Thoughts and Stories From the Conference

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:

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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.
“Um, hammer.”
“Good. Colour.”
“Red.”
At this point I could see a little excitement in the faces of the others.
“Flower,” he continued.
“Iris.”
The excitement faded.
“Animal.”
“Warthog.”
“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.

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21 thoughts on “Thoughts and Stories From the Conference

  1. I was hoping you might post some thoughts on the conference. Since you are more eloquent than I, I prefer to leave that task to you. I share many of your sentiments about the conference. Overall, I enjoyed the conference a lot. To be honest, at points the conversation was over my head, other times things were a little hazy, and sometimes the language barrier made it difficult to clarify a particular point. In the end, the highlight for me was meeting the various Dutch professors and also witnessing their passion for the Lord. Like you, there were obvious points of disagreement. At the same time, I think it was an amazing time to have dialogue with our Dutch brothers in person and to be able to carry on an open debate. I particularly enjoyed the presentations by Dr. van Bekkum and Dr. Burger. Did you have a presentation that really stood out for you?

  2. Both Dr. van Bekkum’s and Dr. Smith’s lectures were great, as they both dealt with passages from Scripture. But like you, I also enjoyed Dr. Burger’s. I appreciated his emphasis on setting the Church’s foundation on Christ, not on certainty as such.

  3. Hello Jeremy,
    Thank you very much for an entertaining, helpful and insightful commentary on the conference. It was a joy to read it.
    Do you know of any others that have blogged or otherwise commented on this event.?
    Peter Blom

  4. Dear Jeremy,

    Excellent how you describe our chat and explore the discomfort that finally remains after the conference! There was great Chistian fellowship, understanding, critical exchange of ideas, and putting things into perspective. But did we succeed in building a bridge by a real deep analysis of what is actually at stake?

    In some way, there remains a similar feeling of discomfort on the Dutch side. I perceived the Canadian way of speaking in such a way that sometimes too much certainty was presupposed. We have the truth in Divine revelation. But in classical reformed theology, the certainty of faith (certitudo) should be distinguished from the absolute certainty of the mind trying to grasp this world (securitas). My strong conviction (certitudo), for instance, that biblical historical narrative is trustworthy and therefore historical does not mean that I can in all cases grasp and be certain of (securitas) the way the text refers to the chronology or precise details of what has happened. We should Scripture itself give the final word in these matters, instead of deducing what we want to be sure of by our strong way of (reformed) reasoning. The critical questions from Canada are fully justified. Churches need this kind of exchange to stay on the right, catholic reformed track. At the same time it is my fear that the Canadians in their turn are in danger of narrowing the reformed tradition, because of the fact that they sometimes seem to define ‘certitudo’ in terms of ‘securitas’. We Dutch should be keen to be critical of our own, postmodern context. But on the Canadian side, the strong, ‘modern-like’ defense of reformed truth could end in confessionalism and a reformed theology with sectarian traits. This already happens, in my view, when it is stated that Augustin and Bavinck did not have a ‘biblical’ view of the word ‘day’ in Genesis 1 or when it is suggested that scholars with a high view of Scripture should embrace a 15th century BC dating of the conquest of Canaan. This might be justified from an exegetical point of view. But, to quote Klaas Schilder, an exegetical error is not the same as a confessional error.

    What strikes me most is that this discomfort on both sides has the same structure: beyond the exchange of ideas the question is asked whether the conversation partner is realizing him- or herself what is happening below the surface. ‘Is this still reformed theology? Do you realize how deep you are influenced by your cultural environment?’

    Apparently, it is sometimes hard to understand each other. There is reason to be not very optimistic about the relation between the RCN and the CanRC. Singing ‘I believe a cath’lic church / one Holy congregation’ (Hymn 2) in the church of Hamilton Cornerstone, Sunday after the conference, was for this reason very emotional for me. We are so close in many ways. But will we, in the long term, be able to have formal relations? For now, I am very glad to have been in Canada and to get to know you all. I think we are obliged to go forward with the exchange of ideas with an attitude of appreciation of critical questions and statements. We can do so and hope for a deeper understanding of each other, because we may trust that in the end, it is God who gathers and leads his church by the Holy Spirit.

    Jeremy, many thanks for driving us to Niagara Falls and from and to the airport! May God bless you, CRTS and the Canadian Reformed Churches!

    Koert van Bekkum

  5. Hi Dr. van Bekkum,

    Thank you very much for your comment. You wrote, “I think we are obliged to go forward with the exchange of ideas with an attitude of appreciation of critical questions and statements.” I am thankful that the conference format gave us an opportunity to begin this exchange of ideas, and I pray that it will be a fruitful exchange in times ahead. Indeed, there is much going on below the surface of our thoughts, and I hope that our challenges of each other can bring out the strengths that both sides have to offer. May the Spirit of God move us into a closer position, and a stronger one!

    God’s blessings to you, too, in your work and research!

    Jeremy

  6. Jeremy,
    Your account of the conference excites me. I think I would have enjoyed listening to these Dutch fellows as sometimes I think the modern world of the enlightenment ‘is too much with us’. Post modernism has does a huge favour, if we are willing to accept it, by burning the critiquing the modern world view.
    Good to read and see you working your way through this.
    Blessings,
    John Siebenga (not JD but his dad)

    • Thanks, Mr. Siebenga. I agree that the postmodern critique of modernism is worth listening to, both because modernism at its core was unchristian and because, as you mentioned, it is present in so much of our thinking. Indeed, our Dutch brothers can offer some welcome insights there.

  7. Reformed Disconnect: Intercontinental?

    Thank you Jeremy for making some astute observations about the CRTS conference in your blog of Jan. 21, 2014. I think you were right on when you wrote that “ 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.” Let me try to make a small contribution to defining the questions you have in mind.

    You appreciated Koert van Bekkum’s emphasis on setting the Church’s foundation on Christ, not on certainty as such. I think that is where the Dutch and the Canadians can find their common ground. If I may paraphrase him, one’s ultimate trust must be in God. If one’s ultimate trust is in human certainty one cannot ask questions about Scripture without threatening one’s trust in God. This is why our Dutch brothers are able to reconsider traditional interpretations of Scripture. They value the tradition, but they value it as a human contribution to understanding Scripture that is limited and, therefore, open to reconsideration. Such a move creates discomfort for those whose ultimate trust is in the tradition, but not for those whose ultimate trust is in God.

    I believe some historical context can help understand and appreciate the difference in approach between the Dutch and Canadian speakers at the CRTS conference. I spent my first thirty years in The Netherlands consciously experiencing the 60s to the late 70s as well as the Canadian Reformed context since 1982. In the Reformed Churches (Liberated) the last few decades have seen a reappraisal of their own history as a church community. This was made clear by Dr. Mees te Velde during the Sunday evening meeting after the conference. I think it would be fair to say that this reflection started with an illuminating study by the late Dr. Cornelius Trimp, then a professor at the TU in Kampen. I am referring to what is generally considered his most important book, namely Klank en Weerklank: Door Prediking tot Geloofservaring, Barneveld: Vuurbaak, 1989 (Sound and Echo: Through Preaching to Experience of Faith). In it, Trimp sketched the history of the Reformed Churches since the Reformation as the movement of a pendulum between subjectivity and objectivity in preaching and church life. He concluded that most of the time the church found itself in one of the two extreme positions. The preaching emphasized either the subjective experience of faith or the objective exposition of the knowledge of God. Trimp joined Holwerda in rejecting both extremes. A preacher fails when he addresses exclusively the heart or the mind. Nor does the solution lie in balancing the two. Rather, he must focus on how God addresses us. This approach locates truth and salvation outside of ourselves in Christ. Truth is a person, first and foremost, and only secondarily a proposition. This was the message I heard from several of the Dutch speakers at the CRTS conference. Koert van Bekkum put his finger on this when he expressed his discomfort with some of the Canadian presentations.

    When I came to Canada in 1982 the interior decorations in the houses of people I visited reminded me of my grandparents’ homes. Later I realized that the interior decoration of their minds also dated back to the Dutch spiritual situation when they left the country. Such a conserving turn is characteristic for immigrant communities. I believe this can help to understand the difference between the Dutch and Canadians. As I see it, the Dutch that stayed in the old country are leaving one of the extremes of the pendulum movement in the history of the Reformed Churches. They are taking distance from a culture of rationalism, formalism and legalism that had its heyday from the 40s to the late 70s roughly speaking. This is also the period in which many Dutch immigrated to Canada. Upon arrival in Canada they stopped participating in the spiritual and cultural life in The Netherlands. Thus, the spiritual context of the 50s and 60s the Dutch have been taking distance from for the last decades is the same context they are still meeting today in Canada. This is the context Koert van Bekkum is describing in the quotation I began with.

    I believe this situation has consequences for the ecclesiastical relations between the Canadian Reformed Churches and the Reformed Churches (Liberated) in the Netherlands. In my humble opinion, the Canadian Reformed Churches would benefit greatly if they took this observation made by Koert van Bekkum, Gert Kwakkel and others to heart. Dick Moes explains why. In a characterization of the Canadian Reformed Churches he writes,
    “It would not be difficult to discern an emphasis on form, formalism, and formulas; ritual, rules, regulations and rites; legalism, laws and laboring in my ecclesiastical culture. Moreover, it would not be hard to illustrate how a deep respect for the Bible fostered more trust in the Bible than in Jesus Christ. Furthermore, it would not be difficult to identify all sorts of exhortations to “do good.” In fact, as a preacher and pastor, I have made many of these exhortations myself. Yet, I do not recall sufficiently emphasizing or hearing a sustained emphasis that any good we do can only come from the Christ-life inside of us when we become partakers of the divine nature through faith. In addition, it would not be hard to illustrate a stronger emphasis on right doctrine and the receiving, accumulating and assenting to information in my ecclesiastical culture than on the centrality of living in union and communion with the crucified, risen and ascended Lord in the Father through the Spirit. Likewise, it would not be difficult to illustrate a tendency to see the primary purpose of Christianity as solving personal and societal problems instead of emphasizing that Christians are channels through which the crucified, risen and ascended Lord lives out his life and ministry in the midst of the problems we encounter.” [“Cultivating a God-Generated Life: Being Embedded with Christ in the Father through the Advance Installment of the Holy Spirit,” Doctoral Dissertation, Trinity Western University, 2007]. These observation will be denied by many members of the Canadian Reformed Churches because they do not have an outsider’s perspective. But they are valuable precisely because Dick Moes is both an outsider and an insider in the Canadian Reformed Churches. I am in that same position myself and I can confirm his observations.

    The Reformed Churches (Liberated) are setting their foundation on Christ, not on certainty as such. The Canadian Reformed Churches have characterized some of the exegetical results of this development as reasons for concern. They may be right, but perhaps they can also learn something from their Dutch sister.

    Jitse van der Meer, Hamilton.

  8. Hi Jitse,

    Thanks for your comment and for your insights.

    You wrote, “These observation will be denied by many members of the Canadian Reformed Churches because they do not have an outsider’s perspective.” There may be truth in that, but it’s also an unfair way of arguing. I could easily use the same method to make my own point: “Although to outsiders the CanRef church appears formalistic, ritualistic, etc., to those born and raised within the church it is obvious that a deep and profound love of Christ is what lies beneath the sometimes gruff exterior. But this will be denied by many outsiders because they do not have an insider’s perspective.” There’s also a lot of truth there, but it wouldn’t be fair of me to undercut any possible critique that way.

    This is not to say that I disagree with your comments per se, it’s just to critique your method. But I do think, as an insider whose mother tongue is the Canadian Reformed way, that while there is truth in Rev. Moes’s words, it is just as true, even more true to say that the CanRef churches are bursting with love and gospel. I wrote a post on this sometime back (Homecoming Dust), on the importance of the stories that we tell ourselves in determining the way we think. Yes, there are very real shortcomings within our federation, and it is my experience that most CanReffers are aware of them. But really, the gospel has also gone ahead and done exactly what the Word said it would do, and it has produced fruit. And not just a skimpy bit, either, but vast warehouses of the best sort of fruit out there.

    I guess what I’m worried about is the unproductive navel-gazing that comes about when we only criticize. So at the risk of sounding too postmodern, I will say it anyways: Canadian Reformed people need to tell themselves new stories about the good things Christ is doing in their midst, with the goal of falling stupidly in love with the part of Christ’s body in which they’ve been placed.

  9. Jeremy, thanks for your reflections about the conference. Though I was not able to attend, I look forward to viewing some videos of this event in the near future. Allow me a few interactions with your previous commenters:

    Dr. Vandermeer posits that the differences between the Dutch and the CanRC can be explained largely in terms of the “conserving turn” of the immigrants who established the CanRC. If one considers that the OPC, RCUS and URCNA, none of which are immigrant churches, have concerns mirroring those of the CanRC, this seems an unlikely explanation. Vandermeer’s lengthy citation and affirmation of Dick Moes’ characterization of the CanRC is unfortunate. What Moes writes is mere opinion. Futhermore, this opinion is suspect because this brother was involved in a lengthy and difficult ecclesiastical conflict which has likely prejudiced his mind in regard to the CanRC’s. He certainly should not be viewed as the “objective outsider,” as Vandermeer suggests.

    Dr. VanBekkum writes that confidence in the Bible “does not mean that I can in all cases grasp and be certain of (securitas) the way the text refers to the chronology or precise details of what has happened.” I don’t think anyone in the CanRC’s would argue this point. However, it’s a whole new situation when theologians claim that what the biblical text states in regard to chronology or “precise details” is actually wrong. That’s the point in question, it would seem to me. Can we say that the Bible is sometimes wrong in matters of chronology or “precise details?” If we answer yes, is that answer in accord with historic Reformed thinking about the nature of the Bible? It would seem not.

    Certainty of faith cannot be enjoyed without certainty that in the Bible we have the living oracles of God which, because they are the very words of God, cannot lie – not even in matter of chronology or “precise details.”

  10. In response to Jeremy de Haan and Rob Schouten, my point was to improve understanding for the differences between the Reformed Churches Liberated (RCL) and the Canadian Reformed Churches (CanRC). I did this out of the same love for these churches that you display. I did not deny that good things are found in the CanRC as Jeremy thinks. Nor did I address the substance of their differences as Rob thinks. Rather I left those differences alone when I wrote that the CanRC may be right in their concerns about some of the exegetical results of the developments in the RCL. I also did not say that the differences are due to the conserving turn in the CanRC, but to problems in the RCL that were conserved in Canada. The fact that other denominations share the CanRC concerns does not invalidate the reasons I gave for the difference with the RCL – these are two different issues. Finally, Moes’s characterization of the CanRC is shared by other CanRC members, by the RCL and confirmed by my thirty years in the CanRC. Mere opinion? Let us move on and try to understand our past in The Netherlands so that we can learn from its mistakes. That was my point.
    Jitse van der Meer, Hamilton.

  11. A short elucidating comment on Rob Schouten’s reply. The discussion whether the conquest of Canaan occurred in the 15th or 13th Century BC is present among Reformed scholars since the late 19th Century AD. The Kampen professor Maarten Noordtzij (1840-1915), for instance, already favored a 13th Century conquest. Moreover, Reformed and evangelical scholars generally agree that this is an exegetical, not a confessional issue, because all datings depend on a whole network of non-biblical information and all interpreters have to answer the question for the proper interpretation of the biblical numbers in e.g. 1 Kgs 6:1. Consequently (1) my suggestion is not ‘new’ at all and (2) the idea that it bears the suggestion that the Bible is ‘wrong’, offers a caricature of what I wrote, for the issue is not whether we should accept biblical information or not, but how we use it properly in our fallible human reconstructions.
    For more information, see e.g. Westminster Theological Journal 52 (1990); Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 50 (2007), and pp. 429-431 of the Brill-edition of my thesis.

  12. An interesting discussion that unfortunately came to a screeching halt. Koert van Bekkum stated earlier that “it is sometimes hard to understand each other”. Having open and tactful exchanges of ideas should help to close that gap. In regards to chronology, I thought it was well known that the Bible shouldn’t be used to draw “securitas’ conclusions. For example, the genealogy of Jesus as described by Matthew (1;1-17) clearly contains gaps even though Matthew states that “all the generations” from Abraham to Jesus were 42 (covering a period of about 2000 years).

  13. Dear Jeremy (and other brothers and sisters in Canada),

    After the conference of last January I had a chat with prof. Van Dam and Rev. De Gelder about my thesis, which had (on purpose) not been the subject of discussion during the CRTS-conference. We shortly discussed the fact that I am not happy with the misconceptions of my views in the Report of the CanRC-subcommittee for the relations with the RCN and in the decisions of the General Synod of Carman 2013. Both brothers invited me to write a reaction in which I offer my response to the ecclesiastical and ecumenical criticism of my thesis. This suggestion was later approved by the Dutch deputies of BBK. Accordingly, I wrote a response.

    So for everyone who might be interested: hereby my response: http://www.tukampen.nl/responsekvanbekkum. Just in case we will have some further conversation about biblical hermeneutics in the future.

    Blessings,

    Koert

  14. Pingback: Thy Paths Drop Fatness | Sixteen Seasons

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