Book: A Study of the Relation Between the Views of Prof. R. Janssen and Common Grace

Chapter VII: Conclusion

In the April 12, 1987 issue of The Grand Rapids Press an article appeared which reported on an investigation which had been ordered by the Calvin College Board of Trustees of three scientists from the college who described the origin of the universe in different ways from that recorded in Genesis l. In response to that report in the Press, Dr. H. Boer wrote an article for the Press in a column entitled, "Viewpoint." Dr. Boer took the position in that article that,

The year 1922 marks the absolute watershed determining the limits of freedom in CRC academia. In that year Prof. Ralph Janssen, a man of erudition and teaching competence, was dismissed from the Calvin Seminary faculty. He had taught God's inspiration of the Bible as availing itself of historical, political, religion and general cultural influences in the composition of several books.1

In analyzing what the Press called, "Battle of the Bible," Dr. Boer traced the problem back to the Janssen controversy and insisted that the Christian Reformed Church had taken a stand against academic freedom in that controversy from which it had not yet recovered. While interpreting a present dispute over the creation of the universe in broader terms of a struggle to avoid the pitfalls of Fundamentalism, Boer also traced the problem back to the conflict over Janssen's teaching. And he hinted at the similarity between the two controversies in the last part of his article when he wrote:

The issue is simple. That God the Creator should play as large a role in the education- al vision and academic policies of the Calvin community as does God the Redeemer.2

Dr. Boer sees the controversy in the Christian Reformed Church over the nature and extent of the authority of Scripture in the same light. In an earlier article in the Reformed Journal Dr. Boer said that there was the closest possible connection between the Janssen case and the adoption of the report on Scripture which the Christian Reformed Church accepted as its own.3 Nor is Dr. Boer at all averse to stating that the issue of common grace was not only a central issue in the controversy, but that the Synod of 1924, which adopted the three points of common grace, "adopted Janssen's position."4 Undoubtedly, Dr. Boer sees that the teachings of scientists in Calvin College as well as the adoption of Report 44 by the Christian Reformed Church are due to the fact that in 1924 Janssen, after all, won his case and his views prevailed.

It is true without any question that the condemnation of Janssen's views by the Synod of 1922 was definite and without equivocation. It is probably true that the decision taken by that Synod reflected the thinking of the majority of the constituency in the Christian Reformed Church. What had happened, however, was a condemnation of Janssen's views of Scripture without an investigation or adjudication of Janssen's fundamental position, his view of common grace. As a lawyer would put it: "The Synod decided the case without deciding the issues." As we noticed in the course of this study, there were not only reasons for this, but it was also probably true, as many claimed, that Janssen's views could be considered and judged on other grounds than on the issue of common grace. Apart from what may be called the theological basis of his views, Janssen's position was clearly contrary to what Scripture itself teaches concerning itself.

Nevertheless, the fact remains that Janssen showed clearly that his position was based upon common grace. And Synod chose to ignore this fact. But common grace continued to be an issue in the church and resulted, as we noticed, in the controversy of 1922-1924, which controversy ended in the expulsion of Revs. Danhof, Hoeksema and Ophoff. We are faced, therefore, with the anomaly that the Christian Reformed Church condemned Janssen's views of Scripture, while approving the theological foundation of his views two years later.

Boer, as we noticed above, takes the position that Janssen's views ultimately prevailed in the Christian Reformed Church because of its adoption of common grace. He apparently means by this two things: 1) Janssen's fundamental position was adopted by the Christian Reformed Church, and this proved, in some limited sense, to be a vindication of Janssen; 2) While in part the struggle goes on, as the Church continues to do battle with Fundamentalism in her midst, nevertheless, the adoption of Janssen's theological underpinnings for his views of Scripture (his doctrine of common grace), has resulted in the defense of Janssen's views of Scripture as well within the Christian Reformed Church.

While we cannot go into a lengthy and detailed examination of Boer's thesis, there is evidence that Boer's contention is correct. That is, there is evidence that the adoption of common grace, by the Synod of 1924, has indeed led to views being propounded within the church which are similar to, if not identical with, the views of Dr. Janssen.

The doctrine of common grace is capable of being applied to various areas of theological studies as well as various areas of ethics. The Synod of 1924 recognized this fact. When it adopted the three points of common grace, it added a "Testimony" in which it warned against possible misuses of the doctrine in the light of the influences of modernism in the surrounding church world.

Now synod expressed itself on three points that were at stake in the denial of Common Grace and thereby condemned the entire disregard for this doctrine, she feels constrained at the same time to warn our Churches and especially our leaders earnestly against all onesided emphasis on and misuse of the doctrine of Common Grace. It cannot be denied that there exists a real danger in this respect . . . .5

What specifically the Synod of 1924 had in mind is not clear. It is true that common grace, especially in the Kuyperian sense, is applicable to many areas of life and human endeavor. Kuyper certainly applied this doctrine to many different spheres of human activity.The Christian Reformed Church has not been reluctant to do this. Already at the Synod of 1924, this doctrine was applied to the preaching of the gospel when the decisions of the Synod made specific references to the relation between common grace and the free offer of the gospel.7

The same was done when the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church considered the whole matter of the film arts. While earlier in her history the Church had condemned movie attendance,8 this position was latter changed and common grace became the basis for justifying drama and the movies.9

It ought not to surprise us, therefore, that the doctrine of common grace would sooner or later be applied to the same areas in which Janssen applied it. Boer, sympathetic to the views of Dr. Janssen, is of the opinion that the recent debate in Calvin College over the question of the origin of the creation and the literal interpretation of Genesis 1 is basically the issue which the Christian Reformed Church faced when it dealt with the views of Dr. Janssen; and the position which the church took at the time of the Janssen controversy stands inseparably connected with Report 44 which was adopted by the church in 1972.

Hoeksema expressed the same opinion -- from the vantage point of disagreement with Janssen. He (with Danhof) admitted that common grace was always really the issue. And, while insisting that the issue could be decided on other grounds, he nevertheless prophesied that if common grace was not repudiated, Janssen's views would once again rise in the church and prevail. It was his considered opinion that if the Christian Reformed Church did not repudiate common grace as taught by Kuyper, and if the church took the position that common grace was basically Reformed and in agreement with the Confessions, Janssen would emerge after all as victorious.10

Whether, therefore, one looks at the question from Boer's perspective, basically favorable to Janssen, or from Hoeksema's perspective, antagonistic to Janssen, there is some evidence that these men were correct. The views of Janssen have once again appeared in the church. And the explanation is, without doubt, the adoption of Janssen's own theological position of common grace at the Synod of 1924.

We may point to two crucial areas in which this fact is evident. In the current debate over the question of the origin of this world, those who hold to a literal interpretation of Genesis 1 and who teach a view of creation in six days of twenty four hours are arrayed against those who attempt to explain the origin of the world in terms of some form of evolutionary development. But two issues immediately come to the fore in that debate: 1) What is the relation between general and special revelation? 2) How are the Scriptures to be interpreted in the crucial passages in Genesis 1-3?11

The so-called evolution-creation debate is a question that resolves itself into the problem of the relation between science and Scripture. And that question, in turn, reverts back to the question of the relation between general and special revelation. The defense of a position other than the literal interpretation of Genesis 1-3 rests upon the fundamental premise: God's revelation in creation can be known and understood so that scientific discoveries of the creation are true and authoritative for a doctrine of Scripture. These discoveries in the area of general revelation have a distinct authority of their own because they are to be found in the realm of God's revelation. There is (and can be) no conflict between these two Words of God. Therefore, the two must be harmonized. When science clearly gives evidence of an old earth (perhaps as much as 15 billion years old) this must be harmonized with the creation narrative of Genesis 1-3. The knowledge which can be acquired by a study of God's general revelation must be incorporated into the doctrine of creation as formulated by the church.

While common grace is not always mentioned in connection with this position, one will immediately recognize the fact that this was basically Janssen's view of general revelation in its relation to Scripture, and he demonstrated that this was really what was meant by common grace.

Hence, because of the conflict between science and a literal interpretation of Scripture, one must re-examine the Genesis narrative and learn whether or not it is to be interpreted literally or in some other fashion. This position very clearly arises out of a conception of the relation between general and special revelation which was identical with that of Janssen.12

That the question of the relation between general and special revelation also touches on the question of miracles was made clear in a recent article in the Grand Rapids Press.l3 In a discussion of the star which announced the birth of Christ to the wise men, Dr. Van Till, professor of Physics in Calvin College, is quoted as saying that the "alignment theory (of planets and a star) is judged to have merit, but still there are problems with it." The point is that the miracles of Scripture are to be interpreted, as Janssen insisted, from a study of the natural sciences, which will, because of common grace, be able to shed light on how these miracles took place. Van Till assumes, though seeing problems in the explanation of an alignment of planets, that this could be a possible explanation. Hence, it is possible to interpret the miracles of Scripture by a study of the natural sciences, in this case, particularly the science of Astronomy.

But it is clear that this problem, in turn, leads to a particular view of Scripture. While a detailed analysis of this whole question is beyond the scope of this study, two elements especially ought briefly to be mentioned.

The first is the question of the inspiration of Scripture, especially as it stands connected to the question of Scripture's authority. This question arises directly out of the whole question of the relation between general and special revelation in the field of science. The Synod of the Christian Reformed Church faced this question specifically in the late sixties and early seventies, and finally resolved the question with the adoption of the well-known Report 44 on "The Nature Extent of Biblical Authority."14 Much of this report is given over to a discussion of the relation between general and special revelation not only,15 but also to how , in the area of science, this affects one's view of Scripture. The whole discussion is applied directly to the question of the interpretation of Genesis l-1l in which section a less than literal interpretation of these passages is not altogether excluded.16

In the second place, in this same report a great deal of attention is paid to various methods of interpreting Scripture, which remind one of some of the issues that were on the foreground when Janssen's views were discussed in the churches. Generally speaking, the Synod of 1972 rejected higher critical methods of interpretation; but at the same time, the Synod also, by adopting the report of its study committee, placed so much emphasis on the human element in Scripture that the spiritual and divine dimension was minimized.17 This was the charge brought against Janssen by the majority of the Investigatory Committee. This is not to say that Janssen denied the divine element in Scripture. Both before the Curatorium and the Synod of 1920 he strongly affirmed it. But it did not enter into his teaching in any significant way.

Historical and literary criticism of Scripture is often defended on the grounds that the human element in Scripture requires attention to these historical and literary questions. Undoubtedly this approach is correct and is implied in the grammatico-historical method of exegesis used by the Church since very early times. The problem is that the human element is the only aspect of Scripture that is considered. The divine element is minimized or ignored. The goal of exegesis becomes to learn what Moses, or Peter, or Paul said; but the crucial and all-important question: What does the Holy Spirit say? is missing. The result is that historical and literary studies are not considered as subservient to the purpose of the Holy Spirit in inspiring Scripture, and these studies become ends in themselves. Thus the question remains the same as with Janssen: How did the writers obtain their information? Emphasis on the human element all but precludes the work of the Holy Spirit.


With this we come to the end of our study. We have highlighted the main issues concerning the doctrine of Scripture which held the attention of the Christian Reformed Church from 1919 through 1922 as the denomination dealt with the teachings of Dr. Ralph Janssen. We have demonstrated how Dr. Janssen throughout the controversy insisted that the doctrine of common grace lay at the foundation of his views. We have shown how Janssen himself connected common grace with his particular views of Scripture. And we have given some attention to the reasons why the Christian Reformed Church did not permit itself to become involved in this aspect of the controversy, however important it may have been for Janssen himself.

It remains, therefore, one of the anomalies of history that Janssen's view of Scripture was condemned by the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church in 1922, but that Janssen's view of common grace, with which he supported his view of Scripture, was adopted by the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church just two years later. We have attempted to show how this came about and trace the relation between the Janssen controversy and the common controversy. But the evidence seems clear that, in adopting common grace, the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church principally vindicated Janssen after all by making his fundamental defense a part of the confession of the church.

Hoeksema predicted that should common grace be adopted by the church, the views of Janssen would again appear in the thinking and teaching of the theologians of the Christian Reformed denomination. His prediction was correct. Boer frankly acknowledges this and speaks of recent developments in the Christian Reformed Church as clearcut evidence of Janssen's final victory. And the result is that Janssen, though defeated and condemned, has continued to live on in the thought of the Christian Reformed Church.

 

 

1 Boer, "Broad Concessions Tragic, Man Says." p. D4. Return

2 Ibid. Return

3 Boer, "Ralph Janssen After Fifty Years . . pp. 17-22. The reference is to the so-called Report 44, which examined in detail the question of Biblical authority, which report was adopted by the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church. Return

4 Boer· "Aftermath," p. 23. Return

5 See for the entire testimony, Acts of Synod of 1924, Article 132, pp. 147-148. The translation is taken from H. Hoeksema, The Protestant Reformed Churches in America, pp. 91-92. Return

6 See especially, Kuyper, CalvinismReturn

7 See the first point of common grace, Acts of the Synod of 1924, Article 132, pp. 145, 146. "1. Regarding the first point, touching the favorable attitude of God toward mankind in general and not only toward the elect, synod declares that . . . there is also a certain favor or grace of God which He shows to His creatures in general. This is evident from . . . the general offer of the gospel " Translation is from Hoeksema, The Protestant Reformed Churches in America, p. 85. Return

8 See Acts of Synod of the Christian Reformed Church, (Office of the Stated Clerk, 1928). Article 96, pp. 86-89. Return

9 Direct appeal was made to the doctrine of common grace in support of Synod's decisions on this question. See Acts of Synod of the Christian Reformed Church, 1966, Article 61, pp. 32-36. See also Supplement 32, especially the part on p. 324. Return

10 Danhof & Hoeksema, Niet Doopersch maar Gereformeerd, pp. 4, 5. Return

11 The latter question is not of direct concern to us inasmuch as Janssen himself said very little about creation. Our concern with it is more formal: how did Scripture itself come into existence? Return

12 Much has been written on this subject; we refer the interested reader to John De Vries, Essentials of Physical Science (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1958). See especially chapter three for a detailed discussion of this question. Dr. John De Vries, who taught me his course in Physical Chemistry in my years in Calvin College, was extremely influential in making popular the so-called "period theory" of Genesis 1.Return

13 C. Meehan, "Christmas Symbol," Grand Rapids Press, December 19, 1987, pp. D1 and D2. Return

14 See Acts of the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church, 1972. The report is found on pp. 493-546; the decisions in Articles 51-52. Return

15 Ibid., pp. 506-507. Return

16 Ibid., pp. 526-533. Return

17 Ibid., pp. 513-525. Return

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