George M. Ophoff: As Church Historian (21)

In our last article, we talked about the work which Rev. Ophoff did in the field of pastoral instruction; and we quoted briefly from his notes which he prepared for his students in school. You will recall, that our purpose in all this is to demonstrate to our readers, not only the fact that the professors in the Seminary did a vast amount of work in teaching a large number of different subjects, but that they did original work in these fields. Even though they had to spread their labors into many different areas, they nevertheless became competent in these areas and prepared material which was of abiding worth.

In this article, I want to make some quotes from an article in the Standard Bearer which has to do with Church History, and more particularly, with the history of the Reformation. Rev. Ophoff did a tremendous amount of work in this field and, in fact, wrote three complete syllabi–one each on Ancient Church History, Medieval Church History and Modern Church History. He also wrote extensively in the Standard Bearer on various aspects of the history of the church of Christ. He became thoroughly acquainted with his field and was competent to teach these courses.

But the reason why I am quoting from this particular writing is not in the first place to demonstrate his competence. The reason is somewhat different. When Rev. Hoeksema and Rev. Ophoff took a stand against the heresy of common grace, they were aware of the fact that the heresy of common grace was not a matter of one or two isolated doctrines of Scripture which were in dispute; but they knew that this heresy was a principle departure from the truth which would have its effects not only upon the whole body of the truth, but also upon the entire field of learning and life. They were men who could see the implica­tions of this heresy in the whole of what we may call a man’s “world and life view,” When they took a stand for sovereign and particular grace, therefore, they saw also that this had implications for the whole of one’s “world and life view” and that they bore the burden of developing these ideas in every area of learning.

The whole matter of the Reformation is a case in point. Though I have read many books on the relationship between the Reformation and the Renaissance, I have yet to find a book which deals properly with the relation between these two movements which ran side by side in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. All without exception take the position that the two movements were essentially the same, although differing in some peripheral details. This is basically the position of common grace. Our readers understand that the Renaissance was the revival of learning which brought all the knowledge of Greek and Roman civili­zation to Europe after the “Dark Ages”; while the Reformation was the estab­lishment of the Church of Christ in the truth through the labors of Luther and Calvin and their contemporary reformers. Common grace takes the position that because the unregenerate is able to do good, the Renaissance produced much which was basically identical with the Reformation.

One of the most lasting truths which I learned from Rev. Ophoff’s Church History classes was that this is not the truth. He saw clearly the need to point out the truth of the matter from the viewpoint of sovereign and particular grace. Here follow excerpts of what he wrote on this matter in Vol. xviii, pp. 130-132.

“The Reformation was a move­ment that exalted the Bible as the sole infallible source of doctrine. According to the literal meaning of the word, the Renaissance was a re-birth. It denoted that new zeal for pagan literature, learning and art, which sprang up in Italy toward the close of the Middle Ages. Of this movement the Reformation was nei­ther a phase nor a product. The two movements…differed….

The subjective principle of the Reformation was the life of regen­eration, the true faith and love of the men of God by which this movement was represented. The objective prin­ciple of the Reformation was the truths as God’s believing people possess it in Christ Jesus….

But these certainly were not the principles of the Renaissance….

The subjective principle of the Renaissance was unbelief, hatred of God and His Word and positively, the love of the world, of the things in it…. Its objective principle was the lie, in particular this lie that the world passeth not away but abideth ever­lastingly, that this life is all that there is; that therefore the thing to do for man is to make the most of this life by improving it to the best of his abilities and by drinking deeply of its plea­sures. And this verily was the theory of knowledge of the Renaissance, namely, that the source and criterion of man’s knowledge of man, of God and of all things is man himself-his mind, reason, (rationalism); his feel­ing experience (mysticism); or his will (moralism), and that therefore the sole rule of life and all conduct is the will of this same man….

The Reformation, it ought to be plain, was not a product of the Renaissance. Yet the two movements are being identified the one with the other. It can be expected that the Modernist student of history insists that at bottom the two are one and the same. The Modernists deny that there is a people—God’s believing people-in whose essence and energy there operates a new and holy principle of life and that there are movements in history of which the only tenable explanation is that they are the function of this sanctified energy, and that the Reformation in distinction from the Renaissance was such a movement….

(Although the Renaissance had as it aim the destruction of property in matters of faith,) it was moved by a hatred of all authority, whether as expressed in the decrees of councils, in the pronouncements of the popes, or in the doctrine of the Scriptures. Thus its aim was to emancipate the mind of man from the reign not merely of tradition and the dogma of the church but of the Scriptures as well…. Humanism, therefore, was skeptical, rationalistic….

On the other hand, the aim of the Reformation was to emancipate the Scriptures from the reign of tradition and dogma and to subject human rea­son to the reign of the Scriptures. The Reformation loved the Bible. To the Bible it went back in the original languages….

But if all things work together for good to them that love God, must the stand not be taken that in some ways the Reformation was benefited by the Renaissance? It was benefited, but only negatively, thus in the same sense that Moses was helped by the pleasures of sin which he encountered at the Court of Pharaoh. The sight of these pleasures turned him con­sciously and intensely against them. No true believer can revel in pa­ganism.”