Who built the ark?
When theologians who are now in the Reformed Protestant Churches answered that question by delving into the spiritual reality of what is meant by “faith” in Hebrews 11:7, the theologians in the Protestant Reformed Churches were incensed. There may be confusion on certain things in the PRC, but the whole matter regarding Noah is not one of them. That is the matter that is constantly set forth as proof of the Reformed Protestant Churches’ false doctrine.
As an aside, I wish that even one theologian in the PRC could have fought with such a vengeance against the minister who taught that communion with Christ is conditional and that there are two rails that lead to heaven, God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility; or the minister who taught that in order to be saved there is that which a man must do; or the minister who taught that the more faithful the saints are to God’s law in the grace of Jesus Christ, the more they prosper in the great blessings of the covenant and, above all, the more they prosper in the enjoyment of God’s covenant fellowship; or the minister who taught that the regenerated believer is no longer totally depraved; or the minister who taught that the more you walk in good works, the more you will experience God’s love and fellowship; or the Arminian who exhorted his congregation to seek the grace that is available and that in order to partake of communion with a clean conscience you have to out-Pharisee the Pharisees; or the minister who taught that in the final judgment it is by means of our words that we will be justified; or the minister who taught that we have assurance by our works; or the minister who taught that there are two grounds for divorce; or the minister who taught that it is not enough that there is a Jesus or that Jesus did not personally accomplish all of our salvation.
But no, those things don’t bring a whimper from the watchmen on the walls of the PRC.
That is because only God and his truth were being assailed in those statements.
But when the glory of man is at stake?
When a minister taught that man did not build the ark, God did? That is beyond the pale, outside the bounds of orthodoxy, and something that must be swiftly condemned.
It really is telling when you consider what it is that causes the denomination to rise up in anger. Time and time again God’s name and truth are corrupted, and the people yawn, and the theologians carry on in their ivory towers and take no notice. But when a rebuke is issued? Or when man’s glory is seen to be slighted in the smallest regard? That brings out the fury of the membership and the pens of the theologians.
So the statement that man did not build the ark, God did, must be condemned.
Over and over and over again.
For some theologians in the PRC, this matter of Noah’s ark-building is proof positive that the RPC are guilty of teaching antinomianism. Tobias Crisp ain’t in it.
The charge that the RPC are antinomian is a charge that I welcome. The reason I welcome the charge is because it is the charge that is always brought against the proper, which is to say biblical, presentation of the gospel message. Martyn Lloyd-Jones put it this way:
A very good way of testing any view that you may hold is this one: Is this view humbling to me, glorifying to God? If it is, it is probably right. You won’t go far wrong if whatever view you are holding is glorifying to God, humbling to man. But if your view seems to glorify you and to query God, well (there’s no need to argue or to go into details) it’s wrong. It’s a very good universal rule—that! And, my last word of all is, again, a word primarily to preachers—indeed it’s a word to everybody in the sense that if ever you are putting the Gospel to another person, you’ve got a very good test whether you are preaching the Gospel in the right way. What’s that? Well, let me put it like this to you: If your presentation of the Gospel does not expose it to the charge of Antinomianism you are probably not putting it correctly. What do I mean by that? Just this: The Gospel, you see, comes as this free gift of God—irrespective of what man does. Now, the moment you say a thing like that, you are liable to provoke somebody to say, “Well, if that is so it doesn’t matter what I do.” The Apostle takes up that argument more than once in this great epistle. “What then,” he says at the beginning of chapter 6, “shall we do evil—commit sin—that grace might abound?” He’s just been saying: “where sin abounded grace does much more abound.” “Very well,” says someone. “This is a marvelous doctrine, this ‘Go and get drunk, do what you like the grace of God will put you right.’” Antinomianism. Now, this doctrine of the Scriptures—this justification by faith only, this free grace of God in salvation—is always exposed to that charge of Antinomianism. Paul was charged with it. He said, “You know, some people say that’s what I’m preaching.” Paul’s preaching was charged with Antinomianism…So I say, it is a very good test of preaching. You see—what is not evangelical preaching is this: It’s the kind of preaching that says to people, “Now, if you live a good life; if you don’t commit certain sins; and if you do good to others; and if you become a church member and attend regularly and are busy and active you will be a fine Christian and you’ll go to Heaven.” That’s the opposite of Evangelical preaching—and it isn’t exposed to the charge of Antinomianism because…it is telling men to save themselves by their good works…And it’s not the Gospel—because the Gospel always exposes itself to this misunderstanding from the standpoint of Antinomianism. So, let all of us test our preaching, our conversation, our talk to others about the Gospel by that particular test…If you don’t make people say things like that sometimes, if you’re not misunderstood and slanderously reported from the standpoint of Antinomianism it’s because you don’t believe the Gospel truly and you don’t preach it truly. (Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones on Romans 3)
Ask yourself, would anyone now charge the PRC with antinomianism with their teaching that man precedes God and good works are the way to fellowship with God and Jesus did not personally accomplish all of your salvation?
Apply Lloyd-Jones’ formula to the theology of the PRC, some of which I named at the beginning of this post. Would you say that theology is glorifying to God and humbling to man? Or does it glorify man and query God? No need to argue details, the theology of the PRC is wrong.
This is not to say that there is no such thing as antinomianism. There is. It is when someone says that the law of God has nothing to say to the child of God, or that the law is not to be used as a guide for the Christian life, or that there is no “must” to do good works, or that any talk of demands in God’s covenant is to introduce conditions into God’s covenant. That is the very definition of antinomianism.
But that is not what is being taught here.
As has been said before, we love the law; we just don’t want the law to save us.
I thought about going back and finding all the instances where theologians in the PRC have referred to the Noah controversy, but I just don’t have the heart for that anymore. Two examples will suffice.
What clearly illustrates the mistake of the RPC regarding repentance is the declaration by their theologians that “Noah did not build the ark, but God built the ark.” As I have pointed out previously, this statement directly contradicts the statement of the Bible that Noah built the ark (Hebrews 11:7). This, evidently, is of no concern to the theologians of the RPC, who fancy themselves as developing theology beyond, and contrary to, the explicit teaching of the Bible. They are not only more orthodox than the PRC; they are more orthodox than the Bible. But the aspect of the truth regarding the building of the ark that bears on their misunderstanding of repentance is that God did indeed build the ark, and He built it by having Noah build it. Repentance is a gracious work of God, and He works it by having us repent. Noah’s building of the ark was not a prerequisite of God’s act of saving the church by the flood. Similarly, our repenting is not a prerequisite of God’s forgiveness. (Prof. David Engelsma, Letter to My Family concerning the Denial by the Reformed Protestant Churches (RPC) that Repentance Precedes Forgiveness, 9/2/22)
From the time that it was publicly defended that God and not Noah built the ark, disparaging the good work that Noah performed by the grace of God over the course of 120 years, the issue has been the injection of antinomian error on the part of those who belong to the schismatic group. (Prof. Cammenga, Response to Wingham’s “A History of the Controversy,” undated)
The members of the PRC have also pointed to the Noah incident as irrefutable proof that the RPC are made up of hyper-Calvinists, antinomians, and just plain dunces. “You don’t believe Noah built the ark?” Or this, as one correspondent put it to me: “When I first heard that we shouldn’t say that Noah built the ark, I honestly thought that it was one of the silliest comments I have ever heard.” Or this, a comment submitted to an earlier blog post: “When an RPC leader declared that Noah didn’t really build the ark, was he being obedient to the supreme authority of that word of the Scriptures only?”
Is saying, “Noah did not build the ark, God did,” silly, an example of not submitting oneself to the supreme authority of the word of God, and proof of that pernicious error antinomianism inside the camp of the Reformed Protestant Churches?
Or is it the gospel?
Before we answer those questions, let’s start with a brief history of the controversy.
(As editor of the Beacon Lights and a member of Byron Center PRC’s consistory, I was given a front-row seat to the pathetic display of an entire denomination taking up the sword in the defense of Man and Man’s name and honor.)
In November 2019, Beacon Lights magazine printed the speech given by Rev. Nathan Langerak at the 2019 PR Young People’s Convention. The title was Safety in the Ark.
In February 2020, a letter was published objecting to the following statement by Rev. Langerak: “And when we say that Noah built the ark by faith, we mean God built the ark. Man didn’t build the ark; God did. That’s because Noah built it by faith.” That letter and Rev. Langerak’s response is here.
Prof. Cammenga, among others, responded with his own letter. Those letters and Rev. Langerak’s response is here. Prof. Cammenga disagreed strongly with Rev. Langerak. One of his most serious concerns was that it would provide “fodder to those who charge that the PRCA are hyper-Calvinists because they make man a stock and a block—or a puppet, or a robot.” Prof. Cammenga cares very deeply about what the enemies of the gospel say about him.
On September 13, 2020, Rev. Lanning preached a sermon titled “Our Testimony Given Us,” in which he warned the congregation against the reflex within us that would raise an objection to the statement that Noah did not build the ark; rather, God did. During Byron Center PRC’s consistory meeting later that week—even though it was not on the agenda and even though no motion had been previously distributed—an elder made the following motion: “Motion made to have Rev Lanning clarify his statement made in the sermon that Noah did not build the ark.” That motion carried. (There were no grounds for the motion, and it was a spur-of-the-moment thing, but the elders at Byron Center PRC were getting pressure from family and friends, so something had to be done. We were a wishy-washy bunch.)
(You will not find either sermon on the SermonAudio page of Byron Center PRC. In their ongoing work to remove any remaining evidence that the Holy Spirit once took up his abode in that congregation, they are taking down Rev. Lanning’s sermons. So that today, the members of Byron PRC have what they want. They have peace. It just happens to be the peace of the graveyard.)
Shortly after this, on September 28, Prof. Engelsma took this spiritual dog by the ears and entered the fray. He did so with a family email that he intended for distribution.
After this, things died down.
The issue was never settled. It just sank down to a slow burn, waiting for some accelerant which would cause the matter to again flare up.
As it has from time to time since then.
And more often of late, as this matter is set forth as definitive proof of the naughtiness of the Reformed Protestant Churches.
So, what is the answer?
May we say that the spiritual and theological reality of the phrase “by faith” is to say that it was not Noah but God who built the ark?
Or is that rank antinomian heresy?