Over the past weekend CRTS hosted its annual conference, the topic of which was “Correctly Handling the Word of Truth.” The lectures dealt with how we read the Bible, and there were a lot of them, twelve I think. The seminary invited professors from the seminary of our Dutch sister churches to give lectures as well, with the goal of understanding some of the developments over there.
When Dr. Van Raalte phoned me the other night, I thought something was wrong. He’s normally not a quick speaker, but his words seemed especially measured this time and I expected some serious news.
But he said, “Are you able to drive the Dutch delegates on Monday?”
I relaxed; so everyone was ok, then. A little driving around was no problem.
The Dutch delegates were those who had represented the Theologische Universiteit Kampen van de Gereformeerde Kerken (TUK) at the conference over the weekend. There were eight professors, one student, and one member of the board of governors. Although I had picked some of them up from Toronto’s Pearson Airport on Wednesday, apparently I was needed to drive them back, too. I didn’t know why any of the other students with vans couldn’t do it, but I didn’t ask. None of my business, really.
“Yeah, that’s fine,” I said.
“Well, there’s actually a little more,” he continued. “They would like to go to Niagara Falls first.”
Ah. You can drive to Pearson and back in under two hours in good traffic, but Niagara Falls is forty-five minutes from Hamilton in the other direction. Suddenly what was a small afternoon jaunt had turned into a day-trip, and I was to be something of a host. I understood now the measured tone.
I agreed to it, though, which is how I found myself cruising down the Queen Elizabeth Way yesterday morning in light traffic, explaining to the man next to me that those buildings across Lake Ontario were the Toronto skyline. It was Mr. deJong from the board of governors riding shotgun. He had also ridden shotgun when I picked them up from the airport, so he asked what I thought was a very reasonable question.
“So, are you the best driver at the seminary?”
“Yessir,” I said.
Actually, it’s what I should have said. But sarcasm doesn’t always communicate well, so I just stuck with the truth.
It turned out to be a very nice time. This was my first trip to Niagara Falls, and they may be most dramatic of all during the winter. The falls themselves were not frozen, but immediately downstream of the plunge pool, except for a few pockets, the river was solid. The water was the same green colour of our glacial rivers back home, so, although the Niagara River is obviously not glacial, everything appeared painfully cold. Felt that way, too. Some Instagram photos:
We didn’t stay outside long, and since we had plenty of time to kill we sat down in the Elements restaurant near the big windows and the big view of the falls. It wasn’t cheap, either, but I was working with what amounted to a CRTS expense account. Don’t worry, out of respect for the churches I kept the rounds of drinks to a minimum. Anyways, Mr. deJong ended up paying for everyone’s lunch, mine included. At one point in the conversation I could tell that Drs. de Graaff and van Bekkum were playing some sort of game, where the former would say one word and latter would follow with another. It was in Dutch, though, so it wasn’t until Dr. van Bekkum told me what was going on that I knew for sure.
“So the game is, I say a word and you give me the first thing that comes to mind.”
“Okay,” I said.
“Tool,” he began.
At this point I could see a little excitement in the faces of the others.
“Flower,” he continued.
The excitement faded.
“Apparently,” he replied, “if you say hammer, red, rose, and lion, then you’re normal. But don’t worry, at least you got two of them. I got none.”
Prior to this, as we were going upstairs to the restaurant, Dr. van Bekkum had asked me what I thought of the conference. I told him the truth, that I was still working through much of what had been discussed. I appreciated some of what I had heard, had questions about some of it, and very much disagreed with some of it. With regards to the latter, the delegates were surprised that the first public lecture, which was Thursday night’s presentation on the relationship between general and special revelation, was more tense than Friday’s lecture on the question of women in office. They figured women in office would be a more sensitive topic. I told them not at all. Nobody out here is arguing for women in office. We all politely listened to Dr. vanHouwelingen explain the reasoning behind his committee’s report, but I doubt it changed anyone’s mind. Science and Scripture, on the other hand, well there’s no need for me to start on that.
Dr. van Bekkum is both good at English and easy to talk to, so we chatted over lunch. We talked about some of what he said and some of what others said, and it was good to fill out the picture a little. I’m speaking for myself, of course, but that was probably the strength of the conference, having the opportunity to hear each other out. There were disagreements, and sharp ones, but I think it was also clear that each side was trying to answer different questions. And those questions, at the very least, must be defined before they can be answered, and before you can disagree or, especially, condemn: “He that answereth a matter before he heareth it, it is folly and shame unto him” (Proverbs 18:13).
So there was a genuine attempt at that. My own difficulty, however, was that the TUK speakers didn’t seem very straightforward about their views. They said many things that I liked, but they didn’t always give the principles behind those things. Often, it wasn’t until after the speech was over and question period was ending that I began to understand what was going on. That could easily be due to a lack of intelligence on my part. But since the best questions often weren’t raised until the end of question period, this suggests that it was only then that both sides began to understand each other. I imagine that the best discussions happened privately, after the speeches.
It could also be due to the fact that as North Americans we like things clear and to the point. We are practical, we are in a hurry, and we inherently distrust people who are not straightforward. Our Dutch brothers on the other hand walk a more meandering, philosophical road, and are content being less clear-cut. The English poet John Keats once praised Shakespeare for having what he called “negative capability,” which is “when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” I imagine this is not far from what Dr. van Bekkum was after in a comment he made to Dr. Van Raalte’s speech. He said something like, it is better to be uncertain and to trust than to find your security in certainty.
Dr. Burger in his speech also spoke against “Cartesian anxiety.” Rene Descartes was a 17th century philosopher who believed, to put it simply, that if he could not find absolute certainty in the world, then all was relative. He was the man who said, “I think, therefore I am.” What he meant was that even if he doubted everything his senses told him, even everything his mind told him, there was still something that was doubting. There was still an “I” that was thinking, and for him that “I” was an absolutely certain thing. This calmed his anxiety, but the quest for certainty drove philosophers for centuries after him. It wasn’t until the twentieth century, when the philosophers had long gotten rid of God, that they arrived at the conclusion that certainty was impossible. What they thought up then was the hauntingly empty existentialism that fills our world with so much heartache.
Now the deceptive thing about certainty is that it is something inside of you, whereas truth is external. When Christopher Hitchens died, for instance, he faced the God who made him, despite the fact that Hitchens had been certain that God didn’t exist. Because the truth of God’s existence depends not a whit upon the level of certainty within a person. We can be certain about the truth, sure, but the truth will exist regardless of whether we are certain or not. So if our Dutch brothers are concerned with the pursuit of truth rather than certainty, that is, an outward reaching instead of an inward one, then I can understand that.
But this is tentative thinking, my attempt to make sense of what I heard over the weekend. Because while a lot of what was said seemed okay, Christ said that you will know a tree by its fruit. Women in office is simply out of the question, biblically speaking, and the arguments put forth were the same that churches have been making for half a century now. Churches that are empty, it should be noted. Arguments, too, that attempt to separate the Bible from the real world smack of a dualism that since the Enlightenment has dried up so much Christian vigor. These kinds of arguments are rooted somewhere, but I don’t think those roots were shown over the weekend.