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

Chapter 3 - Classical wranglings, May 1924.

As the reader knows, a classis is a broader gathering of neighboring churches of the same faith, that have voluntarily entered into a federative union for the purpose of realizing and manifesting as much as possible the essential union of the Body of Christ and to co-operate in such matters as pertain to the churches thus united in general.

            Not infrequently one meets with the notion that such a classis assumes the character of a higher judiciary, serves as a kind of superior court with relation to the local consistories.

            Even classical gatherings themselves sometimes labored on that assumption and acted accordingly.

            This, however, is a very serious mistake.

            Pure Reformed Church polity knows of no lower and higher judiciary bodies.  It acknowledges the consistory as the sole ruling power over the local congregation.  A classis possesses no power over the local churches whatsoever.  Whatever power it possesses is derivative, secondary, limited, advisory.

            Two of such classes are constituted by the Christian Reformed Churches of Grand Rapids and vicinity.  They are distinguished as Classis Grand Rapids East and Classis Grand Rapids West.  Under the former the consistory of the Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church resorted; with the latter the First Christian Reformed Church of Kalamazoo was united.

            It happened that Classis Grand Rapids East was destined to be the first to consider the case against the Reverends H. Danhof and H. Hoeksema, although naturally it could deliberate on it only in as far as the latter was connected with it.

            On the twenty-first day of May, 1924, it convened in the auditorium of the Eastern Avenue Church, and received the various protests to which the reader’s attention was called in the previous chapter.

            The first protest received and considered by classis was the petition of the Reverend M. M. Schans, pretending to be an overture from the consistory of the Christian Reformed Church of Kellogsville, Mich. Regarding this “petition” the consistory of the Eastern Avenue Church had filed a protest with classis, in which it begged that gathering not to accept the pretended overture.  The consistory argued that although the “overture” alleged to be a mere petition, it virtually and really was a protest against the teachings of the pastor of the Eastern Avenue Church.  And it had always been and still was an inviolable rule that no protest could be accepted by classis unless the party against whom it was directed had received a copy of such protest.  And this the Reverend Schans had failed to observe.  He never had taken the Reverend Hoeksema into consideration at all, but had directly applied to classis.  In the second place the consistory called the attention of the classis to the fact that this so-called petition of the Reverend Schans had been distributed among all the consistories belonging to the classis even before this body had received it and had been given an opportunity to decide on its legality.  And it had always been a standing rule that, unless a protest is declared acceptable by classis, it is returned to the protestant without being read and made public to the members of the classis.  In the third place the consistory made plain that the classis was not the proper body to receive and consider a protest against the pastor of Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church.  If the Reverend Schans or even the consistory of Kellogsville felt constrained to protest against the doctrine of the Reverend H. Hoeksema, such protest should properly have been filed with his consistory who had jurisdiction over the pastor.  And not until it should have appeared that the consistory were unwilling or incapable to deal with the matter, could the protestant have appealed to classis.

            Classis, however, did not pay the slightest attention tot he plea of the consistory of Eastern Avenue.  It made no attempt to contradict the clear argument presented, nor did it furnish the consistory with an answer in any form.  It rather chose to ignore completely the consistory’s presentation of the matter and passed a motion that the “overture” of Kellogsville was legally before classis.

            The pastor of the Eastern Avenue Church, acting upon a premonition that the Classis would receive as legal the protest by the Reverend Schans, however irregular such procedure might be, had prepared himself against such an event.  He had with him a written answer to the protest under consideration and asked and was given leave to read it before the classical gathering.  This answer consisted of two parts.  The first part dealt with the overture from Kellogsville from a church-political aspect, the second treated its doctrinal contents and weighed its alleged objections against the pastor’s teaching.

            In the first part the pastor argued as the consistory had done, that the overture pretended, indeed, to be a mere petition requesting classis to bring a certain doctrinal matter to the attention of synod, but that it virtually was a protest and indictment against the pastor of the Eastern Avenue Church, as well as against the Reverend H. Danhof of Kalamazoo.  Yet, in violation of every rule pertaining to such matters, the overture had been delivered directly to classis without consideration of the pastor or of his consistory.  The pastor, therefore, protested against the action of classis whereby it had approved of this illegal and unbrotherly procedure of the Reverend Schans and received the protest.  Besides, the pastor called the attention of the gathering to the fact, that the overture also intended to ignore classis, as far as the treatment of its contents was concerned, for it requested classis merely to adopt its contents as an overture to synod, in order that the broadest gathering of the churches might act upon the matter.  Clearly it was the intention of the overture to avoid all discussion of the matter on the floor of the classis and leave all the deliberation to Synod.  Such a procedure would relieve the protestant of the rather unpleasant task of meeting the pastor he accused face to face in an open discussion of the indictments contained in the protest.  Surely, it must be evident to classis, that if the Reverend Schans entertained serious doubts regarding the orthodoxy of the Reverend H. Hoeksema, and, therefore, considered it necessary that the latter be subjected to an examination, the proper way to proceed would have been that he apply first of all to the consistory of the Eastern Avenue Church to conduct such an examination; thereupon, if the consistory should have failed to satisfy the petitioner, he could have appealed to classis; and only after also the classis had failed to allay the serious doubts of the Reverend Schans, he could petition synod to institute such an examination.  Such would have been the regular and orderly way of procedure as is also suggested by the Formula of Subscription in the following words: “And further, if at any time the consistory, classis or synod, upon sufficient grounds of suspicion and to preserve the uniformity and purity of doctrine, may deem it proper to require of us a further explanation of our sentiments respecting any particular article of the Confession of Faith, the Catechism or the explanation of the National Synod, we do hereby promise to be always willing and ready to comply with such requisition.”

            The Reverend Schans, however, would rather ignore the consistory that had sole jurisdiction over the pastor, pass by the classis and directly request synod to conduct the proposed examination.  To such irregular procedure the pastor declared himself to be opposed and he vigorously protested against it.  The pastor further called the attention of the classis to the fact that it was too late to bring the matter to the synod.  The rule is that all matters for synod must be filed with the stated clerk before the first of May of the synodical year.  The wisdom and propriety of this rule is obvious, for violation of it would deprive any defendant of the opportunity to file a protest against any action the classis might take against him.  And this rule would certainly be violated if the classis should act favorably upon the request of the Reverend Schans.  The pastor also once more vigorously protested against the high-handed method of circulating a protest through the classis by the stated clerk, before it had been declared legal and acceptable by the classis itself.  And in conclusion of this part of his answer he warned the classis that neither he nor his consistory would submit to such a hierarchical and tyrannical yoke, should classis attempt to put it on their necks.

            In the second part of his reply to the “overture of Kellogsville” the pastor of the Eastern Avenue Church argued that the Reverend Schans did not have sufficient reasons for his pretended anxiety and doubt regarding the views and teachings of the Reverend H. Hoeksema.  The Formula of Subscription clearly states that an office-bearer must have given occasion seriously to doubt his doctrinal soundness, before one can file a request that he be examined by consistory, classis or synod.  Now, the Reverend Schans petitioned classis to send an overture to synod requesting that the pastor of Eastern Avenue be examined on some fundamental points of doctrine.  But what reasons did the Reverend Schans adduce in his petition why the orthodoxy of his colleague might justly be doubted?  It appears from his petition that personally he had none.  In the “overture” he urges that there is unrest in the churches because of the common grace controversy.  He also speaks of it that the pastor of Eastern Avenue Church had been openly accused of unreformed tendencies.  But the Reverend Schans failed to show in what respect the Reverend Hoeksema had given him personally any occasion to doubt the soundness of his doctrine and preaching.  What reason could he possibly have to doubt that the pastor of the Eastern Avenue Church preached the gospel in a truly reformed and Biblical sense?  The objector had never heard the Reverend Hoeksema preach.  Nor did he ever make any inquiry, in the proper way, concerning his preaching.  On the contrary, he well knew that the consistory of the Eastern Avenue Church always had approved their pastor’s preaching.  Evidently, if the Reverend Schans entertained doubts on this score he had listened to gossip.  And why should he doubt the Reverend Hoeksema’s soundness with respect to the doctrine of predestination?  From the “overture” it is evident that the author of it is troubled because he fears that his colleague over-emphasized these truths.  But he produces no evidence at all that he has any reasonable ground for this fear.  Further, he would have the pastor of Eastern Avenue Church examined on the questions of the restraint of sin and civic righteousness.  But this request proceeds on the false assumption that the Scriptures and the Confessions actually teach these doctrines.  Moreover, when the protestant raises the question of the responsibility of man and is, apparently, worried that the pastor of the Eastern Avenue Church denies this truth, he does so without good reason, for the pastor always openly taught that man is responsible for his own acts before God.  And when, finally, the Reverend Schans refers to the providence of God and His rule over all things, it is quite uncertain to what heresy on the part of the Reverend Hoeksema he refers and it may justly be regarded as doubtful whether on this point he understands himself.

            Thus did the suspected pastor reply to the alleged overture.

            He closed by calling the attention of the classis to the fact that a careful scrutiny of the petition by the Rev. Schans might well raise serious doubts as to whether the latter were sound in doctrine and had ever understood Reformed truth.

            A substitute motion--substitute for what was surely illegally before the classis and, therefore, itself illegal--was presented by Doctor H. H. Meeter.  It differed from the original “overture” in that it eliminate the request for the personal examination by the synod of the Reverends H. Hoeksema and H. Danhof and proposed to request that largest gathering of the churches merely to institute an inquisition into the writings of the two pastors.

            The reader must remember that, without a doubt, the majority of the delegates present at that particular gathering of classis Grand Rapids East, had never taken cognizance of the contents of these writings, still less carefully examined them.

            Without a thorough and open discussion of the doctrinal points at issue they certainly would not be able intelligently to vote on either the original overture or the substitute motion.

            How could they decide whether or not the writings of the two ministers had given sufficient reason to suspect their doctrinal soundness to be subjected to an official inquisition by synod?

            The Reverend Hoeksema, therefore, suggested that the various doctrinal questions involved should be openly discussed on the floor of the classis.  He begged the classis to debate with him.  He implored the gathering to appoint one of their number, preferably of those that entertained doubts as to the pastor’s doctrinal soundness, to discuss the points of issue with him before the whole meeting.  He offered to defend his views as thoroughly Reformed over against any six of the delegates the classis might appoint.

            It was all in vain.

            Classis desired no open discussion on the matter.  It adopted the substitute motion of Doctor Meeter without having deliberated on its contents.

            The following day, May 22, the classis began a discussion of the protest filed by the three members of Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church.  The reader will remember that the consistory had refused to acknowledge the ground on which they had presented their protest to that body, the allegation that it dealt with a public sin on the part of the pastor.

            On the same ground, together with the added reason that the consistory had refused to receive it they now presented their protest to the classis.  Besides the original protest, they presented to the classis an elucidation of their appeal and a second protest against the censure that had been imposed upon them by the consistory because of their accusation of public sin against the pastor.

            The purpose of the appealing protestants was clear.

            Regarding their original protest they demanded, not merely that the classis should give advice as to whether or not the consistory was right in refusing to receive it on the ground on which it was presented, the alleged public sin of the pastor, but that the classis should treat the contents of the protest and thus directly submit the pastor to an examination and to classical discipline.

            And with respect to their censure they demanded that the classis should advise the consistory that it should be lifted.

            The reader will readily understand that, in case the classis would accede to the request of the appellants, it would violate two fundamental rules.

            First of all, it would set aside the rule of Art. 30 of the Church Order: “In major assemblies only such matters shall be dealt with as could not be finished in minor assemblies, or such as pertain to the churches of the major assembly in common.”  The classis, under this rule, certainly had jurisdiction to express itself on the question whether or not the consistory had the right to refuse to receive the protest of the appellants on the ground on which they had presented it; but it could not possibly treat the matter of the protest proper.  Even if the classis should decide that the consistory were obliged to receive the protest under the circumstances, it still would have to refer the matter back to the consistory for the simple reason that it had not been proven that the latter assembly was not able to finish it.

            And secondly, it would assume the stand of the protestants, the public sin of the pastor, thereby beg the question as to whether or not the denial of common grace were a sin, and thus condemn the pastor before he had a hearing.

            The consistory of the Eastern Avenue Church presented to classis a counter protest in which they strenuously maintained that the matter presented to classis by the appellants was not properly a matter for the classis to act upon, but was certainly a consistorial matter.  The consistory, therefore, warned the classis not to treat the protest and thus trample upon the rights of the consistory.  They explained that they had rightly refused to receive the protest as long as the ground upon which its acceptance was demanded was the allegation of the pastor’s public sin.  They informed the classis that they were entirely willing to receive a protest; but that they could not possibly receive an accusation of public sin.  And they attempted to make clear to the classis the difference between a protest and an accusation of public sin.  That the pastor’s preaching and teaching werepublic they, of course, admitted.  That, however, this public preaching and instruction were a sin they did not concede to the protestants.  This would be a matter of investigation and this investigation they were wholly willing to conduct.  But what was to be a matter of investigation could not be assumed before hand as already established and, therefore, could not possibly serve as a ground upon which the consistory could accept the protest.  Besides, the consistory referred the classis to Art. 30 of the Church Order, and maintained that the exercise of discipline over a pastor certainly is, in the first instance, a matter for the minor, not for the major assembly.

            Classis, however, turned a deaf ear to the plea of the consistory.

            After the protest of the appellants had been received and read Doctor H. H. Meeter made the motion “that the classis treat the matter of the protest.”

            For a proper understanding of the sequel of this matter it is necessary to note that this motion was presented upon the ground that the consistory had had ample time to treat the protest.

            The motion was adopted.

            And had the classis had the courage of what appeared to be its conviction on the afternoon of May 22, 1924, the break of the Eastern Ave. Church with Classis Grand Rapids East, would have been an accomplished fact on that date.

            The consistory was firmly convinced of the autonomy of the local church.  It would have nothing of the collegialistic church polity that considered the classis as a higher judicatory than the consistory.

            Foreseeing the possibility that classis might ignore its plea and decide to treat the protest of the appellants, it had instructed its delegates, that in case the classis should assume such authority they should deliver a written protest and leave the meeting.

            In the written protest which the consistory had prepared for this possible turn of events it explained to classis, that it could not permit the major assembly to trample upon the rights and obligations of the duly installed office-bearers of the Eastern Avenue Church.  And this the classis surely attempted to do by taking out of the consistory’s hands a matter that so plainly belonged to the latter’s jurisdiction only.  The only course, therefore, that was left for the consistory to take was to cast off this hierarchical yoke and instruct its delegates no longer to act as its representatives at the meeting of classis.  And, besides, the consistory pointed out that by the decision of classis to treat the protest, which demanded nothing less than the discipline of the pastor of the Eastern Avenue Church, the latter had really become defendant and could not very well sit as judge in his own case.  The consistory, therefore, kindly requested the classis to inform them of their decision in the matter concerning their pastor as soon as such decision were reached.

            The delegates, the pastor and Elder O. Van Ellen, acted as they were instructed.  They calmly presented the protest of their consistory to the chairman of the classis and made their departure.

            From that moment the classis, instead of acting in accordance with its own decision, attempted to make an honorable retreat.

            What the clearest argument had not been able to effect was evidently accomplished by the departure of the delegates of the Eastern Avenue Church: the classis began to see its own foolishness.  It hesitated; it became confused.  On the same afternoon the delegates that had departed received a classical delegation urging them to return.  The delegates, however, replied that they would never return unless the classis would first rescind its decision regarding the protest.

            All that afternoon and even an evening session, conducted with closed doors, the classis spent in wrangling and debating about the legality of its own decision and a possible plan of action.

            The next morning classis convened in the Sherman Street Christian Reformed Church.  It is alleged that the change of meeting-place was motivated by fear of an uproar among the members of the Eastern Avenue Church, although there was not the slightest reason for such fear.  For, although the members of the Eastern Avenue congregation manifested a keen interest in the proceedings, their conduct was not characterized by disorder whatsoever.

            Finally, after well-nigh the entire forenoon of May 23 had been devoted to a continuation of the discussion of the previous afternoon and evening, the classis reached the following remarkable decision: it expressed that it had never decided to treat the protest and enter into its subject matter!

            Along what meanderings of argumentation the classis had discovered this way out of the labyrinth, it is impossible to describe since the classis met with closed doors and there were no witnesses.  For the same reason it is equally beyond our power to analyze the various sophistries that must have convinced the classis of the truth of this last decision.  Suffice it to remind the reader of the fact that the principle of the primacy of the intellect does not always hold, and that the human mind is easily inclined to see matters as the desires of the heart dictate.

            However this may be, this final decision of the classis certainly did not fit the facts.  For, had not classis on the previous day decided, after it had received and read the protest, that it would treat the matter of the protest?  And was not the alleged ground for this decision that the consistory had had ample time to treat it?

            And, surely, the delegates of the Eastern Avenue Church might have winked at this “error” of the classis and permitted that body to make this honorable retreat out of a difficult corner; were it not for the fact that by this decision the departure of the two delegates from the meeting was placed in a rather peculiar light, as if the entire matter had been a misunderstanding on their part!

            Classis sent a delegation, of which Doctor Meeter, who had presented the original motion, was a member, to the pastor of Eastern Avenue, to inform him of this last decision, and to persuade him that the way was entirely clear for him to return to the meeting of classis.

            The pastor, however, could not be persuaded.  He was naturally indignant at such evident hypocrisy.  He answered the delegates that he could not be satisfied with what was so plainly a falsehood.  He promised the delegation, however, that immediately after the hour of noon he would appear before the gathering of classis to convince them of their error.  And this he did.  To the evident satisfaction of the classis he made plain: first, that classis certainly had passed the motion to treat the protest of the three appellants, and that this was abundantly evident from the ground that had been adduced, viz., that the consistory had had ample time to treat it; secondly, that there were but two ways open to the classis; rescind the decision of the previous day or treat the pastor of the Eastern Avenue Church; that the delegates of the Eastern Avenue Church could not and would not return unless the action of the previous day were repealed.

            Classis saw the light.

            And it decided to rescind its action concerning the protest of the three appellants.  And it further determined that the protest should be referred back to the consistory.

            The same decision was reached with reference to the protests of the Reverends J. K. Van Baalen and J. Vander Mey, who, as the reader will remember, had also appealed to classis.

            All the protestants disagreed with these decisions of the classis and informed that body that most probably they would appeal to synod.

            Classis, therefore, had really acted unfavorably on all the protests of the appellants.  The latter had failed to reach their objective.

            The major assembly, however, made one serious error, that would prove to the cause of considerable trouble in the future.

            Before the pastor of Eastern Avenue Church, who was called to conduct a funeral on that afternoon of May 23, could return to the meeting of the classis it had decided that the censure of the three protestants that accused their pastor of a public sin should be lifted.

            It as certain that the consistory would not follow up that advice unless the censured members retract their accusation and change their attitude over against their pastor.

            Further conflict between the classis and the consistory was inevitable.

            It had been an extraordinary busy classis.

            Not often in its history had it occurred that there was much more to be discussed than the usual routine business, to finish which one day was ordinarily more than sufficient.

            This time, the classis had been in session for three days!

            And it was late.  The clock in the auditorium of the Sherman Street Church almost pointed to the hour of midnight.

            Then, too, the delegates were weary.

            Yet, one of the delegates at this late hour remembered the rule, which, though it is most frequently forgotten, is, nevertheless, very sound and salutary to preserve the proper brotherly relationship among the delegates to a major assembly, that at the close of its session classis should exercise censure over its members in case, in the heat of their discussions, they should have expressed themselves improperly or in an unbrotherly fashion. He recalled that the Reverend H. Hoeksema had dropped the remark that even among Christian Reformed ministers one would have “to search with a candle” for true Reformed preaching!  (The Dutch idiom is: met een kaarsje zoeken).  And he presented a motion to request of the pastor of the Eastern Avenue Church that he retract this statement!

            Dissension arose among the brethren about the question, whether the guilty pastor had used the expression “with a lantern” or “with a candle.”

            This threatened to become the occasion of a lengthy debate, despite the advanced hour of the night.

            The pastor concerned proposed the following amendment to the motion: “Unless he can prove the truth of his statement.”

            Then the matter was dropped and the meeting adjourned.

            And thus we may close this part of our history with an anecdote.

            The First Christian Reformed Church of Kalamazoo, Mich., belonged to that group of churches that sent its delegates to Classis Grand Rapids West.

            Of that church, as the reader will recall, the Reverend H. Danhof was pastor.

            As the consistories of the Eastern Avenue Church and of the First Christian Reformed Church of Kalamazoo had taken joint action with reference to the protest of the Reverend Jan Karel Van Baalen, it is readily understood that the latter had also appealed to Classis Grand Rapids West.

            That body assembled a few days after the sessions of Classis Grand Rapids East, just described, in the La Grave Avenue Christian Reformed Church of Grand Rapids.  With respect to the common grace question only the protest of the Reverend Van Baalen appeared on its agendum.

            Its program, therefore, was much simpler than that of Classis Grand Rapids East.  And its sessions lasted only one day.

            In the case, Van Baalen vs. Danhof, it reached a rather extraordinary decision.

            After considerable wrangling it was decided: 1. That a colloquy or personal conference should be arranged between the brethren Danhof and Van Baalen for the purpose of discussing the matter of the protest of the latter against the former’s teachings.  2.  That after this colloquy was held between the two brethren and no satisfactory conclusions were reached, the Reverend Van Baalen would have the opportunity immediately to bring the matter of his protest to the attention of the consistory of the First Christian Reformed church of Kalamazoo.  3.  That, in case the Reverend Van Baalen were not satisfied with the action of the consistory in the case, he would have the privilege of calling a special meeting of Classis Grand  Rapids West on June 10, 1924.

            This was a rather strange decision.

            There was, of course, nothing strange or improper in the decision that the protestant should first discuss the matter of his protest with his opponent.  It was, further, entirely proper that the protestant should have the opportunity to bring the matter of his protest to the attention of the consistory of Kalamazoo I, in case he were not satisfied with the results of the personal conference.

            But it was certainly improper to offer the protestant the privilege of calling a special session of Classis Grand Rapids West at his pleasure.  This was all the more strange and improper in view of the fact, that the consistory of Kalamazoo I had offered to the protestant virtually the same proposition, which offer had been flatly refused by the Reverend Jan Karel Van Baalen.

            The outcome was entirely as might be expected.

            The colloquy between the protestant and the Reverend H. Danhof was held.  There were no witnesses, so that the conversation cannot be recorded.  But the result was that the Reverend H. Danhof claimed that the protestant had no ground of accusation left; the latter insisted that he could not be satisfied and claimed that there was a discrepancy between the views of the Reverend H. Danhof as expressed in the personal conference and the views set forth in his public writings.

            And who, in view of the fact that there were no witnesses, was to decide in the matter?

            When, therefore, on the evening of the day when the colloquy was held the protestant brought the matter to the attention of the consistory of Kalamazoo I, that body appears to have followed the only possible course left to them, when they decided that the colloquy should be repeated in their presence.

            This, however, the Reverend Van Baalen refused.

            He called for the special meeting of Classis Grand Rapids West on June 10, 1924.

            And now the classis decided that the Reverend Van Baalen should address his protest to Synod directly, seeing it concerned a matter that was of import to the churches in general.

            Looking back upon this part of our history, one naturally contemplates the possibility that the two classes had taken a definite stand in the matter of common grace, had acted favorably upon the protests that were presented and had advised that the two pastors concerned should be disciplined.

            How different would have been the course of events!

            And how different, too, would have been this history, if Classis grand Rapids East had had the courage of its conviction when the Eastern Avenue delegates had left the meeting.

            Even then, the separation seemed imminent.

            Yet, thus it was not the will of God!  And glancing back, it is not difficult to acknowledge that the Lord’s way was the best way.

            His be the glory!

Last modified on 27 March 2013
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