the world.

What we call our tradition is in reality no more than this concept of God’s sovereign love and plan of salvation evaluated and illuminated by the personal experiences of gen­erations of God-fearing individu­als. For us to ignore this testi­mony in formulating our own prin­ciples of belief and faith would be ludicrous, to say the least.

The danger of traditionalism, however, is to make out of this same testimony nothing more than an accumulation, of opinions and customs which by virtue of their antiquity need not be questioned— much like the ‘wisdom of the ages’. It is when this becomes the case in our lives that we turn into faint­hearted Calvinists and unhealthy Christians.

We said a moment ago that tra­dition has an end in us. By that we mean to recognize the personal heritage which comes down to us from yesterday. Our responsibility to the traditions of our fathers is to take them, not in blind adher­ence, but in eagerness of purpose to study them, examine and prove them. This reasoning out of the conclusions of the past, serves to revitalize them and thus they live again in us not only as honored traditions but as shining beacons of inspiration and guidance. Then and then only can we in turn pass them on to tomorrow untainted by a false sense of piety and hypo­critical formalism.

NOTE: This address was given by Mr. Heemstra at a combined meet­ing of Talitha and Young Men’s Societies, March 8, 1949 at Fuller Ave.