The beginning of the year 1924 introduced a period of busy and troublesome days for the consistories of the First Christian Reformed Church of Kalamazoo, Mich., and of the Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church of Grand Rapids.
Days were impending in which their affirmative response to the question, whether they did not feel in their hearts that they were “lawfully called of God’s Church, and consequently, of God Himself” to their respective holy offices, would acquire a new meaning, and would be severely put to the test.
They were days when excited and very impatient protestants would call upon them to consider highly important problems of a doctrinal and church-political nature, yet would allow them no time to deliberate calmly upon these questions.
It was a time of long and many special sessions of the consistories, especially for the consistory of the Eastern Avenue Church. And it was a period when it behooved them that were called to watch over the flock to look diligently, lest the roots of bitterness that were springing up at sundry spots in the flock of Christ’s Church and that wee being carefully cultivated by evil spirits of hatred and envy, would trouble the congregation and thereby many be defiled.
Days they were when the most deliberate would occasionally be inclined hastily to take a step in the wrong direction; when the most self-possessed might well lose his mental equilibrium.
An epoch of Sturm Und Drang!
It was the nineteenth of January by the calendar and Saturday morning.
Three men, members of the Eastern Avenue congregation, whose names, J. De Hoog, W. Hoeksema and H. Vander Vennen, are worthy to be preserved on the pages of this history because of the part they played in it, were calling on their pastor, the Reverend H. Hoeksema, and gathered with him in the parlor of the parsonage.
They revealed that they had serious objections against the views and teachings of their pastor as expressed in his preaching and writings.
However, he would be mistaken that would now draw the conclusion that they had come to visit their pastor in order to unburden their hearts, to discuss the matters that so heavily weighed upon their soul with him, or even to deliver a brotherly and Christian admonition.
They hastened to state that they had committed their objections to writing and that the purpose of their present visit was merely to deliver a written protest; and they added, that they would like to be favored with a reply as soon as possible.
When the pastor had received this protest and hastily perused it, he called the attention of the protestants to the fact that their document had been addressed by them, not to the pastor, but to the consistory of the Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church, and that, for this reason, he could not very well proceed in the matter seeing it was not proper for him alone to decide in matters that pertain to the consistory. This apparently insignificant detail is worthy of notice, because it shows how far it was from the minds of these protestants to discuss their objections with their pastor. From the very outset they were so determined upon the way of a legal ecclesiastical procedure, that a protest, pretended to be for the pastor personally, was addressed to the consistory.
However, when their attention was called to this formal error, they amended their mistake and soon afterwards offered the same protest now addressed to the pastor.
The pastor then expressed his desire to discuss the contents of their protest with the protestants personally and individually. One of them, J. De Hoog, complied with this request, but when in a private conference in which the pastor asked for light upon certain parts of the protest that were not very clear to him, this particular protestant proved to be incapable of elucidating his own protest and rather evinced that he was but poorly acquainted with its contents. The other protestants refused to discuss the matter with their pastor, unless they would be permitted to do so together. This the pastor refused, first because he maintained that each of the protestants certainly was individually responsible for his protest; and, secondly, because the pastor suspected from the start that none of the three protestants was the final author of the written document they had delivered, and, if at all possible, the author ought to be lured from his hiding-place and called to account. Later, this suspicion proved to be well grounded. None of the three protestants had composed the protest. Much later, through a forced testimony in the worldly court, one of the protestants revealed that his brother, a neighboring pastor, the Reverend G. Hoeksema, was the writer of that first protest.
The protestants, by this insistence of the pastor to discuss the matter of their protest with him individually and by their own aversion and refusal to do so, were compelled to change their ground of procedure, if they would carry out their original purpose of presenting their protest to the consistory. They, therefore, alleged that they were under no obligation to discuss the matter of their protest with their pastor according to the rule of Matthew 18. For, they claimed, the matter really concerned a public sin on the part of the pastor, and as such they could lodge a complaint with the consistory against him directly. And they now acted in accordance with this claim. On the basis that the pastor had committed a public sin they lodged their protest with the consistory and demanded of that body that they should treat the pastor.
This accusation on the part of the protestants of a public sin against the pastor of the Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church was destined to become an important factor in the future development of this history.
The consistory could not accept the ground on which the protestants claimed to possess the right to file their protest with that body, without a previous discussion with the accused pastor according to Matthew 18. They could not receive the protest because they could not admit the ground on which it was offered: the public sin of the pastor. The protestants were begging the question. They demanded of the consistory to assume what was still to be proven. They gave the protestants to understand that, of course, they were well aware of the fact that the preaching and teaching of the pastor were public; that, however, this teaching and preaching constituted a sin, in other words, that the pastor was guilty of teaching a false doctrine, they could not admit. As to themselves, they were convinced of the very opposite and had always given testimony to that effect. The burden of proof, therefore, rested with the protestants. The very thing they demanded of the consistory to assume beforehand they were obliged to prove in their protest, viz., that in his teaching and preaching the pastor committed a public sin. The consistory, therefore, asked of the protestants that they retract their accusation of public sin against the pastor. And when they refused to comply with this demand of the consistory, they were told that they would have to refrain from partaking of the Lord’s Supper, on the ground that with this accusation of public sin against the pastor in their hearts they could not very well partake of communion with him.
The minutes of the consistory of the Eastern Avenue Church inform us that at their meeting of April 24, 1924, another protest was filed by the protestants mentioned above. In this protest they reiterated in the most emphatic language their accusation of public sin against their pastor, referring even to Articles 79 and 80 of the Church Order; secondly, they demanded of the consistory that, while they maintained their accusation against the pastor, their censure should be lifted and they should be allowed to partake of communion; and, thirdly, they notified the consistory that, if their demands should be refused, they would appeal to the classis. The consistory decided to abide by its former decision in this matter and the three protestants carried out their appeal to Classis Grand Rapids East, which convened on May 21.
In the meantime the consistory had received another protest of a similar nature.
This time the protestant was Reverend J. Vander Mey, minister without a charge and, therefore, no minister at all, financial secretary of the Theological School and member of the Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church.
The story of this protest is briefly as follows:
On that morning of January 19, when the first three protestants visited their pastor and delivered their protest to him, they informed him that also Mr. J. Vander Mey had declared his intention of signing their protest. A few days later, however, Mr. Vander Mey, who at that time was in Chicago, Ill., wrote a latter to his pastor in which he informed him that he was not quite ready to affix his signature to the protest of the three brethren, but that he would prefer a personal conference with the pastor before he took any definite action. In the same missive, however, he accused the pastor of a wrong conception of God, an erroneous view of Holy Scripture and a mistaken view of life in this world. After Mr. Vander Mey had returned from Chicago, however, he appeared to be in no particular hurry to make arrangements for the personal conversation he had proposed in his letter, and the conference was not held til the beginning of April. In this interview the pastor reminded Mr. Vander Mey of the threefold indictment he made against him in the letter referred to above, and demanded that he should prove the accusation or retract. In the course of the conversation it became plainly evident, to the satisfaction of the accused and the accuser, that the latter was not able to sustain his indictments; yet he refused to retract them. The pastor then asked him, whether he still intended to sign the protest of the first three protestants, to which he replied in the negative. Nor did he intimate that he entertained the slightest intention of preparing a separate protest. The impression he left was rather that he felt quite incapable of defending his first accusation and of sustaining them in the light of the Word of God and the Reformed Confessions.
Imagine, then, the surprise of the pastor, when at the following consistory meeting he was informed that Mr. Vander Mey had filed a protest against him! The pastor informed the consistory of what had taken place between Mr. Vander Mey and himself and that the former had not delivered a copy to the pastor of his protest so that the latter was wholly ignorant of its contents. the consistory informed the protestant that he would have to comply with the rule, which required of him to present a copy of his protest to the pastor before he could file it with the consistory. Thereupon Mr. Vander Mey had his protest printed. And though, when the consistory inquired into the matter, he at first insisted that he had kept the matter private and had not distributed copies of the printed protest, persistent questioning finally made him admit that, while he had five hundred copies printed, he had approximately four hundred of them still in his possession. Let the reader judge whether the consistory was right when it judged that by his action Mr. Vander Mey had become guilty of making secret and false propaganda against his pastor and demanded of him that he should confess his sin. He refused, however, to comply with the demand of the consistory and informed them that he also would file his protest with the classis at its meeting of May 21.
The protest of Mr. Vander Mey contained five alleged objections against the views of the Reverend H. Hoeksema.
The first objection concerned the pastor’s conception of God. The protestant objected particularly to the pastor’s view that the grace of God is at all times particular, that is, that He is gracious to the elect only and not to the ungodly reprobate. Though this is simply the plain teaching of Holy Writ and of the Reformed Confessions, Mr. Vander Mey did not hesitate to declare that he considered this a horrible doctrine, that he abhorred it and would always witness against it. On his part he maintained the view that God loves and is gracious to all men without distinction, that is, in this world and with respect to the things pertaining to this present life. It is noteworthy that he, too, refers to the “well-meant offer of salvation on the part of God to everybody,” as a proof of this general or common grace of God. Secondly, the protestant objected to the pastor’s excessive emphasis on the doctrine of predestination and on the counsel of God in general. In the preaching and teaching of the pastor, man’s responsibility is not sufficiently emphasized, according to Mr. Vander Mey’s protest, though he admits that he is not able to prove that the pastor denies man’s accountability. Thirdly, the pastor was accused of maintaining and teaching a wrong world-and-life view. The natural man is incapable of doing any good at all, and always sins. The good of the world, as manifested in science and art, in philanthropy, social reform and in many other movements and deeds, is not properly appreciated by the pastor. He denies that God restrains the process of sin in man and that by virtue of this restraint the natural man is able to do much good. Mr. Vander Mey, on the other hand, insisted that, although the sinner is inclined to evil, he still is capable of performing many good works and actually accomplishes much good in this world, so that he even puts to shame the child of God. The fourth objection alleged that the pastor fails to sound the true gospel note in his preaching. The earnest invitation and well-meant offer of salvation to all are lacking. Mr. Vander Mey was convinced that God offers salvation to all men promiscuously and that in this offer He reveals His sincere willingness to save all that hear. Thus, we are able, he declared in his protest, to gain our neighbor for Christ; to win souls for Jesus is the work of men. The fifth and last objection against the pastor was that he makes the second table of the law of none effect. The pastor teaches that we must hate those that hate God, while Mr. Vander Mey denied this and defended the view that we must love all men without distinction. According to the pastor’s view there is no room for fellowship with the world in the battle for truth and righteousness; while Mr. Vander Mey would defend the very opposite and maintain that the ungodly often stand on a higher level than the people of God.
The entire protest is one strong plea for common grace over against particular grace, for the good works of the ungodly in opposition to the doctrine of total depravity; a plea, too, for appreciation of the good works of the ungodly and for fellowship with the world in opposition to the antithetical view of life and the separation of light and darkness.
About this time still another protest was filed with both the consistories of the Eastern Avenue Church and of the First Christian Reformed Church of Kalamazoo, Mich. The author of it was the Reverend Jan Karel Van Baalen of Munster, Ind. And it was directed against the Reverends H. Danhof and H. Hoeksema combined.
Like the protest by Mr. Vander Mey that of the Reverend Van Baalen mentioned five objections against the teachings of the two pastors. The first is that the accused pastors deny that God is gracious to the ungodly reprobate. This the protestant considers the chief error of his opponents. The second error is closely related to the first and consists in the fact that, according to the protestant, the two accused ministers co-ordinate election and reprobation. Van Baalen's third objection concerns the denial of the restraint of sin through an influence of God's common grace. Again, closely related to the third objection stands the fourth, against the denial by the two pastors that man is able to perform any good works. And his final grievance is rather of a practical nature. The indicted pastors accused many officebearers in the Christian Reformed Churches as well as of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands of being unreformed in doctrine and worldly minded in life and walk. Thus Reverend Jan Karel Van Baalen formulated his grievances. And he earnestly requested the consistories to treat their pastors accordingly, and expressed the sincere hope that they might succeed to persuade them to recant and to turn them from their way of error!
Acting upon a suggestion of the consistory of the First Christian Reformed Church of Kalamazoo, both the consistories concerned served the protestant with a combined answer, in which they offered him the opportunity on April 22, to discuss the matter of his protest with the two pastors involved; and in which they informed him, that, if after such an all-day discussion the protestant was not satisfied, opportunity would be given him in the evening of the same day to present is objections to the respective consistories. The consistories were convinced, not only that this was the proper way of procedure, but also that through the means of such a personal conversation many if not all of the objections of the Reverend Van Baalen could be removed.
Such a meeting with the two pastors face to face the protestant however, refused. And he let the consistories know, that if they did not furnish him with a final and definite reply to this protest before or on April 30, he would be constrained to appeal to the classes. The consistories, however, did not alter their decision and the Reverend Jan Karel Van Baalen carried out his appeal.
In this connection mention must be made of the document that pretended to be an overture from the consistory of the Christian Reformed Church at Kellogsville and was composed by the Reverend M. M. Schans, not, however, without the cooperation of others, as he himself confessed.
The Rev. M. M. Schans had never openly voiced objections against the views of his fellow-minister, the Reverend H. Hoeksema. Never had he discussed any doctrinal questions with him personally. Never had he, or any of his associates in the matter declared his intention of protesting against the views of the Rev. H. Hoeksema. Nor had he had the decency of offering a copy of his protest to the pastor concerned.
Yet it appeared before the consistory of the Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church!
And it was received and acted upon by Classis Grand Rapids East!
It appeared in the form of a printed pamphlet. On the first page one may read in heavy capital letters: "Overture from the consistory of the Christian Reformed Church of Kellogsville, Mich." Fact is, however, that its contents never were adopted by the consistory of the church at Kellogsville. The author of this history was informed later by the clerk of that consistory, that the Rev. M. M. Schans had, indeed, presented his protest or petition to his consistory and requested them to pass on it and send it through to Classis Grand Rapids East, but that by a majority vote the consistory had refused this request of their pastor. This document, therefore, was not what it claimed to be, viz., an overture from the consistory of the church of Kellogsville.
Nevertheless, copies of this pretended overture were distributed among all the consistories of Classis Grand Rapids East, in sufficient number for each individual member of each consistory to receive one, some weeks before classis convened and even before the pastor concerned was aware of the fact that such a document against him had been composed and circulated!
The pastor that was personally concerned in this "overture" first learned of the activities of the Reverend Schans against him, when he filled a classical appointment at East Martin, Mich. In the home of one of the consistory of that church, with whom the Reverend H. Hoeksema took dinner that day, he found a copy of this document. When he expressed his amazement at this discovery to the elder, the latter was in turn surprised that the Reverend H. Hoeksema was ignorant of this matter of the "overture" and informed him that it had already been circulated through the classis by the stated clerk, so that each member of all the consistories possessed a copy!
The Reverend Schans, therefore, had really ignored and trampled under foot all rules of order, not to speak now of his brotherly obligations, by distributing copies of a protest among the members of the consistories belonging to Classis Grand Rapids East, before said protest had been formally received by the classis and declared legal by that body, and before he had even breathed of his purpose to the pastor involved.
As to the contents of this document, it pretended to be a mere petition, although it certainly implied several accusations against the Pastors H. Danhof and H. Hoeksema. It openly expressed serious doubt with respect to the orthodoxy of the two ministers, and it requested the classis to send an overture to synod, petitioning that body to examine the two pastors on several points of doctrine. The first of these points of doctrine concerned the well-meaning offer of salvation in the preaching of the gospel. It is rather striking that this objection appeared in all the protests that were filed. And it reveals how widespread was the Arminian view that salvation is an offer on the part of God to all among the ministers of the Christian Reformed Churches at that time. The views of the late Professor Heyns had struck root! The second point on which the two pastors were to be questioned concerned the doctrine of election and reprobation. the petitioner discovered an over-emphasis on these matters in the teachings of the suspected pastors. Thirdly, the "overture" would have the two pastors examined on the question of the restraint of sin. It is curious to note that, although the three forms of unity certainly do not speak of any restraint of the process and influence of sin, all the protests tacitly assume that this error is reformed truth! Fourthly, the two ministers were suspected on the point of civic righteousness. Fifthly the petition requested that the two pastors should be questioned on the score of the responsibility of man. And,, finally, the subject of God's all over-ruling providence was mentioned in the petition as a line along which the proposed examination might be conducted.
Further, to make quite sure that no remnant of heresy would be left in the two pastors, the "overture of Kellogsville" would have classis to petition synod, after the two suspects had passed a satisfactory examination , also to investigate the writings of the Reverends H. Danhof and H. Hoeksema, and if anything objectionable should be found in these writings to demand of their authors that they recant.
It seems to us as we review these protests and their contents, that any unprejudiced reader must be strangely impressed with the fact that such protests could actually originate with men that pretended to defend the reformed truth!
Or does it not sound unbelievable that in the name of reformed truth it is possible to protest as follows:
1. Against particular grace in favor of common grace.
2. Against efficacious grace in favor of a well-meaning offer.
3. Against emphasis on predestination in favor of man’s responsibility.
4. Against insistence on total depravity in favor of the good that sinners do?
Yet, when one expresses the matter briefly and succinctly, shorn of all sophistries, the above were the chief features of all the protests that were filed with Classis Grand Rapids East, that convened on May 21, 1924.
And if the matter of these protest had been hurried by the protestants in order to have it determined by the classis, from now on it required more haste still.
For, the classis convened only a few weeks before the opening of synod!