Jonathon Van Maren: “Paxton Smith delivered a speech articulating a position held by nearly every Western head of state, the president of the United States, the vice president of the United States, the entire Democratic Party, nearly all of the corporate elites, Hollywood, the music industry, much of the media, and the majority of academia. How, exactly, is this speech “brave?””
Of the Belgic Confession’s articles on the doctrine of the church, article 29 is probably the most well-known amongst Reformed church members. It describes the marks of the true and false church. First among the marks of a true church is “the pure preaching of the gospel.” What does this mean for mission? What does this mean for our churches in relation to the lost around us in our own communities?
In the early 1950s, the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRC) was beginning to develop a deeper conviction about its responsibility to spread the gospel at home and overseas. To be sure, missionary consciousness was part of the CRC’s fabric from its beginning in 1857. Initially, prayerful and financial support were given to Dutch and South African mission works. It took some time for the CRC to develop its own missionary efforts. There were extensive discussions at early CRC Synods about whether mission should be a denominational, classis, or local affair. Eventually, the CRC settled on a denominational approach to mission. The CRC Synod of 1880 appointed their first missions committee, then called the “Board of Heathen Missions.” In 1888, the decision was made to begin mission work among the American Indians. In 1896, the CRC finally began work among the Navajo and Zuni peoples of the American Southwest.
The CRC began overseas work in Nigeria a few decades later. It was one of the missionaries to Nigeria who really began to stir up discussions about mission in the CRC. Unfortunately, Rev. Harry Boer would go on to become infamous for his objections to certain points in the Canons of Dort, but for our interests here, we can note his role in stimulating CRC interest in spreading the gospel in the mid-twentieth century.
In 1952, a Christian Reformed consistory overtured the CRC Synod to “to draw up a creedal statement concerning missions.” The CRC Synod declined to do so, on the grounds that “The work of Missions is included in the connotation of the first mark of the church, namely ‘the faithful preaching of the Word.'” This was the earliest rumblings of dissatisfaction in the CRC with the Three Forms of Unity regarding mission — a history that I have traced and evaluated in one of the chapters of For the Cause of the Son of God. Interestingly, the CRC Synod appealed to article 29 of the Belgic Confession. Speaking through its Synod, the CRC in this era considered that the Belgic Confession spoke to the missionary task of the church.
However, this was not a unanimously held position in the CRC. Later in 1952, Harry Boer published his response to the Synod’s decision. He pointed out that the CRC edition of the Belgic Confession then in use did not support the grounds for this decision. The relevant part of article 29 of that edition reads, “The marks by which the true Church is known are these: If the pure doctrine of the Gospel is preached therein…” Boer built his case on the word “therein.” He noted that the earlier Dutch and Latin translations did not have that word. He did not mention the earliest French editions of 1561/62, but they do not have it either. While Boer was wrong about the Belgic Confession in many respects, he did get this correct. There was a problem here with the old CRC edition of the Confession.
When the CRC published a new edition in 1985, this problem was corrected. The Canadian Reformed Churches also had “therein” in their first English edition. I suspect that it originally came from the English text adopted by the CRC in 1912. But when a new edition of the Confession was adopted by the CanRC in 1983, “therein” was gone.
Several North American Reformed churches continue to use the English text that basically dates back to 1912 and includes “therein” in article 29. Among these are the Heritage Reformed, the Free Reformed, the Protestant Reformed and the Reformed Church in the United States. Until this is corrected, Boer’s point sticks among these brethren: one cannot appeal to the first mark of the true church in article 29 as a place where the Belgic Confession speaks about mission.
Biblical and Reformed = Missional
One might also ask whether it is even biblical to restrict the mark of a true church to what goes on in established congregations in their public worship services. This is a place where the original 1561 Belgic Confession can help us. Matthew 28:18-20, the Great Commission, is one of the proof texts for this statement in the original confession as penned by Guido de Brès. In that passage, our Lord Jesus sends his disciples out to preach, teach, and disciple “all nations.” Through those disciples, our Lord was also sending out his church of all ages and places. Clearly the original intent of the Belgic Confession was to include the missionary calling of the church under the first mark. A church that does not faithfully proclaim the gospel inside and outside its membership has a credibility problem when it comes to being a true church.
The Reformed churches in the days of de Brès understood this well. Being Reformed meant being outward looking. It meant looking outwards and seeing the vast numbers of lost people who needed the gospel because they did not have Christ and were heading for hell. It meant that the pastors were compelled by love to take seriously the charge of Paul to Timothy: “do the work of an evangelist” (2 Tim. 4:5). And they did.
But this outward looking orientation indicated by article 29 was not limited to pastors. Martyrology is a genre of religious literature dedicated to the stories of those who have been martyred for their faith. The most well-known in English is Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. The first Reformed martyrology was written in French by Jean Crespin in 1554. In that first edition, as well as in subsequent ones, Crespin described not only the martyrdoms of Reformed pastors, but of many Reformed church members. They were often killed for sharing the biblical gospel with friends and neighbours. Compelled by love, they could not keep silent. Among them were believers who had been pastored by de Brès, including at least one entire family, the Ogviers of Lille.
According to our Belgic Confession, the navel-gazing, self-obsessed church places a question mark behind its status as a true church. The ghetto mentality is not Reformed. When we’re labelled “the frozen chosen” and we deserve it, we’re not being faithful to either our confessions or Scripture. Instead, being Reformed means being missional, not only in terms of sending out missionaries to distant lands, but being outward looking and caring about the lost right in front of us who need the gospel.
Man of the First Hour: A Son’s Story: Jules Taco Van Popta, George van Popta. Carman: Reformed Perspective Press, 2021. Paperback, 226 pages.
At a certain point in this biography, the author describes going to the Netherlands with his mother Helen. His father, Rev. J.T. Van Popta, had died two years earlier. While visiting his old church in Mussel, they heard congregation members still speak reverentially of “onze dominee” (our minister). My grandparents on both sides had Rev. J.T. Van Popta as their pastor in Edmonton. Long after he was gone, they continued to speak highly of him. My Opa Bredenhof described him as a “good, peaceful man.” When he became my paternal grandparents’ pastor again some years later when he accepted the call to Cloverdale, they were extremely thankful. Rev. J.T. Van Popta became a legendary figure, even for us grandchildren who’d never met him.
So, when I heard about this biography written by his son George, I was all over it like white on bread. The book certainly doesn’t disappoint. It’s a well-told story of one of the pioneer Canadian Reformed pastors – in fact, the very first Canadian Reformed pastor. We hear of his family background in the Netherlands, the trials of immigrating to Canada, and the enormous challenges in being a “man of the first hour.” There’s joy and laughter, but the tears aren’t left out either. In particular, the author relates his father’s struggle with depression and burnout, as well as the toll his sudden passing took on Helen and her children.
Let me share a few details I found particularly interesting. Though he wasn’t yet a pastor, Jules Van Popta experienced the Liberation of 1944. This was an ecclesiastical event which tore apart the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands. It happened because of autocratic (and unlawful) synod decisions. During and afterwards, Van Popta showed a keen understanding of the main issue resulting in the Liberation:
A theological opinion had developed that the children of believers are to be baptized on the basis of the presumption that they have been born again. The issue was not whether or not someone could hold that opinion; rather, it was that the opinion was made binding upon all. The ministers were required to teach this upon the threat of deposition from office. That, said my father and many others, was not allowed. The synod erred in binding a theological opinion on the pulpits of all the churches. (p.130)
Ultimately this was about the freedom which Christ has won for us – a synod had illegitimately seized that freedom.
Living in the freedom won for us by Christ was a theme throughout the life of Jules Van Popta. It comes out also in how he approached the issue of labour unions. This became controversial in the early years of the Canadian Reformed Churches. To find out Van Popta’s view, you’ll have to buy the book – I won’t spoil it. Appendix 3 contains a lengthy article he wrote on the subject. Looking back at Van Popta’s legacy, the author points out that his father’s “position on union membership left a stamp on the Canadian Reformed Churches” (p.131).
For those interested in apologetics, it’s noteworthy that Jules Van Popta corresponded with Cornelius Van Til, and even met with him on one occasion. Van Popta loved to study philosophy – and so it’s no wonder he would take an interest in Van Til. There seem to be echoes of Van Til in what Jules Van Popta writes in Appendix 7, “Either Faith or Science?”, especially when he says that in the Bible “Divine authority demands that every thought must surrender in obedience to Christ” (p.187).
If you’re like me and appreciate church history biographies, Man of the First Hour is a must-read. If you’re interested in the Dutch immigration experience in the post-Second World War period, you’ll enjoy it too. But more than enjoyment, you’ll be edified by both the life and the writings (in the appendices) of Jules Taco Van Popta. He lived for Christ and his witness calls us to do the same.
R.C. Sproul: A Life, Stephen J. Nichols. Wheaton: Crossway, 2021. Hardcover, 371 pages.
Back in the early 90s, there was a fuss in the pages of our denominational magazine over what one of the pastors was doing with his catechism students. This pastor was having his youth listen to tapes of an “outside” Reformed theologian. That theologian was R.C. Sproul. As I recall, that was my first introduction to his name. A short time later I was browsing the theology stacks in the Rutherford Library at the University of Alberta. For a public university, the U of A actually had a remarkable collection of Reformed theology works. I spotted a book by R.C. Sproul, The Holiness of God. I borrowed the book and wolfed it down in short order. I was impressed, not with Sproul, but with God’s holiness. Especially the explanation of Isaiah 6 left me in awe of the Holy One.
Part of the legacy of R.C. Sproul was his profound gift to make Reformed theology accessible to everyone. When he died in 2017, many spoke of the way God used him to convey biblical truths clearly and effectively. This biography, the first, highlights the life and work of the man I’d call the greatest popularizer of Reformed theology. He had a knack for making complex things simple. Here’s a great sample of the man in action:
The author, Stephen J. Nichols, was a friend and admirer of Sproul. Nichols’ affection is impossible to disguise. As is often the case with this sort of less-than-arms-length biography, we get a good understanding of the main lines of Sproul’s life and influence, but we don’t really see the man “warts and all.” This biography is edifying and informative, but the author’s relationship to his subject (and the Sproul family) brings in a measure of restraint to what he can and does tell. I’m sure someone in the future will write a scholarly, critical biography telling us a fuller picture of the Sproul story.
Sproul was involved with several important stories during his lifetime. One was the struggle for biblical inerrancy beginning in the 1970s. Sproul was a pivotal figure in the establishment of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy. He wrote the first draft of the articles of affirmation and denial for the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. Nichols devotes a whole chapter to this topic.
There’s also a whole chapter dedicated to Sproul’s defence of the biblical doctrine of justification. A document was released in 1994 entitled, “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” (ECT). Some of the original signers of this statement were close friends of Sproul, especially Charles Colson and J.I. Packer. ECT compromised on the doctrine of justification, how we’re declared righteous by God. Sproul and others pointed out how ECT’s compromise formulations left out the crucial element of imputation – i.e. that Christ’s righteousness is credited to us by God. Sadly, the controversy over ECT ended Sproul’s friendships with Colson and Packer. The story, as told by Nichols, inspires readers to discern which hills are truly worth dying on. If justification isn’t worth it, what is?
It’s hard not to love R.C. Sproul. I loved him before reading this biography and I love him more after. That doesn’t mean I’ve always agreed with everything he’s stood for. Apologetics is one area where I have to respectfully disagree with him. Nichols stresses Sproul’s contributions to the revival of what we call classical apologetics. This approach stresses the use of rational arguments to argue towards God, and from there towards the God of the Bible, and from there towards the truth of Christianity. Contrasted with classical apologetics is Reformed, presuppositional apologetics. This approach argues for the truth of the Christian worldview taken as a whole by pointing out that unless Christianity is true, no reasoning is even possible. This was the approach championed by Cornelius Van Til.
On the topic of apologetics, this biography leaves me with some questions. According to Nichols, Sproul went to seminary “committed to presuppositional apologetics” (p.59), but had his mind changed by John Gerstner. One of his most influential college professors had been a student of Van Til and, apparently, impacted the young Sproul. Here’s the important thing to realize: presuppositional apologetics is inextricably bonded to Reformed theology. You can be an Arminian and hold to classical apologetics, but it should be impossible to be an Arminian and hold to Reformed apologetics. That’s why I’m confused when Nichols writes the following: “R.C. went to PTS [Pittsburgh Theological Seminary] a presuppositionalist and a non-Calvinist” (p.63). If he really was a presuppositionalist, he can’t have had a very good understanding of it if he still wasn’t Reformed. It gets more interesting, because later in the book, we discover that Sproul spent time visiting with Cornelius Van Til at his home in Philadelphia. Yet, when you read his (co-authored) book Classical Apologetics and its critique of Van Til, it seems Sproul didn’t really understand him.
That leads me to one last point of critique on the apologetics theme. In 1977, there was a debate between R.C. Sproul and Greg Bahnsen on apologetical method – classical versus presuppositional apologetics. You can find this debate online here. Bahnsen was a formidable debater and, even though it was brotherly and cordial, by the end Sproul was conceding Bahnsen’s key points. Sadly, Stephen Nichols doesn’t mention this debate at all. I’m left wondering: what did Sproul think about that debate in the following years? If Sproul conceded those points during the debate in 1977, how does one explain the publication of Classical Apologetics in 1984, in which Sproul reasserts the claims he had to earlier walk back? I’m perplexed.
Sproul did have a change of mind on several matters through his lifetime. One of those mentioned by Nichols is the meaning of the word “day” in Genesis 1-2. Sproul came around to the conclusion that “day” there is essentially what we understand as a day today. However, it would’ve been interesting if Nichols had shared how Sproul changed his thinking and how that was received by others.
I couldn’t put this biography down. It’s engaging and well-written. If you’ve ever read anything by Sproul or heard any of his talks, this volume will give you a greater appreciation for him and what God did through him. And if you’ve never been blessed by Sproul’s lifetime of promoting Reformed theology, this will be a great introduction.
Bavinck: A Critical Biography, James Eglinton. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2020. Hardcover, 450 pages.
In my corner of the Reformed world, figures in church history are often categorized as heroes or villains. If you’re either one, you stand a chance of being remembered. For example, Abraham Kuyper is considered a villain because of the way his views were imposed on the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands, especially in the 1940s. Klaas Schilder is a hero because of the way he resisted the imposition of Kuyper’s views. But if you can’t be neatly categorized, even if you’ve made important contributions, more than likely your name and however God may have used you will be forgotten.
I’m afraid that’s been the case with Herman Bavinck (1854-1921). I had a look through my childhood church history textbook, Young People’s History of the Church by W. Meijer (published in Launceston!). Figures like Schilder and Kuyper dominate. But Bavinck isn’t mentioned at all, not even once. P.K. Keizer’s Church History, a textbook for high schools and colleges, doesn’t fare much better. Bavinck is mentioned once, just in passing. I first discovered Herman Bavinck in university by reading Cornelius Van Til, the pioneer of Reformed apologetics. Van Til claimed he wasn’t being all that innovative, just building on what others had done before, and especially Bavinck.
Who was Herman Bavinck? Without spoiling the book, he was a highly-respected Dutch theologian. After a short pastorate, he first taught at the seminary of the churches established out of the Secession of 1834. Bavinck was instrumental in discussions leading up to the Union of 1892, when the churches of the Secession merged with the churches of the Doleantie of 1886. In 1902 he accepted a position to teach theology at the Free University of Amsterdam. He was also actively involved in politics, being elected as a senator to the Dutch parliament in 1911. He wrote dozens of articles and books, the most notable being his four-volume Reformed Dogmatics (which has been translated into English).
I’m hopeful that this new biography by James Eglinton will spark renewed interest in this influential figure from our Reformed church history. While it’s scholarly and careful, it’s also exceptionally readable. A few years ago, James Bratt published a biography of Abraham Kuyper (Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat — reviewed here). This too was a scholarly biography, but it suffered from assuming too much about the reader’s prior knowledge of Kuyper’s context. Eglinton, on the other hand, explains everything well for the reader new to Bavinck. Eglinton has helpful features, including a map, chronology, and a list of key figures, churches, educational institutions and newspapers.
This isn’t the first Bavinck biography to appear in English. In 2010 we saw Ron Gleason’s Herman Bavinck: Pastor, Churchman, Statesman and Theologian (my review is here). Eglinton’s biography is different in that it claims to be a critical approach to Bavinck – “critical” in the sense of being analytical. Eglinton presents Bavinck as a theologically orthodox believer trying to come to terms with the modern world, a world which began to change radically after 1848. The author doesn’t shy away from some of the weaknesses, inconsistences, or doubts of his subject. Eglinton also corrects some of the inaccuracies of previous biographers, not only Gleason, but also Dutch biographers such as R.H. Bremmer. Eglinton does this by going back to the original sources, especially Bavinck’s journals and letters.
As a result of this original research, some new details of Bavinck’s life have emerged. For example, Eglinton reveals the tragic obsession the young Bavinck had with Amelia den Dekker. His journals tell the story of his apparently unrequited love for Amelia and how she broke his heart. These sorts of details fill in more of the human side of Herman Bavinck.
It also becomes clear how Bavinck isn’t easily boxed. He was a “son of the Secession,” but chose to study at the University of Leiden, a hotbed of theological liberalism. Bavinck was always confessionally Reformed, yet one of his closest friends was an atheist. He was a friend and colleague of Abraham Kuyper, yet was publicly and privately critical of Kuyper. Bavinck edited and republished a classic Reformed theological textbook known as the Leiden Synopsis, but when he wrote his own dogmatics he wasn’t just regurgitating past formulations.
Scholars of Dutch Reformed church history are lauding this work and rightfully so. But I’d also highly recommend it to all pastors and church leaders, as well as teachers of church history in Christian schools. Not only is it informative, but it’s an enjoyable read. Best of all, it’ll leave you with a more nuanced view of how Christ has been working through complex people to gather, defend and preserve his church.