Tag Archives: Harry Boer

The First Mark and Mission

1561 Belgic Confession with proof-text referring to the Great Commission in Matthew 28:18-20.

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?

Historical Background   

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.


Revisiting Boer and Bucer

In 2011, Reformation Media and Press published For the Cause of the Son of God, a revised form of my doctoral dissertation.  This book discussed at length the missionary significance of the Belgic Confession.  My main foils were voices within the Christian Reformed Church of North America who had argued that the Belgic Confession was not only irrelevant for mission, but even a liability to a missionary church.  Among the CRC scholars with whom I interacted was Harry R. Boer.

Early in his own revised doctoral dissertation Pentecost and Missions, Boer argued that Reformers like Calvin and Luther believed that the Great Commission (in Matthew 28:18-20 and parallels) was meant only for the apostles.  Then Boer gets to Martin Bucer and he has to admit that Bucer was different.  He had a missionary concern.  Yet, Boer detected an inconsistency in Bucer’s missionary outlook, one which allegedly lined him up with Calvin, Luther and others Reformers on the limited nature of the Great Commission.  Boer quoted from Bucer’s 1538 book Von der waren Seelsorge:

What Christians in general and the civil authorities neglect to do with respect to seeking the lost lambs, this the elders of the Church shall undertake to make good in every possible way.  And though they do not have an apostolic call and command to go to strange nations, yet they shall not in their several churches…permit anyone who is not associated with the congregation of Christ to be lost in error.

The italics were added by Boer and I assume that the translation was his own (he does not indicate otherwise).  From this Boer concludes that “even Bucer did not free himself from the Reformation conception that the Great Commission was limited to the apostles” (Pentecost and Missions, 20).

When I came across this quote and conclusion in my doctoral research, I was perplexed.  Certainly a later book by Bucer (De Regno Christi) sang a different tune.  However, I was faced with two problems:  1) I did not have ready access to the German original of Von der waren Seelsorge (no Post-Reformation Digital Library yet) and 2) Bucer’s book had not yet been translated into English.  I had no way of verifying Boer’s conclusion, but yet I wanted to acknowledge the fact that this was in the literature and offer a possible explanation.  I decided to be charitable to Boer and posited that the difference between Von der waren Seelsorge and De Regno Christi might be chalked up to Bucer changing his mind over time, the former book preceding the latter by about 12 years.  Alternatively, I wrote, perhaps the difference is attributable to the fact that Bucer was writing about elders in Boer’s quote, whereas in De Regno Christi, he was writing about minister-evangelists.

I have recently had the opportunity to revisit this question and I think I have put it to rest.  In a couple of weeks, I’m going to be speaking at two conferences in Brazil about the Reformation and evangelism.  I decided to dig a little deeper into Martin Bucer.  Now I have the opportunity to do that with the help of Peter Beale’s English translation of Bucer’s earlier book, Concerning the True Care of Souls.  More than ever, I’m convinced that Boer got Bucer wrong.

Chapter 3 deals with the management of the church.  Specifically, it is about “how our Lord Jesus carries out his pastoral office and the work of our salvation through his ordained ministers.”  As he does in each chapter, Bucer begins with some relevant Scripture passages.  The very first one in this chapter is Matthew 28:18-20!  After a number of other passages, Bucer offers some explanation.  He says again that it is through his ordained ministers that Christ does his work on earth.  He says, “Through them he calls all nations to reformation and declares to them forgiveness of sins…” (page 21).  This, he writes, is shown by the first text mentioned.  The Great Commission is applied to the ministers of the church.

The most intriguing chapter is the seventh, “How the Lost Sheep Are To Be Sought.”  Again, one finds a number of Scripture texts at the beginning and among them is Mark’s version of the Great Commission in Mark 16:15.  Writes Bucer, “There are three things to learn from these texts.  The first is that those who exercise Christ’s ministry in the church are to seek to bring all people to the knowledge of Christ” (page 76).  In the first paragraph sub-heading, Bucer writes, “All people are to acknowledge Christ as their Lord, therefore his kingdom must be proclaimed and offered to all nations” (page 76).  In that paragraph he acknowledged that not all are elect.  But we have no access to “the secrets of his election.”  So “he commands us to go out into all the world and preach his gospel to every creature” (page 77).  He is paraphrasing Mark 16:15, the Great Commission, and says that it applies to “us.”

Bucer also has some advice for rulers in this chapter.  When rulers take their spiritual responsibilities towards their subjects seriously, “then our dear God will also surely entrust them with rightly seeking out and bringing to Christ those who by birth and breeding are estranged from Christ, such as Jews, Turks, and other heathen” (page 86).  Unfortunately, notes Bucer, many rulers have done a disservice to the gospel by invading and robbing foreign countries.  God judges this behaviour by returning the same upon the heads of oppressors:  “Thus the Jews have sucked dry the poor Christians to a remarkable extent by means of their usury, and the Turks day by day strip us of land and people with violence, making quite alarming advances” (page 87).

Now we come to the quote that Boer supplied in Pentecost and Missions.  This is Peter Beale’s translation:

Now, the elders of the church are always to see to the supply of those things which we have concluded in this article to be lacking in the seeking out of lost lambs by ordinary Christians and rulers.  And if they do not have the apostolic call and command to go to foreign people, they must still see that in the churches where the Holy Spirit has appointed them as bishops and overseers no-one anywhere who does not belong to the fellowship of Christ is left to wander, but seek in every case to do what God always entrusts to them, in order to bring such people to the full communion of Christ. (pages 88-89)

This translation is different from that of Boer in one key word.  In the second sentence, Boer had “And though they…”  Beale has “And if they…”  The German original says, “Und wo sie…”  I’m not a German expert, but from what I can tell, Beale’s translation is more accurate.  If that’s the case, then Bucer is making a concession to those who might argue that the Great Commission does not apply to church elders.  By the way, he is explicitly referring to elders — in German, Bucer uses the word “eltisten,” an older form of the modern German “ältesten.”

To me it is clear that Boer was mistaken about Bucer.  Not only in his later book De Regno Christi, but also in his earlier book Von der waren Seelsorge, Bucer viewed the Great Commission having continuing application in the church of Christ.  Bucer never changed his mind; rather Boer misunderstood him.  How and why did Boer get this wrong?   I could only speculate.  What I know for sure is that my own published doctoral work contains errors too (though nothing that negates my overall thesis).  In some instances, I too misunderstood someone or something, in others I had incomplete information.  All of us are merely human and not only prone to sin, but also to mistakes in our research and reasoning.  This is why advancing scholarship in a field has to be a joint venture.  As we study together and check our work, we can detect the mistakes, correct them, and move forward.        

 

 


For the Cause of the Son of God

For the Cause of the Son of God is getting closer to publication.  It should be available in about a month or so.  In the meantime, I’d like to share something from the original dissertation that didn’t make it into the book.  This is an excursus from chapter 2.

*****************************

2.1.3        Excursus: Harry Boer and Pentecost

There can be little question that Harry R. Boer’s Pentecost and Missions has been widely influential in the last half-century of missiology.[1] Michael Goheen noted how Boer, through Pentecost and Missions, strongly influenced Lesslie Newbigin in his thinking about the place of the Holy Spirit in missions.[2] David Hesselgrave indicates that the arguments of Boer in Pentecost and Missions have been rather conclusive.[3] Numerous other examples could be added of authors who accept and promote Boer’s thesis.  Until now, little has been written in a critical vein.

Leaving aside Boer’s material about the place of the Great Commission in the history of the church (see 2.6.1), we can proceed directly to lay out his basic position.  It is well-summarized by Roger Greenway in connection with the statement of the Great Commission in Acts 1:8:

The words, “You shall BE my witnesses” do not merely state what the Church would DO, but what the Church would BE.  The Great Commission, as the divine mandate to the Church to be a witnessing Church, is not only a law similar to that which was set forth at the beginning of human history (“be fruitful and multiply”), but it is its spiritual counterpart in the new creation.  It is a statement of the task of the renewed humanity as the earlier statement expresses the task of the old humanity.  The urge to witness is inborn in the Church.  It is given with her very being.  She cannot not-witness.  She has this being because of the Spirit who indwells her.  Pentecost made the Church a witnessing Church because at Pentecost the witnessing Spirit identified Himself with the Church and made the Great Commission the law of her life.[4]

Stating it in another way, the Great Commission is not so much an extrinsic command; rather, it belongs more properly to the intrinsic character of the Church.

Essential to Boer’s thesis is a distinction between command and law.  Boer writes: “The difference between command and law in the present discussion is, as we conceive it, that command has objective but no subjective force, whereas law has both.  A command comes from the outside and can be obeyed or disobeyed, depending on the attitude of the recipient to it.  A divine law, on the other hand, although it has an external origin, carries within itself its own effectuation.  It finds its subjective aspect willingly responding to its objective aspect.  Understanding command and law in this sense, it may be said that God alone can make laws, and man can give only commands.”[5] In Boer’s thinking, the Great Commission, like the so-called Cultural Mandate of Genesis 1:28, is a divine, organic law.  This critical distinction between law and command and the accompanying language is suggestive of the influence of the philosophy of the cosmonomic idea.[6] This philosophy, founded by Herman Dooyeweerd and D. H. Th. Vollenhoven, emerged in the mid-twentieth century in Reformed circles in the Netherlands.  It also later migrated to North America.  For our purposes, it is worth noting that Harry Boer originally wrote Pentecost and Missions as his doctoral dissertation at the Free University of Amsterdam, where cosmonomic philosophy originated.

While a thorough critical evaluation of cosmonomic philosophy falls outside of our purposes for this study, we ought to at least consider the distinction between law and command and what implications an acceptance or rejection of this distinction might have for the Great Commission and, more to the point, our definition of mission.  Does Boer have a significant contribution to offer on this subject?

To answer that, one must again adopt the methodology of ad fontes.  Does Scripture inescapably lead one to this distinction?  Boer does not provide any proof to that end.[7] In fact, when studied more closely all of God’s imperatival speaking can be characterized, on Boer’s scheme, as being “laws.”  This is so because man was created to obey God.  Man’s disobedience to God’s laws is an ethical and moral issue, and while Boer does not explicitly develop his scheme in that direction, it should be noted that, in general, cosmonomic philosophy sees the spheres of faith and morals to be mutually exclusive (or sovereign).  Applying this to the Great Commission we have been considering, it does not appear that obedience or disobedience would be considered an ethical failure.

In Boer’s view, mission is not so much what Christ commanded the church to do as much as what the church spontaneously and naturally is.  While there is much to be said for the leading of the Holy Spirit and the fact that he does spontaneously and naturally lead the church in Christ’s ways, we need to recognize that Boer’s position comes dangerously close to separating law and revelation.  This same criticism has been levelled at cosmonomic philosophy by J. Douma and W. Nieboer.[8] What happens then is that mission becomes whatever the church does rather than what Christ commanded the church to do.  One might argue that a dissonance here is unlikely or impossible since the church will always be naturally led by the Holy Spirit to follow Christ’s Word.  However, such a view is vulnerable to being labelled as an over-realized soteriology that does not adequately take into account the effects of sin.  For this reason, it is better to speak in the categories of purpose and laws.  God’s laws are the imperatives given in his Word; these include the Cultural Mandate and the Great Commission.  His Holy Spirit leads and empowers God’s redeemed people to obey these laws, if only in a small measure in this life.  God’s purposes are the reason why a given part of his creation exists, and while this can be distinguished from God’s laws, it cannot be separated.  Man exists in the first place to give glory to God; the same must be said for the church (Ephesians 1:11-12).  Yet clearly, as part of that grand purpose, the command for mission has also been given.[9]

In conclusion, Boer made a significant contribution to missiology by drawing our attention to the indispensable work of the Holy Spirit.  However, Pentecost and Missions did not make any significant advances in answering the question of the definition of mission.  In fact, in some respects Boer represents a potential step backwards from the Word of God as the foundation for missiology.  Following Boer could lead one to a position where mission is what the church spontaneously decides it to be, rather than what the Word of God declares it to be.  If that happens, then we are back to Stephen Neill’s aphorism, “If everything is mission, nothing is mission.”


[1] Harry R. Boer, Pentecost and Missions (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1961).

[2] Michael W. Goheen,“As the Father has sent me, I am sending you”:  J.E. Lesslie Newbigin’s missionary ecclesiology (Zoetermeer: Boekencentrum, 2000), 111.

[3] David J. Hesselgrave, Communicating Christ Cross-Culturally: An Introduction to Missionary Communication (Second Edition) (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991), 82-83.

[4] Roger S. Greenway, Go and Make Disciples: An Introduction to Christian Missions (Phillipsburg: P&R, 1999), 53-54.  Italics are original.  It should be noted that while Greenway presents this as a direct quote of Boer, the liberties taken more aptly characterize this as a summary.

[5] Boer, Pentecost and Missions, 121-122.

[6] In particular, note the similarities in language between Boer and Dooyeweerd:  “In every modal sphere two sides can be distinguished.  On the one side there is the law or norm which is peculiar to this modality; on the other side there is whatever is subject to this law or norm.  Therefore, Dooyeweerd speaks of the law-side and the factual subject side of each aspect.”  L. Kalsbeek, Contours of a Christian Philosophy: An Introduction to Herman Dooyeweerd’s Thought (Toronto: Wedge Publishing Foundation, 1975), 70.  Cf. Herman Dooyeweerd, A New Critique of Theoretical Thought (Vol.3-4) (Philippsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1969), 549.  Dooyeweerd speaks about the “internal structural principle” of the temporal church institution and how that relates to love.  His language and approach sound very similar to Boer.

[7] D. A. Carson’s critique is similar: “In short, Boer’s thesis is tied too much to an argument from silence, and is short on nuance.”  The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 437.

[8] J. Douma, Another Look at Dooyeweerd (Winnipeg: Premier, n.d.), 30-31.

[9] See Carson, The Gagging of God, 437.

 

 


The Rationalistic Attack on Scripture (Louis Praamsma) — 2

Today we’re continuing our serialization of an article from the December 1979 issue of The Outlook.  Dr. Louis Praamsma was responding to Dr. Harry Boer’s attempt to marginalize biblical inerrancy so as to make room for other aberrant views.  Here’s part 2:

***********************

The Suggested Change

It seems that we now live in another climate.  A distinction is being made between infallibility and inerrancy; it is said that we certainly have an infallible Bible, which, however, contains many errors.

Dr. Harry Boer wrote a book about this topic (Above the Battle: the Bible and its Critics) which has been largely discussed by Dr. Alexander De Jong (Christ’s Church, the Bible and Me).  I need not repeat what has been said by these two able men.  I would recommend that every reader study the brochure of Dr. De Jong.

Alleged Discrepancies

In his book Dr. Boer adduces (mainly in parallel columns) some ten passages or groups of passages in which the Bible seems clearly to contradict itself with respect to specific data of circumstance, time, place, person, number, and phraseology.  As a point in case he refers (in his reply to Dr. De Jong) to the account of the death of Judas Iscariot both in Matt. 27 and Acts 1.

Apparently he is convinced of the fact that both stories cannot be true; one of them must be in error.  If the logic of Dr. Boer holds, it might even be assumed that both Matthew and Luke may have been in error; each one of them may have jotted down some rumour from the many stories circulating in the first congregations.  However, who is qualified to say what really happened?

But all this does not matter, in Dr. Boer’s view, as far as the infallibility of Scripture is concerned.  That infallibility, in his opinion, is “the massive idea of the unbreakable, ever-valid revelation of the creation, redemption, and consummation of all things in Christ.”

Echoes of Barth

It is small wonder that I, reading those things, was immediately reminded of the position of Karl Barth.

Barth, the man who with a mighty voice and great talent, once opposed the liberal theology of his days, also declared: “The prophets and apostles as such, even in their function of witnesses, even when writing down their witness, were real historical men as we are, and therefore sinful in their actions and indeed guilty of error in the spoken and written word” (Church Dogmatics I.2, 529).

Barth also once wrote: “As far as the relativity of all human words, including those of Paul, is concerned, I share the opinion of Bultmann and of all intelligent people” (Romerbrief, XXXI).

It was quite a remarkable, I am almost inclined to say, a most un-Barthian thing, to appeal to “intelligent,” i.e. critical people.

I was also reminded of something else.

A Much Older Problem

Is it only in our time, the time of refined historical methods, the time of endless hermeneutical problems, the time of an existentialistic relativism and loneliness without measure, that we are struck by “historical inaccuracies” and “discrepancies” in Holy Scripture?  We should know by now that the fight for the Bible is by and large as old as the Christian church itself.

The first adversaries of the church were not blind, even as the church fathers were not blind.

Among those early adversaries was Celsus.  He knew the Bible.  He claimed that it taught falsely that God changes His mind, that He chooses favorites among the human race, and that it is full of childish legends.  There was also Julian the Apostate.  He claimed that the Bible teemed with contradictions, obvious at first sight by a comparison between the genealogies of Jesus in Matthew and Luke.