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« Hide your light under a bushel »
– Ingredients of Modernism –
According to the philosophy of Immanuel Kant (18th century) God and the supernatural cannot be known by man, although their existence in itself cannot be denied. Thus the starting point is that our observations remain limited to what we can discern with our senses. From this it follows that our knowledge is always partial and can ‘in no way’ be taken as certain should it extend beyond what is visibly evident. This approach is the foundation of the conviction that belief is limited to the personal realm and may not be made absolute. The treacherous part here lies in the words “in no way”. As far as the rest is concerned the reasoning is acceptable. That is a fundamental tactic of the opponent: contest the matter by exaggerating. Here Kant attempts to silence the voice of Christian witness by exaggeration, which is in fact a frontal attack on the Great Mission given in Mtt. 28:1920: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age”. If evangelisation is permitted in our times, it is as a relic from the old days, towards which the rulers of this age are favourably inclined… for as long as it lasts. Anything that is marginalized is not far off disappearing. We state over against this: “Shall my praise for You be silenced, You my Saviour at all times, You the Redeemer of my debt? May my knowledge at all times be dedicated to your service!” Let this be the hymn sung by every Christian. Amen!
1 – Christ’s resurrection reduced to a metaphor
The spiritual father of the notion that God cannot be known is René Descartes, who set out the scientific method, known as the Cartesian method, for discovering nature. The most important principle that he maintained was that one may only accept as knowledge that which can be clearly and distinctly observed (clare et distincte percipere). (1) This means – to take an example – that the contents of a traveller’s suitcase does not exist if the suitcase has not been opened and exa-
mined by a customs officer. Up till that moment it is possible only to philosophise about its contents. And that philosophising belongs to the speculative and personal domain and not to the general scientific realm. It is clear that the suitcase cannot contain an elephant, but apart from that the possibilities are endless. Perhaps the suitcase is empty. It probably contains clothing and toilet articles, but in terms of truth such speculations are insufficient, because it could well contain cannabis. This is a sound starting point that prevents someone from being accused on the grounds of pure suspicions alone. But it is going too far to extend this starting point to our relationship with God. A successful method for studying nature need not be a method – and it is not – for studying religious and moral questions. God is not simply ‘contents’ but cause, the cause. (2) The garments in the suitcase are not the cause of the suitcase, nor is the suitcase the cause of the garments. People may have different ideas about the Mover of all things, but that does not mean that it is unreasonable to think on such things and thus practise religion. And it is not optional. If God did cause us, the He has the right to be served first: “Dieu est au premier servi”. It also means that not all thoughts are equally right. There is such a thing as the historicity of the facts of revelation, which on the grounds of solid research cannot be denied, although some professors of theology make valiant efforts to do so.
Thanks to the Cartesian method, science has been able to scale great heights, thereby obtaining an almost unlimited capacity to deal with the material world. In introducing his method, Descartes said of it himself: “I will expose the true riches of our souls in order to make accessible to all the
way according to which they can discover all knowledge required to remain alive and I will give them the means to obtain all the knowledge that lies within the human capacity.” What he actually says, and so has it been understood (though perhaps he meant something else) is: the spirit – even God – is discovered by the study of the material; indeed the spirit is an exponent of the material rather than the other way round. Know your brain and discover the Spirit! One step further and the obvious conclusion is that when the brain dies the soul disappears. In this way the essentially utter distinction between the natural and the supernatural orders is denied. Also denied is every possibility of God’s miraculous intervention. Christ’s resurrection is thus reduced to the level of a metaphor. Professor van der Ploeg wrote by way of commentary on this: «« There are (according to this) no miraculous interventions of God on earth. (…) Van Iersel wrote: “Neither God nor Christ intervene. History and the world go their way unassisted. If the saving work of Jesus – and therein that of God – is continued, it is only there where people do this work for the salvation of others. God grants no salvation from outside, but people bring salvation to others and this we can call ‘God’s salvific work’.” A formulation such as this can only be reasonably understood if we do not believe in a personal God and identify the world with Him. Otherwise it is nonsense. »» (3) There we see all the ingredients of “Modernism”, a current of thought but vaguely defined, and which is sometimes called enlightened thought. This was given a major impulse by the French Revolution. (4)
2 – Modernism, a many-branched and accurséd tree
The school of thought that raised human understanding to the level of absolute norm above belief and religion has come to be known as Modernism. In 1871, in his “Het Modernisme een Fata morgana op Christelijk gebied” (Modernism: a mirage in the Christian realm) the then 34-yearold Abraham Kuyper used the term more than a hundred times in a lecture that lasted for almost two-and-a-half hours. That’s what you call a lecture! In it he made short shrift of liberal Protestantism. (5) Thus he said: “…while Modernism for me is a phenomenon that seduces like a far-off view with its tempting beauty; not born through whim or caprice but by fixed law; and yet because of all its glitter loses itself in unreal shapes.” He quotes Edmund Burke, that visionary, who announced in the English House of Commons in 1791: “I know the value of my line of conduct; I have indeed made a great sacrifice; I have done my duty, though I have lost a friend. There is something in the detested French revolution, that envenoms everything it touches.” (6) And Abraham Kuyper continues: “I too am of the opinion that the struggle against Modernism, in which at present the combating of Christianity has created its tightest system, is something that we can no longer avoid.” In 1881 the Belgian economist C. Périn called it “an attempt to remove God from every expression of social life.” Since then it has become usual to name a wrong direction of thought by this name. Pope Pius X called it “the collection of all heresies” (omnium hæreseon collectum). In his 1907 encyclical he stated: “If someone had planned to bring together all the sap and, as it were, the blood of every heresy that has ever been committed against belief, into a single whole, he would never have been able to accomplish the task more completely than have the Modernists.” (7)
The Modernists have developed a very skilful strategy. Spread around like so much uncontrolled growth, they appear to preach a doctrine that seems unlike a doctrine since it is not presented as a systematic whole. On the one hand, God is unknowable (agnosticism) and, on the other, God can only be approached from the heart’s impulse (immanentism). The latter, according to Modernism, is an individual search in which the beginnings of religion come into being from the feelings. (At present the preference is for a ‘religious experience’ rather than ‘feelings’.) A symbolic understanding arises from the search for the unknowable. In this it is language, the bearer of symbolism, that represents the essence of ‘being’. And thus ceremony becomes the primary objective of religion. And in this way, self-awareness is made equal to revelation itself. Because the collective consciousness is subject to evolution, as historical research demonstrates, these opinions state that revelations are tied to culture and place. ‘My’ revelation is worth just as much as ‘his’ revelation, but the community’s revelation, the community being the bearer of culture par excellence, has greater value than my revelation or his, even if it should come from Jesus or some other prophetic figure. According to this way of looking at things, the historicity of such personages is subordinated to the contemporary character projected onto them by the community. It is even possible to opt for a non-historical Jesus since the choice renders easier the projection. There is a renoucement of the sacred and apostolic traditions, of the supremacy of Holy Writ. Hierarchical structures and authority are banned. Every form of religion deserves respect. Yes, even paganism. Who are we that we should feel so superior? Belief in something is thus regarded as more important than that something itself, even if it bears the label ‘God’ which, to quote Father Schillebeeckx (1914 - 2009), is a distant unfathomable reality. Those who acclaim such opinions can enthusiastically follow a theology course, be ordained priest and, in those functions, can misuse the skills of expression of the community that they serve. They shall not regard it as treachery if they juggle with deepest convictions of their fellow men, since loose talk is inherent to their way of thinking. Like serpents they have forked tongues. And they boast about being good Christians!
3 –A trumpet call to penance for the country
While writing this down, I am filled with a sudden fear. Up till now I had not seen it so clearly. If it were not for the fact that entire peoples are infected with these opinions, I would shrug my shoulders and walk away. A people that thinks in this way cannot do else but call up divine judgment over itself, since this lifedetermining philosophy is the cause of the godforsaken society in which we live. I would like to quote from “Day of Prayer” sermon (8) preached by Theodorus van der Groe, during his lifetime a servant of the Holy Gospel in Kralingen (Rotterdam), regarding Isaiah 45:5-6: “For the land is stained because of its inhabitants; for they transgress the laws, they change the ordinances, they destroy the eternal covenant. Hence the curse will devour the land, and those who live there will be destroyed.” The words that now follow, more applicable now than ever before, were written shortly before the French Revolution broke out:
Theodorus van der Groe (1705-1784)
«« O! my friends! The Lord has sent us to you this day with these sad words in order to place in a living fashion before your eyes the terrible godlessness and injustice that reigns among the people of the Netherlands, the curse that is now devouring us because of this, and the deadly destruction which shall soon follow, even though Moses and Samuel should stand before God’s face begging and pleading in fiery prayer. For as sure as His Name is Jehovah, the Lord, the living and unchangeable God, so surely will His word not change. Even now
His servants are forced to see the same sad and drawn faces occasioned by His grim wrath across our sinful land. Four years long we have had to threaten you, as prophesied in Revelations 2:5, that the Lord would soon be here. (…) They break the laws, says the prophet, who then in no way judges the transgression to come from weakness (…) but from an evil, wilful and terrible transgression consisting of nothing more than a complete abandonment and turning away from God and His holy Law… »» The reference to the Book of Revelation is to one of the letters to the seven Churches, that of Ephesus, who had abandoned her first love (2:5): “Remember therefore from where you have fallen: repent and do the first works, or else I will come to you quickly and remove your lampstand from its place – unless you repent.” The following has been written about Theodorus van der Groe:
Lo, there is a Church Jewel, a Treasure of Letters for the pious, A Trumpet Call to Penance for the land that drowns in its guilt A harsh cry for help that resounds in heart and ear Before the flood of woe begins to cover us!
His Prayer Day sermons were mainly a call to conversion and penance. Yes! If only we had a Moses and a Samuel! For even though the curse and the destruction have already been decided, God still allows Himself to change, even at the last moment. The history of the people of the covenant proves this. Jeremiah 18:7-8 confirms that it sometimes happens that God addresses a people to tell them that He will rip them out, break them down and destroy them, and if that people should turn from its evil ways on hearing these words, God relents of the disasters He had in mind for them.
HIDE YOUR LIGHT UNDER A BUSHEL - where nobody can see it - squander your gifts like priceless myrrh at the feet of this world - waste all that is good so that the true revelation remains hidden.
4 – Belief is the firm foundation of our salvation
As we have seen, Modernism has subordinated belief to science. ‘To believe in’ has become a philosophical concept. But that is not the way things are in terms of our Christian belief. Our believing is neither an intellectual activity nor simply a feeling. The Old Testament uses the word ‘emunah’ for ‘to believe’, a term related to ‘amen’ The New testament Greek uses the word ‘pistis’. Both cases imply trust in and dedication to God. And, of itself, from this follows the concept of adoration. There are the articles of faith held by the Church. The Jews call their profession of faith “the thirteen starting points of the Jewish faith”, and this I find a more exact formulation. In Hebrew thought God’s existence is the cause of our belief in Him. In the epistle to the Hebrews, verse 11:6 could better be translated as: “He who comes to God must believe ‘because’ He is” (instead of ‘that’ he is). We only need to look at the list of witnesses to belief in the eleventh chapter of this epistle to know what is meant by biblical belief. At the very beginning we find the following: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” The many examples in that chapter show the decisiveness that accompanies belief, by which kingdoms are conquered, justice exercised, promises gained and the jaws of lions closed up. It is of great significance, in the context of our subject, that verse 3 states that “By faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that the things which are seen were not made of things which are visible.” That seems to me to form a fine conclusion to this article. It is sufficient to give the lie to the Modernists. Hubert Luns
[Published in “Profetisch Perspectief”, autumn 2008 – No. 60]
The title of this article is taken from Mtt. 5:15, Mk. 4:21 and Lk. 11:33, where ‘bushel’ translates the Greek term ‘modios’ which, in its turn, is derived from the Latin ‘modio’, a standard measure for – for instance - apples. ‘Modio’ is derived from ‘modus’ = measure, manner. The title thus perfectly fits the theme of the Word of God subordinated to ‘measuring and counting.
Clare et distincte percipere (1) Descartes’ rule, stating that only that which is clear and distinct to the view can be used as an underlying fact, is taken from his “Essays” (1637) in which he also explains a number of other rules in this context. The title of the introduction is: “A Discourse on the Method of Correctly Conducting One's Reason and Seeking Truth in the Sciences” This turns out to be an elaboration of a previous and unpublished work entitled: “Rules for the Direction of the Mind”. (2) Science goes into chains of cause and effect, but these are always secondary causes. (3) Reference: “Het modernisme vroeger en nu” (Modernism Past and Present) by Prof. J.P.M. van der Ploeg O.P. (1909-2004) published in Catholica, a Catholic journal for the Netherlands and Flanders, February to April 2003 (nos. 5, 6 and 7). Catholica is published by Stichting voor Kerk en Geloof (Foundation for Church and Faith). A few leading figures of early Modernism (4) France was, indeed, the focal point of Modernism. Its best-known proponent was the priest and professor Alfred Loisy (1857-1940). In England the leading figure was the Jesuit G. Tyrell (1861-1909), who hid behind innumerable aliases. Both were excommunicated by the Roman Catholic Church. In Italy there was Ernesto Bonaiuti (1881-1946), whose journal was placed on the Index (the list of forbidden books). In the end he too was excommunicated. In Germany there was the well-known school of Tübingen, sometimes known as the Eberhardina Carolina, with figures such as F. C. Baur (1792-1860) and D. F. Strauss (1808-1873). The French ex-seminarian Ernest Renan (1823-1892) did no little damage to the faith with his eight-part popular series Histoire des origines du christianisme (History of Christian Origins). In the Netherlands – but here we need to go further back – we could call Spinoza (1632-1677) a proto-Modernist. Those are just a few leading figures, but the list is much longer – and doubtless the names of Protestant theologians are lacking, having escaped my notice. Abraham Kuyper on liberal Protestantism (5) As far as liberal Protestantism is concerned, Abraham Kuyper stated the following: «« You know, the modern man is especially enthusiastic about the honourable name of ‘Protestant’, and the mass would so much love to make something clear, namely that Modernism and Protestantism are two shoots on the same stem, simply by distinguishing past and present, as if to base the distinction on the time of coming into blossom. And yet nothing could be further from the truth. Modernism chooses as its basic assumption human authority in matters of belief, against which Protestantism raises its voice in mighty protest. It should be regarded as a contradiction rather than the fruit of Protestantism, and thus Modernism may never dress itself up in the garb of the Reformation, since it has never known anything of the anxiety of the soul, of the tearing apart of the heart, of the fear of the mind, from which a Luther cried out to his God. The Reformation sought Salvation for the
trapped heart, while Modernism merely seeks a Solution for an artificial problem. Hence therefore it knows only one single reality, that of the things visible, and fails to see that other sort, that much higher, that much more solid reality which, even in the sinful state in which we find ourselves, causes us yet to speak of the ‘unshakeable’ Kingdom of God (cf. Hebr. 12:27-28). »» (6) This quotation of Edmund Burke’s, according to Abraham Kuyper, is taken from a debate held in the House of Commons on 6th May 1791. The debate was held following the publication by Burke, six months earlier, of a famous pamphlet entitled: “Reflections on The Revolution in France”. With great premonition Burke sketched the main lines of the French Revolution. That day, because of the controversy, Edmund Burke lost his one-time friend, former prime minister Fox, who was greatly excited by the French Revolution, and continued to praise it long after many other people in Britain had, in the face of its growing extremism, begun to temper their views. (7) “Pascendi Dominici Gregis” (on the doctrines of the Modernists) # 1907, no 86. (8) Until the outbreak of the French Revolution, the Dutch government and other official bodies could declare a “Day of Prayer” to have prayers for the country and invoke God’s mercy. This was a typical Dutch custom.
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