The Best of The Reformed Journal

Article by   June 2012
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James D. Bratt and Ronald A. Wells, eds., The Best of the Reformed Journal (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), 343 pages.

A Spirited Discussion

On the surface, this volume is an oddly delightful anthology of pithy readings culled from the four-decade run of The Reformed Journal (1951-1990).  But, as the leading monthly of an influential faction within the Christian Reformed Church (CRC), RJ had an agenda.  In the cozy--some would say stuffy--world of this binational (United States and Canada) yet thoroughly Midwestern, Dutch-Reformed tradition, the editors and most contributors were self-styled progressives.  These were men and women on the move, often agitating for change by drawing from the deep theological wells their ancestors had dug. Along the way, they forged the future of the CRC and helped shape contemporary American evangelicalism--especially in America's influential heartland.

Folding before the blogosphere emerged, RJ was not so different in scope or tone from reformation21. Reading this volume is like dropping in on a spirited after-dinner conversation between well-informed, highly opinionated, and occasionally cantankerous friends.  Running from earnest arguments over intramural affairs to curious observations and sharp criticisms on contemporary issues to conversation-stopping remembrances and personal reflections, contributors wrote on almost any topic of personal interest--confident that if it interested them it would interest their three thousand or so subscribers, too.

As one expects in conversations like these, there were some unguarded moments. Take Richard J. Mouw's "A Prayer to Mary."  It's not too surprising that Mouw admits dabbling in Mariolatry or finding it an edifying experience. It's the kind of awkward admission that polite (orthodox) company might pass over till a more private moment. But not so here: by dressing this non-confession up in an exquisite little story Mouw and his editors, both then and now, find this compelling material, worthy of print and inclusion in this greatest hits collection.

Also to be expected is the occasional venting. Of several examples, "Francis Schaeffer's Jeremiad" by Wells, co-editor of the volume, stands out. A controversial piece at the time (1982), this severe but well-informed rant on Schaeffer's corpus brought RJ to the attention of people who otherwise may not have paid any. It had to be included. To the editors' credit, George Marsden's excellent little memorial, which ran two years later, immediately follows. In it, he notes Schaeffer's admission "that bitter attacks on fellow Christians in those polemical days [under Carl McIntire] had left scars for generations" (235). Perhaps thirty years later Wells now agrees.

"Top-notch, Venturesome Commentary"

Whether or not readers are sympathetic to the cause RJ served (more on that below), two features make this anthology pleasant reading: the quality of thought and the quality of writing.  There are only a few disappointments along the way, like Henry Stob's "The Right-to-Life Amendment," where he argues that we ought not call the human fetus a "person" any more than we call a breakfast egg a "chicken" or caviar, "sturgeon" (170). Bernard Ramm's "Misplaced Battle Lines," a shove at Harold Lindsell's Battle for the Bible, also falls short.

But consider Nicholas Wolterstorff's clear-sighted "On Looking at Paintings." Here is a penetrating critique of the aesthetic theory employed by H. R. Rookmaaker in his still influential Modern Art and the Death of a Culture (London: InterVarsity Press, 1970). Or take Lewis Smedes's still seasonal exposé of evangelical ecclesiology in "Evangelicalism--A Fantasy."  It is two-and-a-half old-school pages against the "dangerous fantasy . . . [that] leads evangelicals to . . . ignore the real church and invest their energy only in the quasi-church called evangelicalism" (220). The only direct debate included in this anthology, a still timely exchange between Smedes and Carl F. H. Henry on social ethics, with Richard Mouw weighing in three years later, is another fine example of the quality of thought contained in these pages.

As for quality of writing, Cornelius Plantinga's "Like a Shot to the Heart" is eloquent advice to preachers about true pulpit eloquence. But the most beautiful pieces are surely Jon Pott's evocative musings. You can feel the force of your unsatisfied longings as you read "Intimations," and are brought by him, with a little help from C. S. Lewis, to see that you are not being silly or merely nostalgic, but are longing for glory yet to be revealed. Or take his earlier, similarly themed and just as stirring "Cemetery." Recalling the view from atop the knoll where the little rural church of his childhood had its burial ground, he writes, "There, across the field, was the church still militant; here, that same church triumphant" (187). Pott makes us feel the weight of it--a loss far greater than any material account can tell--as he contemplates how the opening of a new expressway that severs church from cemetery "will widen immeasurably the distance between the present and the past" (188).

Many pieces are a pleasure to read. Some, to be sure, were calculated to offend the sensitive and irritate the cranky, and they still will. But know this, also: anyone who spends much time in these circles will learn to think carefully and speak clearly--as a survival skill if for nothing else.  Intellectual excellence is highly valued in this tradition and community of writers, and that explains more than you might imagine: J. Gresham Machen and Carl Henry they respected; Billy Graham and Francis Schaeffer, not as much.

"Restless with Creative Energy"

But there is another reason to read this anthology: this is not just a compilation of well-written wit but a one-sided documentary history of the steady post-war ascent of the progressive wing of the CRC.

The progressives were confident their tradition could hold its own on the congested freeway of American Protestantism--and they were right.  Through their publishing houses, academic institutions, and scholarly contributions, the CRC's influence (of conservatives and progressives alike) has been striking. But for all their justified confidence they struggled to feel at home here.  Where did they belong?  Who were their friends?  Did anyone else see things the way they did?  With whom could they make common cause?  Conservatives and progressives agreed they were still unsettled but differed over just what they needed to unpack.

The issues were complicated and responses diverse, but in general the contributors to RJ, under the banner of common grace, advocated opening up the tradition and fully engaging the wider culture. Fundamentalist-like strictures on dancing, card-playing, and movie-viewing were proxies for a reactionary conservatism unworthy of their noble Reformed tradition--so argues Harry Boer, at least, in the opening reading of the anthology. What was needed, in James Daane's words, was "a Reformed theology bristling with vitality and restless with creative energy" (11). Restless they were, and they set themselves to overhauling their parents' CRC--the CRC of Louis Berkhof--often in open opposition to the Westminster-influenced Reformed Fellowship, Inc., and its rival monthly, Torch and Trumpet (now The Outlook).

Many outside observers--ref21 readers, no doubt--believe the CRC lost its way, but few have said it as pointedly as insider Stanley Wiersma did in his 1973 contribution, "Confessions of an Ex-WASP." Leaving the old Dutch-immigrant settlement behind, church and cemetery, "liberals" like him were ready to hop on the American Protestant expressway. Self-loathing at the start, Wiersma wanted out and even considered changing his fine Frisian surname.  But in time he realized how "pretentious and puny" that Protestant establishment was, and reassessed his own peculiar tradition and even the wisdom of those old crusty conservatives in the de taal zaak debates over whether to use English in worship.  By 1973 he realized there was no going back, and lamented his losses: "The losing conservatives . . . should have argued their position with Black Power's urgency until our liberal consciences finally awoke," he writes.  "The conservatives . . . cared, but they didn't care quite enough" (183).  Fact is, the conservatives did care, and continued caring, and many still do--deeply; but the progressives keep on progressing. From my vantage point that progress is sometimes constructive, but more often not.

"A Vague Melancholy Yearning"

Many of those who think the CRC has lost its way have a pet theory: the RJ generation failed to distinguish between the Dutch cultural heritage to be discarded and the Reformed orthodoxy, exemplified by Berkhof, which they ought to have retained.  But I've come to a different conclusion: whatever that post-war CRC generation thought they needed, what the rest of us most needed from them was not another Americanized body with a fading Dutch Reformed heritage--we already had the RCA--but a thoroughly and unashamedly Dutch Reformed church, complete with crusty old orthodox pipe-smoking domines willing to speak just enough English to keep the rest of us honest before God and our Dutch Reformed fathers. But Pott and Lewis are right in the end: what I am really longing for is the glory yet to be revealed.

Dr. Bruce Baugus is Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi.

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