Book reviewing has never been my strong point. Generally, I view any piece of literature as either not worth my time to review, or so outstanding that I feel the need to devote an entire essay to it. Besides, just about any Reformed book worth reading has been reviewed at some point or other by my URCNA pastor friends Revs. Andrew Compton and Shane Lems on The Reformed Reader.
Nevertheless, there are some books that seem to merit more than a review—works that, regardless of their age, speak powerfully to the church of Christ. One such book was Sing a New Song: Recovering Psalm-Singing for the Twenty-First Century, edited by Joel Beeke and Anthony Selvaggio. Jim Oord and I discussed this book chapter by chapter through the latter portion of 2012 (the series is available here).
Now I’ve discovered another title to which I’d like to devote some time on URC Psalmody—and this one may come as quite a surprise. It’s not a new book; in fact, the copy I have is yellowed and mildewy and gives off a rather rancid odor. It’s not specifically about music or psalm-singing, though these topics appear occasionally throughout its pages. It might even be described as stuffy and difficult to read. Its title is The Christian Reformed Church: Its Roots, History, Schools, and Mission Work (1946) by the great CRC historian Dr. Henry Beets.
Such an odd selection certainly merits an explanation. First let me give Dr. Beets’ own comments in his Introduction, which I’ve edited and simplified a bit:
During the spring of 1947, it will be ninety years ago that the Christian Reformed Church came into existence. Yet its roots go far beyond that time, which is the focus I have tried to bring out in this book.
There are several reasons why I prepared it for the press. The first reason is that my previously published works on the history of our denomination are sold out.…In view of the constant demand of a book of this kind I felt constrained to once more lay one on the press—this time of different scope than the ones which appeared before, instead tracing the denomination’s roots in history.
The second reason leading me to this publication venture is a sense of obligation to our beloved Nation. Since it shelters our Church and its membership, I realize that we owe it an account of our origin and history, and of the great purpose of our denomination as one of the many groups protected by the flag of our United States.
Thirdly, we owe it to our present adult membership to know its denomination. Such is essential if that membership is to love, build up, extend, and if need be defend, its ancestral church home.
And fourthly, there is an urgent need of a book of this kind as we think of future generations. They are entitled to know why this denomination is their home and why succeeding generations should consider it a precious heritage, worthy of being continued, built up and extended, as a salting salt and a leavening leaven.
Lastly, I publish this book to show theirein why the Christian Reformed Church is entitled to a place in the sun.
Personally I still hold the conviction, as expressed many years ago, that the Christian Reformed Church’s origin is authentic, its separate existence [from the Reformed Church in America] a matter of duty, its ‘return’ (in 1857) completely justified by history.
May the Lord’s free favor continue to rest upon this regiment of the Lord’s army. May he enable us to be witnesses and soul-winners for Him, a beacon showing the way to the harbor of rest, and a training school for the Lord’s militant Church here below.
Until the day when Christ comes again—He whose right it is to reign amid a people that shall forever magnify His free and sovereign favor—may an earthly church home for us and our posterity ever be furnished and maintained.
Having allowed Dr. Beets to share his own thoughts on the importance of this book, I’ll now share mine. In particular, there are three reasons I believe this can be a helpful study for any member or office-bearer in the United Reformed Churches in North America.
1. “A goodly heritage.”
As someone who has no family history in the URCNA (and who had barely been born when our federation broke off from the Christian Reformed Church), I’ve never fully understood our relationship to our parent denomination. A brief historical overview is given on the URCNA website, but in general I’ve noticed that it’s not a very popular discussion topic. For many veteran ministers and members, the pain and battle-scars they suffered during that time are probably still very close to the surface; it might seem easier simply to avoid talking about it.
However, the more I’ve studied the history of the Christian Reformed Church, the more I’ve come to realize how great is its heritage of God’s faithfulness. Although our current trajectories are very different, its history is still our history. I firmly believe we ought to be proud of and grateful for this lineage, not sweep it under the rug.
2. “Holding the line.”
If anything, studying the story of the Christian Reformed Church and its struggle to maintain the true Reformed faith in the early days ought to challenge us in the URCNA to continue “holding the line.” At the end of her excellent children’s history book De Kolonie (1974), Marian Schooland writes:
The doctrines of the Reformation, so precious to the Christian Reformed Church, were born out of tribulation and persecution; they were defended with courage and strength built up by trial and hardship. They produced simple childlike faith and complete trust in a sovereign God who is also a loving Father; they inspired unquestioning obedience, daily reading of His Word, a life guided by prayer, a firm conviction that God’s glory is the great goal and purpose of life—even of the whole of creation—and a ‘peace that passeth understanding’ in striving to please Him.
Schooland closes her book with these almost prophetic words:
If ever the Christian Reformed Church weakens and wavers in these fundamental characteristics she will have lost her identity and her very reason for being.
Readers, that is a grave warning, and one that the United Reformed Churches must take to heart as well.
3. “Keeping the banner aloft.”
It may be hard for a small and young federation such as ours to grow and move forward. True growth can come only through the preaching of the gospel and the work of the Holy Spirit in men’s hearts. At the same time, however, we can take comfort in realizing that our forebears faced the same basic challenges. Yet the Lord was abundantly faithful to them, and we in the URCNA can go forth in confidence knowing that if we follow Him, He will be faithful to us as well. If this historical study leaves us depressed, it has missed its mark. Rather, it ought to encourage, inspire, and invigorate us to continue laboring together as the body of Christ.
Not all the details of this study are set in stone. At this point I am hoping to go through The Christian Reformed Church roughly chapter-by-chapter, as we did last fall with Sing a New Song. If my schedule permits, I hope this will become a weekly Thursday series here on URC Psalmody. As with many things, time will tell. But however it comes about, I hope you’ll join us in this unique opportunity for discussion.
Let children hear the mighty deeds
Which God performed of old,
Which in our younger years we saw
And which our fathers told.
He bids us make His glories known,
The works of power and grace,
That we convey His wonders down
Through every rising race.