A History of the Protestant Reformed Churches
CLASSIS GRAND RAPIDS EAST, AUG. 1924
Not many weeks elapsed after the adjournment of the Synod of Kalamazoo before it became evident that the decisions of that body were not conducive to a settlement of the controversy about the theory of common grace.
Neither of the opposing sides was satisfied.
This was not surprising. In fact, it was exactly what might be expected. The very nature of the decisions of synod was such as to give birth to further trouble.
The conclusions of synod were too ambiguous to settle anything.
On the one hand, synod adopted three doctrinal statements that were Arminian and Pelagian in tendency; it had declared, quite correctly, that the views of the Reverends H. Danhof and H. Hoeksema deviated from these doctrinal declarations; it had decided to admonish the two pastors to abide by the doctrinal decision of synod; and this might easily be enlarged upon by hostile opponents and be forged into new weapons of attack.
On the other hand, synod had not condemned the views of the two pastors as being unreformed; it had even given them the splendid testimony that they were fundamentally reformed in the light of the Confession; it had failed to carry out its own decisions regarding the admonition that was to be administered to the two pastors; it had not demanded a single promise of them; it had examined their writings and had not demanded that they recant a single statement; and it had not decided that the two pastors should be disciplined because of their views. What was more serious, before the synod adjourned the protest of the Reverend H. Danhof was read before that body, in which the protestant openly declared that he did not agree with the doctrinal declarations of the synod, that he would not abide by them, but that he would rather oppose them with every means at his command. And even then synod had failed to take further action!
It can readily be seen that the two pastors, though certainly not agreeing with the doctrinal declarations of synod, had every reason to take the stand that synod had given the opponents no further ground for action against them. The entire matter, together with the request that the two pastors should be disciplined had been carried, directly and by way of appeal, to the broadest gathering of the churches. And synod had virtually decided that there was no cause for action. A motion of its committee to administer to the two pastors a synodical spanking it had rejected. Although the synod had definitely settled nothing, on the basis of the synodical decisions no action could be undertaken against the two ministers.
Yet, such action was started by the opponents soon after the Synod of Kalamazoo had adjourned.
They were encouraged to renew their attacks on the two pastors by certain articles written by Doctor J. Van Lonkhuyzen, at that time pastor of the First Christian Reformed Church of Chicago, Ill., in Onze Toekomst, a paper edited by him about the time of our history; and by the articles of the Reverend I. Van Dellen in De Wachter, one of the official organs of the Christian Reformed Churches. The former criticized the work of the Synod of Kalamazoo severely, because it had failed to make proper provisions for the exercise of discipline upon the two accused pastors. He, indeed, lauded the work of the synod in as far as its doctrinal declarations were concerned and he heartily agreed with the Three Points. But the synod had not finished its work, seeing it had failed to formulate definite advice with a view to necessary discipline. And he stated as his position, which was undoubtedly correct, that the synod had left the two ministers at liberty to preach and teach and propagate their views with respect to the common grace question. The Reverend Van Dellen, however, replied that it had exactly been the purpose of the synod to leave all actual discipline to the minor assemblies and to have it initiated by the consistories of the two pastors if necessary. The latters opinion, however, was a mere personal and subjective interpretation of the decisions of synod, which, besides, can easily be proven erroneous. Synod had considered the advice to disciplinary measures presented by its committee. And it had rejected it, not on the ground that discipline must begin with the minor assemblies, but simply by adopting a substitute motion that without any expressed reason omitted the advice concerning discipline. Yet, the very ambiguity of the synodical decisions afforded the Reverend Van Dellen room for his interpretations with a semblance of truth.
Besides, the first three protestants that had started action against the pastor of the Eastern Avenue Church, as well as the Reverend J. Vander Mey were still under censure. And this censure provided a practical opportunity for the re-opening of the entire common grace case in Classis Grand Rapids East.
It will, therefore, not be superfluous to recall at this time the chief factors in the history of this censure. They are the following: 1. The three protestants, having refused to discuss the matter of their protest with their pastor, sought to have it received and acted upon by the consistory of the Eastern Avenue Church, alleging as a ground for its acceptance that the pastor was guilty of a public sin. 2. The consistory could not admit this ground and, therefore, refused to receive the protest, and demanded that the protestants retract their accusation. When the latter refused to comply with the demand of the consistory they were barred from partaking of the Lords Supper on the ground that they could not sit at the table of communion with a pastor whom they accused of public sin. 3. The protestants then appealed to classis with their protest against the pastor, at the same time protesting against their being censured by the consistory. The classis, as we have seen, decided after much wrangling that the protest against the pastor should be referred back to the consistory, but at the same time advised the consistory to raise the censure against the three protestants, without, however, advising the latter that they should retract their accusation. 4. The protestants thereupon took their entire protest by way of appeal to synod, so that it certainly became the task of that body to determine whether or not the pastor of Eastern Avenue was guilty of the alleged public sin. Synod, however, as we have seen, made some ambiguous declarations and decisions, but in no way justified the three protestants in their accusation of public sin against the pastor. On the contrary it had declared that the pastor was fundamentally in harmony with the Confessions. Such was the status of this case after synod had adjourned.
As to the censure imposed upon the Reverend J. Vander Mey, it is sufficient to recall that he refused to confess his sin of having made propaganda against the pastor by distributing his protest in the form of a printed pamphlet even before it was presented to the consistory and without discussing the matter with the pastor or even offering him a copy of the protest.
After the synod the consistory labored with the censured protestants. They insisted that the three original protestants should retract their accusation of public sin, especially in view of the fact that in this accusation they had not been sustained by the decisions of synod; and they attempted to persuade the Reverend Vander Mey to confess his sin. It was, however, all in vain. The former replied with the unreasonable and unchristian demand that they be permitted to partake of the Lords Supper while they maintained their accusation; the latter and his wife aggravated matters by assuming an attitude of hatred and disrespect over against the consistory. This matter, then, was brought to the attention of Classis Grand Rapids East, convened in the Bates Street Christian Reformed church on August 20, 1924. And it was presented to classis by way of an overture from the consistory of the Eastern Avenue Church, accompanied by a letter of information; and by way of protests on the part of the censured members.
The overture was a request by the consistory of Eastern Avenue that the classis should rescind its former decision according to which the consistory had been advised to raise the censure of the protestants; in case the classis should refuse this request the consistory informed the classis that it would appeal to synod.
The letter of information that accompanied this overture is here reprinted in full:
Information of the consistory of Eastern Avenue regarding its request that classis rescind its decision relative to the censure of the brethren W. Hoeksema, J. De Hoog, and H. Vander Vennen.
The consistory would bring to the attention of the classis, first of all, that the reason why the above mentioned brethren were barred from the Lords table must not be sought in the fact, that they protested against the pastor. Thus the matter, has, indeed, been presented and this appears to be still the notion of many. This allegation was also made on the floor of the synod; and thus it was also presented in that unchristian little article that appeared in The Grand Rapids Press of Aug. 16. This presentation is entirely erroneous. The brethren were barred from the table of the Lord only because of their direct accusation of public sin against the pastor and refused to retract their accusation when this was demanded of them by the consistory. The consistory was of the opinion that they could not very well partake of the Lords Supper together with the pastor as long as they had in their heart and maintained this accusation against him.
Thus the case stood even before the last meeting of Classis. At present, however, it has reached a more advanced stage. For, the brethren took their protest to Classis. When Classis judged that their protest should be referred back to the consistory, and at the same time that the censure over the three brethren should be lifted, they were not satisfied but took their protest to Synod. by that broadest gathering of our Churches their protest, in which they alleged, explained and defended that the pastor was guilty of a public sin, was treated and finished. The matter of their protest, therefore, was a closed case. Synod, however, did not support their contention of public sin. For it is evident that either of two alternatives must be demanded in case of a public sin: that the sinner make public confession of his sin; or that he be disciplined by the proper ecclesiastical body. But Synod decided upon neither of these. That body did not discipline the pastor, neither advised to discipline him. Nor did it demand of him a public confession. The pastor, therefore, is still a minister in good and regular standing, also after the Synod treated the protest of the three brethren. Besides, synod expressed, indeed, that the pastor is one-sided in his views, but also that he is fundamentally Reformed. The standpoint of Synod, therefore, certainly differs from that of the three brethren, who brought an accusation of public sin against him and demanded that he be disciplined.
The consistory is, therefore, of the opinion, that after Synod expressed itself, the brethren must abide within the limits of that synodical decision and their accusation of public sin must stop. This, however, they refuse to do. They want to maintain that the pastor is guilty of a public sin, continue to assume a hostile attitude against the pastor and the consistory and thus be admitted to the Lords Supper. This the consistory cannot and may not permit. As long as they maintain such an attitude against the pastor and the consistory they cannot be considered worthy partakers of the table of the Lord.
All this is corroborated by the attitude the brethren assumed since the last meeting of Classis. They do not attend public worship, or are careful to attend when the pastor is not preaching. Mr. Vander Mey and his wife were never in the Eastern Avenue Church again; both refused absolutely to attend church, he per letter, she orally before a committee of the consistory. Besides, they refused to address the consistory as brethren. The protest which the three brethren filed with the consistory a few weeks ago had first been introduced by the usual Dear Brethren but after ward this had been roughly scratched out by a knife. A committee of the consistory was put out of the house by Mrs. Vander Mey in a most impolite way. Hardly had they entered when it was told them: Get out! There is the door! The door was slammed behind them and the porch-light was extinguished before the brethren could come down the porch-steps. And also the article that appeared in The Grand Rapids Press last Saturday evening, clearly shows what spirit is dominant in the brethren. Thus the consistory is being insulted in every way and a spirit of bitter hostility is manifested. And for these reasons the consistory cannot admit them to the Lords Supper.
The consistory demands nothing more than that the brethren keep themselves in word and attitude within the limits of the synodical decisions. And according to these they may no longer maintain and spread abroad that the pastor is guilty of a public sin according to Art. 74 of the Church Order. As soon as they are content with this they will be admitted to the Lords Supper.
Now it is not clear to the consistory what is the force of the last decision of Classis with regard to the lifting of the censure of the three brethren. It is not clear whether or not this decision is considered to have lost its force because the brethren took their protest to the Synod and their case was treated by that body. At any rate, the consistory requests the Classis that this decision be rescinded or be declared void, so that the censure need not be lifted as long as the brethren refuse to change their attitude.
Classis appointed a committee to investigate this matter, formulate an opinion and serve the Classis with advice. The delegates of the Eastern Avenue Church were asked to appear before this committee, complied with the request, delivered to them the letter of information printed above and served them with all possible information in the matter. And they received the impression that the committee could very well understand that members with bitter enmity in their hearts against the pastor and the consistory could not be admitted to the supper of the Lord.
However, when the same committee reported in the evening session of classis, it immediately became evident that they refused to see the matter in its proper light.
The first part of their report concerned the case of Mr. Vander Mey. The committee advised Classis to decide that the consistory of Eastern Avenue should remove this censure. Their ground for this advice was that the censure of Mr. Vander Mey had been based on a false accusation. It was not true, according to the committee, that he had distributed his protest against the pastor before he had delivered it to the consistory. Only nine copies at most he had given away to parties outside of the consistory. This part of the advice of the committee, however, was not adopted by the Classis. In the discussion the consistory made plain that it made no essential difference to the point in question, whether Mr. Vander Mey had distributed nine copies or a thousand. But, besides from the minutes of the Eastern Avenue consistory a statement by the Reverend Vander Mey was read to the effect that he had five hundred copies of his protest printed of which approximately four hundred were still in his possession. These facts could not very well be denied. The Classis, therefore, did not adopt the advice of its committee in this case.
The second part of the report concerned the censure of the three original protestants. This censure, they advised, should be lifted as soon as possible, on the ground that synod had sustained the accusation of these protestants against the pastor!
And this part of the committees advice was adopted by Classis! All the arguments of the delegates from the Eastern Avenue Church could not dissuade the Classis from taking this fatal decision. It made no difference that they insisted that there was no item of proof in the Acta of Synod for the contention that this body had sustained the accusation of public sin against the pastor of Eastern Avenue; that they pointed out how Synod had utterly failed to give any advice with regard to discipline, although it passed judgment on the entire case, advice that certainly must have followed had it supported the protestants in their accusation of public sin in the sense of Artt. 79 and 80 of the Church Order; that they reminded the Classis of the fact that Synod had found and openly declared that the pastor was fundamentally in harmony with the Confessions; and that, finally, they emphasized that it was morally impossible and contrary to Scripture to admit the protestants to the table of the Lord in their manifestly bitter spirit and hostile attitude. All of the arguments of the delegates fell on deaf ears. It became evident that the Classis was determined to turn in the wrong direction. The advice of the committee was adopted.
It is hardly necessary to point out the injustice of this decision.
It implied far more, of course, than the mere advice to lift the censure of the three protestants. For, by implication the classis had decided to advise the consistory that its pastor should be suspended immediately. Had it not sustained the accusation of the protestants that the pastor was guilty of a public sin according to Artt. 79 and 80 of the Church Order? The Classis, therefore, had condemned the pastor without even a hearing on this point. Before Synod convened, in the sessions of the May Classis, the pastor had earnestly invited the brethren to discuss the matter of the doctrine involved with him on the floor of the classis; but at that time the Classis refused all debate and discussion on the ground that Synod was the proper body to decide on matters of a doctrinal nature. And after Synod, in its evening session of Aug. 20 the Classis simply sustained the accusation of public sin against the pastor, without even considering the matter, and in spite of the fact that the synodical decisions afforded no ground whatever for such a decision!
Needless to say that the advice of the Classis was of such a nature that it was strictly impossible as well as morally wrong for the consistory to heed it. And for this reason the decision was plainly the beginning of the end. The wedge of separation, inserted by the Synod, was given a hard blow by Classis Grand Rapids East in its evening session of Aug. 20, 1924!
Morally wrong it would be for the consistory to follow the advice of the Classis, because it implied that they would permit the sacrament of the Lords Supper to be profaned. To admit members to the table of the Lord of whom the consistory is convinced on more than sufficient ground that they are spiritually unworthy and wholly unfit to celebrate communion, that they can but eat and drink judgment to themselves, is a gross sin. Yet, to commit this sin was exactly the advice of the Classis!
Impossible it was for the consistory to heed the advice of the Classis for this very reason, that they would have to obey God rather than men. But it was equally impossible to follow the advice of the Classis, because by admitting the protestants to the Lords table the consistory would express its agreement with the ground of the classical advice, that the pastor was, indeed, guilty of public sin according to Artt. 79 and 80 of the Church Order. Here the consistory had no other choice than to follow the advice of the Classis, admit the protestants to communion and, at the same time, condemn and suspend its pastor, or to refuse to heed this advice.
And it is necessary to state this concisely.
The consistory of Eastern Avenue was often accused of stubbornness in dealing with this matter. Had the consistory been less obstinate and headstrong, had they revealed a more conciliatory spirit and showed a willingness to make some concessions, the separation might have been avoided! But let the reader judge. What concessions could the consistory have made in this matter? Is it, then, not convincingly clear that the Classis of August 20 placed the consistory before the alternative of admitting the protestants to the Lords table and suspending its pastor on the basis of the accusation of public sin, or taking the first step of separation: refusal to abide by the advice of Classis? The former was impossible, for the consistory was deeply convinced that the accusation of public sin was utterly false.
The Classis of Aug. 20, 1924 therefore, forced the consistory of Eastern Avenue to take the first step that finally must lead to separation.
Not the consistory but the Classis was the real cause of the schism.
Besides, it must be evident to any fair-minded reader that the Classis went far beyond the decisions of the Synod of Kalamazoo.
There is a wide different between the declaration that a minister is fundamentally in harmony with the Confessions even though it be with an inclination to one-sidedness, and the indictment of public sin according to Artt. 79 and 80 of the Church Order.
The clear truth Classis would have expressed had it decided, that Synod had not found the pastor of the Eastern Avenue Church guilty of a public sin and that, therefore, the protestants must withdraw their accusation before they could be admitted to the Lords Supper.
The die was cast!
The wedge was driven in so deeply that it seemed impossible to extract it again.
The consistory could not and surely would not follow the advice of Classis Grand Rapids East in this matter. On this score there was no doubt.
And the classical decisions of Aug. 20, 1924 were the first post-synodical step in the direction of the deposition of the consistory of Eastern Avenue.