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

Chapter 4 - The Synod of Kalamazoo: how it worked.

            Fifty miles due south of Grand Rapids is situated the considerably smaller but thrifty city of Kalamazoo.

            It is more of a railroad center than the Furniture City.

            It has over one hundred ninety manufacturing plants.

            And although it is advisable to take it with a grain of salt when in our country something is declared to be the largest in the world, Kalamazoo is said to be the largest celery market in that unlimited sense of the word.

            A goodly element of its population is of Dutch descent.

            In Kalamazoo there were, at the time of which we are writing, three Christian Reformed Churches, simply designated as the “First”, the “Second”, and the “Third” Christian Reformed Church.

            Of the First Christian Reformed Church the Reverend H. Danhof was pastor at the time when the Synod of Kalamazoo was held.

            And as the first classis that deliberated upon the question of “Common Grace” was held in the Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church, of which the Reverend H. Hoeksema was pastor at that time, so the Synod that “settled” that question held its session in the first Christian Reformed Church of Kalamazoo, Mich.

            It convened on June 18, 1924.

            A synod, according to Reformed Church polity, may be defined as the broadest representative gathering of churches of the same faith that have voluntarily entered into a federative union, for the purpose of manifesting and realizing as much as possible the essential unity of believers as members of the body of Christ.

            Even as a classis cannot properly be called a higher judicatory than the consistory of a local church, so a synod may never be defined as the highest judicatory.  It is no supreme ecclesiastical court.  The different churches, that voluntarily enter into denominational union and are represented by the synod, acknowledge no other judicatory power than that which is lodged in the consistory.  The power of a synod is always derivative and advisory.  It may not rule over the local congregations.  It does not appoint or install office-bearers.  Neither does it have the power to depose them.  If a synod should be called to deliberate upon the question of the deposition of a minister of the Word of God and should reach the conclusion that a certain pastor is worthy of deposition, it can advise the consistory concerned of its conclusion and decision in the matter, but it would not have the power to exercise discipline and to execute the deposition in the local congregation.  Such an act of discipline would have to be left to the consistory of the local church of which the minister is pastor.

            And if the local consistory should prove to be recalcitrant and refuse to act in accordance with the advice of synod, the latter could not exercise discipline either over the pastor or over the rebellious consistory to depose them from their respective offices in the congregation they serve.

            Its sole power in such a case would be to declare that such a consistory stands separated from that particular union of churches that is represented by the synod.

            A synod of the Christian Reformed Churches is composed of six delegates from each classis.

            In 1924, the entire Christian Reformed denomination was divided into thirteen classical districts, so that the synod numbered seventy-eight members.

            It is customary to invite the presence of the Theological Faculty at all synodical meetings, and to them is given the right of advisory vote in all matters that appear on the synodical agendum.

            With reference to the question of common grace, one of the most important matters on the program of the synod of 1924, it cannot be said that the Synod of Kalamazoo was “packed”.

            It happens sometimes that synods are “packed”.

            The nature of the decisions to be taken by a synod naturally depends on the views and attitude of the majority of the delegates that constitute it.  By a “packed” synod is meant a synod that is purposely and consciously constituted of delegates that, in certain important items on the synodical program, are known to be of determined convictions and to have made up their minds before any discussion on such matters.  A packed synod, therefore, is not unbiased but prejudiced.

            It can hardly be said that the delegates present at the synod of 1924 were unfavorably prejudiced in the Danhof-Hoeksema case.

            The long and often bitter wrangling that ensued on the floor of the synod about the question of Common Grace proves the very opposite.  The delegates were not of one mind.  There were, indeed, those who were known as determined defenders of the common grace theory, who were friends of Doctor Janssen and assumed a hostile attitude toward the two accused pastors.  Even the Reverend Jan Karel Van Baalen was one of the delegates from Classis Illinois.  There were others, that had always simulated friendship toward the two pastors and doctrinal kinship with them, that would prove to be their opponents.  But over against this stands the fact, that also the Reverend H. Danhof had been delegated and that there were those who made an honest attempt to “save” the brethren, although they were too weak and finally succumbed.  And, finally, as is always the case, there were a number of delegates that acted as mere voters without a proper understanding of the question at issue, and were ready to go along with the majority as easily as straws with the wind.  A packed synod, therefore, it could not be called.

            But it certainly was a weak synod.

            Ill-prepared the synod was to deal with questions of important points of doctrine.  The common grace question it did not understand.  Its implications the synod did not discern.  This may justly be said even of those that played a leading role in the opposition against the Reverends Danhof and Hoeksema.  For, not only was this evident at the time from the wrangling and discord manifest in the discussions about this question, but it is also abundantly proven by subsequent history.  One may well be amazed at the foolhardiness of synod, when it recklessly adopted three doctrinal declarations of fundamental importance at a time when it was clearly evident that it was not at all prepared for such action.

            And as the years go by and the smoke of strife and contention that beclouded the minds of the leaders of the opposition in 1924 rises, it will have to become increasingly clear, that the common-grace decision reached by the Synod of Kalamazoo was a gigantic mistake.

            God’s cause is not furthered by a spirit of discord and confusion!

            Usually, to expedite matters and to conduce to orderly procedure, the synod appoints committees of pre-advice

            Such committees are very influential and are largely responsible for the direction of the discussions on the floor of the synod and even for the final decisions of that largest gathering of the churches.  Into their hands is delivered all the material that pertains to a certain matter.  They convene separately to deliberate upon that material, arrange it, pass upon its legality and advise synod as to what material is acceptable; they compose a report and draw conclusions; and, finally, they offer definite points of advice to synod in regard to decisions that ought to be taken in the matters under consideration.

            The Committee appointed by the Synod of Kalamazoo in the common grace case consisted of the following delegates: Doctor Y. P. De Jong, Doctor C. Bouma, Reverend E. F. J. Van Halsema, Reverend A Bliek, Reverend T. Vander Ark; and Elders S. Dekker, J. Verbrugge, J. T. Brandsma.  Professor L. Berkhof was added to this committee as advisory member.

            The appointment of the latter may be considered somewhat abnormal.  The subject matter upon which the committee was to deliberate and give advice to synod was strictly of a dogmatical nature.  At that time not Professor L. Berkhof, but Professor F.M. Ten Hoor was the incumbent of the chair of dogmatic Theology at the Theological School of the Christian Reformed Churches.  Under normal circumstances it would have been proper that the latter were added to the pre-advisory committee on the common grace question.  The reason why, nevertheless, this appointment fell to Professor Berkhof, was, probably, that Professor Ten Hoor was somewhat doubtful on the question to be considered.  On the floor of the synod he made the remark, that he had studied the problem for forty years, that he felt quite sure that there was such a thing as common grace, but he did not know what it was!

            A considerable mass of material was delivered to the committee for its consideration.

From Classis Grand Rapids East there were: its own overture in the matter, elicited from the pretended overture from the consistory of Kellogsville, and the various protests, which had been referred back to the consistory of Eastern Avenue Church by the classis, but which the protestants had delivered to the synod by way of appeal; this also included the protest of the Reverend Jan Karel Van Baalen, who at the same time personally offered the same protest directly to synod according to the advice of Classis Grand Rapids West.  Besides, there were the following protests: 1. From Kalamazoo II against the decision of Classis West in re the Van Baalen protest; 2. From Kalamazoo II against the calling of a special meeting of Classis West on June 10, 1924: 3. Idem from the consistory of the Lamont Christian Reformed Church; 4. Idem from the consistory of Kalamazoo I; 5. Protest from Kalamazoo I against the decision of Classis West in re the Van Baalen protest: 6. Protest by the Reverend H. Hoeksema against the overture from Classis Grand Rapids East.  And lastly, there were some overtures regarding the question of common grace from the following classes: Hackensack, Hudson, Sioux Center, and Muskegon.

            For several days the committee held its sessions.

            And it must be recorded here that its members evidently considered themselves perfectly self-sufficient, and well capable of handling the situation and formulating an opinion, without even granting a hearing to the Reverends H. Danhof and H. Hoeksema, whose views they were discussing, concerning whom they formed a judgment.  The committee never asked the two brethren involved to appear before them, to inquire of them about their views or to discuss the matter with them.  They did not summon them to appear as witnesses in their own case!

            This may be regarded an exceptionally strange method of procedure on the part of the committee.

            If you peruse the Acta of different synods you will discover that in similar cases the committee of pre-advice always met with the person involved in the case under consideration.

The committee of pre-advice on the Bultema-case in 1918 reported to synod: “Your committee deemed it advisable, before it formed its conclusions and advice to synod, to invite the Rev. Bultema to our meeting.  the purpose of the committee was to remove all possible misunderstanding, or in case the Reverend B would recant to proceed no further … A long time the committee met with the Reverend Bultema … and it decided to inform the synod as follows: (1) Although the Reverend Bultema insisted that he, according to this own conviction, is not in conflict with the Confession of our Churches, yet he did not succeed to make evident to your committee the harmony between his standpoint as presented in “Maranatha” and our Confession. (2) The Rev. Bultema persistently refused to retract the statements in his book as quoted above.” (Acta 1918, pp. 79,80).

            Here was a case much similar, from a formal viewpoint, to the common grace case in 1924.  The committee of pre-advice, however, invited the Reverend Bultema, met with him a long time, gave him an opportunity to defend his views, and asked him whether he would not recant.

            In 1920 a committee of  pre-advice was appointed in the well-known Janssen-case.  In the Acta of 1920, p. 80, one reads: “We gave Dr. Janssen a personal hearing once and again.  We also gave the other professors an opportunity to express their sentiments to the committee.”

            In 1922, another committee of pre-advice served in the Janssen-case.  In the Acta, p. 88, we read: “That we (the committee) ask Dr. Janssen to appear on the meeting of the committee, and that we offer him the opportunity to replete with his own notes the material from the Student Notes and Individual Notes, as quoted in the Majority and Minority-reports, or to correct these notes if he has any objections to them”

            But the committee on the Danhof-Hoeksema case never invited the accused brethren to appear before them; never gave them an opportunity to defend themselves; never asked them a single question!

            It is difficult, indeed, to justify this serious omission on the part of the committee.  Regard for the truth certainly does not shun discussion.  Love does not avoid the brethren.

            But whatever may have motivated the committee in this strange mode of procedure, the fact is that they violated on of the most fundamental principles of justice, when they condemned the brethren Danhof and Hoeksema without having heard them or given them an opportunity for self-defense.

            The injustice, however, was aggravated when the synod itself followed the example of the committee with respect to the Reverend H. Hoeksema.  The Reverend H. Danhof was himself a delegate and could not very well be denied the right to defend his case.  But with regard to the Reverend Hoeksema it was quite a different matter.  He was not a delegate to synod.  Common decency and justice would have prompted synod, therefore, to summon him, to invite him to its meetings, to examine him if necessary, to offer him an opportunity to defend his views.

            Synod, however, was utterly negligent in this respect.

            The Acta of 1924 fail to tell the story of this negligence, which is, nevertheless, too important to be omitted here.  They merely state: “Reverend H. Hoeksema asks permission to speak in order to shed light on his case.  Decided to give him full opportunity to do this in the evening session, which is to begin at half past seven.” p. 139.  And later: “The Reverend H. Hoeksema delivers an address of an hour and a half long, in which he attempts to explain his standpoint to synod.” p. 141.

            The complete story in this matter, however, must leave quite a different impression than these isolated statements in the Acta.

            For, the fact is, that the synod never served a summons on the Reverend H. Hoeksema.  It never invited him to attend its meetings.  He was never asked by synod to give account of his views.  Synod never willingly offered him the right to speak in his own case.  It proceeded to treat him as if he had absolutely nothing to do with it, in spite of the fact that he was present in the auditorium where synod held its sessions, in plain view of the brethren.

            The fact is, that when the Reverend H. Hoeksema noticed that synod evidently purposed to ignore him, though they were deliberating upon his case and in his presence, he broke the rules of order and arose to ask for the floor as often as three times.  He first did so, when the synod was deliberating upon his protest against the legality of the overture from Classis East, an extract from the pretended overture of the consistory of the Kellogsville church.  Synod was about to accept the advice of its committee, to declare the overture legal and the protest against it as without grounds, when the Reverend Hoeksema arose in the rear of the auditorium and asked for the privilege to speak a word in behalf of his own protest.  He was refused this privilege, however, on the ground that he had nothing to do with the particular matter under discussion!  This left at least the impression that synod would be more liberal when matters were discussed in which the Reverend Hoeksema would be vitally concerned.  Yet, the discussion on the pre-advisory report continued, the proposed “Three Points,” in which the above named pastor certainly was concerned, were the subject of the synod’s deliberation, but never did the synod suggest that it was inclined to consider the Reverend Hoeksema at all.  It continued to treat his case as if he were not concerned whatsoever.  Then the pastor of the Eastern Avenue Church broke the rules once more, arose in the audience and asked for the floor in order that he might present his own views in connection with the proposed “Three Points”.  He requested that the evening session should be given him and that his time should not be limited.  To induce the synod to grant his request he foolishly promised that he would not ask to speak again.  This promise was foolish on his part, for he certainly had a right to an unlimited opportunity to speak in his own case, as any defendant has.  But it was prompted by the well-founded fear that synod did not intend to give him such opportunity at all.   And the synod certainly had no right to accept this condition, still less to make use of it.  This request was granted, and at the evening session before a packed auditorium and deeply interested audience, the pastor expounded his views before synod.  However, when in a later session synod was hopelessly confused about the contents of the “First Point” (the contents of which we discuss in the Second Part of this volume), the pastor of Eastern Avenue could not refrain from asking the liberty to speak once more.  Synod refused, giving as the ground of their refusal, that the Reverend Hoeksema had promised not to ask for the floor a second time!

            The pastor then left the meeting and never appeared again.

            An illustration of grosser injustice could hardly be conceived.

            A defendant certainly must have full opportunity to defend himself, either personally or by counsel, before the court that tries him.

            And such opportunity other synods had always offered in the past to others that were accused of heresy and whose cases were tried by the largest representative body of the churches.

            Yet, the Reverend Hoeksema was never invited to speak in his own behalf, was never asked a question, was refused the floor twice, and the one opportunity granted him in no wise testifies of the courtesy and sense of justice on the part of the synod, but must be attributed to the importunity of the pastor that was compelled to break the rules of order in order to obtain the privilege.

            It is, then, not too strong a statement to assert that a worldly court would not treat a defendant as the broadest ecclesiastical court of the Christian Reformed Churches treated the Reverend H. Hoeksema in 1924.

            In retrospect, now at the time of this historical review after more than eleven years have rolled by since the synod of 1924, one cannot help by musing on the question what would have happened had the spirit that prevailed at synod been different.

            We know not.

            What would have been the course of events if synod had not listened to those that were determined to oust the two pastors and to coin the theory of common grace into a confessional dogma of the first importance; if it had been actuated by a pure desire to further the cause of the truth and to seek the spiritual well-being of the churches it represented; and if its decisions had been motivated by the spirit of brotherly love?

            We can only conjecture.

            To us it appears impossible that synod in that case would have adopted the “Three Points.”

            It might have acknowledged that it was dealing with an extra-confessional question; that it was not ready to formulate any definite doctrinal declarations; that the development of the question would have to be left, for some time to come, to the free interchange of ideas in the churches; that there was no cause for action against the brethren Danhof and Hoeksema, seeing that their views were not in conflict with the Reformed Confessions; and that, therefore, the protestants and appellants would have to cease agitating and refrain from further heresy-hunting.

            One can readily see that such decisions would have given a direction to subsequent history considerably different from the actual course after 1924.  And synod would not have laid the basis for the expulsion from the fellowship of the Christian Reformed Churches of ministers concerning whom it was compelled to testify “that they are Reformed in respect to the fundamental truths as formulated by the Confessions.”

            But, however this may be, the actual course of events is always and was also in this case the unfolding of God’s good pleasure.

            And He causes all things, not excluding the rashness of synodical decisions, to work for the good of His cause.

            And, though deploring the necessity of separation and division in the Church of Christ in the world, the Protestant Reformed Churches, rather than wistfully glancing back at what might have been in the past, may well rest in God’s sovereign good pleasure, and stretch themselves to what lieth before!

Last modified on 27 March 2013
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