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The Decision to Leave: A Home in the URC’s

Resident Faculty, W. Robert Godfrey   |   January 26, 1998   |  Type: Articles

Christian Renewal: Dr. Godfrey, the first question I'd like to ask is your reasons for deciding to leave the Christian Reformed Church and how that decision affects your work as president of Westminster Theological Seminary.
Dr. W. Robert Godfrey: I along with a number of other people in the Christian Reformed Church have been concerned over a number of years now about directions in the Christian Reformed Church where it seems that the church through a variety of decisions is moving away from a historic way of thinking and acting. In recent years I with others through a variety of organizations have tried to change the direction of the Christian Reformed Church and have met with what we concluded was an unwillingness to change that direction. So I with the congregation here in Escondido and a number of other congregations and ministers throughout the denomination decided that, at least from a human perspective, it didn't seem that the direction of the denomination as a whole is going to change. We decided it was best to seek to leave the denomination and serve the Lord in another context. We're not saying by that - at least I'm not saying by that – that the Christian Reformed Church is a false church, it just seems to me that it is no longer really a disciplined confessionally Reformed church. That's the reason I joined the Christian Reformed Church, that's the reason I believe the Lord calls us to be as a church, and that's what I want to do with my energies - to encourage the development of a sound confessionally Reformed church. So, I leave the Christian Reformed Church with a great deal of sadness. It was a spiritual mother to me, it was where I was converted, I've appreciated many things about the Christian Reformed Church, I know there continue to be many good people and good congregations in the Christian Reformed Church, but I think I should use my energies at this point elsewhere.

CR: How did you come to join the Christian Reformed Church, how you were converted through the CRC, and what caused you to stay in the CRC when you had many opportunities to go elsewhere?
Godfrey: When I was a junior in high school I was nominally a member of the Methodist church and I was invited by Christian Reformed high school students who were in my class to attend church with them. It was through the worship services, the Sunday school classes, the young people's societies that I really heard the gospel for the first lime and was converted as a junior in high school. From that time I saw the Christian Reformed Church as a real spiritual mother for me, and found in the life of the Christian Reformed Church - this would have been in the mid-60's - what I found to be a fine expression of biblical religion. And so I wanted to use my energies in the service of that church where I first came to know the Lord and where I was taught the Reformed faith. The irony I find is that the Reformed faith that I accept and teach today is the Reformed faith that was taught me by the Christian Reformed Church in the 1960's but somehow many in the Christian Reformed Church find me an alien voice today and I find that ironic because my voice, I think, is the voice the Christian Reformed Church taught me.

CR: Why did you choose to remain within the Dutch Reformed tradition rather than joining the PCA, OPC, or the denominations which historically have been more closely associated with Westminster Seminary?
Godfrey: My connection with the Christian Reformed Church precedes my connection with Westminster Seminary. I felt in part that it was the providence of the Lord that had brought me into the Christian Reformed Church and I also stayed there as long as I could make a positive contribution and that the life of the church was a strong Reformed life. I have high regard for the Orthodox, Presbyterian Church and the PCA, all denominations have their strengths and weaknesses, but I felt that having begun in the Christian Reformed Church that's the place I should stay as long as I could have some salutary influence on where the church was going.

CR: My understanding is that the CRC was in very large measure responsible for supporting Westminster in its early days during the Great Depression, and also was very instrumental in starting its California campus. 
Godfrey: It is certainly true that Christian Reformed people have been very instrumental in supporting both Westminster in Philadelphia and Westminster in California. When Dr. [J. Gresham] Machen formed Westminster Seminary and when he with others was involved in the formation of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the Christian Reformed Church felt very much at one with his vision and his concerns. So there was a close connection between many of the leaders of the Christian Reformed Church and the leaders of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in the cause of Westminster Seminary. Many of the early teachers at Westminster in Philadelphia were drawn from the CRC, Cornelius Van Til, Ned Stonehouse, R.B. Kuiper, to name just three. So there has been a real sense I think, through the years of camaraderie and common commitment. I think many Christian Reformed people recognize that Westminster Seminary reached out into a part of the American world where the CRC did not, and that Westminster Seminary prepared church leaders and scholars for many parts of the church throughout the world. I think Christian Reformed people had a real kingdom vision in that regard and were willing to support an institution that wasn't directly related to their own denomination. When Westminster in California was founded we were the only Reformed seminary west of the Mississippi, and again Christian Reformed people I think saw the potential and value of having a Reformed seminary in the west, and have been very generous and helpful in supporting the seminary. We hope that will continue.

CR: Can you explain your reasons for deciding to join the URC instead of another denomination?
Godfrey: The decision for the congregation of which I am a part was a very natural or an easy one. Most members of the United Reformed Churches are former members of the Christian Reformed Church. Therefore it is a very familiar direction to go in a church that uses the same Psalm tunes, uses the same liturgical forms, uses substantially the same church order and uses the same confessional standards. It is a change that doesn't involve much change, it seemed to us. And since that was the decision of my local congregation that I have been in now 16 years and have great admiration for, it seemed to be appropriate as an associate pastor and member of the congregation to go in that same direction with them. I personally don't think we need a continuing proliferation of small Reformed denominations in North America, and my hope is that the United Reformed Churches, in time, will find ways to unite with other Reformed bodies. But I think it 's very understandable why they have formed themselves into a denomination and I'm very glad to be part of that denomination.

CR: Do you anticipate any difficulties being caused to Westminster Theological Seminary, either in losing its accreditation for financial support by the synod or having difficulties with your students who continue to be studying for the Christian Reformed ministry?
Godfrey: Well, I'm certainly hoping that won't happen. We continue to be exactly the same institution that we've always been, and if we were worthy of accreditation by the Christian Reformed Church this past June I can' t see anything dramatically that has changed from the synod's point of view. Westminster Seminary is not as an institution opposed to the CRC in any sense, we continue to have young men here who are studying for the Christian Reformed ministry, and we're trying to support them in their adverse effects on the life of the seminary. When the seminary was interviewing me nearly five years ago for the presidency here, I said that when the time came that as a matter of conscience that I felt I needed to leave the CRC, I would have to do that, and I couldn't make that decision on the basis of how it would affect the seminary. I think our seminary has always tried to proceed on a principled path, and the board of trustees understood that and appreciated that. It's not a seminary decision, really, it's a matter of personal ministry decision that directs me. 

CR: I do understand the distinction which you are making. The question I raise is whether a precedent may have been created with Dr. John E. Kim and International Theological Seminary, which lost its synodical accreditation for financial support after the secession of Dr. Kim. As I recall you spoke against that on the floor of synod but were not successful.
Godfrey: Well, I don't know what the synod will do. The synod has always accredited both Westminster in Philadelphia and Westminster in California, and as I say we haven't changed as institutions, we haven't changed in terms of the churches we serve, and I would hope the synod won't turn against us, but I don't know. That will be up to the synod.

CR: Moving to your future denominational affiliation, the United Reformed Churches have certainly in past years been very closely associated with Mid-America Reformed Seminary; although of course not by an official denominational connection. Could you describe the relationship of Westminster Seminary to MidAmerica and perhaps your own personal relationship with MidAmerica?
Godfrey: We have to bear in mind that the United Reformed Churches as a denomination have existed only a little over a year. They in their own literature about themselves note that their ministers were educated at Calvin Seminary, Mid-America Reformed Seminary, and the two Westminster Seminaries, and everything I hear seems to indicate that will continue to be the case. I know that some in the URC see themselves as closer to Mid-America, others probably see themselves as closer to us, in terms of their own background and personal experience. I know a number of people at Mid-America very well and have a very high regard for them. Richard Blauw is a close personal friend, he's a minister in the Christian Reformed Church and president of their board of trustees and I have a very high regard for him. I know Cornel Venema well, their professor of systematic theology. Mark Vander Hart, their professor of Old Testament is a former student of mine so I have a number of very close connections with Mid-America and I don't see any reason that I should have any trouble being cooperatively related. We have somewhat similar histories in that we're both independent seminaries seeking to serve a variety of denominations, and I suspect that will continue.

CR: As a United Reformed minister you will also be an officebearer in the denomination. What do you expect or hope to contribute to the churches?
Godfrey: I hope that the denomination will be a denomination seriously about the business of serving the Lord in the variety of ministries to which the Lord calls us, which means edifying the people and also carrying the gospel to those who don’t know it, both in what we traditionally called home missions and foreign missions. I think the great need of a new denomination, especially a denomination born of some theological controversy, is that it have a positive form of vision, that it not get caught up in the trap of being backward-looking and critical and constantly talking about the denomination from which it came. I see very hopeful evidence that the URC will not fall into that trap, will get on with the work of the Lord. I'm encouraged that a fellow like Bill Green, a former Christian Reformed missionary to Costa Rica, is now a minister in the United Reformed Churches and I hope he'll have good support for his missionary work from United Reformed Churches, and that in that instance as in instances that we'll be moving forward to try to carry confessional Reformed Christianity to this country and to North America and to the world.

CR: What can the United Reformed Churches learn from the founder of Westminster Seminary, J. Gresham Machen, and his relationship with the Presbyterian Church (USA) after his deposition? While I realize that he did die shortly after the deposition, he did continue an apologetic approach to the PC(USA) as did his successors. Is it possible to look forward and forget one’s past and history and then to repeat one’s pas and one’s history?
Godfrey: Obviously, I think everyone needs to remember their history and appreciate their history. I would be a pretty sad church historian if I didn't make that statement at the outset. I think not in the case of Dr. Machen but in the case of some early Orthodox Presbyterians there was a great temptation towards a kind of bitterness at all they had lost and in that sense perhaps too much backward looking. I think we have to be careful about that. There's always a temptation in every conservative movement to a kind of proud spirit that says we’ve got it all right and those people have it all wrong, and we’ve got be careful of that. The other great problem I think that often happens in a new denomination, is that there is a great temptation to think, “Well, now at last, we can do everything just right.” The problem, of course, is that my idea of “just right” will be different from other people’s ideas of what is “just right”. One of the that I think we need to bear in mind is that the Orthodox Presbyterian Church a year after its founding and only six months after Dr. Machen's death had another split. I think we can say all sorts of things about that split, and perhaps even its inevitability, but I think that should be a kind of warning to us in the URC that we need now to be very fearful not to have expectations of a kind of Reformed purity that would be unrealistic. There will continue to be differences among us, and one of the challenges that we face, it seems to me, is to begin to able to prioritize theological and church issues about what areas we're really going to be able to have uniformity on and what areas we're going to be to allow a divergence of opinion and practice. The URC to this point has said over and over again that it’s going to call for uniformity on the confessions and allow for a great deal of decentralization on other sorts of issues, and I think that's a good way to go, if we can maintain that. That's what we need I think: churches that are really living by their confessional standards and not imposing lots of extra confessional requirements on the congregations. But those are some of the areas, I think, of prioritizing the areas on which we need to think and resolve a on a synodical level and what are the ones we can allow some diversity on. That will always be the challenge, probably, for the church in almost every age. It's not a new challenge that we face.

CR: As a professor of church history, you of course studied the history of synodical decisions in precisely the area you have mentioned, determining what is and what is not confessional. Could you cite for me some of issues that should be considered confessional and therefore requiring universal obedience, and issues on which there should be toleration of different opinions?
Godfrey: One might look at the area of worship where the confessions call us to recognize the need for biblical warrant for what we believe in worship, and I believe we need to be united as a denomination that we seek to worship God only as he has taught us in his Word. But then we need to recognize that there is a danger of legitimate disagreement among Christians equally committed to the Word of God as to exactly what the Word of God teaches in some specifics about worship, and I think we have to be somewhat respectful of one another and somewhat cautious that we're not just imposing a kind of traditionalism but that we're really willing to be somewhat thoughtful and consistent in the application of principles. So that's a kind of vague example, but it is an example where the confessions speak in a rather general term and where there needs to be unity about what the confessions said, and yet recognition that in the application of that confessional principle there is going to be some diversity that can and should be tolerated.

CR: Let me cite some more specific issues which have been raised by some in the conservative wing of the CRC and those who have left for various organizations. Requiring the use of the forms in all churches of the denomination – would you view that as something that the church having uniformity in that sense is either beneficial or necessary in a federative relationship?
Godfrey: Well, that certainly was our practice in the CRC. It’s been a longstanding practice in the churches of the Dutch Reformed tradition and I think it has a certain value to it in that these liturgical forms were rich in content, orthodox in teaching and ensured a kind of unity to the various sacraments and rites of the church. No one I think would want to make a case that they are absolutely required by scripture. You can’t find those forms in scripture. But I think that it is worth continuing to reflect on that question and I think my own personal approach would be, where we have a practice that has served the Dutch Reformed churches historically well, that the assumption ought to be that we ought probably to continue that practice. For those who want to change that practice, they should assume something of the burden of proof to show why it would be better to do something else. I would hope that we don't need to wrangle over these things, that we could approach them as brothers who have confidence in one another as each trying to serve the Lord, but I think the weight of historic practice should be given serious respect.

CR: Another issue which is sometimes raised with regard to Westminster Theological Seminary is the issue of the framework hypothesis and various forms of theistic evolution. The United Reformed Churches were founded at least in part by congregations which objected to the evolutionary views of Dr. Howard Van Till. How would you respond to the concerns of some in the URC over theistic evolution and the teachings of some former professors at Westminster- West?
Godfrey: Well, theistic evolution has become a kind of red flag that we have to try to be clear about what we mean by it. Westminster Seminary in California unanimously, in terms of its faculty and board, have said that we are committed to the notion that Adam is created by an immediate act of God without any animal ancestors. So if that's what you mean theistic evolution, we are on record more clearly than any Reformed seminary I can think of as opposed to that teaching and all of our faculty are unanimous in opposing it. All the faculty who have ever taught here are unanimous in having opposed it. In terms of some variety of interpretations in terms of Genesis 1, we do have variety on that subject, as does Mid-America Reformed Seminary and Westminster in Philadelphia, Reformed Seminary, and Covenant Seminary also. So I think that we are adamantly opposed to notions that Adam is a product of evolution and that I don't see why our position on that should be a problem to anyone. We take a very conservative stand on that point.

CR: With regard to the issue of the length of days and such matters as that, though, my understanding is that Westminster does allow liberty in understanding the definition of the Hebrew word “yom,” whether it applied to 24 hour days, and has allowed liberty for those people who advocate a framework hypothesis. Is that a correct understanding?
Godfrey: That’s correct, and if I am correct that is also the position of Mid-America Reformed Seminary. We are in a tradition in which a range of interpretations of Genesis 1 has been tolerated as long as Westminster has existed, and in allowing that toleration of interprestations Genesis 1, we’re following the position of Princeton pretty much all the way back to the days of its founding. In the whole history of the church there have been a variety of interpretations of Genesis 1 that have been tolerated. I think that's a healthy matter for the life of the church, and to assume that suddenly only one exegetical option should be allowed in the church, it seems to me, is to impose a new doctrinal standard that the churches have never imposed before and it's something of a mystery to me as to why this novelty suddenly has caught on with quite such fervor in the minds of some.

CR: Anything else you'd like to say before I let you go?
Godfrey: No, other than that I know most of the leaders in the new United Reformed Churches and I have confidence in the kind of church that I think they want to build and I'm eager to be a of that enterprise. I hope that in due course we'll reach out to other Reformed sister denominations and seek to make in a variety of ways common with cause with them. As you may know I wrote a little article in The Outlook entitled "A Reformed Dream" and I continue to have that dream that the day will come when will be able to draw significantly closer because the Reformed denominations tend to have their own distinctive strengths and weaknesses and we’ll all be better off by helping one another.

CR: Could you summarize the article for those who haven’t read it? 
Godfrey: I had the probably outrage suggestion that all of the current Reformed denominations should make of their general assemblies or national synods particular synods under a new general assembly - that all of the current denominations would simply become synods in a new denomination, and that in this new denomination each would be able to protect its distinctive practices and outlook and the general assembly would not be able to impose any change upon anyone synod but over time as synods met in general assembly various forms of cooperation and service could be coordinated and we would grow closer together as we got to know one another. Rather than negotiating every difference and ironing it out at the outset, we would express our fundamental union with one another in terms of our faith in Christ and our adoption of the Reformed creeds and confession and that we would draw together on that basis, and then find ways of living together and working together from that basis. So there was a fair measure of interest in that article when it first appeared and I hear that there's some movement afoot in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church to try to take that to their general assembly and put it on the agenda of NAPARC. I think we need one another and have strengths we can give to one another.

CR: What role do you think that Westminster Theological Seminary, the United Reformed Churches, or yourself could play in bringing that Reformed dream to accomplishment?
Godfrey: Well, ultimately if it's going to come to realization it's going to be the work of the churches and I would certainly encourage the URC to look at that proposal and evaluate it. If it’s going to be something embraced by our sister denominations we ought to consider it carefully as well, but as I say ultimately this is something the church as an institution through its assemblies will have to decide at its own pace. I'm certainly one to encourage the URC about that.

Godfrey on Church-Related Publications

CR: A question with regard to your background as a church historian: since we are of course a newspaper could you assist us in understanding the role of such periodicals as the "Presbyterian Guardian" in the formation of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and the relationship of the conservative wing of the Presbyterian Church (USA). Could you perhaps' edify our readers on the background of Christian journalism in the formation of Westminster Seminary and later of the OPC?
Godfrey: In American Presbyterianism there has been a long history of a variety of religious periodicals that served the Presbyterian Church, most of them unofficial periodicals that represented a variety of points of view in the church. That was true in the controversies between fundamentalism and modernism as it troubled the Presbyterian Church in the 1920’s. There were several conservative Reformed periodicals that served the church in those days and I think provided an essential function. I think a well-informed laity as well as ministry rests upon the ability to study issues and the only forum for keeping up with contemporary events is periodicals that are published at least monthly and sometimes more often where that news and reflection can be gathered. So I believe that whatever one thinks about the old Presbyterian, or the Christian Advocate, or the periodical called Christianity Today which is not to be related to the current Christianity Today or the Presbyterian Guardian, all served a very important function in promoting the conservative cause in Presbyterian circles. I think similarly the Outlook and Christian Renewal have had something of that function in the Christian Reformed Church and I would say we need that kind of instruction and reflection and study the Christian periodicals offer to both the clergy and laity of the Reformed Churches to keep us informed and thinking.

CR: You mentioned the issue of keeping us informed and keeping us thinking; you mentioned earlier that the majority of the conservative periodicals but not all have been unofficial in character. Since you do serve on the staff of Outlook magazine, could you comment on what you think about the attitude advocated by some in the Dutch Reformed Tradition – which is of course a view that has a long historical root - that the people in a Dutch Reformed denomination ought to be informed of the activities of the denomination solely by the courts of the church, the classis and the synod, and that the laity should get their news by such means as press releases from the classis and the synod rather than by independent periodicals?
Godfrey: I would call such an opinion Popish.

CR: Would you elaborate?
Godfrey: Well, it seems to me that the whole history of the church going back to the sixteenth century, the history of the Reformed churches, is individual ministers, and theologians taking up their pen to criticize what they regard as errors and they never waited for synods to review or give an imprimatur to their work. I don’t see fundamentally the difference between writing a book and writing an article in a periodical. It’s an effort of the Christian community to express its views and offer its views in the marketplace of ideas for debate, and I think that's healthy and important to the well being of the church, and I think the other view would be a small minority point of view in the history of Reformed thought. To be sure, Reformed church assemblies have always kept minutes of their meetings but have not sought, generally speaking, to limit those minutes as the only way in which the church is heard or known. Abraham Kuyper established his reputation as an editor of both a newspaper and a periodical, and I think that tradition is an important one in the history of the Reformed churches that needs to be maintained.

Previously published in Christian Renewal January 26, 1998.

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