Rev. Arthur W. Kuschke
Conservatism has been the bane of the Christian church. Of course, by "conservatism" we do not mean just that theological position which is opposed to modern unbelief. Rather, we mean that tendency found among many Christians to be complacent toward things as they are and to oppose any change in what has come to us from the past just because it has traditionally been accepted. In this evil world, radical opposition to all sin rather than complacency ought to characterize the church. But during the greater part of its existence, sad to say, the church has been conservative in the bad sense, rather than vigorously radical. Especially in the last half century, the Christian movement has been so extremely conservative, in weak reaction from the Modernists, as to be a bulwark for all that is stationary in literature, government, society, and economics. But it is the contention of this article that Christianity is essentially radical, and must continually be radical.
The whole world order is shot through with paganism and the effects of original sin, and it will stay that way unless a radical cure is applied. The cure for all evils is Christianity, which requires a revolutionary change - a change from the extreme of hating God to the extreme of glorifying God. For example, the missionary movement which began with the outpouring of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost was thoroughly radical. It challenged the whole existing religious, political and social order. It spread like wildfire in every place where it continued to be truly radical; but, once established, it fell easily into conservatism. Every challenge to the church, every heresy, has brought reaction and opposition to change among the majority of Christians. How easy it is today to react from Modernism or Dispensationalism, and then to remain reactionary! But if the truth of God is to spread, it must be spread by a radical program. Such a program is found in and derives from the Bible. The greater the emphasis on Scripture, the more revolutionary Christianity will be, for the Bible is a revolutionary book, advocating the overthrow of sin in all forms. If the church is not radical, it does not follow the Bible. Thus the conservatism afflicting the church is due to the failure to apply consistently the doctrine of the sole authority of Scripture.
The Bible, our only rule for faith and life, is so radical that it has often been a forbidden book. It has been considered too dangerous for people to read. It has a great deal to say not only about religious matters but also about economic and social and political conditions. Christ, His apostles, and the Old Testament prophets did not confine their attention exclusively to religion, in the narrow sense. They were concerned with all aspects of life. Furthermore, the Bible, as God's completed revelation to men, gives us all the necessary principles to govern each field of interest in this world. The church, which holds to the sole authority of Scripture, is duty bound to apply Scripture to all spheres of life. But it has failed to do so; and in that failure lies the cause and origin of conservatism.
If the church's duty is to apply Scripture to all spheres, and if it has instead restricted Scripture to the sphere of theology proper, then it has left a great part of the field to the enemy. Unbelievers have taken over the territory untouched by Christians; and these unbelievers, from their antitheistic viewpoint, have soon come to conclusions which seem to contradict the Bible. As these antichristian conclusions appear, the church takes up the defensive, and becomes conservative and reactionary.
No doubt this process has occurred frequently in history, but for illustration let us turn to the Reformation. Glorious as it was, the Reformation nevertheless failed to prevent the whole modern lapse into paganism. The fault lay not with the great reformers themselves, but with their second or third generation successors in the Protestant movement. Calvin had a great deal to say about the implications of Scripture in philosophy, politics, and in economic and social questions. But the investigations he started were soon abandoned. More and more his followers restricted their interests to theology proper.
It was their great mistake. Instead of applying Scriptural Calvinism to all areas of life and thus blocking off completely the pagan flood, they left so many philosophical, scientific, social and economic leaks in the dike that their dike was more leak than dike. The nonchristian scientists, philosophers, historians and theorists poured in. Since truth is, after all, one, their faulty conclusions in their various fields seemed to refute Christianity. In response, the Christian church, instead of attacking on enemy ground and claiming the ground as its own, retired on the defensive to the domain of theology and established its reputation for conservatism. It also fell into obscurantism toward the spheres of society, economics, science and so forth, which, having been left to unbelievers, appeared to produce nothing but error. To fall into obscurantism toward such spheres was to make a present of them to the Modernists. The result of these failures and mistakes of the Christian church is the triumphant sweep of paganism today in all ranges of life.
Even in the best sense of the word, conservatism is the effort to preserve and uphold the truth that is already known. It has small enthusiasm for progress. And in the worst sense, conservatism is no more than opposition to change. Within the Christian church, such opposition to change has resulted in failure to apply Scripture thoroughly even in the department of theology. Whenever gaps have appeared in Christian teaching, leaving important areas of God's truth untouched, an open door for heresy has been the result. Thus the rise of mysticism is due to neglect of the doctrine of Scripture; and perfectionism has its opportunity when the Biblical doctrine of sanctification has been passed over by the church. But narrow conservatism gives rise not only to such heresies as these; it also produces the self-satisfaction, smug content and inertia which make the church an easy prey to Modernism. In the face of opposition, the real conservative will give in to the world and gain apparent peace. As long as the spirit of conservatism controls the church, the ranks of those who are devoted to the Bible will grow smaller.
There is a need to redefine the movement to which the readers of THE PRESBYTERIAN GUARDIAN belong. Is its aim merely to preserve something now discarded by almost all others? Is it a movement of conservatism against liberalism, or of Fundamentalism against Modernism, or of Calvinism against the world - or is it something else? Perhaps the movement would grow faster if we knew what we were trying to do. Taking our position on Scripture, we desire to proclaim the whole counsel of God. But what are the proper methods of doing so? It appears that people today are not only more thoroughly opposed to the gospel than ever before, more firmly established in the garrisons of unbelief, but also that they fail to see any appeal in the Christian message, or any connection between it and the affairs of ordinary life.
How shall these people be reached? While they are not being reached, the world is changing fast. Opinions today shift very readily with the force of current events. The nations have tried deism, capitalism, socialism, communism, and now dictatorship. When this war ends, people may have reached the depths of despair and disillusionment, and be ready for true Christianity. At that time our movement may be God's instrument for a new reformation. But are we prepared for our opportunity? There is a real possibility that the forces to be unleashed, and the tremendous changes in life as we now know it which may either accompany or follow this war, will destroy reactionary and conservative forms of Christianity. What is needed is a positive radical program to take the world by storm. If our movement is regarded as no more than a last stand of the truth against surrounding enemies, then humanly speaking it is negative, has little appeal, and may not even survive. But if a positive program is at hand, derived from Scripture and worked out to all relations of life, leaving no gaps, then the average man of today can be shown how Christianity relates to his affairs. Such a Scriptural program for the whole of life is the only means whereby to revolutionize the world. Consequently, let us define our cause as a radical movement to carry Scriptural Calvinism into all spheres at life.
Since a reactionary movement will arrive nowhere, and since conservatism and inertia are but way - stations on the road to Modernism, let us put our grand emphasis on the Bible and be as radical as Scripture itself. It is certain that in the Bible we shall find solutions for all our ills and for all our problems.
Returning to the Bible, then, how can a revolutionary program for the entire range of life be worked out from Biblical principles? By this simple method: let us question everything until we are sure that it is Scriptural. To be sure, we are already convinced that the central doctrines of the Reformed Faith are the teaching of the Bible. Nevertheless we must continue to check these doctrines with Scripture itself. But what of many peripheral doctrines? And what of every known standard of activity in every sphere, including the political, economic, social and moral practices so commonly defended against the "radicals"? Christianity itself ought to be the radical movement, not the conservative! Let us question everything until we are sure that it is in accord with the Bible. That which we discover to be true to the Word of God we shall henceforth embrace with enthusiasm. But we may also find some things which will have to be discarded in favor of Scriptural practices.
It is too much to suppose, because of original sin and its influence on the mind, that the details of Reformed theology are perfect in every respect. Simply to accept any principle, doctrine, or conservative shibboleth because great men have held to it, or even because the great body of great men in the church have held to it, is blind conservatism. The only reason for believing anything to be absolutely true is that it is taught in Scripture or is properly to be deduced from Scripture. However, because the church has been afflicted with such great conservatism, it has failed to reexamine its ideas continually to see if they are really Scriptural. It is even possible that in practice an emphasis on doctrine emphasizes doctrine to the detriment of Scripture. The theology of the past, including the "line of orthodoxy," serves simply as a strong guide to the meaning of Scripture, not as an end in itself. Therefore even the most cherished doctrines of the Reformed theology must be examined and tried for adherence to Scripture. Let nothing in itself be held sacred; let everything be squared with God's unbreakable Word.
At this point it is well to make a few observations to avoid any misunderstanding. It is not suggested that we should tear down everything but the doctrine of the sale authority of Scripture and build again upon that. No, within the great system of truth taught in the Bible and of which we are assured, let us examine individual doctrines to see whether they are in conformity with Scripture. Those great doctrines that are central to the system will be proved indubitably Scriptural, and thus the system itself will be revealed as Scriptural. There is no doubt in the mind of the writer of this article that these central doctrines are clearly taught in the Bible. However, let us be able to show, by an abundance of texts, where and how the Bible does teach them. If doctrine is brought into contact with the living Scriptures, then it will be shown that true doctrine is alive. For by no means is it the intention of this article to minimize Christian doctrine. Doctrine, the teaching of Scripture, is simply the truth of Scripture. It is the truth that makes men free from sin. That truth is the energizing force that gives us zeal for the gospel. It is the sanctifying force that the Spirit of God uses to enable us to live better lives. Doctrine is essential to Christianity. But if Scripture does not support our doctrines, then our doctrines are dead.
The suggested reexamination, on the basis of Scripture, of all ideas in every sphere should have at least six beneficial results:
(1) It will actually persuade people of the truth of Biblical doctrine. Doctrine does not take on its proper significance, or may not even be sincerely believed, unless there is the conviction that the doctrine is Scriptural, that is, that God tells us it is true. It is true not because it is so and so's doctrine not my doctrine or your doctrine, and not the church's doctrine - but God's doctrine. And that is the only reason for believing any doctrine.
(2) It will afford progress in theology. It will make us redefine many dogmas, and the arguments for them, in the light of Scripture, and will perhaps get rid of some sacred cobwebs that have accumulated by the sheer weight of human authority.
( 3) It will make us and keep us radical. In overhauling the vast body of authoritative ideas in every field, and in making it a practice to search the Scriptures, as did the Bereans, in regard "to each conservative opinion that presents itself, we shall be bound to have our attention drawn to those radical principles of the Bible that relate most especially to each subject. And by continued emphasis on Scripture it is possible to remain radical. It is an old saw that today's radicals are tomorrow's conservatives. But Christians cannot afford to lapse into conservatism. Christianity and radicalism are one and inseparable, now and until Christ returns.
(4) It will give us a positive program and a positive emphasis. It is easy to be negative and critical of everybody else. Negativism, however, is just a symptom of the disease of conservatism. Investigation of every kind of human activity will eventually produce a positive Scriptural program. Let us take, for example, the three sided conflict of government, capital and labor. How simple it is to assume habitually that one of these three is always right! And yet, if we apply truly Scriptural principles - from the Sermon on the Mount, the Old Testament prophets and the Pauline epistles, for example - we may discover that all three are at fault, that what we need is not just reliance on one of the three bodies as it is at present constituted, but a whole new system for all, based on the Word of God. Thus our radical, positive program may cut across all temporary interests. Whatever may be the solution for any problem of this world, it can be worked out from the Bible. Of course, it will be necessary for experts in each sphere, trained in Scripture, to develop details of such a program.
( 5) It will provide a most direct means of preaching the gospel. In bringing the Bible to bear upon the affairs of human life, the all-important character of Christianity can be revealed and an entrance for the gospel message effected. People will be impressed and interested by a positive program. It is not supposed that a Christian program for society should proceed apart from the preaching of the gospel itself.
(6) Finally, as all will agree, this reexamination on the basis of Scripture will take us to the Word of God as a means of grace. We shall be assured that the sovereign God is our refuge and strength, without whom we can do nothing. In that assurance, some work for the Kingdom of God may be accomplished.
© 2023 The Orthodox Presbyterian Church