The title of Rev. BilkesÕ dissertation was ÒTheological Ethics and Holy Scripture: The Use of Scripture in the works of James M. Gustafson, R. Paul Ramsey, and Allen D. Verhey.Ó The promoter was Prof. Dr. W.H. Velema, while Prof. Dr. J.W. Maris served as co-promoter.
A large number of guests had assembled in the chapel of the University when at 2:30 p.m. the academic senate, the curatorium, Rev. Bilkes and his three sons entered and took their places on the podium. The faculty members were dressed in their black gowns with matching berets, while Rev. Bilkes and his sons wore formal dress. After the opening prayer by Dr. J.W. Maris, Rev. Bilkes, flanked by his sons Brian and Lawrence who served as so-called paranymphs, made the opening statement in which he made a formal application to receive the degree of Doctor of Divinity. Next, Jerry Bilkes, the oldest son, functioning as Òfriendly opponent,Ó asked a few introductory questions about the thesis, which were answered by Rev. Bilkes. After this, the real interrogation began. Several professors asked, what I thought were tough questions, which the candidate for the degree had to answer in defence of his thesis. Among the inquisitors was Dr. J. Douma, a well-known Dutch ethicist and member of the Reformed Churches (Liberated). In my opinion, Rev. Bilkes handled the questions and critiques very well.
After precisely one hour, the interrogation was concluded. Rev. Bilkes thanked his opponents, the promoter and all present, whereupon the academic senate withdrew for a time of deliberation. About twenty minutes later the learned professors re-entered and informed Rev. Bilkes that the faculty had accepted his dissertation and that the degree of Doctor of Divinity would presently be conferred upon him. Dr. Velema, the promoter, presided over this part of the ceremony and gave a rather lengthy address, congratulating the new doctor with his accomplishment. He also addressed Mrs. Jane Bilkes, commending her for her patience and sacrifices made during the many years of study and writing of the dissertation, and congratulated ÒmotherÓ Bilkes, widow of the late Rev. G. Bilkes. Dr. Velema then presented Dr. Bilkes with the official ÒdoctorÕs bull,Ó and reminded the audience that he had met the standards set by Dutch academic rules, thus earning the right to bear the title of doctor of sacred theology. Dr. Maris closed the ceremony with prayer. Following this impressive ceremony, there was a reception in which the many guests were given an opportunity to congratulate Dr. Bilkes and his family. Among the guests we saw Rev. Baars, professor in homiletics (the art of preaching), and the Rev.Õs Den Butter, Westerink, Bos, Stehouwer, Brons, Van Heteren and many more known to us. In the evening a dinner was held for family and friends, during which several congratulatory speeches were made, including one by me on behalf of our churches.
I am glad to have had the privilege of witnessing this important event, since this is the first time one of our own ministers obtained this high academic degree. Rev. Bilkes has worked hard and long to reach this goal. Writing a doctoral dissertation is never easy, but is especially difficult if it has to be done while serving a congregation, in addition to performing the many labours that one may rightly expect from a pastor and teacher. The pace is often so slow that one fears at times whether the work will ever get finished. We as colleagues sympathised with our brother, especially towards the end when the finishing touches had to be made to his thesis. But long and arduous as this task has been, we are convinced that he has not neglected his ministerial duties. Rev. Bilkes, like his father before him, has a reputation for being a hard worker who can get by with little sleep. In addition to shepherding his own congregation, he serves our denomination in many ways, for instance as member of no less than four Synodical committees. He is also involved in various interdenominational activities.
Our readers may wonder what Dr. BilkesÕ dissertation is all about. Briefly stated, it has to do with the role of Scripture in theological ethics. Ethics is the science of moral behaviour. All religions have a system of ethics in which they seek to give guidance as to how one should live. Of course, the key here is what is the norm or standard by which moral behaviour should be judged? All non-Christian ethical systems suffer from one major defect: their norms are not derived from and based upon the character and will of the one true God as revealed in Holy Scripture and expressed in the Decalogue and its various applications in both Old and New Testaments. Christian ethics, if it is to be authentically Christian, must do the latter. It will take its stand on GodÕs Word and submit to it as its ultimate authority and norm. The problem is, however, that many ethical systems, while calling themselves Christian, are no longer based entirely and exclusively upon the Word of God
In his dissertation Dr. Bilkes examines three modern ethicists, Gustafson, Ramsey and Verhey, all of whom claim to do their work in a Christian context. After thoroughly examining the positions of these men, Dr. Bilkes concludes that despite important differences among them, so that e.g., one is closer to Scripture than another, what they all have in common is that they offer a theological ethics whereby Scripture no longer speaks with absolute authority. For Gustafson, the norm for ethics is experience rather than Scripture. According to Ramsey, Scripture has some authority but it is the Òbelieving community Ò or the Church which decides what the nature and extent of that authority should be. As for Verhey, he allows Scripture to play a central role in making ethical decisions, but he does insist that one cannot simply appeal to the Bible since it was written at completely different times and circumstances from our own. Any appeal to Scripture alone as our norm for conduct is seen as biblicism.
In an interview with a journalist of a Dutch Christian newspaper, Dr. Bilkes explained in laymanÕs language the practical implications of following one system or another when making moral decisions. ÒI try to show in my dissertation that when making such decisions one should listen to the Word of God and bow before the face of the Lord. As far as the law of God is concerned, says Bilkes, in our circles we talk about the law as a rule for gratitude and perhaps even more so as a source of the knowledge of our misery. But we often lose sight of the fact that the law itself is also revelation from the Lord. This can easily lead an attitude of: O no, we may not do this; we had better not do that!Ó When you realize that the law brings you face to face with the Lord, you will see the glory of the law and this can keep you from becoming legalistic. The Lord demands love and justice because He is the God of love and justice. Seen in that light keeping the law will be a joy and delight.
All in all, Dr. Bilkes has made a significant scholarly contribution to our understanding of the role of Scripture in ethical behaviour. Once again, we congratulate him with this achievement and thank the Lord for enabling our brother to finish this task. May we also as churches benefit from the fruits of his labours in various ways. As editor of the Messenger, may I look for articles dealing with some of the ethical issues and problems with which we are faced today? Soli Deo Gloria!