Book: The History of the Protestant Reformed Churches (1924-1936)

Chapter 1 - In which the events of 1924 are properly introduced to the reader.

One who, in the latter part of the year of our Lord 1924, lived in the beautiful "Furniture City" that owes its name to the rapids of the Grand River on whose banks it is situated, might have witnessed a somewhat extraordinary excitement and commotion among the good people of Dutch descent that lived in the southeastern part of that otherwise quiet and peaceful town.

For three weeks in succession a considerable number of men and women would betake themselves daily to one of the church edifices located in that vicinity. At first the Neland Avenue Christian Reformed Church was the center of their interest; later it was to the Oakdale Christian Reformed Church that the excited people would flock.

Among them might be seen gray-haired men and women that had evidently passed the age of the strong as well as young people still in their teens. There were men whose attire plainly witnessed to the fact that they had just abandoned their jobs and places of business, and women that had rushed though their early morning housework, in order to be able to attend the meetings that were held in one or the other of the aforementioned church-buildings. Men and women, old and young, appeared to be deeply interested in whatever was transacted in those meetings.

Some sauntered along, alone and apparently lost in thought, their features expressing concern and determination; others hurried along in companies, engaged in animated conversation upon subjects of a doctrinal or church-political nature, although it could hardly be said that their discussions were confined to abstract theological and ecclesiastical problems. Their personal interest in the subjects of their deliberations was, no doubt, deepened by the fact that living persons, well-known to them, were involved. Perhaps, it might even be truthfully stated that these common folk did not always distinguish between doctrines and persons. Nor were the remarks that were made always intended to be preserved on the page of history.

Similar scenes might have been witnessed not many weeks later, this time with their center of interest in the La Grave Avenue Christian Reformed Church, located in the heart of the aforementioned Furniture City.

What was the cause of all this excitement?

The occasion was the gathering of Classis Grand Rapids East and of Classis Grand Rapids West, the former commencing its sessions in the Neland Avenue Church and bringing them to a close in the Oakdale Church, the latter meeting in the Church at La Grave Avenue.

The doctrinal point of interest was the question of common grace that had, in July of the same year of our Lord, 1924, received an official formulation and adoption by the Synod of Kalamazoo.

From a church-political viewpoint the discussions concentrated around the abstract question whether a classis had the authority to depose ministers and consistories; and around the very concrete question whether, in the particular cases upon which the two classes then deliberated, they would have the courage to assume and exercise such authority.

And the personal interest concentrated around the names of Pastors H. Danhof, H. Hoeksema and G.M. Ophoff and those of their respective consistories.

The first of these pastors at that time served the First Christian Reformed Church of Kalamazoo, Michigan; the second was minister of the Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church of Grand Rapids, Mich.; the third ministered unto the flock of the Christian Reformed Church at Riverbend, Mich., known as the Hope Christian Reformed Church.

The two classes considered it their duty to bring the three pastors and their consistories into subjection under the ecclesiastical yoke that had been manufactured by the Synod of Kalamazoo, i.e., to elicit from them a promise of fidelity to the three doctrinal statements regarding common grace that had been adopted by that synod; or, in case these ministers and consistories should appear to be stubbornly recalcitrant, to impose the proper penalties and apply the necessary discipline.

The overwhelming majority of the membership of the churches served by the three pastors stood with them and were prepared to maintain this stand whatever the two classes might decide.

And this explains the extraordinary commotion in the otherwise tranquil city of Grand Rapids, during the months of November and December 1924 and January 1925.

The immediate result of the deliberations of these two Grand Rapids classes was that the three pastors with their consistories were deposed from office.

These pastors and consistories, however, refused to acknowledge the justice of this deposition as well as the authority of the classes to decree and execute such deposition. They refused to submit and remained in office.

The ultimate outcome of the classical decisions was that a new church-group originated, known as the Protestant Reformed Churches.

And it is with the origin and establishment of these churches that the history recorded in this book is concerned.

The history of the origin of the Protestant Reformed Churches is the history of a reformation.

And reformations do not spring up overnight. They are prepared. To understand them correctly you must assume the proper standpoint, from which you may view and judge them in their proper light, just as rightly to appreciate the beauty of a painting you must view it at a proper distance and in the right light. What is true of all history is applicable to the history of churches.

"In 't verleden ligt het heden

In het nu wat worden zal."

In order to understand the reformation that gave rise to the Protestant Reformed Churches, it is necessary that we are somewhat acquainted with the history and condition of the Christian Reformed Churches from which they were separated, and especially with those events that led up to that secession.

Let us, then, go back as far as about the year 1918, the year when, not without a struggle, the error of premillennialism was officially condemned by the synod of the Christian Reformed Churches.

Even before this time, it must be recorded, the Christian Reformed Churches had never been wholly purged from the leaven of Pelagianism and Arminianism. The churches were, indeed, officially Reformed, united on the basis of the Three Forms of Unity as their standards, but the actual condition was by no means in full accord with this official stand. The error of two irreconcilable wills of God, according to which, on the one hand, God willed that all men should be saved, while, on the other hand, He had predestinated His own from before the foundation of the world and reprobated the others, had found a ready acceptance in the churches. So deeply had the error, that the gospel of salvation is a well-meaning offer of grace on the part of God to all men, struck root, and so generally was it accepted as Reformed truth, that it had become the general tenor of preaching and instruction, that it was openly and officially taught in the Theological School of the Christian Reformed Churches, and that denial of this evident error was considered a dangerously extreme or one-sided view, if not a downright heresy. Indeed, we do not misrepresent the matter when we state that a strong Arminian tendency had always existed and strongly asserted itself under the pretense of being Reformed and with the claim of being sustained by the Reformed Confessions.

Nor is this all that must be said.

About the time of which we are writing, other evils developed. There was a gradually growing spirit of confessional indifferentism, largely caused by ignorance of the Reformed truth and not infrequently manifesting itself in open disdain of and antagonism against the Reformed principles; and as might be expected, there developed a pronounced tendency toward a falsely conceived "broad-mindedness" together with the manifestation of a spirit of worldly-mindedness, that would hide behind the name of "Calvinism" as a shield. Especially during the years of the World War, of which several of the leaders of the Christian Reformed Churches were enthusiastic supporters, with its spread of much false and pernicious propaganda, its confusion of the truth with purely humanistic philosophy, its hastening of the inevitable process of Americanization of the churches, long, perhaps, too long restrained, these evil tendencies received a new impetus and asserted themselves with a new confidence and emphasis. There began to appear what may be called a latitudinarian party in the churches, a group of men that assumed a certain leadership, who opposed the antithesis, stood for a "broader" view of the Christian's life and calling in the world, and strove to abridge the gap between the world and the Church. These men were wont to speak of the urgent need of a "restatement" of the truth; they lauded the movement of the jongeren in the Netherlands, who clamored for something new though they knew not what; and they frequently appealed to the alleged development of a "new mentality," that required new methods of approach, new forms and new truths. This 'broad-minded" party, it must be recorded, did not appear to have any sympathy with the views of Doctor Abraham Kuyper Sr., until they discovered that his theory of Common Grace offered them a philosophy that would support their latitudinarian views in the name of Calvinism. The antithetical conception of Kuyper they fairly disdained. Common grace became the warp and the woof of their life-view. "Calvinism" and "Common Grace" became synonyms. Only they that believed and emphasized the theory of common grace were the true Calvinists. And all that opposed them and refused to believe and proclaim this theory of common grace, they proudly and disdainfully branded as Anabaptists! By a dexterous hocus-pocus, Calvinism, always known the world over for its doctrine of predestination and particular grace, had been changed overnight into a philosophy of common grace!

Those who made this discovery and propagated this conception of Calvinism were, generally speaking, the men of Religion and Culture, which was the name of a magazine they published and in which propaganda was made for the "broader" views.

There were those, indeed, that were alarmed at the spread of these synthesizing ideas and sought to oppose their being disseminated. Men like Professors L. Berkhof, S. Volbeda and K. Schoolland and the Reverends Y.P. De John, H.J. Kuiper, H. Danhof and H. Hoeksema, frequently discussed the lamentable condition of the churches in general and the rise of this new movement in particular, and for a time they even held their monthly meetings for this purpose. They all agreed that an attempt must be made to save the church from the inroads of Arminianism and from the grave danger of being swallowed up into the world.

Under such circumstances arose the famous Janssen controversy.

In 1914 Doctor R. Janssen, a man of wide erudition and an able scholar, had been appointed to the chair of Old Testament Exegetical Theology at the Theological School of the Christian Reformed Churches. Before many years elapsed he was suspected by his colleagues in the seminary of modernistic tendencies in his teaching. His case became a matter of official investigation and, at the same time, of public interest, when, in the spring of 1919, the colleagues of Doctor Janssen, the Professors L. Berkhof, W. Heyns, F.M. Ten Hoor and S. Volbeda, presented a combined request to the Board of Trustees, urging the necessity of inquiring into the nature and tendency of Doctor Janssen's instruction. They lodged no direct indictment or accusation against their fellow-professor, but simply presented a request for investigation. And as they brought no definite charges, the grounds for their request were rather vague and uncertain. Their request was based on mere rumors. Nor had they, previous to their presentation of this request, approached their suspected colleague on the matter. The decision of the Board of Trustees in this case was to the effect, that they condemned the action of the four fellow-professors of Doctor Janssen as unethical, because they acted without first seeing their colleague; and, further, that for this reason they would not enter into the matter of the request. The four petitioners, however, were not satisfied and could not abide by this decision of the Curatorium. They appealed to synod. That body, which convened in June 1920 in the auditorium of the Theological School, investigated the case. Ample opportunity was given to the four professors to present the grounds for their request, as well as to the suspected professor to explain and defend his instruction. The result was that the four colleagues of Doctor Janssen were utterly defeated and the latter was fully justified. Synod decided that it had not become evident that Doctor Janssen's instruction was in conflict with the Reformed faith. Once again, therefore, the four professors had lost their case against their fellow instructor in the seminary.

Still they were not satisfied.

Instead of abiding by the decision of the broadest ecclesiastical tribunal, they openly criticized its position and appealed to the people in the form of a pamphlet.

In the meantime, the Reverend H. Hoeksema had interested himself in the case. He had collected a considerable mass of material in the form of student-notes containing class-dictations of Doctor Janssen, for the purpose of investigating the case for himself. They study of these notes convinced him that the decision of synod, though it might be true as it was formulated, was based on a very imperfect investigation of the case. Being editor of the department "Our Doctrine" in The Banner, one of the official organs of the Christian Reformed Churches, he inserted a few articles in which he showed (1) that the conclusion reached by synod was a purely negative one: it merely declared that it had not become evident that Doctor Janssen's instruction was contrary to the Reformed faith; (2) he maintained that this negative character of its decision was due to improper and insufficient investigation of the case; (3) he sustained his position by quotations from the student notes. To these articles Doctor Janssen replied. However, instead of denying responsibility for the quotations made from his notes and defending his instruction, he chose to launch a counter-attack upon the supposedly erroneous views of his opponent regarding common grace. After Doctor Janssen had published several articles without ever coming to the point, the Publication Committee closed The Banner for further discussion of the matter.

Still another pamphlet was published in reply to a brochure by Doctor Janssen. The pamphlet was entitled: Waar het in de zaak Janssen om gaat (The point at issue in the Janssen case) and was signed by the four colleagues of Doctor Janssen and four ministers, including the Reverends H. Danhof and H. Hoeksema. about this time, too, a new magazine appeared bearing the name of the Witness. Its publication was occasioned chiefly by the Janssen controversy, although it aimed no less at exposing and opposing the views of the "broadminded" party in the Church, which, speaking generally, rose to the support of Doctor Janssen. The result was that in the spring of 1921 the matter was considered once more by the Curatorium of the Theological School. This time that body appointed an investigating committee, consisting of the Reverends J. Van Lonkhuyzen, D. Kromminga, H. Danhof, H.J. Kuiper, G. Hoeksema, H. Hoeksema and J. Manni. In the fall of the same year this committee held its meetings in the parlors of the Douglas Park Christian Reformed Church of Chicago, Ill. For ten days the committee held its sessions, labored through piles of student-notes (the only material the committee had in its possession since Doctor Janssen had refused to co-operate), and finally attempted to formulate a united opinion. This, however, proved to be impossible. Almost from the start the committee appeared to be divided into two opposing camps. Doctor Van Lonkhuyzen, and the Reverends D. Kromminga and G. Hoeksema were evidently inclined to defend the views of Doctor Janssen and to maintain the professor in his position at the school of the churches; while the rest of the committee became more and more convinced that the instruction of Professor Janssen could not be tolerated at a Reformed seminary. The conclusions of the committee, therefore, were presented to the Board of Trustees in the form of two printed reports, the Majority Report by the Reverends Manni, Danhof, H. Hoeksema and Kuiper, and the Minority Report by the Reverends Van Lonkhuyzen, G. Hoeksema and Kromminga. The final outcome of this controversy was that the conclusions of the Majority Report were virtually adopted and its advice was followed by the Synod of Orange City, Iowa, in the summer of 1922. Doctor Janssen’s views were condemned and he was relieved of his professorship at the Theological School.

And it was not until after the Janssen controversy had been definitely and finally settled that a veritable ecclesiastical storm broke loose over the heads of the Reverends H. Danhof and H. Hoeksema, that had played such an important part in the defeat of the liberal faction!

Even before this, especially wile the controversy about Doctor Janssen’s views was raging, a cloud like a man’s hand had appeared occasionally on the horizon, but not until Doctor Janssen had been deposed did the ecclesiastical sky assume a threatening aspect.

And it is in the light of these precursory events only that the history of the origin of the Protestant Reformed Churches can fully be understood.

We do not mean to suggest--let this be emphasized--that the history of the common grace controversy must be viewed solely in the light of the troubles about Doctor Janssen’s instruction; nor that the deposition of the Reverends H. Danhof, H. Hoeksema, and G.M. Ophoff was motivated only by the desire to avenge the deposed professor. The suggestion was sometimes made by some well-meaning brethren in the Christian Reformed Churches, that the separation of 1924 would never have taken place had there been no Janssen controversy, that the Synod of Kalamazoo can only be explained in the light of the Synod of Orange City, and that the Three Points were merely formulated as a means to an end. Such a view of the history of 1924 is not capable of explaining all. It fails to explain how the four professors, whose cause against Doctor Janssen the Reverends Danhof and Hoeksema so strongly supported that without their support the professors would have suffered defeat most probably, after 1922 turned against the two ministers and co-labored with their own enemies for their deposition. It does not account for the fact that, when after the Janssen controversy was closed, the Reverends Danhof and Hoeksema suggested that as editors of The Witness they would further develop their views in that magazine, the staff rather accepted their resignation. Nor does it explain how, after the two ministers had resigned from the staff of The Witness, the latter could be amalgamated with Religion and Culture, the publication of the "broad" party, an amalgamation which proved to be the death of both publications. And how could it possibly explain the fact of the Three Points, their adoption by the Synod of Kalamazoo and their subsequent defense by Professor L. Berkhof, who is also supposed to be their chief author?

Besides, the fact must not be overlooked, that after 1922 the pro- and con-Janssen factions united, not only in their combined opposition against the Reverends H. Danhof and H. Hoeksema, but also in permanent peace and positive cooperation. Since Doctor Janssen was deposed there was no more controversy, in spite of the fact that all the supporters of the deposed professor remained within the fold of the Christian Reformed Church and some of them have been appointed to professorships at the Theological School.

Due allowance, therefore, may and must be made for the effect of the Janssen controversy upon the history of 1924 and the origin of the Protestant reformed Churches, but it is certainly a serious mistake to maintain that the former is the cause of the latter.

The Janssen controversy certainly served to accentuate existing differences in doctrinal views, differences that were quite fundamental and radical; it became the occasion of their being more sharply defined and definitely expressed than before. it also became the occasion of a faster development of the conflict, and it ultimately forced the issue and led to a premature conclusion of the common grace controversy. There is no denial of the fact that personal elements, motives of hatred and envy, of jealousy and malice, the desire to avenge the blood of Doctor Janssen played an important part in the action against the Reverends H. Danhof, H. Hoeksema and G.M. Ophoff. Doctrinally the Christian Reformed Churches were not at all prepared in 1924 to settle the question of common grace, witness the synodical confusion that gave birth to the Three Points. Eliminate the Janssen controversy and you are at a loss to explain why the separation of 1924 occurred at that early date. The reformation that gave rise to the Protestant Reformed Churches would have had a later date and a different setting.

But when due allowance is made for the influence of the Janssen controversy upon the history of 1924, the fact remains that the former cannot be regarded as the cause of the latter.

In the light of subsequent history it is a patent fact that the alignment of the pro- and con- faction in the Janssen case was not purely determined by its deepest underlying principle, but rather by secondary and superficial considerations of agreement and disagreement.

The fact that the four professors and others of the opponents of Doctor Janssen could unite with the pro-Janssen faction against the three ministers that were deposed in 1924-1925, plainly reveals that, apart from superficial differences, there was a fundamental agreement in principle. There was in the Janssen controversy an underlying principle which, had it not been violently and intentionally forced into the background, would have paralyzed every effort of the four professors to combat Doctor Janssen’s views and would have aligned them from the beginning with the pro-Janssen faction against the Reverends H. Danhof and H. Hoeksema.

This underlying principle is the theory of common grace!

On this fundamental principle all agreed, except the Reverends H. Danhof and H. Hoeksema!

It is deplorable that Doctor Janssen in his defense tried to prove that also the four professors and others of his leading opponents denied the theory of common grace. For, in the first place, this was untrue (except, perhaps, in the case of Doctor Volbeda). but in the second place, it would have been more fruitful for a proper discussion had he proceeded from the correct assumption that his opponents, except the Reverends H. Danhof and H. Hoeksema, do accept the theory of common grace, and that, therefore, they must also in deepest principle agree with him in regard to his views on revelation, inspiration, canonicity, the miracles and related subjects, even though, due to a lack of consistency on their part, they differed with him in ultimate conclusions.

In the light of subsequent history it was evidently a mistake on the part of the Reverends H. Danhof and H. Hoeksema, that they cooperated with the four professors in the Janssen controversy, rather than to oppose his views separately and from their own standpoint; that, for practical reasons, they allowed the deepest principles involved to be pushed into the background and the controversy to be confined to surface questions and differences.

And it was an error on the part of the four professors to oppose their colleague, with whom, as subsequent history plainly reveals, they agreed fundamentally. There is, in our opinion, no radical and principle difference between Doctor Janssen and Professor Berkhof. In as far as the latter’s teaching with respect to such fundamental questions as revelation, inspiration, the canonicity of the Scripture-books and the miracles is reformed and orthodox, it is not to be attributed to fundamental soundness of principle and method, but largely to an inconsistent drawing of sound conclusions from unsound principles!

This interpretation of history will explain all the facts. it will also answer the question, who the four professors and the entire anti-Janssen faction could, after 1922, unite to oust the chief opponents of Doctor Janssen.

And it will serve to shed the proper light upon the origin of the Protestant Reformed Churches, which is not to be viewed as a deplorable, accidental but unavoidable result of the Janssen controversy, but as a reformationof the churches, a return from the erroneous and dangerous path of common grace to the fundamentally Reformed line of the Synod of Dordrecht as drawn in the Three Forms of Unity.

Thus the storm clouds quickly lowered.

The friends of Doctor Janssen, realizing that their idol had been irrevocably cast down, and his foes, acting from the subconscious motive of fundamental agreement with the underlying principles of the instruction they had opposed, now combined their attacks upon the two ministers that had performed the lion’s share of the work in the Janssen controversy and borne the brunt of the battle.

The Reverend Jan Karel Van Baalen published a pamphlet entitled: Loochening Der Gemeene Gratie, Gereformeerd or Doopersch? (Denial of Common Grace, Reformed or Anabaptistic?), to which the two ministers replied with another pamphlet bearing the tile: Niet Doopersch Maar Gereformeerd (Not Anabaptistic but Reformed). Professor Berkhof wrote an article in The Witness under the deceiving heading: "Genade Voor De Onbekeerden" (Grace for the unconverted). The two ministers personally approached the professor with the direct question, whether he had thus written in ignorance or intentionally. and the professor promised to make amends, the attempt to do which made matters worse. Van Baalen followed up his first attack by the publication of Nieuwigheid en Dwaling (Innovation and Error), to which as well as to other attacks the accused pastors replied in the brochure: Lans Zuivere Banen (Along Straight Paths), which was very soon followed by still another pamphlet entitled Om Recht en Waarheid (For the Sake of Justice and Truth). They also had published their chief work of that period: Van Zonde en Genade (Of Sin and Grace).

And in the meantime formal protests had been filed against the two pastors and legal action had been started.

The battle that had apparently been won at the synod of 1922, for the salvation of the Christian Reformed Churches, was fundamentally and hopelessly to be lost for those churches at the Synod of Kalamazoo.

Last modified on 27 March 2013
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